Jacques Maritain Center : The First Principles of Knowledge

Chapter VII.
The Charge of Discord (or at least of want of co-operation) between Natural and Philosophic Certitude.


  1. The asserted antagonism of Philosophy to Natural Certitude. (a) A thorough-going antagonism. (b) A partial antagonism.

  2. The asserted want of co-operation between spontaneous and systematic thought, or between natural and scientific reasoning, can be explained by the consideration of certain facts. (a) When theory is not yet as wide as all the conditions of a problem, it is no disrespect to theory to supplement it by rule of thumb: theory co-operates to the extent of its powers, and there stops short. (b) By long habit the mind abridges its processes, and does not always follow out every logical step in an inference. (c) The spontaneous processes of the mind may very well be more successful than the reflex on many occasions.
  3. Limits within which the doctrine in the chapter is to be taken.

THE philosopher's prying into his own mind has been compared to Aladdin's prying into his wonderful lamp; before, it lighted him to the attainment of all things needful, afterwards, it became unserviceable. This accusation is urged by different authors in varying extent; with some the charge is one of downright antagonism between philosophy and natural certitude, with others it is one of want of co-operation or of harmony.

1. The asserters of antagonism must be subdivided into those who represent the opposition to be complete, and those who represent it to be partial.

(a) That philosophy utterly discredits the validity of ordinary reasoning is what we should gather from, some of the stronger expressions used by Jouffroy. For example, he declares that reason "absolutely affirms human belief to be without a motive; it is by instinct that a man believes, and by reason that he doubts. When reason reflects upon its own work, scepticism is the inevitable result." This is but a repetition of Bayle, who declared that reason can not bear to turn her own light upon herself; that philosophic reflexion undoes all the mind's previous work and makes her a Penelope, unweaving at night what she had woven by day.

Against so blank a scepticism, as resulting from a philosophic examination of man's position in regard to knowledge, it will be the business of the next chapter to contend; so at present we may pass on to the milder subdivision of the first impeachment.

(b) At any rate, it is argued, philosophy is only in partial agreement with common certitude, and there is a partial disagreement. Speaking of the sceptic doubts which philosophy can throw on scientific principles, and of the practical progress of science in spite of these apparently demonstrated difficulties, Mr. A. Sidgwick thinks we must acquiesce in a certain disregard of what seems philosophically valid argument. "In the presence of all the acts of useful self-deception, which help to make the world go round, may we not admit that theory and practice cannot as yet be safely presumed to coincide?"

A writer who has done good service to Catholic philosophy in this country, Dr. Ward, has more than once expressed an opinion which bears on the present discussion. Though a great stickler for logic, yet it was his deliberate view, "that there are several truths of vital importance, which are reasonably accepted as certain only on implied grounds of assurance, which have not as yet been scientifically analyzed; nay, of which, perhaps, the scientific analysis transcends the power of the human soul."

Out of the two authors quoted, we may frame a sort of common objection in this shape: Practical logic, as it may be called, outstrips the school logic, sometimes bidding us go safely forward, where the latter posts up a decided "No Road." Thus, at least, there is occasional opposition.

In reply, let us begin by distinguishing between what one individual and what another individual can do: as also between what any unaided individual may accomplish and what the collective force of human intellect may accomplish. The individual unaccustomed to the analysis of his thoughts may often have a genuine certitude, for which, nevertheless, he is unable to render a philosophic account, but for which another individual, trained in philosophy, would furnish a sufficient analysis. Next, beyond the individual, we have to take into account the accumulated labours of the race, especially of its ablest members working in conjunction upon the chief problems which present themselves for human investigation. What now are we to say of a professed certitude, which both the individual man and collective humanity have failed to support by producible motives? The certitude is, by supposition, merely a natural act: yet nowhere among men can immediate or mediate evidences be brought forward adequate to its defence. It has to be accepted on a general feeling that it is right; but how or why it is right, no one can exactly declare. Where is the instance of a certitude about a "vital truth" in this predicament? If such there be, about the only rational ground on which it could be defended would be by saying, that the race of men being rational, such a common consent could not have been produced except by some rational motives, however inscrutable some of these might be. But we may doubt whether any human certitude is so circumstanced. It seems more correct to maintain, that for every certitude which is not self-evident, there is a producible analysis of motives. A perfect analysis may not be forthcoming, but at least a sufficient explanation may be offered. If the truth is self-evident, the self-evidence is the motive of belief; otherwise there must be some inferential evidence. At any rate, for a real certitude of the natural order, there must always be producible evidence.

By far the most pertinent reply to alleged instances of the difficulty we are now considering is to point out that each of the given examples is not a case of full certitude, but only one of high probability, quite sufficient to act upon. We have no fear that the sun will not rise to-morrow; yet those items which are wanting to the full logical proof of coming events are just what cause our legitimate assent to fall a little below absolute. If the sun did not rise tomorrow, we should be ready to confess "Well, after all we had not absolute demonstration." Thus, as a fact, valid assent is not in excess of the premisses, and practical logic does not really carry the intelligence further than speculative logic would allow. In all cases genuine certitude is strictly proportionate to its known motives.

