Lesson 12: The Subjective Accent

Even this brief and brisk account of the thought of Kierkegaard and Newman should suffice to explain why it is so easy to think of them together. Their chronological proximity - the nineteenth century - has something to do with that. One need not subscribe to the view that there is some zeitgeist that captures the minds of people at a given them despite themselves, perhaps even without their being aware of it, to marvel at the similarities between Newman and Kierkegaard. I repeat my suggestion that it was their realization of the incompatibility with Christianity of certain dominant views that explains their kinship.

Kierkegaard saw it as the rise of mass man, of the media, of a loss of moral seriousness, above all the loss of that individuality deriving from the destiny of each person's immortal soul. Kierkegaard saw cultural trends as distracting from and obscuring the one thing needful. Newman had a word for his foe, Liberalism, nor, as we have seen, did he leave vague what he meant by it. As we read through the list of propositions that sum up Liberalism we must be struck by the way in which most of these have become received opinion, beyond criticism.

This suggests that Kierkegaard and Newman failed in their criticisms and warning. But is that true? It would be strange indeed to look for a mass movement against mass movements. Both men are calling us to order one by one. Newman was amused by those who thought there were political techniques for the betterment of men, that a certain use of the mind would result in, well, a change of heart. "The Tamworth Reading Room" could be read as a commentary on the inflated hopes that often accompany the public library system. Libraries began with the notion that there were uplifting books from which readers could only profit; they have ended as champions of the notion that there are no objective standards. Hence the defense of the availability of website porn in libraries. Who are we to impose out views on, etc, etc.?

But the problem is deeper than that. Of course we are affected by what we read and see, for good or ill, but this is disposing and remote, a slow furnishing of the mind that may influence future action. But one does not become good by reading the 100 Great Books.

A small point, An obvious point. Once a familiar one as well, but it gets lost sight of too easily. Kierkegaard's emphasis on the subjective thinker, on subjective truth, and Newman's emphasis on the personal come to the same thing.

The Subjective Turn

In my eight Gifford lectures, "Truth and Subjectivity," I spoke of the affinity of Kierkegaard and Newman due to their emphasis on the existing subject. Moral change is the great analogue of the religious and reflection on it makes clear that, while thought is essential to it, such thought is not that which is exhibited in writing Ethics books, or reading them. We can change our minds, recognize our true good, and yet be far from bringing our lives into line with it. It is not that the abstract arguments for the true good are wrong; they are simply insufficient. They are the beginning of a road that must pass through the heart of the agent. Only by bringing our heart - our desires, our will - into line with the good recognized as true can we act here and now in a way that serves the true good.

Thomas Aquinas contrasted truth in the usual sense, speculative truth - the mental judgment's conformity with the way things are - and practical truth, saying that the latter consists of the mental judgment's conformity with rectified appetite. Rectified appetite is a synonym for virtue. Singular acts are true, in conformity with the end or good, on condition that we have been confirmed in our love of that good by the virtues.

I suggested earlier that the definition of subjective truth Joahnnes Climacus provides in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript bears a close resemblance to the Aristotelian and Thomistic account of practical truth. In the case of Newman, we find that similarity chiefly in his discussion of what he calls the Illative Sense.

It may seem irresponsible to pluck from its context, a very dense context, Newman's discussion of the Illative sense in the Grammar of Assent. It is the penultimate chapter of the book and presumably an understanding of it depends on everything that has gone before. True as that is, and much as I will insist that what I say here should by no means substitute for a careful and sequential reading of the Grammar, Newman himself has provided the means whereby we can locate what he says about the Illative Sense in a wider and more familiar context and one which permits easy comparison with Kierkegaard as well.

Newman wants to show us how the apparently chancey particular decisions we make without the apparatus of formal argumentation are justifiable. But there is more. Not only does he wish to defend practical reason from the hegemony of theoretical reason - as if all reasoning were like the theoretical. The ideal of reason can only be achieved where there is universality and necessity in the object of consideration. But the practical order is the order of contingency and probability. Thus, to assume that practical reasoning must mimic as best it can the procedures of Euclidean geometry will lead to a dehumanizing distortion of it.

