Critical Notice of Newman in the Story of Philosophy: The Philosophical Legacy of Saint John Henry Newman

By Joe Milburn
January 17, 2024
14 min read
Critical Notice of <em>Newman in the Story of Philosophy: The Philosophical Legacy of Saint John Henry Newman</em>

Newman scholars interested in philosophy should take note of Daniel J. Pratt Morris-Chapman’s recent book, Newman in the Story of Philosophy: The Philosophical Legacy of Saint John Henry Newman.  While standard histories of philosophy tend to make no mention of Newman as a philosopher, Pratt Morris-Chapman thinks this is a mistake. This is not only because he takes Newman to have a body of philosophical work that is worthy of our attention, but because he takes Newman’s thought to have played an important role in the development and progress of philosophy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

Morris-Chapman book cover: Newman in the Story of Philosophy
Daniel J. Pratt Morris-Chapman. 
Newman in the Story of Philosophy: The Philosophical Legacy of Saint John Henry Newman (Pickwick Publications, 2021)

Pratt Morris-Chapman’s work, then, is a particular kind of revisionist history. If he is right, John Henry Newman exerted considerable influence in various areas of philosophy, an influence that has generally been overlooked by historians. Pratt Morris-Chapman makes his case for Newman’s influence in two ways. First, he gives copious citations of philosophers from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who have cited Newman in their work. Second, he marshals evidence that Newman was a proto-epistemological particularist, and that Newman’s particularism foreshadows the particularism of Roderick Chisholm and William J. Abraham

To the Newmanist interested in philosophy, Pratt Morris-Chapman’s revisionary history is necessarily appealing. To someone who believes in the relevance of Newman’s thought, it would be nice to know that as a matter of fact, Newman has been an invisible force in the history of twentieth-century philosophy. 

In this critical notice, I want to contrast Pratt Morris-Chapman’s revisionist history with another kind of revisionist history proposed by Michael Pakaluk.[1] Pakaluk has a very different view of Newman’s actual influence in the philosophical world. According to Pakaluk: 

“Newman has been made an exile as a philosopher from history and institutions. The study of Newman as a philosopher, then, properly undertaken, aims to end this condition of exile: not by keeping the subsequent history of philosophy as something fixed, and asking whether and how Newman could fit into it – as in truth, he hardly has a home here – but rather by returning to Newman’s works in their context, and considering how philosophy might take a different direction starting from there, and what sorts of institutions would nurture that concept of philosophy and provide for its best expression and support.” [2]

Both Pakaluk and Pratt Morris-Chapman think that the history of philosophy should be rewritten so as to include Newman’s philosophical thought. But as this quote indicates, they have very different reasons for thinking so. For Pakaluk, Newman has not been an influential voice in twentieth-century philosophy. This is a reason for writing Newman out of the history of philosophy, however, only if we think that philosophy, as it stands, is in entirely good shape. Pakaluk doubts this is the case and looks to Newman for a model of what philosophy could be. According to this view, Newman belongs to the history of philosophy because Newman provides us with something that the standard history is missing. Pratt Morris-Chapman, on the other hand, would deny that Newman was ever made an exile. Rather, Newman belongs in the history of philosophy because he is in fact an integral part of this history as it is currently understood, though his influence has been obscured.

I think Pratt Morris-Chapman gives us reason to doubt that Newman was an entirely “isolated” and “uninfluential” character in the history of philosophy as it is commonly understood. (I will return to this below.) However, I also think that Pratt Morris-Chapman’s book reveals the dangers of reading Newman into the history of philosophy as it is currently conceived. 

The bulk of Newman in the Story of Philosophy is directed towards showing that Newman was a proto-particularist and that his proto-particularism played a role in the development of Chisholm’s (and William Abraham’s) particularism. The argument rests primarily on antecedent probability (to put it in terms Newman might use). We have reason to believe that Newman was a proto-particularist because he is influenced by those philosophers who also influenced Chisholm; we have reason to believe that Newman was an influence on Chisholm, in turn, because Newman influenced latter philosophers (in particular Cardinal Mercier), who influenced Chisholm. We also have some evidence a posteriori. Pratt Morris-Chapman identifies three commitments found in Newman’s work that indicate a tendency towards particularism. First, throughout his works Newman opposes presupposing “inappropriate rules concerning when a belief is legitimate” (Pratt Morris-Chapman, 103). Second, Newman assumes that “certain beliefs [are] valid prior to examining the epistemological evidence in their support” (Pratt Morris-Chapman, 103); Third and finally, Newman adopts “Aristotle’s contention that different disciplines require different kinds of proof” (Pratt Morris-Chapman, 103). Pratt Morris-Chapman takes these commitments to be signs of particularist tendencies in Newman’s thought. 

