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Series II

Lecture 5: Newman's Distinction between Real and Notional Assent

The Grammar of Assent1 is not much read by philosophers, unless they are interested in the philosophy of religion. The book is indeed concerned with the philosophy of religion. We might even say that it is one of the classics of that subject. But it is an epistemological book as well. The distinction Newman draws between real and notional assent is not only a distinction between two ways of assenting to religious propositions. The propositions assented to might be propositions about almost any subject matter, and many of Newman's own examples are not concerned with religion at all. Much the same could be said of several other doctrines propounded in this book, for example in ch. VI ‘Assent considered as unconditional’,2 in ch. VII ‘Certitude’ and in ch. IX ‘The illative sense’. The Grammar of Assent is one of the very few full-length books in English on the epistemology of belief.

I have discussed ch. VI in Series I, Lecture 6. Here Newman is criticizing Locke's Ethics of Belief. His contention is that assent does not admit of degrees, and that Locke must therefore be mistaken in recommending that the degree of our assent to a proposition should be proportional to the strength of the evidence we have for the proposition assented to. I tried to show that on this important issue Locke was more nearly right than Newman was.

I now turn to another doctrine of Newman's, his distinction between notional and real assent in Grammar of Assent ch. IV. But as we shall see, it is also necessary to consider ch. I–III, on the apprehension of propositions; and at the end I shall say something about ch. V, Section I (‘Belief in one God’) where Newman illustrates his conception of real assent by applying it to religious belief.

The distinction between notional and real assent had not been made before, though we may perhaps find some faint hints of it in Hume's Treatise.3 It is Newman's most original contribution to the epistemology of belief. But as we have seen already, the Grammar of Assent is not an easy book to understand, in spite of—or even because of—the brilliant style in which it is written; and this is certainly true of the chapters with which we are now concerned. When we have read them, we sit back and ask ourselves ‘What does it all come to?’ The question is not easy to answer. Still, we must try to answer it. For this much, at any rate, is clear: Newman is here drawing our attention to a distinction which is interesting and important. It does make a very considerable difference whether we assent to a proposition in what he calls the ‘real’ way, or in what he calls the ‘notional’ way.

Newman's Use of the Word ‘Real’

Our first difficulty is concerned with the word ‘real’ itself. Despite Newman's un-technical style of writing, he uses this word in a technical sense, or at least in a sense which is strange and unfamiliar to his modern readers, though it may not have appeared so to his own contemporaries. (The Grammar of Assent was published nearly a century ago, in 1870.) For example, it must not be supposed that when we give a notional assent to a proposition we are not really assenting. Our assent may be perfectly genuine and sincere; and according to Newman there are some types of propositions (conditional propositions, for instance) which can only be assented to in a notional manner. Nor must it be supposed that when we give a real assent to a proposition, there has to be a real state of affairs which makes the proposition true. We may give a real assent to a proposition which is false, and it need not even be a proposition about an entity which is itself real. A child might give a real assent to the proposition ‘the bogey-man in the shoe-cupboard has black eyes’.

Indeed, this antithesis between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’, which immediately comes to our minds when a distinction is drawn between what is real and what is other-than-real, does not seem to occur to Newman's mind at all. He uses the word ‘real’ in its etymological sense, derived from the Latin res (‘thing’). By ‘real’ he means something like ‘thingish’. As we shall see, he often describes real assent as ‘assent to things’, and contrasts this with ‘assent to notions’. His book was addressed to educated readers, and in 1870 nearly all of them had had a classical education, like himself. In their minds, as in his, there would be a very firm association between the English word ‘real’ and the Latin word res. They would have no inclination to think that if a man assents in an un-thingish manner he is not assenting at all or is only pretending to assent. Newman could not be expected to foresee that one day he would have readers, and highly educted ones too, who are wholly or almost wholly unacquainted with the Latin language. Perhaps we might put it this way:-in real assent, as Newman uses the term, we assent to something which is thought of in a concrete manner; in notional assent, we assent to something which is thought of in an abstract manner.

But although Newman's use of the word ‘real’ is strange to us, we must use the word in his sense when we are discussing his doctrine. He has the privileges of a pioneer. He was the first person to draw the distinction between these two different ways of assenting, and thereby he made his most important contribution to the philosophy of belief. Ever since, the distinction has been called by the name which he chose to give it. We must use his term ‘real assent’ and try not to be misled by it. We shall not be misled by it, if we remember that ‘real’ in his sense is connected with what is ‘thingish’ or concrete.

The Apprehension of Propositions

In the first three chapters of the Grammar of Assent Newman is mainly concerned with what he calls ‘the apprehension of propositions’ and with the relation between apprehension and assent. It is important to consider what he says about the apprehension of propositions, because he holds that the difference between real and notional assent is a derivative one, a consequence of the difference between real and notional apprehension. If you apprehend a proposition in the real way, you also assent to it in the real way, if you assent to it at all; and if you apprehend it in the notional way, you also assent to it in the notional way, if you assent to it at all. Or rather, if at a given time you apprehend a proposition in the real way, you also assent to it in the real way, if you do at that time assent to it (and similarly for notional apprehension and assent).

For it is perfectly possible that one's way of apprehending a proposition may change. What I used to apprehend in a purely notional manner, I may later apprehend in a real manner. The converse change is also possible. What I used to apprehend in a real manner, I now apprehend in a notional manner. The change, either way, is especially liable to happen with religious propositions, the ones which interest Newman most. A young man, brought up in a pious family, may have a real apprehension of the proposition ‘God loves us all’ and may also give a real assent to it. But later, by the time he is fifty years old, his apprehension of this proposition has ceased to be real and has become notional instead; and though he does still assent to the proposition, his assent is now a notional one. Conversely, a person may have assented to the proposition ‘God loves us all’ for a great many years. But hitherto he has always apprehended it in a notional manner, and therefore his assent to it could only be notional. But then, suddenly or gradually, he finds himself apprehending it in quite a different way. It ‘becomes real to him’, as we say, or ‘comes home to him’, or ‘comes alive for him’ in a way it never did before; and then he gives a different sort of assent to it, what Newman calls a real assent.

Moreover, the mode of apprehension varies not only with time but also with the context of discussion. For instance, there is a difference between the way we apprehend propositions about God when we are praying to him or thanking him or asking his forgiveness, and the way we apprehend them when we are discussing theology. In a theological discussion, or in a philosophical one, these propositions are apprehended in a notional way; in prayer or worship they are apprehended in a real way. Fortunately, there is nothing to prevent a theologian (or a philosopher of religion) from being a religious person as well. Indeed one suspects that he has to be, if he is to understand what he is talking about. Nevertheless, as Newman insists, there is a difference between these two attitudes. The theological attitude is notional, and we may add that the philosophical attitude is notional too; the theological attitude is real (thingish, concerned with the concrete.) In both attitudes there are propositions concerning God to which one assents, and in both the assent may be perfectly sincere. But in theology (or in the philosophy of religion) our assents are of the notional kind, while in religion itself they are of the real kind. Theorizing about religion, however sincerely or however correctly, is not the same thing as being religious.

Let us consider a secular example, since the religious mode of apprehension is nowadays so unfamiliar to most of us, and it is hard for us to imagine what it would be like to apprehend propositions about God in a real manner or to assent to them in a real manner. Let us consider our apprehension of propositions about a foreign country which we have never visited. We are all familiar with the proposition ‘The United States is a very large country’ and we all assent to it. But this proposition comes home to us in a new way when we actually go to the United States, and travel all the way across it by train from the Atlantic coast to California. (The journey takes 3½ days.) We now give a real assent to that propositon, as opposed to the notional assent as given before, whom it was merely something that ‘every schoolboy knows’.

