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It has often been said that Newman was born a Platonist.366 Speaking of his childhood
I used to wish the Arabian Tales were true: my imagination ran on unknown influences,
on magical powers, and talismans ... I thought life might be a dream, or I an Angel, and
all this world a deception, my fellow-angels by a playful device concealing themselves
from me, and deceiving me with the semblance of a material world.367
This sense of the material world as a veil and a sign of an unseen world, more real and
more important, remained with Newman and deepened all his life. We will see how,
under the influence of the Church Fathers, he developed this insight into his
“sacramental principle.” For his memorial tablet Newman chose the words, “ex umbris
et imaginibus in veritatem:”368 out of the shadows and images of the created world to
the beatific vision of Truth Himself. But this is an element of Platonism that, as we have
seen, he shares as much with St. Thomas as with St. Augustine. The question which are
concerned with here is whether his Platonist ontology lead Newman to develop a
Platonist epistemology. Clearly it did not. In the first chapter of the Grammar of Assent
All things in the exterior world are unit and individual, and are nothing else; but the mind
not only contemplates those unit realities, as they exist, but has the gift, by an act of
366 GILLEY, Newman and his Age 8-9; CAMERON, “Newman and Empiricism” 230.
367 NEWMAN, Apologia (ed. DELAURA) 14.
368 KER, John Henry Newman 698.
creation, of bringing before it abstractions and generalizations, which have no existence,
no counterpart, out of it.369
Knowledge of things is not caused by their ideal forms, but by contemplating the things
themselves, or abstracting universals from them; it is founded, in a word, on experience.
The passage that I have just quoted sounds very Aristotelian, but as we saw there
is another school that claims to found knowledge on experience: the empiricist school of
Locke and Hume. In a short but influential essay, the analytical philosopher and convert
to Catholicism J. M. Cameron (1910-1995) argued that in his epistemology Newman is
really a follower of Hume.370 Of course Cameron admits that Newman comes to very
different conclusions than the empiricists, but he claims, “in the process of absorption
what had been taken from [Hume] was […] transformed, not so much in its logical
content as in its logical role.”371 He seems to be indicating that Newman accepted
Hume’s principles, but drew different conclusions from them. Cameron is not quite
ready to claim this explicitly (and with good reason). He does say, “Newman’s caste of
mind and intellectual sympathies are, in philosophical matters, always with the
empiricist school.”372 Cameron pours elaborate scorn on the idea of Newman as an
Aristotelian. He claims that those who so argue are merely acting from a Thomist
The question of Newman’s orthodoxy having been settled by the conspicuous judgement
of the Church in elevating him to the cardinalate, [Catholic commentators] have thought
it a duty to rebut charges of sophistry and skepticism; and such rebuttals have too often
taken the sad form of arguing that since Newman is theologically orthodox, and since (so
it is commonly believed) there is a necessary connection between theological orthodoxy
and ‘thomist’ metaphysics, then it must be possible to show that au fond Newman is not
far from the ‘thomist’ position […] ‘That three Popes approved of Newman and his
teaching does not prove that Newman was an Aristotelian.’373
Cameron is using a rather cheap rhetorical trick here; it is a case of the thief crying
“stop thief!” For it is really Cameron that is trying to force Newman into a position
consonant with his own philosophy. Thus after dismissing all Aristotelian
interpretations, without troubling to examine the arguments for them, he goes on to
dismiss the Grammar of Assent as “somewhat overvalued.”374 The Grammar of Assent
is relentlessly Aristotelian from start to finish, and at the end Newman writes, “as to the
intellectual position from which I have contemplated the subject, Aristotle has been my
369 NEWMAN, Grammar of Assent 9.
370 CAMERON, “Newman and Empiricism” passim.
371 CAMERON, “Newman and Empiricism” 222.
372 CAMERON, “Newman and Empiricism” 220.
373 CAMERON, “Newman and Empiricism” 224 with footnote 7, Cameron’s quotes: A. J. BOEKRAAD,
Review of Cardinal Newman Studien 8 (Maynooth 1958) 142.
374 CAMERON, “Newman and Empiricism” 223.
master.”375 Is it not a bit odd that in an essay largely on Newman’s theory of knowledge
Cameron should ignore the most complete statement of that theory that Newman
offered? For Cameron “what is most interesting” in Newman’s philosophy is found in
remarks mad en passant in his works not primarily concerned with philosophy.376 And
the most interesting things end up being (how could it be otherwise?) where Newman
“transcends the common empiricist position” and anticipates the concerns of Cameron’s
own philosophical school: 20th
century Analytical Philosophy (along with those of the
other great school of Cameron’s time, Existentialism).377
Cameron’s analysis is able to show that Newman had an acute sense of the
power that empiricism had to influence minds. Thus Cameron quotes Newman writing,
It is indeed a great question whether atheism is not as philosophically consistent with the
phenomena of the physical world, as taken by themselves, as the doctrine of a creative
and governing power.378
Cameron’s interpretation is that Newman basically accepts Hume’s principles and
concludes that reason cannot draw from the world a conclusion one way or the other as
to whether it has a divine cause. But in many other places Newman is careful to exclude
just such a misunderstanding.