I think we have good reason, however, to doubt that Newman is a proto-particularist in Chisholm’s sense of the word.[3] As Pratt Morris-Chapman notes, the term particularism was introduced by Chisholm in The Problem of the Criterion. There, Chisholm has us consider a particular skeptical paradox, which was first popularized by Pyrrhonian skeptics. The paradox goes as follows: It seems that in order to recognize some belief as being true (or as an instance of knowledge, or as justified) we must already have some criterion for judging whether a belief is true (or an instance of knowledge, or justified etc.). Otherwise, our judgment seems arbitrary. However, in order to have a good criterion of truth (or knowledge or justified belief) we must already rightly identify a certain number of truths (or instances of knowledge, or justified beliefs). Otherwise, the adoption of our criterion seems arbitrary. We are thus in a chicken-and-egg situation. To have good judgments about particulars, we need to already have a good criterion, but to have a good criterion, we need to already have good judgments about particulars. 

The skeptical response to this paradox is to hold that we can have neither good judgments about a criterion nor particulars. The particularist, on the other hand, takes our judgments about particulars to be in good enough order and holds that we should start with them (or a subset of them) and use them to arrive at a criterion. The methodist (in Chisholm’s sense), on the other hand, thinks that instead of starting with particular judgments (which we may call into question) that our judgments about criterion are in good enough order and we should start with these to guide our judgments about particular cases. Chisholm ignores other possible responses to the paradox. For instance, Chisholm does not consider a no-priority view that gives precedence neither to our initial judgments about particulars nor to our judgments about criteria, but rather holds that we should be open to revising both sorts of judgments in light of the other.[4]

The point, here, is that for Chisholm, particularism is a response to a particular paradox, the paradox of the criterion. Now, I take it that it makes sense to think of Newman as a proto-particularist only if he is somehow concerned with this paradox and if he spelled out a kind of response to this paradox that was in line with Chisholm’s own response. However, there is no reason for thinking that Newman was concerned with this paradox, or even that he was aware of it. While Newman makes passing references to Pyrrhonian skepticism in his writings, he makes no mention of the problem of the criterion, as far as I know. (If Newman does mention this paradox, it is not cited in Newman in the Story of Philosophy.) If this is right, I think it makes little sense to speak of Newman as a particularist in relation to Chisholm. 

Another way of making this point is to consider the three commitments that Pratt Morris-Chapman takes to be tending towards particularism. The first of these is opposing the inappropriate assumption of epistemic norms in inquiry. Particularists in Chisholm’s sense will do this. But, I suppose, methodists will too! Methodists will think that we must start with good criterion – that we must start with good epistemic norms before we can have good judgments about particulars. But, this does not commit them to thinking that we should start with inappropriate criteria or norms. Every sensible methodist will agree with Newman here. Again, consider the second commitment of Newman’s, which Pratt Morris-Chapman identifies with a tendency towards particularism: the idea that “certain beliefs [are] valid prior to examining the epistemological evidence in their support.” Again, many particularists will accept this claim. But it seems that methodists may accept it, too. What the methodist holds is that we need to have good criteria in our possession before we can make good judgments about particulars. But this may be true, even if it is the case that certain beliefs are valid prior to examining the epistemological evidence in their support. This is especially true, if the methodist presupposes that all we must do is possess such criteria implicitly. Finally, consider the claim that different disciplines will require different sorts of proof. (The third commitment Pratt Morris-Chapman ties to particularism.) This is a claim that particularists may accept. However, once again, it seems that methodists may also accept it! The methodist holds that we need to start with criteria before we can rightly judge which particular beliefs are true (or instances of knowledge etc)). However, there is no reason why the methodist must suppose that there is only one such criterion, or that this one criterion is not flexible enough to be met in different ways when we are dealing with different sorts of topics. 

If this is correct, at best we might see Newman as being a particularist in an extended sense of this term. There are examples in the literature of such extended uses. For instance, Michael Bergmann takes “particularist” to describe certain kinds of Moorean responses to radical skepticism.[5] According to this use of “particularism,” someone is a particularist if he sticks to his particular judgment that, for example, he knows he has hands, and on this basis rejects one or more of the skeptics’ epistemic principles that would imply the contrary. 

While Newman never seems particularly troubled by radical forms of skepticism, he is very interested in restricted forms of skepticism, in particular those directed towards religious knowledge (See for instance, Newman’s sermon “The infidelity of the future”) . It is plausible that Newman’s response to religious skepticism is particularist in Bergmann’s extended sense. However, we might ask ourselves what good is accomplished by labeling Newman as a particularist in this extended sense? Perhaps Newman does give what can be called a particularist response to religious skepticism. Even if this is the case, I do not think it illuminates what is original and of interest in Newman’s philosophical reflections on religious epistemology. How does particularism (in this extended sense) relate to Newman’s distinctions between implicit and explicit reason? Or to Newman’s appeal to the illative sense? Or to Newman’s rejection of degrees of assent and the firm distinction between inference and assent? Or to Newman’s claim that it is the whole person who thinks? Or to Newman’s insistence on the importance of conscience and interpersonal relationships in coming to religious truth? It seems  that Newman’s particularism has little to do with the epistemological doctrines that are properly his. 