Apprehending and Entertaining

But what exactly does Newman mean by his term ‘apprehension of a proposition’? ‘Apprehension’ is a word which is not much used by philosophers nowadays. In the school of Cook Wilson, it was the act-word or mental occurrence word corresponding to the dispositional word ‘know’. When you come to know something for the first time, or recall something you already know, you are said by these philosophers to be apprehending it. This is not Newman's sense of the word ‘apprehend’. There is this much resemblance, that in Newman, as in Cook Wilson, ‘apprehension’ denotes a mental occurrence or mental act. But in Newman apprehension is connected with understanding rather than knowledge, and what is understood is a sentence, or rather a true-or-false sentence. As far as one can see, Newman does not distinguish, as some philosophers have, between true-or-false sentences on the one hand and propositions on the other. In his usuage, a proposition just is a true-or-false sentence. And his doctrine is that there are two ways of understanding such a sentence, a real (thingish) way and a notional way, or two ways of ‘taking’ it. He does not, however, wish to say this about all true-or-false sentences. An a priori sentence such as ‘17 is a prime number’ or ‘if p entails q, then not-q entails not-p’ can only be understood in the notional way if it is understood at all. Moreover, he seems to hold that any conditional sentence can only be understood in the notional way, even when it is a sentence concerning concrete objects, e.g. ‘if the kitchen door is open, the cat has already eaten the fish’. Certainly he holds that inference is a purely notional activity, and that a proposition of the form ‘because p, therefore q’ can only be assented to in a notional manner.

But in his discussion of real and notional assent, he is mainly concerned4 with sentences about matters of fact and existence, to use Hume's phrase, though he takes a more liberal view than Hume does about the types of entity which may be meaningfully said to exist. These are the true-or-false sentences which can be understood in either way, either notionally or really, and can therefore be assented to in either way; whereas those which are about ‘the relations of ideas’ (to use Hume's terminology again) can only be understood in the notional way, and therefore our assent to them, if we do assent, can only be notional. Or perhaps we should say that Newman is mainly concerned with sentences which at least purport to be about matters of fact and existence; for as we have seen, they may be false, however real (thingish) our apprehension and assent may be.

It can now be seen that Newman's technical term ‘apprehension of a proposition’ means much the same as the modern technical term ‘entertaining a proposition’.5 There are many different attitudes which we may have towards a proposition: not only assent and dissent, but also doubting, questioning, wondering about, supposing for the sake of argument (‘If p, what would follow?’) and the neutral state of suspense of judgement. Entertaining is the common factor in them all. What I formerly doubted or suspended judgement about, I now assent to. But I am still entertaining the same proposition, though my attitude to it has altered. Again, if you and I disagree about a proposition p-you accept it and I reject it—the same proposition must be entertained by both of us. Otherwise we should not be disagreeing. Moreover, there may be a third person who neither accepts the proposition nor rejects it, but just considers it neutrally in a state of suspended judgement. He disagrees with both of us; or rather, he does not agree with either of us. But this somewhat awkward relation of non-agreement could not hold between him and us, unless all three of us entertained the same proposition.

If I am right so far, Newman's view comes to this:—There are two different ways of entertaining propositions about ‘matters of fact and existence’. They may be entertained either in a real manner or in a notional manner. The same proposition may be entertained in a real manner by one person, in a notional manner by another person. Moreover, the same person may entertain it in a real manner at one time, in a notional manner at another time. When someone entertains a proposition in a real manner, he must also assent to it in a real manner, if he assents to it at all. Likewise, if he entertains a proposition in a notional manner, he must also assent to it in a notional manner, if he assents to it at all. As the entertaining is, so also is the assent, if assent there be.

Images and ‘Real’ Apprehension

Perhaps we can now see what Newman means by his technical phrase ‘apprehension of a proposition’. But he also holds that there are two different ways of apprehending propositions about matters of fact and existence, a real way of apprehending them and a notional way. What is the difference between them? This is the most important question we have to consider. If we can answer it, we shall also be able to understand his distinction between real and notional assent.

To elucidate his distinction between the two sorts of apprehension, Newman makes use of the rather questionable phrase ‘standing for’. The terms of which the proposition is composed may be taken in two different ways, either as standing for ‘things’ or as standing for notions. If we take them as standing for things, we apprehend the proposition in the real way. If we take them as standing for notions, we apprehend it in the notional way. And ‘the same proposition may admit of both these interpretations at once, having a notional sense as used by one man, and a real as used by another’. For example, Horace's words ‘Dum Capitolium scandet cum tacita virgine pantifex’ are notionally apprehended by a schoolboy who can translate them accurately, and ‘has an abstract hold upon every word of the description’; but they were apprehended in a real way by the poet's contemporaries who had actually seen the pontiff climbing the Capitol, accompanied by a silent Vestal Virgin.6

Evidently the word ‘things’ has to be understood in a rather wider way: not only because persons (e.g. the Pontiff and the Vestal Virgin) have to be counted as ‘things’, but because qualities and relations must apparently be counted as ‘things’ too (e.g. the silence of the Vestal Virgin, and the relation of ‘being accompanied by’). Still, we could say that for Horace's contemporaries all these words stood for concrete realities, or at any rate had a concrete sense.

Moreover, the ‘things’ which the terms in the proposition stands for need not be present to our senses at the time when the proposition is being apprehended, and often they are not. Indeed, most of the propositions which we entertain, even when they are propositions about perceptible objects, are about objects not at the moment present to our senses. One of Newman's examples is ‘London is on fire’ (p. 21). We can entertain this proposition, and entertain it in the ‘real’ manner, when we are many miles from London, and are not seeing or feeling or smelling any fire. How do the terms of this proposition manage to stand for ‘things’, as they must if we are to apprehend the proposition in a real manner? It now turns out that this relation of standing for ‘things’ is an indirect one.7 According to Newman there are, as it were, two stages in it. In the first stage, the terms composing the proposition stand for mental images, and in the second stage these images in their turn stand for ‘things’. Newman is not as clear as we could wish about the difference between these two stages. He sometimes describes real assent as ‘assent to images’. But if that were all, its ‘thingish’ character would vanish. Both in apprehension and in assent, the function of the images must surely be to represent things other than themselves. In Newman's own very wide sense of ‘things’, I suppose we could just say that mental images are themselves ‘things’, because they actually exist or occur in our minds. Indeed, Newman himself says something rather like this of memory-images. ‘They are things still, as being reflections of things in a mental mirror’ (p. 19). Nevertheless, as the word ‘reflections’ shows, their function is to represent things other than themselves.

What of notional apprehension? Might there also be two stages here? Suppose I have never seen a Comprehensive School, still less have I been inside one. I think of it just as a school which contains pupils of many different sorts and degrees of intellectual attainment. I read in the newspaper that a Comprehensive School has just been opened at Eccleshall, a place I have never visited, and all I know of it is that it is somewhere in the Midlands of England. I can only apprehend this proposition in a notional way, and my assent to it (if I do assent to it) can only be of the notional kind. For me, the terms of which this proposition is composed ‘stand for notions’. But do these notions, in their turn, stand for something else, as the images do when one's apprehension is real? Not quite. But still, a notion can apply to something. It can have instances. And these instances, if it has them, are what Newman calls ‘things’. A Comprehensive School is a thing, in his wide use of the term ‘thing’, and so is Eccleshall, wherever it is. An event, such as the opening of a school, would also count as a ‘thing’; at any rate, it is a concrete reality. It would seem, then, that even in notional apprehension we might sometimes be apprehending ‘things’. True, we should apprehend them indirectly, by apprehending notions first. So it might seem that the difference between the two is only this: images can resemble things, whereas notions can have things for their instances. But as we shall see, Newman thinks there is another difference as well, and a very important one: images have a psychological power which mere notions have not. That is why he is so much concerned with images, and describes real assent sometimes as ‘assent to images’.

