Friday, 22 January 2010

John Henry Newman: phenomenologist or transcendental Thomist?

"Burning the midnight oil" often refers to the student desperately trying to finish an essay or assignment that is due in the next day, which might not have been started, and which simply has to be done before retiring to bed (or not retiring at all, if one is really taking the experience seriously!). For those of us for whom student days are a distant memory, it usually means that we haven't been sufficiently organised to get to bed and have instead just stayed up reading.
It is the characteristic of our minds to be ever engaged in passing judgement on the things that come before us. No sooner do we apprehend than we judge: we allow nothing to stand by itself: we compare, contrast, abstract, generalize, connect, adjust, classify: and we view all our knowledge in the associations with which these processes have invested it.

Of the judgements thus made, ... some are mere opinions which come and go.... Others are firmly fixed in our minds.... Many of them attach to one and the same object, which is variously viewed ..... some are only not inconsistent with each other, in that they have a common origin: some, as being actually incompatible with each other, are, one or other, falsely associated in our minds with their object, and in any case they may be nothing more than ideas, which we mistake for things.
I will definitely show my age - or at least the era of my philosophical education - when I say that the two immediate thougths that came into my mind on reading this first section of Chapter I of Newman's An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine were the following:

Was Newman, without realising it, following the same sort of school of thought as would later be taken by Husserl and the phenomenological school? "Idea", the concern for "things", the delineation of the content of an idea apprehended? And, indeed, the very style of analytical writing?

Or was he a transcendental Thomist before such a thing was even thought of? Doesn't the first paragraph put one in mind of Lonergan? "Apprehend", "abstract" "judgement"?

You do not have to read very far into the Essay on Development to come across the much abused quotation:
In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.
And recognising the context, is, of course, the key to understanding what Newman intended in this sentence. First of all, Newman has in the preceding pages given a phenomenological account of the way in which an idea can develop in human society as it encounters different ideas and situations and so shows itself in different aspects. And then the sentence immediately preceding the oft quoted one is:
It [ie the idea] changes with them [ie the surrounding circumstances, the history of its encounter with other ideas, etc] in order to remain the same.
In the preceding pages, Newman has clearly expressed an idea of development in ideas as
... the germination and maturation of some truth or apparent truth on a large mental field. On the other hand this process will not be a development, unless the assemblage of aspects, which constitute its ultimate shape, really belongs to the idea from which they start.
And if the "assemblage of aspects" does not meet this criterion it is not a development but a "corruption" (the word Newman himself uses at points in these same pages).

Newman uses the oft quoted sentence in a philosophical context, and not a directly theological one; this makes its simplistic use to suggest that Catholic teaching should change in order to live rather misleading. In its proper context, the sentence is just as much a statement about continuity as it is about change; and its application to a theological context needs to be made analagously and not literally.


Jackie Parkes MJ said...

Err that lost me! & we are having Fr Ian Ker visit our book club so I expect to be even more lost!

Joe said...

Dear Jackie

I think I should have a label "esotoric" to use with posts like this one!

Francis said...

For some reason, I don't know why but I suspect the rather good bottle of claret I have justt shared with my wife may have something to do with it, this reminds me of a question connected with the term 'evolution'. If one thing evolves into another, to what extent are they the same and to what extent are they separate? I mankind evolves from apes are we apes? If socialism evolves from communism are the discrete?

Joe said...


Date of writing of Newman,s Essay on Development: 1845.

Date of first publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species:1859.

Most of Newman's book is about exemplifying authentic development as opposed to "corruption".

I assume, Francis, that the typos in your comment are a testimony to the quality of the Claret ... Or perhaps the late hour ....

Francis said...

I assume, Francis, that the typos in your comment are a testimony to the quality of the Claret ... Or perhaps the late hour ....

Not 'either/or' but 'both/and'!