Page 5, 29th May 1964

29th May 1964
Page 5
Page 5, 29th May 1964 — Human reason in the philosophy of Newman

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Locations: Oxford


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Human reason in the philosophy of Newman

SIR,—Miss A. S. Eley makes a number of mistakes in her remarks about Newman which are very commonly made. She writes: (a) "Newman based n atur al thought on probabilities", but she overlooks the fact that "probability" is a technical term for Newman.

It did not mean for him, as it does for most of us, a likelihood. Newman never used the word to refer to a state of mind, as Miss Eley seems to imagine. He used it in the way that Dugald Stewart did in his "Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind", of a proposition or a proof.

Newman always contrasts "probable" with "what is mathematically demonstrated as certain" and not with "what is certain". The word "probable" in his vocabulary belongs uniquely to propositions, and never to a state of mind.

Time and again Newman said, almost paradoxically, that he had absolute certitude about a proposition which, in as much its it could not be demonstrated by syllogistic argument, was only "probable".

For example, despite the fact that he held that the existence of God was one of his basic certitudes, he none the less wrote that we have "but a probability for the being of God", meaning that a demonstration of God's Being might fail to convince other people.

refer Miss Eley to the Indexes of Fr. Dessain's edition of Newman Letters, volumes XI, XII and XIII under "Newman, Faith and Reason", if she wants to find examples of Newman's usc of the word "probable".

(b) "What some of us disapprove is that he did not demonstrate the validity of the natural reason, by which we are able to arrive at a knowledge of God the Creator". This is ambiguous. Newman spent years trying to establish the validity of natural reason against thc Liberal theory of scientific reason.

In order to counter the Rationalist proofs for God the Architect of the Mathematical Universe which were so much in vogue with the anti-Christian Liberal philoso

phers of the day, Newman set out another way to God.

He argued not from the universe, as Paley had done, but from Conscience, which he conceived as a power of the mind, of each personal mind. and not as a mere nonrational instinct. He held that the religious man must learn of God as his Lord and Judge first, and then deal with arguments for God as the Creator.

He wanted to base religion on a personal mind, and not on the rationalist reason. As far as I know he never Once, as a Catholic dismissed the traditional teaching that we can know of God as the Creator as well, but in his day the so-called Cosmological argument was too close to the physical theology of Paley to win Newman's approval.

Miss Eley quotes passages from "The Grammar" to show, or suggest, that Newman taught "plain Nominalism". I deny that they either show or suggest any such thing.

She forgets that Newman wrote "The Grammar" for the sake of his friend William Froude, a liberal philosopher and scientist who was a "pure nominalist", and that he is trying to meet him on his own grounds to show that the Christian Faith is not any irrational form of blind credulity.

Such remarks as those about the "so-called Universals" refer to the Universal Concepts Froude accepted in his theory of "Scientism", not to those of the mediaeval philosophers. Newman's position is quite in accord with the intellectual realism of Aquinas, though he never set out to prove the necessity of intellectual realism.

Miss Eley misjudges Newman's philosophy because she falls into the common error of not reading Newman's works in their historical context, of forgetting that Newman used terms in senses that were acceptable to the persons to whom he wrote, even if he disagreed with those persons, and thirdly, that these senses were often

enough not those which we spontaneously attach to them today, nor those of the Scholastics, but those in which they were used amongst philosophers in the later eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries.

This no doubt partially explains the odd fact that, when Newman was an old man, his young contemporaries regarded him as a survivor of the old Oxford of pre-Victorian days.

(Rev.) Edward Sillem Ashdown Park, Sussex.

Sir,—Miss Eley's letter seems to me the most interesting I have read about Newman for many years. I hope she disagrees with him less than she thinks she does. Perhaps Meriol Trevor cap tell us. We are all greatly in her debt for his most loving life of Newman.

(Rev.) John V. Simcox London, N.W.5.

Sir,—As an admirer of Cardinal Newman for many years I found Miss Trevor's article most interesting. Her use of the term "Prophet" was most apt in view of the time it has taken for the Cardinal's greatness to be recognised in England, it has been left to European and American writers to remind us of his stature.

Incidentally what progress has been made with the beatification proceedings, the initial steps towards which were begun in 1952? Do we now have to contend with the ghost of Mgr, Talbot?

C. Jeffery Sidcup.

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