Indeed, the most remarkable feature of Newman's discussion of real and notional assent is the importance he attaches to mental images. It is true that the word ‘image’ widens its meaning somewhat in the later stages of his argument.8 But at the present stage of it, he is clearly speaking quite literally about mental imagery.

Newman's Account of His Own Mental Imagery

The numerous examples which he gives on pp. 19–24 make it obvious that his own mental imagery was exceptionally copious and vivid. For instance, he tells us that when he is in a foreign country, he is able ‘to conjure up before him the vision of his home’. ‘I see those who were once were there and are no more; past scenes, and the very expression of the features, and the tones of the voices, of those who took part in them, in a time of trial or difficulty. I create nothing; I see the facsimiles of facts’ (pp. 19 fin–20). The tones of the voices must have been conveyed to him by auditory images, not visual ones. He goes on to mention other auditory images (‘I can bring before me the music of the Adeste fideles, as if I were actually hearing it’) and moreover images of smell ‘I can bring before me… the scent of a clematis as if I were in my garden’. He has images of taste too, for instance of ‘the flavour of a peach as if it were in season’. Such an image, he adds, need not be in any sense an abstraction ‘Though I may have eaten a hundred peaches in times past, the impression which remains on my memory of the flavour, may be of any of them, of the ten, twenty, thirty units, as the case may be, not a general notion distinct from every one of them’ (p. 20).

He does not seem to have what are called generic images, for instance a visual image of a typical cat or a taste-image of the flavour of a typical peach. Nor does he mention either tactual or kinaesthetic imagery. He does not say, for example, that he can ‘bring before him’ the feel of velvet when he is not actually touching any velvet; nor that when he is sitting quietly in his study he can bring before him the bodily feelings which he had when climbing a steep mountainside.

He does appear to say, however, that he has images of introspectible events (‘our past mental acts of any kind’), and speaks of ‘the vivid image of certain anxieties and deliverances’ which never fades away from the mind, as the memory of countenances and places may well do. But this paragraph is difficult to interpret, and perhaps the word ‘image’ is not here being used literally.9

If one happens to be interested in mental imagery, one finds this autobiographical passage most fascinating, and wishes greatly that other writers had given such a full account of their own imagery. But we must notice that it is an autobiographical passage. We must not assume that everyone else has the remarkable imaging powers which Newman evidently had. It looks as if Newman himself did make this assumption, or at any rate assumed that the mental images which other people have were pretty similar to his own. Such an assumption was made by almost all philosophers upon the epoch-making researches of Francis Galton. Galton's book, Inquiries into Human Faculty was first published in 1883, thirteen years after The Grammar of Assent. Galton adopted a very simple plan, so simple that it took a man of genius to think of it. If we wish to know what mental images other people have, why not write round to them and ask them? He did so, and the results were surprising. For instance, some people, when asked to describe their visual image of their own breakfast-table, were unable to understand what they were being asked to do. Apparently they had no visual imagery at all. They supposed that phrases like ‘having an image of one's breakfast table’ were rather extravagant metaphors. Others, however, produced long and detailed descriptions. It turned out also that most peculiar visual images occur in some people's minds when they think of the series of numbers, or of the days of the week (each day has its colour).

Again, Newman himself says that visual images are the most vivid of all.10 This may well be true of many people, but it cannot be true of everyone, if some have no visual images at all. And in those who do have them, they may be faint and fleeting and poverty-stricken, or highly schematic—very far from being the detailed reproductions of past visible scenes which Newman describes in the passage about his visual images of his home. On the other hand, their auditory images may be vivid and detailed.

More important, it seems that some people's imagery is almost entirely verbal. They ‘think in words’, that is, by means of images of words (auditory or kinaesthetic) and not at all, or hardly at all, in images of the objects or events which these words denote. They remember in words too. It is natural to suppose that the notional way of apprehending, and of assenting, is connected somehow with thinking in words.

Newman did not consider such people, who may well be particularly numerous among the learned. Would he hold that they are incapable of real assent, and can only apprehend propositions (and therefore can only assent to them) in the notional manner? And are we to suppose that they, for their part, would be quite incapable of understanding the distinction between ‘notional’ and ‘real’ which he is trying to explain?

Are we also to suppose that these purely verbal thinkers are incapable of being religious, though quite capable of being theologians? In Newman's view, religion, or at any rate personal religion, requires a real assent to at least some propositions concerning a Divine Being or Beings. Of course these verbal thinkers might sincerely assent to such propositions, even though their assent was purely notional. Notional assent can perfectly well be sincere. It need not be what Newman calls mere ‘assertion’. But according to him it lacks the heart-felt character, the force and cutting-edge, if I may put it so, which real assent has; and as we shall see later, he thinks that real assent owes its forcible nature to the part which mental images play in it. And they have to be images of ‘things’, not just images of words.

The Faculty of Composition

We may now return to Newman's own account of mental imagery in Grammar of Assent, ch. III. The images hitherto described were reproductions of particular past experiences. But on p. 22 he goes on to discuss ‘an inventive faculty or faculty of composition’. By means of this, we are able ‘to follow the descriptions of things which have never come before us, and to form out of such passive impressions as experience has heretofore left on our minds, new images, which, though mental creations, are in no sense abstractions, and though ideal, are not notional’. What Newman says here reminds us of Locke's account of the ‘compounding’ of complex ideas out of simpler ones. But there is one important difference. Newman distinguishes sharply, as Locke did not, between images on the one hand and concepts on the other, and makes it quite clear that the composita (the results of the composition-process) are images. Of course, there might also be complex concepts; indeed it is certain that there are. But Newman is not here discussing them.

But what are we to make of the ‘impressions’ (here qualified as ‘passive’) out of which these new images are formed? Clearly Newman is not using the term in Hume's sense. Hume's impressions are brief occurrences, whereas Newman's impressions persist through time. Past experience has ‘left’ them on our minds, and there they stay. These impressions, I think, are not themselves images. Instead, they are what are now called memory-traces. That is what the word ‘passive’ suggests. And Newman assumes that these traces are mental, more or less persistent modifications of the mind, not of the brain. They are left ‘on our minds’. He would not deny, perhaps, that there are persistent modifications of the brain which are correlated with them. But no one who believes in personal immortality, as Newman clearly did, can admit that memory-traces are purely and simply modifications of the brain. For if they were, personal identity could not continue after the brain has disintegrated.11

To return to phenomenological considerations: it is pretty clear that we do not in fact ‘compound’ complex images by literally putting simpler ones together. The new and complex images come into out minds ready-made, so to speak, aroused perhaps by the words of some vivid writer, although we have never ourselves perceived any such object or event as the words describe. Nevertheless, such an image of a complex object or event (let us call it ABC), an object or event which we have never ourselves perceived, could not come into our minds at all unless we had perceived at least one object or event which was A and at least one which was B, and at least one which was C. And not only must we have perceived each of them; each of them must have left a more or less permanent ‘impression’ on our minds, what I have just called a memory-trace.

Whatever we think of the puzzling word ‘impression’, which Newman uses in several other passages,12 it is worth while to mention some of the examples he gives to illustrate his remarks about the faculty of composition. ‘I may never have seen a palm or banana [i.e. banana tree], but I have conversed with those who have, or I have read graphic accounts of it, and from my own previous knowledge of other trees have been able… to light up such an image of it in my thoughts, that, were it not that I was never in the countries where it was found, I should fancy that I had actually seen it’ (p. 22).

Newman gives three other examples, more striking and more surprising. ‘I am able as it were to gaze upon Tiberius as Tacitus draws him and to figure to myself our James the First as he is painted in Scott's Romance.13 The assassination of Caesar, his Et tu, Brute, his collecting his robes about him, and his fall under Pompey's statue, all this becomes a fact to me and an object of real apprehension.’ He continues ‘Thus it is that we live in the past and in the distant’ (pp. 22–3). The word ‘live’ is of some importance. One of the characteristics of real apprehension, and of real assent also, is the ‘warm’ or ‘vital’ character which they have, the appeal they make to our emotions. We not only think of the past and the distant, as we should if our apprehension of the narratives of travellers or historians were purely notional. We are interested in the past and the distant, they move us, we are as it were personally involved in them; and this is because we are able to form composite images of things, persons, and happenings which we have not ourselves perceived.

