Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Real and Notional Assent

Early in the year 1870 Blessed John Henry (later to be Cardinal) Newman published An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, a work that has had both many detractors and fewer, though not a few, admirers in the intervening 136 years since its appearance. In that Essay he drew a distinction between two modes of a particular operation of the mind that he called "assent". One mode he called "real assent", the other "notional assent". Notional assent is the form of assent that we give to an abstract inference, whether deductive or inductive. Real assent is the form of assent that we give to concrete realities or the truths of religion independent of any abstract inferences from which they may be derivable. His purpose in drawing this distinction was to move away from what he saw as the overly abstract philosophical theology of his day as he had encountered it in his colleagues, both Anglican and Roman Catholic, but it is essential to see that he did not intend the distinction to be between two kinds of assent, but two modes of a single operation of the mind. The difference lies not in the mental operation itself, but in the object of the operation. In the case of notional assent the object of the operation is the inferential pattern of a theological deduction; in the case of real assent the object of the operation is a truth of religion. Because there are not two different operations of the mind involved, there need be no necessary difference in kind between the truth conditions of the object of notional assent and the truth conditions of the object of real assent. Newman's purpose in the Essay was to show how it is that the mind is able to have certainty about the truths of religion even when there is no obvious theological inference leading to the certainty of notional assent associated with some particular religious truth.

For Newman there can be no opposition between these two objects or the two forms of assent that are associated with them.
A dogma is a proposition; it stands for a notion or for a thing; and to believe it is to give the assent of the mind to it, as it stands for the one or for the other. To give a real assent is an act of religion; to give a notional, is a theological act. It is discerned, rested in, appropriated as a reality, by the religious imagination; it is held as a truth, by the theological intellect.
It is worth noting that Newman thinks of propositions as standing either "for a notion or for a thing". By "notion" here I assume he must mean something either semantic or conceptual; by "thing" I cannot imagine what he could mean other than a state of affairs. As I remarked in my post of yesterday, Newman was not trained in analytic philosophy, so his use of technical terms is somewhat non-standard.
Not as if there were in fact, or could be, any line of demarcation...between these two modes of assent....As intellect is common to all men as well as imagination, every religious man is to a certain extent a theologian, and no theology can start or thrive without the initiative and abiding presence of religion.
Newman's view is not markedly different from that of Saint Thomas Aquinas--with whom he was intimately familiar even before his conversion but who was obviously at the heart of the scholastic theology that dominated much Catholic discussion of the time. In the Summa Theologiae (I.1.8) Aquinas held that theology starts from its own first principles and argues from them to prove something else, but these first principles are held to be true--they are not proven true by theology, they are, rather, the fundamental articles of faith, the precepts of revealed religion. It was to this distinction--between demonstrable truths and non-demonstrable necessary first principles--that I compared Aristotle's treatment of our apprehension of first principles in the Posterior Analytics.

The two forms of assent, requiring distinct objects of the same mental act, are not related to each other by some common set of conditions. Newman did not hold, for example, that real assent is a more valid form of assent, or that notional assent is an imperfect form of real assent. The difference between them is strictly in their objects: real assent is assent to realities (res), notional assent is assent to concepts. Possibly he thought of real assent as more vivid than notional assent, but the truths of each are on a par. In this, too, Newman is in agreement with Aristotle, who held that our apprehension of realities is more affective than our apprehension of demonstrations.

Quite importantly for my own view is another point of agreement with Newman: the view that Newman and I defend is not a rational probabilism grounded in a final appeal to faith. Religious dogma--the revealed truths of the Scriptures and Apostolic teaching--are not themselves demonstrable from prior truths. Yet this is an important kind of truth for Newman: the real assent that we give to religious dogma is not conditioned upon any kind of demonstration, but it is apprehended by intellect.

