Assent: Locke, Newman, and The Dehumanization of “Human” Belief (Part 2)

Part 1 Here.

John Henry Newman, a Catholic theologian of the 19th century, also observed this problem. For him, the struggle was faith – there is no room for “faith” in the Lockean system, since probability is the main factor (whether or not it examines natural or religious events). Thus, Newman believed he needed to observe the use of language in assent, such as “I believe X” – hence, he outlined the “grammar of assent”.

Locke gives us stages of assent that are determined by various levels of probability, what kind of evidence, and mostly empirical means to reach each stage. Rather than delineating stages of assent, which is a hopeless epistemic enterprise, Newman believed that the problem rests on dealing with assent in a less intellectual way. Newman found that Locke misses out on the emotional element of assent – an essential part of the concept.

Imagine the effect of sociological and psychological forces beyond a person’s control – just because one has weighed all the evidence for or against a particular view does not necessarily mean one came to that conclusion without emotional attachment, regardless of their original position. A person who was raised in a Christian home, for example, is much more likely to become a Christian simply because they were raised in a particular cultural context. However, likewise, there will be a small minority that will reject their parent’s beliefs and become a different religion entirely. These decisions are never just a weighing of evidence – feelings and emotions have a much greater pull than Locke would admit.

Locke admits his deficiency in this area by his dealings with revelation – as noted previously, Locke cannot use empirical means and thus makes an incomprehensible argument to support such beliefs. In this vein, Newman wishes to explicate the idea of assent as related to faith and the intertwining of intellect and emotion. To do this, Newman examines the formulation of the grammar of assent to see why “I believe X” is formulated in a particular way. Thus, there are two essential questions that must be answered: can I believe what I don’t understand, and, can I believe what cannot be absolutely proved?

Newman, for the first question, divides between assent – defined in the same way as Locke – as well as apprehension, which dictates what level of intelligent appropriation of a teaching is necessary to believe in that teaching, or “intelligent acceptance of the idea or of the fact which a proposition enunciates.”12 Apprehension imposes limitations on what beliefs a person can have. For example, a philosophy student can accept a Kantian system of metaphysics because they have the necessary understanding for that particular field – a layman simply has not had the experience to understand Kant fully. However, Newman states that apprehension does not require understanding.13 One can apprehend a particular concept – Newman uses the Trinity, for obvious reasons – but can still assent to a belief in that idea. There lies an infinite gulf between conceiving of an idea and reading an idea. Just because one cannot conceive that God is three persons in one nature does not mean one cannot believe it – the idea is perfectly acceptable and understandable even if it is inconceivable. Unlike Locke, Newman makes room for religion in his system.

Newman goes on further by comparing assent and inference. For Newman, no more proofs are needed after assent is given to a belief.14 All assent is by its very nature, unconditional; that is, regardless of the evidence that is given for the belief in question, once assent is given any proofs related to that belief disappears from the mind.15 Religious certitude simply has a certain character that disregards evidence after assent.

Inference is the opposite of assent, in this sense, because it is conditional on other propositions and ideas to stand. There are three types of inferences that Newman lists: formal, informal and natural. Formal inference refers simply to deductive logic, no more and no less.16 Logic, for Newman, has bountiful use within science and society; however, to make logic function well, human thought must be constrained to very specific and narrow meanings such that logical statements then lose application to the real world.17 In informal inference, one considers the accumulation of converging antecedent probabilities, akin to the Lockean system.18 Natural inference is when the individual, in a simple and whole process, grasps the antecedent conditions and conclusions instantaneously.19 In the case of gravity, for example, one can infer the existence of that natural force when an object falls to the ground.

Grammar of Assent Cover

You should be glad I read this book. It’s not exactly accessible writing!

However, Newman’s purpose in showing inference is its unreliability – no inference leads to belief in anything, much less a summation of them. They are useful processes, to be sure, but they exist extraneous to the belief. Thus, Newman describes assent as having an “illative sense”, a faculty of the mind that bridges the logic gap between the evidence and the belief.20 No absolute certitude is possible in anything, much less religion – to solve this problem, Newman’s “illative sense” fits the bill. Scientific logic simply does not apply to real world situations, like religion, because it is overly restrictive in its presuppositions. It is like trying to avoid sitting in chairs unless one is absolutely certain they will not collapse. In the same way that a philosopher lives his life in the same manner even with the realization of the epistemic problems plaguing all human enterprises, religious people have the same lack of certitude in their beliefs.

To apply such “scientific” logic to one area, but not another, is inherently inconsistent. As Newman says, “Logic is loose at both ends”, since such logic relies on restrictive assumptions that do not encapsulate the fullness of human experience.21 Thus, Newman finds that science and religion do not meet – anyone trying to conflate two inherently disparate systems will inevitably fail at their task. In any case, however, Newman’s categories of inference and assent are just as prone to categories as Locke – he has simply added new concerns to what Locke had already proposed, not a real solution.

In Part 3, we’ll finally get to the conclusion of this thing!


12 John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of the Grammar of Assent (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903), 20.

13 Ibid, 19.

14 Ibid, 157.

15 Ibid, 157

16 Ibid, 264.

17 Ibid, 268.

18 Ibid, 291-292.

19 Ibid, 330-331.

20 Ibid, 345.

21 Ibid, 284.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.