Dissecting Newman

December 1990By J.M. Cameron

J.M. Cameron is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at St. Michael’s Col­lege, University of Toronto. Among his books are On the Idea of a University and, most recently, Nu­clear Catholics and Other Essays.

The Achievement of John Henry Newman.  By Ian Ker. University of Notre Dame Press. 240 pages. $24.95.

Fr. Ian Ker, one of our best-known Newman scholars, has had the good idea of giv­ing an account of Newman’s thought under different head­ing: the educator, the philoso­pher, the preacher, the writer of English. In principle this is not the right way of dealing with Newman, whose thought is synthetic, so that we may find a thrilling philosophical apercu in a sermon, a stabbing passage on the sadness of human history in a treatise on belief, an analysis of liberalism or ultramontanism in a letter. Nevertheless, Ker’s idea is a good one, for we have to dis­sect — and this need not be murderous — in order to lay bare the anatomy of the thought, and this is what Ker does.

The chapters on the preacher and the theologian are brilliantly successful. Theo­logical problems were the staple of Newman’s intensely lived thought. Ker brings out its cogency and originality. Newman had never been through the usual Roman mill; his style of thinking was shap­ed by the Fathers, by Anglican divines, notably Butler, and by the dialectic of the Oriel com­mon room; he did theology in, as it were, the vernacular. (This last feature explains why he is so influential today.) Ker summarizes his historical ap­proach to the question of what authority ecclesiastical teaching has and how such teaching comes to maturity: “what emerges is that truth is at­tained not in spite of but through the conflict of opposites which forces the crucial shift of perspective that allows the dilemma to be seen in a new light and so to be re­solved.” This remark of Ker’s sounds Hegelian, and perhaps it is. There is no reason to think Newman had ever read Hegel; but his antennae were uncommonly sensitive to the music of the age.

Newman’s moral and spir­itual influence was effective with many Englishmen (the use of men here is not inad­vertent, for those who listened to his Oxford sermons were almost all men) through what he spoke from his Anglican pulpit. Those who heard him in St. Mary’s at Oxford were marked for life, even those who had no sympathy with his theology. Ker explains, within the limits of his chap­ter, what the strength of his preaching was.

This reviewer was startled to be reminded of how much in the sermons is realistic and sober, how little is exalted in tone. Newman seems to be striving consistently to distance himself from evangelical cant, doesn’t mind giving the ap­pearance of semi-Pelagianism, and stresses the importance of habit and discipline in the Christian life. He is at the same time skeptical about the appearance of virtue in the respectable classes. “As for ordinary moral respectability, Newman has no doubt that no credit is due to religious faith. ‘It is plain…that the great mass of men are protected from gross sin by the forms of society. The received laws of propriety and decency, the prospect of a loss of character, stand as sentinels, giving the alarm, long before their Chris­tian principles have time to act.’” Some may find such a passage less obvious than it was in Newman’s day, for it is no longer true in Western so­cieties that “the forms of socie­ty” are protective the way they once were. On the contrary, if we are to count law among the influential forms of society, then modern family law works against even external conformi­ty to Christian morality.

The chapter on Newman the philosopher is disappoint­ing. It doesn’t make Newman clearer; it makes him even more obscure than he is by presenting some additional puzzles.

For Newman the great formative influences are Locke and Hume — I believe one may even find a touch of Berkeley, too — Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and Butler, both The Analogy and the Rolls Chapel lectures. Newman’s confusions, and they are very deep, come mostly from his taking the extravagant doc­trines of the empiricists to be matters of established truth and common sense. He thinks the mind is better known than the body (this is Cartesian) and that to philosophize is to expound one’s inwardness. He learned some useful things from the empiricists; he saw, following Hume, that there was something wrong with the argument to God’s existence from the presence of design in the world; and the shrewdness and respect for fact that co­existed in the empiricists with their extravagant epistemological views shows itself in Newman’s wonderful remarks (of course, not publicized at that time) about Darwin’s theory of human evolution. He wrote: “It is as strange that monkeys should be so like men, with no historical connex­ion between them, as the no­tion that there was no history of facts by which fossils got into the rocks.” This was written only a year after the publication of The Origin of Species.

Newman’s fundamental mistake was to take for grant­ed what the empiricists had to say about the distinction be­tween factual and formal propositions. Any factual statement can be doubted, in the sense that its denial doesn’t plunge the denier into self-contradiction. But many statements of logical principle, many mathematical statements, can’t be denied without self-contradiction. This thrusts Newman into the position — at least, he supposes it does — of holding that even the best attested factual statements are only probably true, because they can’t come up to the position of those statements that are formally true. Even a quick tour of these positions suggests there are difficulties. What about, for instance, “I have a toothache”? This strikes one as just as incorrigible as an incorrigible logical or math­ematical statement, though it doesn’t turn out to be self-contradictory on its being ne­gated. Newman’s mistake was to suppose that it follows from the doubtability of all factual and empirical propositions that they are all in some degree doubtful. Of course, Newman knew quite well that an im­mense number of empirical propositions are not in the least doubtful but are certainly true, and he half saw that certainly true empirical propo­sitions have a crucial role in discourse about the world, and that it is a mistake to suppose that we can overcome the difficulty by claiming that such propositions are highly proba­bly or practically certain. Newman almost got to the point of seeing that he needed to look at the role of empirical propo­sitions in discourse — this is Wittgenstein’s point in On Certainty — but he never quite made it.

I am sure Ker knows all this — indeed, he mentions Wittgenstein at the end of the chapter. But he doesn’t try to be clear about what is radically wrong with Newman’s enter­prise in such a work as The Grammar of Assent.

This said, I should like to add that, on many topics that are loosely philosophical, Ker has much of interest to say. He seems to find Newman’s early work, especially in the University Sermons, more im­pressive than the late Grammar of Assent. The Grammar is the only substantial work by Newman that he went in for without a “call.” It was the realization of a private ambi­tion. It is interesting as an at­tempt at a phenomenology of belief. But it lacked the apolo­getic power Newman had hoped for.

Ker ends his book with some observations on Newman as a writer. Newman has been greatly admired as a writer since Matthew Arnold, who was plainly influenced in his own writing by Newman. Newman and Arnold were both masters of a certain kind of Oxford style — informal, conversational, the vernacular of the educated, polite, witty, unexpected in its transitions. We want to go on reading. Perhaps his only rival in his time — that is, in the writing of plain expository prose — is, ironically, Thomas Henry Hux­ley.

In this centenary year of Newman’s death, Ker’s book is a graceful tribute to the man and his work.

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