Nor do I think that Newman’s particularism (in Bergmann’s sense) can explain why the contemporary reader should interest themselves in Newman’s writings. After all, there is a long history of particularist responses to skeptical paradoxes that go from Moore back to Reid, if not to Aristotle. Likewise, there are a number of contemporary anti-skeptics like Bergmann, who have developed and defended particularist responses to skepticism with a rigor that Newman never approaches. If what is of interest in Newman is simply his particularism, we can safely get by without reading Newman. 

Returning to Pratt Morris-Chapman, however, it is hard to see how his argument relates to Bergmann’s extended sense of particularism. Particularists, in Bergmann’s use of the term, give precedence to judgments about the epistemic status of some particular beliefs. When confronted with epistemic principles that are inconsistent with these judgments, they will reject the epistemic principles. Non-particularist anti-skeptics, on the other hand, do not give pride of place to their epistemic judgments about particular beliefs. Rather, non-particularist anti-skeptics will sometimes revise their epistemic judgments about particular beliefs in view of their judgments about epistemic principles. Thus, they will reject skepticism not just because it clashes with their particular epistemic judgments, but because it clashes with a wide range of judgments concerning particular beliefs and epistemic principles. Again, it seems that both particularist and non-particularist may happily accept all three of the commitments Pratt Morris-Chapman identifies as signaling a tendency to particularism. So, for instance, both the particularist and the anti-particularist (in Bergmann’s sense) can accept the kind of methodological pluralism advocated by Aristotle (and Newman). 

Perhaps there is some other extended sense of the term particularism that Pratt Morris-Chapman has in mind when he attributes particularist tendencies to Newman. However, as should be clear, I think it is a mistake to try to read Newman into the history of philosophy by way of particularism. This is not to say that I think we should read Newman into the history of philosophy as a methodist. Far from it! To think of Newman as a particularist or methodist is, I think, to force Newman’s thinking into categories that may be more familiar to us but not necessarily suitable for the subject matter. Suppose Pakaluk is right and Newman was made an exile from main-stream philosophy. If this is so, main-stream philosophy will provide us with a skewed template for understanding Newman, even if Newman resembles different contemporary philosophical schools in a number of ways (which no doubt he will).

It is important to understand how it is that Newman has been made an exile to main-stream philosophy. I mentioned above that Pratt Morris-Chapman has given us good reason for thinking that Newman was not, in Anthony Quinton’s terms, an “isolated” and “uninfluential” voice in Oxford philosophy. As Pratt Morris-Chapman shows by various citations, many of Newman’s writings were thought of as philosophical by his nineteenth-century peers, and worthy of consideration. Pratt Morris-Chapman’s labor in following the paper trail is commendable; he finds citations of Newman’s thought in a wide range of nineteenth-century intellectuals. Some names are recognizable only to the specialist: Bowen, Fitzpatrick, Fraser, Martineau, Pattison, and Powell. However, other names will be recognized by most philosophers working today: James, Huxley, Sidgwick, and Whitehead. 

Pratt Morris-Chapman shows that Newman’s thought impacted his contemporaries. To this extent it is a mistake to say Newman was alone and uninfluential. For, as Pratt Morris-Chapman shows, Newman was certainly part of the intellectual conversation in Britain in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, there is a way that Newman is alone. As the personalist philosopher and Newman scholar John Crosby put it to me in conversation once, Newman did not form a part of any school, nor did he leave any school behind. This seems right. Today there are no Newmanian philosophers; indeed, it is hard to think about what such a philosopher would look like. In this way Newman was made an exile. 

While I think that Pratt Morris-Chapman’s revisionist history is mistaken in viewing Newman as a proto-particularist influential in the development of twentieth-century particularism, I think Pratt Morris-Chapman has given us materials that can help us recover Newman’s philosophical voice and to rewrite an alternative history of philosophy. To recover that voice we must place Newman in his nineteenth-century context. We must rediscover the questions that Newman and his contemporaries were concerned with along with the range of answers to these questions they considered. Of course, if that voice is to have importance for us we must relate it to the conversations that we find pressing today.

Pratt Morris-Chapman, particularly in the early part of Newman in the Story of Philosophy, gives us some of the raw materials to rediscover this context, materials that philosophers interested in Newman might be surprised and delighted to know exist. More time needs to be spent, however, forming these raw materials into a coherent narrative. Only when this is done will we be able to put Newman into the story of philosophy in something like his own terms.

[1] Michael Pakaluk, “Approaches to Reading John Henry Newman as a Philosopher,” in A Guide to John Henry Newman: His Life and Thought, ed. Juan R. Velez (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2022), 209-32.

[2] Pakaluk, “Approaches to Reading John Henry Newman as a Philosopher,” 231.

[3] See Roderick M. Chisholm, The Problem of the Criterion (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1973).

[4] Cf., Keve McCain, “Problem of the Criterion,”  in "Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” n.d.

[5] Bergmann, Michael Bergmann, “Institutionist Particularism: An Introduction,” in Radical Skepticism and Epistemic Intuition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 111-30. 

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Joe Milburn

Joe Milburn

Joe Milburn is an assistant professor at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain. His research centers on epistemology, the philosophy of religion, and the thought of John Henry Newman. With Fred Aquino, he is currently editing a book on Newman's philosophy set to be published by Routledge in late 2024.


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