Newman's Approach to Knowledge. By Laurence Richardson


Pp. xxiii, 200 . Gracewing , 2007 , $18.00.

Beginning with the observation that Newman's gifts as a philosopher ‘have been somewhat overlooked,’ Laurence Richardson aims in this new study to establish Newman's relevance not only as a bright light ‘for the cause of realism among the shadows of 19th century philosophy’ (cast on one side, by the empiricism of Hobbes, Locke, and Hume; by the idealisms of Kant, Hegel, and Schelling on the other), but also ‘as a latent forerunner of the phenomenological movement’ (Stein, von Hildebrand and Karol Wojtyla). As suggested by the book's straightforward title, it is Newman's gnoseology, and thus his magnum opus in that field, the Grammar of Assent, which is the focus of inquiry. Key to the author's method is the conviction, which he extends to Aquinas no less than Newman, that ‘the philosophical content of their writings is able to stand on its own merits independent of the various theological contexts or objectives.’ Readers who more or less accept this premise will find, I suspect, little to argue with in these pages. On the other hand, readers attuned to Newman's theological and pastoral sensibilities may find themselves questioning, as I did throughout the book, whether the author's strictly philosophical hermeneutic does not yield an unnecessarily constrictive, at times misleading, assessment of Newman's approach to knowledge.

Let me begin with the clear strengths of this new study. In seven chapters of careful and erudite analysis, Richardson ably demonstrates that Newman's ascending theory of knowledge resonates nicely with ‘the general classification of descriptive phenomenology as it is understood today.’ By this the author means to highlight above all Newman's insistence on ‘a complete openness and readiness to learn from reality.’ As Richardson eloquently states, ‘To approach reality with a spirit of wonder and discovery facilitates the elaboration of a coherent, yet homogeneously developing philosophy,’ but one which simultaneously rejects any temptation ‘to tame reality by trying to enclose it within an artificially constructed logical system.’ Moreover, by framing his investigation from the outset in terms of Aquinas's philosophy of being, Richardson deftly illumines points of convergence between Newman's distinctive terminology (apprehension; assent; inference; certitude) and the more familiar categories of Aristotelian and Thomistic metaphysics. Though the study never comes across as an essay in apologetics, here Newman emerges as an exemplar for the best instincts of the Roman Catholic intellectual tradition's efforts to respect the whole person in ‘an age of reductionism’– though one wonders whether the man himself would not raise a curious eyebrow at being called a ‘champion of realism.’

For readers like myself who find themselves less sanguine than Richardson about the ease or desirability of separating Newman's best philosophical instincts from his best theological ones, this study is likely to be more frustrating than satisfying. For example, the author's claim that ‘In the Grammar Newman considers religious faith as a human act and does not deal with the strictly supernatural factors involved’ overlooks a great deal, not least what seems to me a foundational (and rather stunning) ‘phenomenological’ account early in the book of the child's ‘dim and shadowy’ experience of God in conscience, a passage which peaks in Newman's account of the ‘theology of the religious imagination.’ Whether or not we recognize its operation, or characterize it as ‘strictly natural’ or ‘strictly supernatural,’ the imagination for Newman plays a pivotal role in all human knowing as the pre-rational, pre-verbal, and pre-conceptual realm of contact between God and human beings everywhere. Here Newman's phenomenological architecture is surely shaped not only by memories of his own childhood but also by the Christian Platonism of the church fathers who so captured his attention as a young man, an influence Richardson scarcely explores. In any case, this new study too easily leaves the impression that Newman's attention to the imaginative faculty is minimal and largely negative, i.e. to alert us ‘to the danger of indulging the imagination in our investigation of how the intellect operates, rather than a careful examination of the facts.’

To carry the point to its methodological roots, it is striking to find, in a book that purports to be ‘the most in-depth analysis’ of its subject published ‘in the last forty years,’ no mention at all of the considerable influence of Coleridge, or Romanticism in general, on Newman's epistemology, an omission felt most acutely in the climactic chapter on the ‘illative sense.’ As Gerard Magill has shown, Newman adopted Coleridge's view of the imagination as the dynamic mode of cognition which selects and organizes experience into a meaningful whole. For Newman the imagination is not separate from reason, but rather enables us to reason differently by enlarging and reordering our perception of reality, providing a new unity to our understanding and knowledge. It is this dynamic, selective, and holistic manner of appropriating reality which Newman terms ‘the illative sense,’ and which arguably most distinguishes his (sapiential) approach to knowledge from the empiricisms and idealisms of the 19th century down to the present. In short, Richardson's description of the illative sense as the culmination of ‘analytic examination’ and ‘our intellectual approach to reality’ seems to reflect his own philosophical leanings more than it captures his subject's approach to the capaciousness and complexity of the human mind from youth to adulthood.

The author seems to anticipate such objections in the book's introduction when he cites Newman's own characterization of the Grammar as ‘half theological, half philosophical.’ Yet to take such a description for a method risks leaving the reader with only half the picture. Like knowing itself, Newman's ‘approach to knowledge’ is much less like an equation and much more like ‘a cable … made up of a number of separate threads, each feeble, yet together is sufficient as an iron rod.’ The great challenge for any interpreter, as Terrence Merrigan observes, is to ‘attend to the way in which Newman strives to fashion (or refashion) a unity out of the discord he has created (or is undergoing). … Indeed, it is in the attempt at synthesis that Newman is most revealed.’ While this study largely accomplishes its expressly philosophical aims, in doing so it seems to leave behind much of the ‘spirit of wonder and discovery’ that is the enduring gift of Newman's thought.