Newman then says that this faculty of composition has rather narrow limits. ‘It is mainly limited, as regards its materials, by the sense of sight’ (p. 23). We notice that the passage quoted just now is full of visual words: ‘gaze upon’, ‘draws’, ‘figure to myself’, ‘painted’. It seems, then, that when we live in the past and the distant, we do it mainly by using the memory-traces of past visual experiences and compounding new visual images out of them (though I suppose Newman did have a composite auditory image of Caesar's Et et, Brute).

Again we have to ask whether this is just an autobiographical fact about Newman himself. If someone had only very faint and poor visual imagery, would he find it difficult to ‘live in the past and the distant’? And what if he lacked visual imagery altogether, like some of Galton's correspondents? Would he be unable to live in the past and the distant at all? Or could he manage it in a purely verbal way, just by describing distant scenes and long-past events to himself in words, provided that these verbal descriptions were sufficiently specific and detailed? Perhaps we should draw a distinction between ‘imaging’ on the one hand and ‘imagining that’ or ‘imagining as’ on the other.14 ‘Imagining that’ (which can be done in a purely verbal way) might be able to take over at least some of the tasks which Newman here assigns to visual imagery of the composite kind.

Newman also holds that the faculty of composition is hardly at all applicable to the impressions (memory-traces) of introspectible events. It is difficult, he says, ‘to apprehend by description images of mental facts of which we have no direct experience’. For example ‘Not all the possible descriptions of headlong love will make me comprehend the delirium, if I have never had a fit of it’. Again ‘we meet with men of the world who cannot enter into the very idea of devotion… because they know of no exercise of the affections but what is merely human’ (p. 24). We may add that this inability is not confined to ‘men of the world’. There seem to be psychologists, sociologists (and even, perhaps, philosophers) who cannot enter into this idea either.

Can Assent be Wholly Un-Notional?

More will be said later about Newman's treatment of the imagination, and about the distinction between imaging and imagining ‘that’ or ‘as’. But before we return to this subject, which is crucial for the understanding of his doctrine of real assent, we should ask whether his own distinction between ‘real’ and ‘notional’ is quite so hard and fast as he maintains.

There are indeed assents which are in no way ‘real’ (thingish, imaginative), for instance our assent to the a priori truth ‘if p entails q, not-q entails not-p.’ But however concrete the subject-matter of a proposition is, can we entertain that proposition in a completely un-notional way, or assent to it in a completely un-notional way?

Let us consider an example m which our assent to a proposition is as ‘real’ (thingish and imaginative) as any assent can be. We entertain the proposition ‘a passenger train is now standing at the down platform of the railway station’, and we assent to it on the authority of the railway time-table. Newman's rather strange phrase ‘assent to things’ fits this example fairly well. At any rate, the station could be described as ‘a thing’, and so could the down platform. The train too could be described as a set of ‘things’ joined together by couplings which are themselves ‘things’. Moreover, his rather strange phrase ‘assent to images’ also fits fairly well, in the sense that some people when they hear or read this sentence would no doubt have visual images of the platform, the railway-carriages and the engine, and these images might well be vivid and full of detail. Since the ‘things’ in this case are not actually being perceived, Newman supposes that we can only assent in the real or thingish way by first assenting to images.15

But however clear and vivid these images might be, it is not sufficient just to have them and contemplate them. Moreover, it is not literally true that we assent to the images themselves. What we assent to is the proposition ‘there is a state of affairs which these images accurately represent’. The difficulty is not that this proposition may be false. Newman himself admits that real assents can be mistaken. The difficulty is that this proposition has to be apprehended in a notional manner, or at any rate there is something notional in our apprehension of it. Let us consider the phrase ‘there is a state of affairs which…’. Could anything be more notional than this? Perhaps it is misleading to ask what it ‘stands for’. But if someone does ask, we shall have to say that it stands for a logical concept.

I would suggest that there is something incurably notional about the entertaining of propositions.16 There can be no propositions unless there are concepts. Moreover, among them there have to be logical concepts. Or at any rate, in expressing any proposition we have to use logical words such as ‘all’, ‘some’, ‘a’, ‘whenever’, ‘there is’, ‘if’, ‘not’; and we also have to know how to use them. It surely cannot be true, as Newman seems to say, that a proposition can consist of nothing but singular terms. His example is ‘Philip was the father of Alexander’.17 ‘Philip’ is indeed a singular term, and so is ‘Alexander’. But it is very odd to say this of ‘father of’, which denotes a relation, and moreover a relation which has very many other instances. And what of the words ‘was’ and ‘the’? These again are logical words. Their function is to convey the logical structure of the proposition.

There is one logical concept to which Newman pays a good deal of attention, namely ‘if’ or ‘if… then’; and I hope I am not being unfair to him if I say that he rather dislikes it. (This is because any proposition into which it enters can only be apprehended and assented to in a notional manner.) But strangely enough, he says hardly anything about ‘not’, and very few of the propositions he uses as examples are negative. Would he perhaps have held that all negative propositions are likewise notional, that is, can only be apprehended and assented to in the notional manner? He does not say, what we might have expected him to say, that assent has a contrary, dissent, and that the function of the word ‘not’ is to express dissent. His view is, I think, that ‘not p’ is equivalent to ‘it is false that p’. But if so, we must ask whether ‘it is false that p’ can be apprehended and assented to in the ‘real’ manner. Presumably it cannot; for it would seem that ‘false’ is a notional predicate, incapable to being cashed by means of images.

Reformulation of the Real-Notional Antithesis

But if there is something incurably notional about the entertaining of propositions, and consequently about the assent to them, it does not follow that Newman's distinction between real and notional assent must be abandoned. He has over-stated his case a little, as anyone might who has something new to say. He has set up a hard and fast distinction of kind, where there is in fact a rather complicated distinction of degree. There are assents of the sort he calls ‘real’ (‘thingish’) in which the imagination plays an essential part. But it is a mistake to suggest that notions play no part in them at all. The entertaining of propositions is a concept-using activity.

Moreover, when we do use images to ‘cash’ these concepts, the extent to which we use them varies greatly from time to time and from person to person. Two persons A and B may both use visual imagery to cash or illustrate the proposition ‘there was a fox in the garden yesterday evening’, and both may assent to it. Let us suppose that A actually saw the fox yesterday, while B only hears and believes A's report of it to-day. Yet it may well be that A's image is faint and schematic, even though it is a memory image; whereas B's is vivid and detailed, even though he had to use his ‘faculty of composition’ to produce it, just as Newman did when he ‘as it were gazed upon Tiberius’. Shall we say, then, that B's assent is more ‘real’ (more concrete or thingish’) than A's though B never saw the fox and A did?

The person who has the more detailed and vivid images may also have the more inaccurate ones. Perhaps the fox which A saw was young and reddish, and his faint and schematic image represents the scene correctly as far as it goes. But B's vivid and detailed image represents a fox which is greyish and elderly. What shall we say then? That B's assent, though ‘more real’ than A's was also less correct, partly though not wholly mistaken? Not necessarily. A person who habitually has vivid and detailed imagery may learn to discount it or make allowances for it. He may recall that it has sometimes led him to make mistakes in the past, for instance when he visualized the buildings and quadrangles of Oxford as a schoolboy. When at last he came up to the University, he found the place a good deal less glamorous than these images suggested. So in this example of the fox he says to himself ‘The situation my friend has described to me was something like the one which my present visual image so vividly depicts, but not necessarily exactly like it’; and that, if one may put it so, is a highly notional thing to say. An image is present in his mind, and a decidedly ‘thingish’ one (realistic, detailed, vivid). But his assent to his friend's report is more notional than real, though there is something real about it too, since he does have this image.