2. Without being opposite, paths may not coincide; and when opposition, between the ways along which spontaneous reasoning and philosophy respectively travel to a conclusion, is not asserted, at least divergence is affirmed. "Experience," says Balmez, in his Fundamental Philosophy, "has shown our understanding to be guided by no one of the considerations made by philosophers; its assent when it is accompanied by the greatest certainty, is a spontaneous process of natural instinct, not of logical combinations or ratiocinations." The difficulty here raised may be answered by a few explanations as to facts.

(a) When the theoretical account of a case is obviously such as does not take in all the circumstances, then, in practice, we do not follow out the mere dictate of theory. A mathematical formula tells how to point a cannon so as exactly to hit a mark, on the supposition that there is no atmospheric resistance, and no deflecting power in a whirlwind that is blowing. What divergence is there between theory and practice, if the gunner calculates by rule of thumb the disturbing elements, which are too unsettled to allow of theoretic determination? Again, a physician has a scientific theory about the effect of a certain drug on a limited set of conditions within the human body: but aware that these conditions are complicated by many others, which he cannot distinctly formulate, he makes a rough allowance for these last on empirical grounds. Often scientific results are known to be only approximative; and scientific men know how to relax the rigour of these terms to meet refractory cases. One reply to Mr. Stallo's attack on scientific theory was made precisely on this ground, that physicists use "attraction," "fluid," "atom," "potential energy," with a recognised elasticity of meaning, for which only the experienced worker in science can make due allowances. This is an acknowledgment that science is imperfect, but no acknowledgment that it is not in accord with practice: it goes along with practice as far as the length of its own tether will permit. So, too, when it is said that philosophy travels one road, common sense another, it should rather be said, that philosophy is not co-extensive with all practical discoveries, in many of which we know that things are, without knowing how they are.

(b) We should be quite unable to get on in life, if on every occasion, when we wanted a conclusion, we had to go through, in order, all the steps which logically lead up to that conclusion. By dint of habit our mental associations become very nimble, and partly as a matter of direct memory, partly by the aid of dimly suggested inferences, our course is expedited. Whereas the full number of steps are A, B, C, D, E, we seem to go at once from A to E. Some affirm that we do actually pass through B, C, D, but so rapidly as not to advert to the fact; others say that A may have become immediately associated in memory with E, though originally the intermediate stages had to be traversed. At any rate, the impression left is, that the mind takes short cuts to its ends, and that occasionally our conclusions come first, and our premisses, if they come at all, follow afterwards. Instead of being in the case of Dogberry, when he said, "'Tis already proved you are guilty, and it will go nigh to being thought so soon," we are in a position of saying, "the conclusion is already drawn, and it will go nigh to being proved soon." Something like the strange process which Alice heard recommended in Wonderland, seems to belong likewise to Plain-man's-land, "sentence first, and verdict afterwards."

The account of the process has already been briefly given, but may be repeated with a slight change of words. The mind has gone through much experience, and much labour, in arranging its contents. Many immediate judgments, many syllogisms have been made. As a consequence there is left an orderly register of results; and often a thought gives or seems to give, by direct suggestion, what was originally connected with it through many intervening links. Whether these links are momentarily revived in the memory, but so momentarily as to escape the detection of conscious analysis, need not here concern us; it is enough if we can give an acceptable account of the apparently irrational, or non-rational process whereby reason seems to outrun itself, and to decide before it has the motives. We may add, in this connexion, the theory of Dr. Maudsley, where he explains some of those cases, in which what we are convinced are new matters of thought, nevertheless put on the air of old recollections. He supposes the mind to reach a result before the conscious attention is directed to the process ; so that, when consciousness is fully roused, the object seems familiar. in this way the conclusion would appear to anticipate the premisses. The quasi-automatic process. however. is always amenable to the judgment of deliberate reflexion, by which it has often to be corrected. A ludicrous instance of inference by rapid association is given in Herodotus, in his story of the revolted slaves who after repulsing armed attacks, fled when their masters issued out against them with that familiar weapon, the whip. Logical reflexion, if the poor wretches had been capable of it would have been useful. Thus logic retains her position as the friend and helper of spontaneous reasoning; a position which is accorded to her even by Messrs. Mill, Lewes, and Spencer, who fully admit the use of the syllogism as a "verifying process."

The doctrine above laid down enables us to meet what to the unprepared might seem difficulties, of which a specimen or two shall now be added. "While we assume," says Mr. Sully,{1} "that in reasoning the mind passes from premisses to conclusion, we must remember that this does not answer the actual order of mental events in many, and perhaps in the majority of instances. The conclusion presents itself first, and the ground, premiss, or reason, when it distinctly arises in the mind at all, recurs rather as an after-thought, and by the suggestive force of the similarity between the new case and the old." Mr. Spencer{2} has remarks to the same effect. He says that we go straight from a perceived stone to its lines of cleavage, and do not travel round by the syllogism, "all crystals have lines of cleavage; this stone is a crystal; therefore it has lines of cleavage."