I said there was more. Not only does Newman wish to establish the bona fides of practical reasoning, he seems to want to turn the tables on the hegemonist by arguing that the Illative Sense pervades the theoretical as well as the practical. And what is the Illative Sense? It is what Aristotle called prudence. Aristotle restricted prudence to the contingent order; Newman wishes to extend it to the theoretical order as well. "'Though Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, speaks of phronesis as the virtue of the doxasticon generally, and as being concerned generally with contingent matter (vi.4), or what I have called the concrete, and of its function being, as regards that matter aletheuein to kataphanai e apophanai (ibid. 3), he does not treat it in that work in its general relation to truth and the affirmation of truth, but only as it bears on ta prakta. '" Newman regards this Aristotelian restriction of prudence to the practical order as unnecessary, and goes on to argue that in every realm of human inquiry the Illative Sense, that is, prudence, should be in play.


There is little doubt that both Kierkegaard and Newman, without intending to do so when they begin, end by disparaging the theoretical. Actually, Kierkegaard seems more careful in this regard than Newman, restricting "subjective thinking" and "subjective truth" to the moral and religious. Newman, on the other hand, wishes to make the peculiarities of practical thinking in moral matters regulative for thinking in general.

Applied to the religious, we can see how this runs contrary to the realization Newman first had at the age of 15 and which he retained throughout his life -- that Christianity was governed by the dogmatic principle, that it consists in a definite doctrine. That does not of course render unnecessary the complementary assertion that the task of the individual is to assimilate the Christian message, that this is a task each has and there is no substitute for it in scholarship or other such activities. But it would be remiss not to point to the unsettling way in which Newman and Kierkegaard magnify the subjective.


This objection could be expanded. But perhaps even the abbreviated version of it just given will suffice to point to the apparent flaw. Can this criticism be deflected or mitigated? I think so. (I refer you again to my Gifford Lectures.)

The theoretical use of our intellect differs from the practical use of our intellect in the end sought -- truth as opposed to the direction of an activity other than thinking --  its object, and its method. It may be said that the more theoretical thinking is the more impersonal it is. When we are engaged in a problem in plane geometry we seem to drop out of the picture entirely. It is not our truth we seek, but simply truth. It is when the agent becomes thematic in the thinking -- what is his good, how should be pursue it, what is permitted to him, what not, etc -- that we might say that thought becomes subjective. Of course, there will be degrees of this. The discussions of moral philosophy -- I think of the Nicomachean Ethics -- will be quite different from my here and now judgment of what I must do.

But the example of geometry can serve to make what I take to be the underlying point shared by Newman and Kierkegaard. Pursuit of geometric truth is something a human agent engages is. The criteria for success in that pursuit are independent of the agent. For all that, it is a human being who has decided to devote this time to this pursuit and that decision is subject to an appraisal different from the narrower geometrical appraisal.

In short, the moral encompasses all we do, and the theoretical use of our mind cannot escape this fact. Here we see the continuing importance of the Kiekregaardian and Newmanian emphasis. Often scientific research - think of cloning - is spoken of as if it had an imperative unrelated to the common good of human beings. More considerations of the wisdom or lack of it involved in carrying off a certain task in medical technology are regarded as irrelevant, obscurantist, an obstacle to scientific progress. But the appraisal of cloning is not confined to the criteria of medical technology. This is something human beings engage in and they must answer for what they are doing in terms of the common vocation of human agents.

Perhaps this can indicate sufficiently the continuing relevance of the two men to whom we have devoted these few introductory hours. We live in a time that fragments the human agent, seeking to grant autonomy to certain pursuits - such as technological 'progress' - as if those engaged in research were just minds, who didn't get up in the morning and go to bed at night, who are children of parents and perhaps parents of children, who are related in innumerable ways and degrees of intimacy to others of their kind. To seek to sweep all that away in the supposed interests of progress is to enter the path of destruction.

There are many reasons to read Kierkegaard and Newman, and it is hoped that these lectures and lessons will have whetted your appetite to go on. Already a century intervenes between us and the century of these two great men. But much of what they had to say, speaking as they were to the peculiarities of their own times, continues to have value for us. Particularly insofar as tendencies they discerned have grown into entrenched attitudes in our time.

Doubtless the common attraction of these two men resides in the fact that they did not succumb to the temptations and faults of religious controversy but kept firmly before their own mind, and their reader's, what the point of the religious is. Both men, it seems clear, were in pursuit of sanctity.

Suggested Reading

Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. Chapter 9. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979.

Ralph McInerny. Characters in Search of the Author: The Gifford Lectures, Glasgow, 1999-2000. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001.

Suggested Writing

A term paper on Kierkegaard and Newman as subjective thinkers.


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