Reading Newman Philosophically: An Integrative Exercise

By Frederick D. Aquino
Published in History & Philosophy & Theology
April 08, 2021
14 min read
Reading Newman Philosophically: An Integrative Exercise

Newman’s philosophical thought is fascinating, complex, and ambiguous. It has attracted different philosophical perspectives, approaches, and readings. Such diverse readings perhaps reflect the fact that his own writings were the work of a person encircled and shaped by different perspectives. Yet, what sometimes results is a standoff between those who desire to preserve the integrity of Newman’s philosophical thought and those who strive to put it in conversation with contemporary work in philosophy. In this article, I argue that Newman’s notion of a philosophical habit of mind can provide a helpful conceptual framework for navigating conversations about reading, appropriating, and extending his philosophical thought. First, I explain how the concept of a philosophical habit of mind can be plausibly extended to such conversations. Second, I draw attention to some ways in which one might read, appropriate, or extend Newman’s philosophical thought. Third, I conclude that a philosophical habit of mind, constructively construed, does not insulate Newman’s thought from new insights or critical engagement with contemporary thought. Rather, it seeks to connect new and existing insights, make the relevant adjustments in light of new pieces of information, and thus acquire a deeper understanding of Newman and the issues at hand.


The fundamental aim of a philosophical habit of mind, according to Newman, is to see how various pieces of information and areas of inquiry fit together in light of one another, discern what others may have failed to grasp, and show what this kind of understanding (or aptly formed judgment) means for the situation at hand. As he points out, however, we do not acquire a comprehensive understanding of things at “a single glance, or gain possession of it at once.”[1] Instead, the evaluative process is cumulative and communal. It occurs by “piecemeal and accumulation ... by the comparison, the combination, the mutual correction, the continual adaptation, of many partial notions, by the employment, concentration, and joint action of many faculties and exercises of the mind.”[2] It is also through collaborative efforts that people assess different points of view and learn to develop an eye for deciphering salient connections, “referring [many things] severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence.”[3]

Newman made these comments about the formation of a philosophical habit of mind in the context of framing his vision of university education. As a result, some may be tempted to interpret his notion of a philosophical habit of mind as strictly limited to his philosophy of education. This would be a mistake. He said something similar about the evaluative process, for example, in the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.

“It is characteristic of our minds, that they cannot take an object in, which is submitted to them simply and integrally. ... [W]hole objects do not create in the intellect whole ideas, but are, to use a mathematical phrase, thrown into series, into a number of statements, strengthening, interpreting, correcting each other, and with more or less exactness approximating, as they accumulate, to a perfect image. ... [W]e cannot teach except by aspects or views, which are not identical with the thing itself which we are teaching.”[4]

It would, then, be a mistake to restrict his emphasis on this integrative, though complex, capacity to one field of knowledge or one kind of philosophical reading. Newman was deeply interested in the formative practices and habits that enable people to develop their cognitive capacities and enlarge their intellectual horizons (e.g., his focus on wisdom, pace narrow-mindedness, in the University Sermons and on the cultivated illative sense in the Grammar of Assent). He saw the danger of isolating fields of knowledge and of ignoring both their limitations and their connections.[5]

So, it seems plausible to suggest that the concept of a philosophical habit of mind can be extended to conversations about how we might approach, evaluate, develop, and recommend Newman’s philosophical thought. On the one hand, we should certainly do philosophical justice to the contextual aspects of his thought.[6] On the other hand, we should explore how the various aspects of his thought fit together in light of one another, how his thought can be illuminated in light of contemporary philosophical thought, and how it might contribute to contemporary philosophical discussions. Newman obviously could not, and did not, envision these new contexts. However, contemporary, creative, and critical engagements with his thought may be a logical extension of the philosophical habit of mind.


Reading Newman philosophically can happen in various ways and with different goals in mind. So, it is important to recognize what each philosophical reading is seeking to accomplish. However, it is equally important to see how each reading advances the stipulated aim of a philosophical habit of mind. Newman’s writings raise and tackle important philosophical issues, but they also require further reflection, development, and illumination in light of new pieces of information.