The conclusions we may draw are these: (1) It is a mistake to say that real assent and notional assent are different in kind, since we cannot entertain propositions at all without using concepts (‘notions’). It follows that there are no assents which are wholly un-notional.18 (2) Some assents are ‘real’ or ‘thingish’, and it is true that the imagination plays an essential part in them. (3) But this ‘real’ character, which some assents have, varies very considerably in degree, and is not a matter of all or none. Instead of asking ‘Was his assent real?’ we ought to ask ‘In what degree was it real, if it was real at all?’ (4) Finally, as Newman himself insists, there are very many assents which are purely or wholly notional, in no degree ‘real’ or ‘thingish’, in that no images play any part in them, other than images of words or of numerals or of technical symbols such as the symbols of algebra. If we wish to sum the whole matter up in the form of a brief antithesis, it is not an antithesis between real assent on the one hand and notional assent on the other, but between assent which is in some degree real or ‘thingish’, and assent which is wholly or purely notional.

If these conclusions are justified, they do rather ‘take the edge off’ the sharp contrast which Newman wishes to draw. But the distinction between real assent and assent which is purely or wholly notional might still be an important one, even though no assent is wholly un-notional, and even though the real or ‘thingish’ character which some assents have is a matter of degree. It might still be true that in so far as it is real, assent has a psychological force or power which purely notional assent has not, and has a much greater influence on our emotions, our actions and our characters. It might still be true that in many different sorts of human activity, and not in religion only, the faith which is said ‘to move mountains’ is acquired and maintained by means of real assents and not by purely notional ones. It might also be true that a man's real assents, if he utters them or even if they are just inferred from his conduct, have an influence on other men which his purely notional assents do not have. As Newman himself puts it, a person's real assents, unlike his purely notional ones ‘form the mind out of which they grow, and impart to it a seriousness and manliness which inspires in others a confidence in its views’. But as he is careful to point out, these effects of real assent, both personal and social, need not always be desirable. Real assents, he says, create not only ‘heroes and saints, great leaders, statesmen, preachers and reformers, the pioneers of discovery in science’ but also ‘visionaries, fanatics, knight-errants, demagogues and adventurers’.19 He might also have pointed out that they are by no means absent in persons suffering from mental disorders. Cortuptio optimi pessima.

The Passion for the Theoretical

But is it true that purely notional assents can never have effects like these? There is a state of mind, or even a habit of mind, which might be called ‘a passion for the theoretical’ or ‘an enthusiasm for abstractions’; and there are some persons whose whole lives are dominated by it. They are moved, stirred to their depths, by the contemplation of propositions which have to be entertained in a wholly notional manner, if entertained at all. They have a love of inference for its own sake; and inference, according to Newman, is a wholly notional activity. They spend sleepless nights and laborious days trying to decide whether q does follow from p or not. Validity and consistency are to them almost as food and drink are to others. What Newman sometimes calls assent to things and sometimes assent to images plays no part in these activities (unless it be to answer purely incidental questions like ‘where have I put my pencil?’) The extreme example of such a type of mind is a pure mathematician who is wholly devoted to his subject. His conduct, and the way he spends his time and his energies, are profoundly affected, or even dominated, by the purely notional apprehension of propositions, by his assent (purely notional) to some of them, and by his indecision or doubt (equally notional) about others.

This is an extreme example, because pure mathematics is of all subjects the most notional and is not at all concerned with concrete entities, what Newman calls ‘things’. There are other sorts of learned investigation in which ‘assent to things’ plays an indispensable part. It obviously does in the Natural Sciences and also in historical enquiries of any kind. Nevertheless, all types of learned persons are greatly concerned with inferences, not merely in the sense that they have to make inferences in the course of their work, but also in the sense that they are moved by them or excited by them. The question ‘If p, what follows?’ is never far from their minds. They may spend hours, or even years, in trying to answer it; and if they succeed, the answer is something which can only be apprehended in the notional way.

What are we to make of this passion for the theoretical? It is not very uncommon; and Newman seems to have left no room for it, though he himself must have been moved by it when he was writing this book. A philosophical analysis of assent is not something which can itself be the object of real assent. Shall we say that pure notions (abstractions not cashable by images) can sometimes have the psychological power which images have? We must agree with Newman that images do have it, or at least that imaginative activities have. But do notions sometimes have it too? If so, the distinction between real and notional would still be an important one, but not quite so important as he suggests. At any rate, there is a difficulty in his doctrine which he has failed to consider.

Perhaps this is because he says so little about evaluative judgements. He does say something. As has been pointed out already, he seems to hold that moral and political principles can be objects of real assent.20 And as we shall see later, he discusses the phenomena of conscience in ch. 5, section 1 (‘Belief in One God’). It might be suggested that the learned persons whose emotions and conduct I have described do give a real assent to some propositions which others assent to in a purely notional manner, but that these are value-propositions: for example ‘it is good to discover the truth about complex numbers’, ‘it is better to be clear than muddled about the nature of abstract ideas’, ‘it would be nice to know what inferences can safely be drawn from the remarks of Gildas about the state of Roman Britain in the first quarter of the fifth century’. Everyone who considers such value-propositions as these might be prepared to give some sort of assent to them. But in most persons it would be a very cool and off-hand sort of assent, of a purely notional kind, and they certainly are not prepared to ‘do something about it’. Nevertheless, there are some persons who do assent to one or another of these value-propositions in a real and not merely notional way, and therefore are prepared to do a great deal about it. In order to give such real assent, perhaps they have to imagine to themselves what it would be like to achieve one or another of these purely theoretical goods, and to triumph over all the obstacles which make such an achievement very difficult, though this imagining could hardly be done by means of visual or auditory or tactual imagery.

In some such way, it might be argued that it is real assent, after all, which provides the motive power for the laborious activities of these learned persons, even though the activities themselves are largely, or even wholly, concerned with what is ‘notional’.

The Psychological Power of Images

How then does real assent come to have the psychological power which purely notional assent has not? Newman's answer is ‘because of the part that images play in it’. As we have seen, he sometimes says that real assent just is assent to images, though he also calls it ‘assent to things’. I take his view to be that it is the use of images which gives an assent its ‘thingish’ character or prevents it (shall we say, saves it?) from having the wholly notional character which very many of our assents inevitably have. For real assent, according to Newman, is relatively rare. ‘On only few subjects have any of us the opportunity of realizing in our minds what we speak and hear about’.21

But why should the use of images make so much difference to the character of our assent? We begin to see why if we consider a striking passage about religious assent on pp. 43–5. Here Newman says that religion too may be made a subject of notional assent ‘and is especially so made in our own country’. ‘Theology, as such, always is notional, as being scientific; religion, as being personal, should be real, but except within a small range of subjects it commonly is not real in England.’ For most Englishmen religion consists mainly in Bible-reading, and the doctrine of Divine Providence is ‘nearly the only doctrine held with a real assent by the mass of religious Englishmen’. For the most part, ‘it is not a religion of persons and things, of acts of faith and of direct devotion; but of sacred scenes and pious sentiments’ (p. 44). These words were written in 1870. One trembles to think what Newman would have said of the state of religion in England today. Or could it be that, in the small minority who have any religion at all, the proportion of real assents to notional ones is now somewhat higher?

However this may be, Newman claims that religion is something very different in Catholic populations ‘such as those of mediaeval Europe, or the Spain of this day, or quasi-Catholic as those of Russia’. Among them, he says, ‘assent to religious objects is real, not notional. To them the Supreme Being, our Lord, the Blessed Virgin, Angels and Saints, heaven and hell, are as present as if they were objects of sight’ (p. 43).