“Logic leads to right conclusions when the principles are write and to wrong
conclusions when the principles started with are wrong.”379 Newman wrote those words
with reference to controversy over the following statement from the Apologia:
I came to the conclusion that there was no medium, in true philosophy, between Atheism
and Catholicity, and that a perfectly consistent mind, under those circumstances in which
it finds itself here below, must embrace either the one or the other.380
Newman explained that what he meant was that the same bad principles which lead men
reject the Catholic Church would, if consistently applied, lead them to disbelieve in
God.381 Addressing the same topic in a note to the Grammar of Assent he writes, “I
have but argued, that the same sophistry which denies the one may deny the other.”382
Thus when he says “it is a great question etc.” he does not mean that it is a question
without an answer; and Hume’s answer comes from assuming false principles.
375 NEWMAN, Grammar of Assent 430; Joshua P. HOCHSCHILD, “The Re-Imagined Aristotelianism of
John Henry Newman,” in: Modern Age 45 (Fall 2003) 333-342, at 336.
376 CAMERON, “Newman and Empiricism” 223.
377 CAMERON, “Newman and Empiricism” 222.
378 NEWMAN, Universtity Sermons 186, quoted in: CAMERON, “Newman and Empiricism” 235-236.
379 John Henry NEWMAN, The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman 29, ed. Charles Stephen
DESSAIN et al. (Oxford 1976) 317-318: quoted in: KER, John Henry Newman 726-727.
380 NEWMAN, Apologia (ed. DELAURA) 156.
381 KER, John Henry Newman 727.
382 NEWMAN, Grammar of Assent 500.
Newman sees taking up false principles as a matter of a bad habit of mind, a
wrong approach to thinking. Newman explains that in the Grammar of Assent it is
precisely his intention to sketch out the proper intellectual approach in religious matters:
The multitude of men indeed are not consistent, logical, or thorough; they obey no law in
the course of their religious views; and while they cannot reason without premisses, and
premisses demand first principles […] they do not recognize what this involves […] there
is a certain ethical character, one and the same, a system of first principles, sentiments
and tastes, a mode of viewing the question and of arguing, which is formally and
normally, naturally and divinely, the organum investigandi given us for gaining religious
truth, and which would lead the mind by an infallible succession from the rejection of
atheism to theism, and from theism to Christianity, and from Christianity to Evangelical
Religion, and from these to Catholicity.383
Joshua P. Hochschild has shown how Newman developed his conception of this method
out of Aristotle’s treatment of intellectual and moral virtue in the Ethics.384 I shall
return to Hochschild’s analysis presently, but I want to begin with a more general
comparison of Aristotle’s approach to thinking and Newman’s.
Aristotle’s views on epistemology and on the right general approach to seeking
the truth are referred to throughout his works; in the Organon, the De Anima, the Ethics,
the Metaphysics etc. And then of course one can see Aristotle’s approach in action, so to
speak, in everything he wrote. A great Aristotelian Thomist of the 20th
De Koninck (1906-1965), distilled the Aristotelian approach in his lecture “Three
Sources of Philosophy.”385 Discussing Aristotle’s epistemology in which the mind must
“grope in umbra intelligentiae,”386 since it is posterior to and dependent on the things it
understands, he writes:
As regards philosophy, the human condition is highly embarrassing. Appetite has so
much more to do with our thinking than reason […] That a man should spend most of his
life in error, and only here and there, after long and much endeavor, catch a glimpse of
the truths philosophy is after is only natural.387
That appetite has such a deep affect on our thinking is something that Newman saw
with great clarity. This is why he calls his organum investigandi “a certain ethical
character.” Hochschild quotes a letter from Newman to his publisher in which he wrote,
“My book is to show that a right moral state of mind germinates or even generates good
intellectual principles.”388 What are these good intellectual principles?
383 NEWMAN, Grammar of Assent 499.
384 HOCHSCHILD, “The Re-Imagined Aristotelianism” 336-340.
385 Charles DE KONINCK, “Three Sources of Philosophy,” in: Proceedings of the American Catholic
Philosophical Association 38 (1964) 13-22. http://www.scribd.com/doc/13716489/three-sources-of-
philosophy (29.07.2010 21:00).
386 DE KONINCK, “Three Sources of Philosophy” 18.
387 DE KONINCK, “Three Sources of Philosophy” 19.
388 HOCHSCHILD, “The Re-Imagined Aristotelianism” 337, quoting: John Henry NEWMAN, The Letters
and Diaries of John Henry Newman 25, ed. Charles Stephen DESSAIN et al. (Oxford 1973) 51.
De Koninck identifies three key intellectual principles that an Aristotelian
ethical character fosters in Aristotelians. He sums them all up in his sketch of the
intellectual character of Aristotle’s greatest disciple:
In St. Thomas we are constantly aware of a docility toward things, toward the
shortcomings of his own mind, and toward that other source of philosophy, the great
spirits who already know, and even those who have shown us what not to do.389
These three intellectual principles all have the character of virtues, they are habits of
mind that lead it to avoid error. I shall now take these three up one by one to show that
they are as important to Newman as to St. Thomas and Aristotle.
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