One goal may be to identify, clarify, and evaluate the philosophical questions, issues, or proposals in his own writings. In the Grammar of Assent, for example, Newman claimed that it is rational to assent to propositions for which a person lacks full understanding and demonstrative proof. The activity of the illative sense, he argued, covers more territory than an ideal version of rationality—the mind works and renders apt judgments in ways that are not reducible to explicit or formal reasoning. Yet, does Newman’s proposal, as some recent readers have suggested,[7] blur the distinction between what people believe and what they ought to believe? Or does he envision rationality and justification themselves as deeply embedded practices in which people find themselves fully engaged?[8] A line of inquiry along these lines involves determining whether the aim of the Grammar was to provide 1) a phenomenology of religious belief, 2) an epistemology of religious belief, or 3) a combination of both.

Newman also employed, what contemporary philosophers call a “parity argument” in the University Sermons. In seeking to challenge a narrowly construed account of faith and reason and offer a broader account, Newman, according to one view, claimed that the standards for assessing faith as rational were too high. When our concept of rationality includes implicit as well as explicit reasoning, we find out that faith, as a presumptive form of reasoning, is not unique, especially since this kind of reasoning is found in commonly held beliefs.[9] When we apply the same epistemic standards to religious and non-religious beliefs, the former is generally no worse off than the latter. An alternative way of construing Newman’s parity argument suggests that religious as well as non-religious beliefs presuppose fundamental a-rational commitments—that is, commitments that are not rationally grounded.[10] As a result, religious beliefs are no different than non-religious beliefs in proceeding with such a-rational commitments. So, the question is whether Newman saw the commitment of faith as a-rational or as a presumptive mode of reasoning in accordance with how we naturally proceed in the world (pace idealized accounts of faith and reason).

One may also seek to locate Newman within the history of philosophy. This kind of reading analyzes and evaluates Newman’s conceptual engagement with different philosophical schools of thought (e.g., Platonism, Aristotelianism, Rationalism, the British Naturalist tradition,[11] the Oriel Noetics) and thinkers (e.g., Descartes, Berkeley, Locke, Butler, Reid, Hume, Whately, William Froude). In what ways, for example, was Newman’s philosophy shaped and informed by a particular philosophical tradition or thinker? In what ways did his proposal transform the tradition that he was appropriating or engaging? By understanding how Newman interacted with these interlocutors, one may be able to see with greater clarity, though not always, the philosophical moves he makes both implicitly and explicitly in his own writings and how, for example, they may contribute to or be illumined by more recent developments in epistemology (e.g., Reformed Epistemology, Common Sense Epistemology, Virtue Epistemology, Social Epistemology, Phenomenal Conservatism).

We also see in Newman himself an attempt to read and reappropriate texts philosophically. For example, he included the following quotation from Ambrose on the title page of the Grammar of Assent: “Non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum” (It did not please God to save his people by means of logic). Is Newman trying to provide an exegesis of the Ambrosian line in the Grammar? If so, toward what end is Newman employing the Ambrosian line? The more plausible reading is that Newman employed it to capture and develop a broader construal of the nature and scope of rationality. In this regard, a basic claim in the Grammar is that “truth sinks slowly into the mind, and that therefore paper argument is most disappointing.”[12] Newman accordingly thought that it was crucial to make a distinction between how the mind actually works and how we try to represent such activity in and through logical analysis. The former is logically prior to “investigation, argument, or proof”; the latter is “but the explicit form which the reasoning takes in the case of particular minds.”[13] A philosophical reading in this sense focuses less on the influences that shaped Newman’s thought and more on how they were employed to advance a philosophical proposal about the conditions under which Christian faith is rational.

The aim of some readings may be to draw from or employ Newman’s thought as a springboard for tackling contemporary problems such as the rationality of religious belief,[14] the role of properly formed dispositions in evaluating the force of evidence,[15] and the cognitive function of the emotions.[16] Others may seek to update, deepen, expand, develop, and even correct some of Newman’s thought in light of new insights. In so doing, they may recognize that some of our contemporary questions and categories are not necessarily Newman’s. This is to be expected, given that he wrote within a particular context.