The important phrase here is the last one, ‘as present as if they were objects of sight’.22 The word ‘present’ perhaps has a double meaning: its temporal meaning of ‘actually existing now’ and its epistemological meaning of ‘present to the mind’. At any rate, when these supernatural beings are present to someone as if they were objects of sight, he does not treat them as negligible or irrelevant. He has to take account of them both in his actions and in his emotional life. They matter to him, as they would not if his assent to their existence were purely notional. There might be some superstition and some anthropomorphism in the religious assents of a nineteenth century Spanish peasant. Perhaps Newman himself would admit that there might be. But still there may well have been a force and vividness in these assents which Newman seldom found in the religious assents of Victorian Englishmen; and the religion of the Spanish peasant was no doubt a religion of ‘acts of faith and direct devotion’.

Is this because the Spanish peasant was ‘assenting to images’ and the Englishmen were not? According to Newman it is; or at any rate he thinks that the religious assents of the Spanish peasant were in some way imaginative whereas the Englishmen's were not.

Let us turn to the section called ‘Notional and Real Assents contrasted’ (Ch, IV, Section 3). Here Newman is discussing the relation between assent and action. He says of real assent ‘it is in itself an intellectual act, of which the object is presented to it by the imagination; and though the pure intellect does not lead to action, nor the imagination either, yet the imagination has the means, which pure intellect has not, of stimulating those powers of the mind from which action proceeds… the images in which [real assent] lives, representing as they do the concrete, have the power of the concrete upon the affections and passions’ (p. 68).

We must admit, I think, that Newman's main contention here is correct. It is true, and important too, that the imagination ‘has the means, which pure intellect has not, of stimulating those powers of the mind from which action proceeds’. It should be noted, however, that there are not only outward actions (which consist, roughly in moving pieces of matter about). There are also inward actions, if one may call them so. The ‘acts of devotion’ which Newman mentions need not necessarily be manifested by any bodily movement, and frequently are not. Prayer may be silent, and need not be done on one's knees. Religious meditation is a purely inward activity. The same can be said of less reputable sorts of meditation. A person may work himself up into a state of bitter resentment just by ruminating privately upon some injury which he believes has been done to him. There is even such a thing as inward conduct, since the direction of our attention is to some degree under our voluntary control. The phrase ‘the inner life’ denotes something real and important, especially (but not only) when we are discussing religion. A person's real assents, and the psychological power which their imaginative character gives them, are manifested not only by what he does publicly, but also by the direction his private thoughts take, even though he tells no one else about these thoughts and no one observing him from without is able to discover what they are.

The Personal Character of Real Assent

Newnan has said earlier that real assents ‘are of a personal character, each individual having his own and being known by them’.23 They are what distinguish him from other men; they are characteristic of him as an individual. Notional assents, on the contrary, are shared by many different people. So we learn little about a person as an individual by considering his notional assents. ‘Notional apprehension is in itself an ordinary act of our common nature’. But to give real assents ‘we have to secure first the images which are their objects, and those are often peculiar and special. They depend on personal experiences, and the experience of one man is not the experience of another.’ Real assent, then, ‘thwarts rather than promotes the intercourse of man with man’ (p. 64).

It may happen, however, that a number of different persons do have similar personal experiences, and therefore have similar images, even though the images which A has are the products of A's own personal history, and the images which B has are the products of B's own personal history. And so it may turn out that there are images ‘possessed in common’, and therefore apprehensions and assents (i.e. real assents) which are likewise shared by several different persons, even though each of these apprehensions and assents is still a ‘personal characteristic’ of the person apprehending and assenting. Such an image, common to a number of persons and yet the product of the personal experiences of each of them, ‘would necessarily be a principle of sympathy and a bond of intercourse… far stronger than could follow upon any multitude of mere notions which they unanimously held’ (p. 66). Such common images are the foundation of what we now call ‘like minded groups’.

It is not easy to understand how a mental image could be literally common to a number of different persons ‘the same in all’ (p. 66) and yet a ‘personal result’ of the personal experience of each. There is some mix-up of numerical and specific identity here. Nevertheless, though my image is numerically different from yours, the two images might be sufficiently similar to be used for cashing or illustrating or ‘bringing home to us’ the same proposition. And then both of us will apprehend that proposition in a ‘real’ manner, and both of us will also assent to it in a ‘real’ manner if we do assent ot it.

Imaging and ImagininG

Is this or something like this what Newman intends to say when he speaks here of ‘images possessed in common’? Or has the word ‘image’ changed its meaning? When Newman first introduced the subject of images in ch. 3 he was clearly using the word ‘image’ in the sense it has usually had in the writings of philosophers and psychologists. This is shown by the examples he gives in the passage already quoted, where he describes his own mental imagery.24 But by the end of ch. 4 the reader begins to suspect that the word ‘image’ has altered its meaning, or at any rate that another sense of it has crept in alongside the first.

This second sense of the word is something like the one which has now become regrettably common among ourselves, as when politicians and journalists speak of the ‘public image’ of British Railways and urge those who direct that institution to improve ‘its public image’ or even just ‘its image’. It is not easy to understand what this image is supposed to be. But it seems to resemble a set of propositions rather than an image. And certainly it is very unlike what Newman describes when he speaks of the visual image he has of his home when he is in a foreign country. For instance, it would not be appropriate to ask whether the image of British Railways is visual or auditory or tactual or kinaesthetic. Some phrase like ‘think of as…’ would have to be used in describing it. Most members of the British public think of British Railways as an institution whose trains are unpunctual, its carriages dirty, its relations with its employees bad, and whose principle of operation is ‘higher fares for worse services’. This ‘thinking of… as’ is something more than mere neutral entertaining of these propositions, but something less than conscious and explicit assent to them. It might perhaps be described as half-belief. Almost every traveller, in his more reflective moments, can recall travelling in at least some punctual trains, some years in which there were no railway strikes, and some cases when fares were raised but services remained just about as good or bad as they were before. Yet the propositions out of which this so-called ‘image’ is constructed do have considerable social and political importance; and many of us do act and feel (and vote) much as we should act, feel or vote if we did give a conscious and explicit assent to them.

The important point for our present purpose is that such an ‘image’ has very little to do with mental imagery. A person does not need to be a good visualizer in order to have the image of British Railways which has just been described. Nor does he need to have auditory images of the clanking sound which ancient railway-carriages make when they pass over railway tracks which have not been repaired for many years, nor kinaesthetic images of those weary walks he has taken up and down the platform while waiting for unpunctual trains to arrive. The propositions of which this so-called image consists may be entertained in a purely verbal manner. In this ‘public relations’ sense of the word ‘image’, an image is something more like a concept, though a concept unreflectively acquired, unreflectively applied, and confused rather than clear.

One hesistates to accuse so eminent a thinker as Newman of using the word ‘image’ in this somewhat disreputable sense, and certainly he does not always use it in this sense. In many passages he is certainly speaking quite literally of mental imagery. But he does use the verb ‘to image’ and the verbal noun ‘imagination’; and in some of his examples, though not in others, ‘imagination’ seems to denote something different from having mental imagery. For instance: ‘what imagination does for us is to find a means of stimulating those motive powers [i.e. those which manifest themselves in our actions]; and it does so by providing a supply of objects strong enough to stimulate them’. His examples of such objects are ‘the thought of honour, glory, duty, self-aggrandizement, gain, or on the other hand of Divine Goodness, future reward, eternal life, perseveringly dwelt upon’.25 We may agree that the thought of any one of these can stimulate the motive powers he speaks of. But such thoughts are surely concepts, not mental images.