There are some important areas in which I disagree with Newman. He devotes chapter 8 of the Essay to a discussion of "Inference", and it is quite clear that he has a rather different conception of the nature of inference than I do. His conception is clearly Aristotelian in broad outline, because he goes so far as to say that all deductive inference is properly syllogistic by nature and, hence, requires general terms throughout. He even explicitly excludes from the realm of deductive inference the very example of a valid deduction that I used in my previous post, the deduction grounded in the disjunctive syllogism. Newman was writing at a time when truth-functional logic had not been developed, and his unwillingness to consider sentential logic of the sort defended by the Stoics is probably due more to his lack of experience with those writers than to any systematic rejection of the sentential formalization. Having been trained in the Anglican tradition he was most familiar with the categorical logic employed by Aristotle and the Fathers, and he was not as deeply immersed in the logic of the Schools and he seems to have had no exposure at all to the work of those working in mathematical logic in his own century. These are not necessarily shortcomings, since I think that much contemporary logic is ultimately reducible to syllogistic; but it is a mistake to assert that an inference that is not in syllogistic form is not a deductive inference. One can forgive him for this error because he balances it out with the very valuable insight that not all inferences are propositional in character, an insight that is not fully grasped by everyone even today.

I must also disagree with Newman in his characterization of what ordinarily leads to categorical certainty in our beliefs. The examples that he gives are intended to suggest something like an inductive process, but in fact they are nothing more than collections of random observation statements, and he does not give a proper account of how it is that these collections of observations lead to the sort of certainty that he ascribes to conclusions that he thinks we draw from them. To take just two of his own examples, he asserts that we have certainty about the following two propositions: that Great Britain is an island; and that the works of Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Plautus, Livy, and Tacitus are not 13th century forgeries. It may very well be the case that we have certainty about such things, but he does not bother to address the question of what it is, precisely, that warrants this certainty, if indeed anything does--instead he gives us a rather discursive description of the process by means of which he thinks we develop a feeling of certainty within ourselves that our judgments about these things are correct. Now it is important not to be unfair here--I have already remarked that Newman was not trained in analytic philosophy, so the failure to distinguish between what gives rise to a psychological state of feeling certain and what actually warrants with certainty is perhaps not an egregious error, but it leaves some rather important questions unanswered.

Surely Newman is right, though, when he complains that what often passes for "proof" is nothing more than the feeling that something is likely given what has happened in the past. He appears to endorse Hume's critique of such reasoning: we ought not have certainty that the future will be like the past, and yet we do. Much of what we accept as proof is really something very personal:
I think it is the fact that many of our most obstinate and most reasonable certitudes depend on proofs which are informal and personal, which baffle our powers of analysis, and cannot be brought under logical rule, because they cannot be submitted to logical statistics.
In passing from formal inference, to informal inference, to what he called "natural inference", Newman tried to get at the cognitive foundations of this inner sense of conviction about the truth of "things", by which, again, I assume he means something along the lines of states of affairs. The rational faculty responsible for this cognitive state he calls the illative sense, which is also the subject of the subsequent chapter of the Essay.

In this chapter he insists, quite rightly, I think, that "it is the mind that reasons, and that controls its own reasonings, not any technical apparatus of words and propositions." This is an idea that is thoroughly Platonic in its origins and can be found not only in Aristotle but in the Fathers as well. The idea that all reasoning is fundamentally propositional in nature has had its defenders, but this is not necessarily the case, even if it is possible to represent any particular inference by means of a formal system imposed upon it. Sadly, Newman again fails to give a clear account of precisely how this "illative sense" actually works and what are its normative foundations, preferring instead to give loose analogies and descriptions. Possibly this is an artifact of the protreptic nature of the work, but it is also probably an inevitable consequence of the cultural milieu in which he lived and worked. In an interesting move, he compares the illative sense to Aristotle's concept of phronêsis, practical wisdom, as given in the Nicomachean Ethics. Just as the phronimos, or practically wise person, has an innate sense of what his duty is, a sense that arises from habituation, so, too, in a general way, we come to be certain about those sorts of things that we have experienced again and again in such a way as always to have the same outcome. But whereas Aristotle gives a rather detailed picture of how phronêsis works, Newman offers no similarly detailed account of the illative sense. What he has given us is nothing beyond what Aristotle attempted to give, namely, an account of human cognition in terms of the structural components of the rational faculty, but he falls short of Aristotle's explanatory detail.

These problems in detail, however, do not lessen the importance and originality of Newman's work, written, as it was, 136 years ago and anticipating in some interesting ways some aspects of contemporary Aristotelian scholarship. In particular I am impressed with his willingness to grapple with that aspect of cognition that is surely at the heart of any epistemology: the capacity of the human mind to settle upon the best starting points, the most useful first principles. Although his account is ultimately unsatisfying, it is only because it is incomplete, not because it is fundamentally wrong-headed. There is much more work to be done in this direction, but anyone who undertakes to do that work would not go wrong to take Newman's Essay as his starting point.

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