Nevertheless, Newman’s thought may be suggestive but not fully worked out or developed.[17] In the Grammar, for example, Newman rejected the “pretentious axiom that probable reasoning can never lead to certitude.”[18] Newman sought to show that there can be appropriate certitude not only in matters of religion but in other aspects of life, as well. There are many propositions to which we unconditionally assent, though they do not arise from demonstration or intuition. A relevant question is whether he is an epistemic fallibilist or infallibilist. Is his understanding of certitude compatible with having fallible grounds for belief? Is it possible for a person to know something without conclusive evidence or grounds to justify that belief? On the one hand, I doubt Newman had the contemporary debate between infallibilism and fallibilism in mind when he, for example, wrote the Grammar. On the other hand, the contemporary discussion may illuminate Newman’s claim that we can be “certain on premises which do not touch [reach] demonstration.”[19] So, the aim may be to articulate or develop a view that Newman did not himself develop fully, but that is clearly related to certain concepts in his work (e.g., the reliability of our cognitive capacities, the indefectibility of assent, certitude, the illative sense).

In reading Newman philosophically, we certainly want to avoid putting words in his mouth or misconstruing his thought. Instead, we hope to flesh out a proposal that reflects consistently his thought while making the relevant adjustments and developments in light of new pieces of information. This is a consistent application of Newman’s understanding of the philosophical habit of mind as an integrative principle. Notwithstanding the diversity of philosophical aims, we still want to know how Newman’s thought fares in light critical philosophical analysis, whether in his or our own context, or how his thought fits with and makes sense in light of new pieces of information. There is a difference between clarifying the philosophical position Newman held and determining whether it is coherent, plausible, true, or contributes to contemporary work in philosophy.


A philosophical habit of mind does not insulate Newman’s thought from critical evaluation and contemporary appropriation. Instead, it presupposes the inescapable reality of connecting new and existing insights and enlarging our intellectual horizons. Thus, reading Newman philosophically needs to be done appreciatively, critically, and synthetically. We should be clear about what we are seeking to accomplish and evaluate accordingly. We also should not allow a particular philosophical reading “to usurp or occupy the universe.”[20] More importantly, the practice of gleaning insights from others plays a fundamental role in achieving what Newman stipulated as the end of a philosophical habit of mind—seeing how things fit together in light of one another, and thus acquiring a view of the whole.

[1] Newman, Idea, ed. by Ian T. Ker (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), 53. Newman’s emphasis here is congenial to Locke’s notion of a comprehensive view in The Conduct of the Understanding. For example, Locke contrasts the enlargement of mind with the kind of narrow perspective that seeks full comprehension of issues through a single glance or perspective. People who occupy such a narrow perspective become “muffled up in the zeal and infallibility of [their] own sect, and will not touch a book or enter into debate with a person that will question any of those things which to [them] are sacred” (John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education and Of the Conduct of the Understanding, ed. by Ruth W. Grant and Nathan Tarcov (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1996), 69.

[2] Newman, Idea, 134.

[3] Newman, Idea, 123.

[4] Newman, Dev (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 55 (2.1.1).

[5] The following quotation summarizes the gist of Newman’s argument for the connection of domain-specific fields of knowledge: “The enlargement [of the mind] consists, not merely in the passive reception into the mind of a number of ideas hitherto unknown to it, but in the mind’s energetic and simultaneous action upon and towards and among those new ideas, which are rushing in upon it. It is the action of a formative power, reducing to order and meaning the matter of our acquirements; it is a making of objects of our knowledge subjectively our own, or, to use a familiar word, it is a digestion of what we receive into the substance of our previous state of thought; and without this no enlargement is said to follow. There is no enlargement, unless there be a comparison of ideas one with another, as they come before the mind, and a systematizing of them. ... I have accordingly laid down first, that all branches of knowledge, are, at least implicitly, the subject-matter of its teaching [i.e., the University]; that these branches are not isolated and independent one of another, but form together a whole or system: they run into each other, and complete each other, and that, in proportion to our view of them as a whole, is the exactness and trustworthiness of the knowledge which they separately convey” (Newman, Idea, 101, 162f.).