Or are we to suppose that mental imagery has to be used when such thoughts are ‘perseveringly dwelt upon’? Certainly if the thought of honour or of self-aggrandizement is to affect a person's conduct and his emotional life, it is not sufficient that this thought should just pass through his mind occasionally. He must sometimes consider ‘what it would be like’ to behave honourably in difficult circumstances, or what it would be like to have attained a position of power whose holder is envied, admired, or feared by others. He may perhaps consider particular examples: the honourable behaviour of someone he has known, the methods by which some political leader acquired and kept the power which he had. He may try to put himself in the shoes of such persons or to identify himself with them. Moreover, the persons whom he considers may be wholly fictitious. He may have read of them in some poem or novel. He may even have invented them for himself. And even if they are real persons—even persons whom he has actually known—the details of what they may be supposed to have done or felt or said at such and such a crucial point in their careers will have to be filled in by his own imagination, when he tries to dwell perseveringly upon the thought of being an honourable person, or a person who seeks self-aggrandizement and keeps it when he has got it.

We can therefore agree that imagination does play a very important part in this procedure of perseveringly dwelling upon a thought or concept, at any rate when these thoughts are of a secular sort (‘honour, glory, self aggrandizement, gain’).26 But what kind of imagination is it, or what sense does the word ‘imagine’ have? If a person is very deficient in mental imagery, is this important kind of perseverance beyond his power? To put it very crudely: suppose he just tells stories to himself, true or fictitious, many different ones, and all of them ad rem, but does not illustrate them with mental pictures (because he cannot) nor yet with auditory images of the voices of the dramatis personae (because he cannot do that either). He cannot visualize the boy standing on the burning deck, nor form an auditory image of Richard III saying ‘Off with his head!’ Shall we say that he is not really dwelling upon the thought of honour or of self-aggrandizement, no matter how copius and how persevering his private story-telling is?

On the contrary, he is dwelling upon this favourite thought of his, and perseveringly too, even though he uses no mental imagery in doing so, except images of words; and the effects of his perseverance will show themselves eventually in his actions and in his emotional life. Perhaps we may put it in this way: what matters most is the degree of detail or specificity which these imaginative ruminations have. One must consider in detail what it would be like to behave honourably in some specific situation, or to succeed in some specific scheme of self-aggrandizement (as Richard III did when he succeeded in having himself crowned King of England). But the details need not necessarily present themselves to one's mind in the form of mental imagery. If they do present themselves in that form, the psychological effects of this process of ‘dwelling upon’ a thought or concept may well be greater. But surely the effects of it are not negligible if one dwells upon the thought or concept in a purely verbal way, provided that one does so by considering instances (real or fictitious) of this concept, and describing them to oneself in detail.

Shall we say, then, that there are two senses of the word ‘imagine’: a sense in which it means imaging (having mental imagery) and a sense in which it means imagining that… or imagining as? We do need to draw some such distinction, and Newman himself has not drawn it. For instance, a person who is dwelling on the thought of honour may imagine himself as refusing to betray a friend or comrade despite the threat (or the blandishments) of the Secret Police. He may imagine that he is being interrogated by them, and that he is behaving as a very honourable person would, by answering no questions and at the same time telling no lies. He may ‘fill out’ the scene with a good deal of detail much as a novelist might, actually formulating to himself the questions which the hard-faced Police Chief asks and the inducements which his smooth-faced Adjutant offers. All this he may do just by using words. They will probably be imaged (‘silent’) words, not actually uttered or written down. But still he need have no images at all of the persons, objects or events which these words describe.

Nevertheless it is perfectly possible, and probably very common, for imaging and imagining ‘that’ (or ‘as’) to occur together. One may actually picture some part of the scene in the police court, in visual images, and then ‘eke out’ these images by means of words. Perhaps we are not good enough visualizers to form a clear image of the Police Chief's face, though Newman himself could no doubt have done it. So we use words to help us out: ‘heavy-jowled’, ‘short snub nose’, ‘unblinking gaze’. And perhaps our auditory images of the remarks we suppose him to utter do not accurately reproduce the tone of voice in which such a person might be expected to speak. To remedy this defect, we have to resort to words again: it is like the bark of an Alsatian dog.

Moreover, these two activities of the imagination, imaging and imagining that, have a common origin. Both are dependent on memory. Neither could exist unless we had the power of ‘retaining’ past experiences. Both imaging and imagining that are ways in which this retention of past experiences is occurrently manifested. Or, as some would put it, neither of these activities of the imagination could exist unless past experiences left ‘traces’ in us, which persist long after the experiences themselves have ceased. As we have seen, Newman himself sometimes speaks of ‘impressions’ (occasionally of ‘impresses’), and appears to use this word in the sense of memory traces.

‘An Image of God’

Both the strong and the weak points in Newman's account of images come out in Section 1 of Ch. 5, ‘Apprehension and Assent in the matter of Religion’. The title of Section 1 is ‘Belief in one God’. Newman's aim here is not to prove the existence of God, but to show ‘how we gain an image of God and give a real assent to the proposition that He exists’.27 This is not just an isolated passage in which Newman's picturesque style of writing has run away with him. The strange and difficult idea of an image of God occurs frequently in this Section, and is indeed the main topic discussed in it. In one passage he even calls this image ‘a picture’ (‘the picture of a Supreme Governor, a Judge’, etc.) and refers us in a footnote to the pages in ch. 3 about the formation of composite images—pages in which he is quite clearly talking about mental imagery, and not about imagining ‘that’ or imagining ‘as’.28
Moreover, in this Section he twice uses the verb ‘to image’. In one of these passages he speaks of ‘imaging the thought of God in the definite impressions which conscience creates’,29 as if he were already aware of the distinction which we ourselves should make between ‘imaging’ and ‘imagining that’. (The phrase ‘the thought of’ is also worthy of notice. It suggests that when we apprehend a proposition in the real manner, there is still something notional about our apprehension. I have tried to show earlier that there must be.)30

The question which Newman wishes to answer in this Section is first formulated on p. 78. ‘Can I attain to any more vivid assent to the Being of a God than that which is given to the notions of the intellect?… Can I believe as if I saw?’ It will be remembered that in an earlier passage Newman has told us of people to whom the Supreme Being and other supernatural beings are ‘as present as if they were objects of sight’.31 But how can we believe as if we saw, since no man hath seen God at any time?

Newman's answer, to put it very crudely, is this: first he points out that when we are said to ‘see’ ordinary human persons, the sense in which we ‘see’ them needs some analysis.32 Secondly he suggests that though we do not see God, there is a sense in which we have heard Him very frequently: not indeed with our outward ears, but inwardly, in the phenomena of moral experience. Everyone has a conscience, and we all find it natural to speak of the voice of conscience. It is ‘a voice, or the echo of a voice imperative, and constraining, like no other dictate in our experience’ (p. 82). It is imperative, in that it tells us what to do and what not to do: constraining, in that it threatens us with disagreeable consequences if we disobey. These threats are no idle ones either. If we do disobey we have what is called a bad conscience. We ‘suffer various perturbations of mind… which may be very considerable… and their contraries when the conscience is good, as real though less forcible’ (p. 82).

What is this voice which issues commands and threatens sanctions? Surely it must be the voice of a personal being, a Lord and Master to whom we are responsible. Such emotions as shame, which we all feel when we disobey the voice of conscience, can only be felt towards a personal being. We do not feel shame towards a horse or a dog (p. 83). Again ‘“the wicked flees, when no man pursueth”; then why does he flee? Who is it that sees in solitude, in darkness, in the hidden chambers of the heart?’ The Lord and Master who speaks to us in the voice of conscience is one whose knowledge has no limits. He must be supernatural and Divine (p. 84).

At first, he presents himself to us as one whom we fear. But later we come to love him as well. For what he commands us to do is always good. We ourselves approve of the actions commanded, and we still approve of them when we disobey. So we acknowledge that he is our good Lord and Master, and we begin to love him, because goodness is the proper object of love (pp. 86–7).

This, in outline, is Newman's answer to the question ‘Can we believe as if we saw?’ It is not merely that we can have a notional apprehension of these propositions about God. We can have more. We can have a real apprehension of them as well. We can entertain them in an imaginative way, and not merely in a notional way. And then, if we also assent to them, we shall be assenting to ‘an image’, and we shall believe as if we saw, or at any rate as if we heard a person speaking to us. ‘The phenomena of conscience, as a dictate, avail to impress the imagination with the picture of a Supreme Governor, a Judge, holy, just, powerful, all-seeing, retributive’; and this is ‘the creative principle of religion, as the moral sense is the principle of ethics’. On the same page, he uses the phrase mentioned earlier, ‘imaging the thought of Him in the definite impressions which conscience creates’.33

Let us recall that Newman is not here offering us a proof of the existence of God. (If he had been, we should have to consider various difficulties and objections to it.) But he says quite explicitly that this is not what he is doing. He only claims to show how propositions concerning God and his attributes can come to be entertained in a ‘real’ and not merely notional manner. Suppose that someone is already familiar with the propositions which Theists believe, but entertains them in a purely notional way, and assents to them in a purely notional way, as many Theists do. Then reflection on the phenomena of conscience—on his own personal memories of his own first-hand experience of them—might well enable him to ‘image the thought of God in the definite impressions which conscience creates’. He will no longer think of God as a remote and inaccessible Supreme Being, but as his own Lord and Master, his good Lord and Master too, one who has addressed him very frequently, one with whom he has personal relations. Then he will no doubt entertain propositions about God in a ‘real’ manner, and not in a wholly notional manner as he did before.

It is a little strange to say, as Newman does, that such a person has acquired ‘an image’ of God, and still stranger to call it a picture. And though Newman speaks of ‘imaging the thought of God in the definite impressions which conscience creates’, it turns out that this ‘imaging’ does not consist at all in having or inspecting mental images, not even in having or inspecting a ‘composite’ image such as Newman discusses in his passage about the faculty of composition.34 What Newman calls an image of God is not at all like a visual image of a unicorn, or the visual image of a banana tree which one might be able to form though one has never actually seen such a tree. On the contrary, it is something acquired by means of imagining as. By reflecting on his own moral experiences, the person whom we are discussing is enabled to imagine God as being his Lord and Master, as being one with whom he has personal relations, and as being a proper object both of fear and of love.

This conclusion seems to be confirmed by the example Newman himself uses to illustrate his discussion of the image of God. On p. 86 he gives us a wonderful phenomenological description of the religious consciousness of a child. ‘Supposing he has offended his parents, he will all alone and without effort, as if it were the most natural of acts, place himself in the presence of God and beg of Him to set him right with them. Let us consider how much is contained in this simple act… it involves the impression on his mind of an unseen Being with whom he is in immediate relation… of One whose goodwill towards him he is assured of, and can take for granted—nay, who loves him better, and is nearer to him, than his parents… of One who can hear him, wherever he happens to be, and can read his thoughts… of One who can effect a critical change in the state of feeling of others towards him,’ In short, ‘this child has in his mind the image of an Invisible Being, who exercises a particular providence among us, who is present everywhere, who is heart-reading, heart-changing, ever-accessible, open to impetration’.35

Everyone who believes in God would wish to resemble this child. As a piece of religious phenomenology, the passage is beyond praise. But still, we must ask whether the word ‘image’ can bear so great a weight. The gift which this charming and pious child has is not a gift for forming visual images, nor auditory nor kinaesthetic ones. We may properly describe him as imaginative. But the imagination which he uses so well is imagining ‘as’ or ‘imagining that’.

  • 1.

    My page references in this lecture are to Longmans edition of 1947. This edition is the only one which has an adequate index. The paperback edition (Image Books, New Nork 1955, introduction by Etienne Gilson) has only an index of proper names.

  • 2.

    See Series I, Lecture 6.

  • 3.
    Treatise Book I, Part 3, Sections 9 and 10 (pp. 114–15 and pp. 122–3 in Selby-Bigge's edition).
  • 4.

    Perhaps not exclusively. In one passage (G. of A., p. 67) he appears to say that moral and political principles can be the objects of real assent: see p. 336, below. Cf. also his remarks on dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, apprehended in a notional way by Horace but in a real way by ‘a Wallace or a Tell’ (G. of A. pp. 8 fin–9).

  • 5.

    Newman himself once uses the word ‘entertain’. In G. of A., p. 5 he speaks of ‘three modes of entertaining propositions, doubting them, inferring them, assenting to them’. But surely there must be more modes than three. Moreover his use of the word ‘inference’ is puzzling to his modern readers. Often he seems not to distinguish between ‘because p, therefore q’ and ‘if p, then q’ and calls both of them inferences. Cf. G. of A., pp. 137–8 (example of the consumptive patient).

  • 6.
    G. of A., p. 8.
  • 7.
    G. of A., 19 et seq.
  • 8.

    See below, pp. 340–4, 347–8.

  • 9.
    G. of A., pp. 20 fin.–21. What does he mean by ‘an apprehension of the memory of those definite acts’? Is it a memory-apprehension of them? Or is ‘the memory of them’ what is apprehended? In that case it might just possibly be called ‘an image of them’.
  • 10.

    ‘The memory preserves the impress, though not so vivid, of the experiences which come to us through our other senses also.’ G. of A., p, 20, my italics.

  • 11.

    Even if the brain were re-integrated (traces and all) at the ‘General Resurrection on the Last Day’, personal identity could not continue in the period between death and the Last Day.

  • 12.
    G. of A., pp. 20, 21.
  • 13.
    The Fortunes of Nigel.
  • 14.

    See also pp. 340–4, below.

  • 15.

    Cf. above, pp. 322–4.

  • 16.

    Indeed Newman himself says that real assent is ‘in itself an intellectual act’ (p. 68).

  • 17.
    G. of A., p. 8.
  • 18.

    Newman seems to admit this in one passage which I have already quoted. Real assent, he says, ‘is in itself an intellectual act’ (p. 68).

  • 19.
    G. of A., p. 67. Compare Hume, Treatise Book I, Part III, Section 10, ‘a vigorous and strong imagination is of all talents the most proper to procure belief and authority’ (Clarendon Press, ed. Selby-Bigge, p. 123). According to Newman, real assent always has an imaginative character.
  • 20.

    Cf. the passage quoted above (p. 334) in which he mentions ‘heroes and saints, great leaders, statesmen, preachers and reformers’ (G. of A. p. 67).

  • 21.
    G. of A., p. 27.
  • 22.

    Cf. the question ‘Can I believe as if I saw?’ which Newman tries to answer in Ch. V, Section 1 (discussed below, pp. 345–7).

  • 23.
    G. of A., p. 63.
  • 24.
    G. of A., pp. 19–34 (see pp. 324–30, above).
  • 25.
    G. of A., p. 63.
  • 26.

    For the religious ones which Newman also mentions, the thought of the Divine Goodness, etc., see below, pp. 345–8, on the acquisition of ‘an image of God’.

  • 27.
    G. of A., p. 80.
  • 28.

    P. 84. The pages referred to in his footnote are pp. 22, 23.

  • 29.

    P. 84, second paragraph. Is this the first occurrence of the verb ‘to image, in English?

  • 30.

    Cf. pp. 330–2, above.

  • 31.
    G. of A., p. 43.
  • 32.

    P. 78 ‘The evidence which we have of their presence lies in the phenomena which address our senses, and our warrant for taking those for evidence is our instinctive certitude that they are evidence’: see also pp. 84–5, on the ‘instinctive’ character of this certitude.

  • 33.

    P. 84, my italics. Here we must remember Newman's distinction between religion and theology.

  • 34.
    G. of A., pp. 22–4.
  • 35.
    G. of A., p. 86.
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