[6] On the worry about prematurely systematizing the complexity and tensile aspects of Newman’s thought, see Ryan J. Marr, To Be Perfect is to Have Changed: The Development of John Henry Newman’s Ecclesiological Outlook, 1845–1877 (Lanham: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2018); Colin Barr, Paul Cullen, John Henry Newman, and the Catholic University of Ireland, 1845-65 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003). For a historically informed but interdisciplinary response, see Benjamin J. King, “Raising the Barr on MacIntyre: Understanding Newman Better,” in Christian Theology and the Transformation of Natural Religion: From Incarnation to Broad Sacramentality—Essays in Honour of David Brown, ed. by C. R. Brewer (Leuven: Peeters, 2018), 53–68.

[7] For example, David Pailin, The Way to Faith: An Examination of Newman’s Grammar of Assent as a Response to the Search for Certainty in Faith (London: Epworth Press, 1969); Jay Newman, The Mental Philosophy of John Henry Newman (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1986).

[8] For example, M. Jamie Ferreira, Doubt and Religious Commitment: The Role of the Will in Newman’s Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980).

[9] See Basil Mitchell, “Newman as a Philosopher,” in Newman after a Hundred Years, ed by. Ian T. Ker and Alan G. Hill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 228–29.

[10] See Duncan Pritchard, “Wittgenstein on Faith and Reason: The Influence of Newman,” in God, Truth, and Other Enigmas, Miroslaw Szatkowski, ed. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015), 197–216.

[11] For further reflection on Newman and the British Naturalist Tradition, see M. Jamie Ferreira, Scepticism and Reasonable Doubt: The British Naturalist Tradition in Wilkins, Hume, Reid and Newman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986); Frederick D. Aquino, “The British Naturalist Tradition,” in The Oxford Handbook of John Henry Newman, ed. by Frederick D. Aquino and Benjamin J. King (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2018), 154.

[12] Newman, LD, xxix, 106.

[13] Newman, US, ed. by James David Earnest and Gerard Tracey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), 180.

[14] Basil Mitchell, The Justification of Religious Belief (New York: The Seabury Press, 1973).

[15] William J. Wainwright, Reason and the Heart: A Prolegomenon to a Critique of Passional Reason (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995); Mark Wynn, “The Relationship of Religion and Ethics: A Comparison of Newman and Contemporary Philosophy of Religion,” Heythrop Journal 46 (2005): 435–49.

[16] Frederick D. Aquino and Logan P. Gage, “On the Epistemic Role of Our Passional Nature,” Newman Studies Journal 17, no. 2 (2020): 22–58.

[17] Newman himself described the Grammar of Assent as a “conversational essay” or a “preliminary opening of the ground.” He acknowledged that this work “may be full of defects, and certainly characterized by incompleteness and crudeness, but it is something to have started a problem, and mapped in part a country, if I have done nothing more” (LD, xxv, 131, 280). See also Ferreira, Doubt and Religious Commitment, 14–15.

[18] Newman, GA, ed. by Ian T. Ker (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 106. In the Grammar, he defined certitude as “the perception of a truth with the perception that it is a truth, or the consciousness of knowing, as expressed in the phrase, ‘I know that I know.”’

[19] Newman, LD, xxiv, 104.

[20] Newman, Idea, 63.

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Frederick D. Aquino

Frederick D. Aquino

Professor, Abilene Christian University

Frederick D. Aquino is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at the Graduate School of Theology, Abilene Christian University (ACU), and the director of the philosophy minor at ACU. His books include Communities of Informed Judgment (CUA, 2004), An Integrative Habit of Mind (NIU, 2012), Receptions of Newman (Oxford, 2015), co-edited with Benjamin J. King, The Oxford Handbook of the Epistemology of Theology (Oxford, 2017), co-edited with William J. Abraham, and The Oxford Handbook of John Henry Newman (Oxford, 2018), co-edited with Benjamin J. King. His research interests include religious epistemology, spiritual perception, John Henry Newman, and Maximus the Confessor. He is currently working on a constructive account of spiritual perception and on the relevance of John Henry Newman for issues in contemporary epistemology.


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