So far from resenting such objections, we welcome them, as helping us to clear up our own conceptions, and as calling our attention to the very important fact, that our mental store does not consist of ideas, isolated like atoms, or standing in rows like words in a dictionary. Rather our ideas make up a sort of organically united whole, one idea developing by epigenesis upon another, somewhat after the analogy of cells in a plant or animal. The analogy is only an analogy, but it is a help for our understanding to conceive, under these figures, processes, the precise nature of which will always be for us a mystery. Goethe compares the union of our mental conceptions to a subtle weaving of many threads together into patterns which gradually display themselves:

The web of thought, we may assume,
Is like some triumph of the loom,
Where one small simple treadle starts
A thousand threads to motion, -- where
A flying shuttle shoots and darts,
Now over here, now under there.
We look, but see not how, so fast
Thread blends with thread, and twines, and mixes
When lo! one single stroke at last
The thousand combinations fixes.{3}

(c) As too much attention concentrated on the bodily functions may derange them, and as even the simple process of jumping a ditch may fail from excess of care to do it neatly; so an attempt to think out a question in strict philosophic form may deaden or misguide the energies of thought. But these facts argue no essential want of convergence between the spontaneous and the systematized process; the two may be mutually helpful, and each has besides its own peculiar place. Let them combine where they usefully can, and keep apart where combination is detrimental. This is the substantial settlement of the matter; and it meets any such case as that of Sir Walter Scott, who found it sometimes an aid to his progress in a novel, if he began to read a book on some other subject. The desired train of thought, as if jealous of a rival, came in to dispossess the ideas given by the book; just as in a parallel case churchgoers involuntarily recall, within the sacred walls, the fact which they tried in vain to recover outside.

3. To put in the limits within which a doctrine is meant to be accepted, often saves a world of misconstruction; and the present instance is one calling for a statement of limitations.

First, no account is taken of grace and of supernatural revelation, though both are facts. What we call revelation is of rarer occurrence, and vouchsafed only to the favoured few: but unless the Church is to give in to Pelagius, and to those who go further than ever Pelagius went in the direction of naturalism, she must maintain that Christians are in constant receipt of illuminations by grace from above, both as to their faith and as to their guidance in conduct.

Besides the supernatural mysticism treated of by the Pseudo- Dionysius, his commentator Maximus, St. Bernard, Hugo and Richard of St. Victor, St. Bonaventure, Gerson, and pious writers who have not been professed theologians, there is asserted also a sort of natural mysticism. This we must make over to the Society for Psychical Research, for it cannot be reduced, by our present knowledge, to logical system: whereas the truths that can be so reduced suffice for a Philosophy of Certitude.


(I) The Tractarian movement, at Oxford, offers some instructive contrasts between the mind which holds that thought can be rigorously carried on, and the mind that distrusts philosophy. In the notice of the death of the late Dr. Ward, a leader in The Times remarked pointedly upon the circumstance, that in his university days he was a noted stickler for logic; "whereas," adds the writer, "most people are content to say as much as meets the occasion, in the blandest form and in the pleasantest tone. Logic is not much required for the dinner table or on the platform."

Before bringing forward the contrast between Dr. Ward and other men at Oxford, it is worth while inserting an illustration precisely of this "bland form and pleasant tone" of the illogician. "One peculiar defect of mine," confesses or boasts M. Renan,{a} "has more than once been injurious to my prospects in life. This is my indecision of character, which often leads me into positions, from which I have a great difficulty in extricating myself. This defect is further complicated by a good quality, which often leads me into as many difficulties as the most serious of my defects. I have never been able to do anything which would give pain to any one. . . . In talking and in letter-writing I am at times singularly weak. With the exception of a select few, between whom and myself there is a bond of intellectual brotherhood, I say to people just what I think is likely to please them. With an inveterate habit of being over polite, I am anxious to detect what the person I am talking with would like me to say. My attention, when I am conversing with any one, is engrossed in trying to guess his ideas, and from excess of deference to anticipate him in the expression of them. My correspondence will be a disgrace to me, if it is published after my death." From this charge of extreme complaisance he excepts his published works; but they too must be affected by certain qualities which shall be added for the completion of the picture. "By mere force of things and despite my conscientious efforts to the contrary, I am a member of the romantic school, protesting against romanticism; a Utopian inculcating the doctrine of half- measures; an idealist unsuccessfully endeavouring to pass muster for a realist, a tissue of contradictions resembling the double-natured hircocerf of scholasticism. One of my two halves must have been busy demolishing the other half, and it was well said by that keen observer, M. Challemel-Lacour, he feels like a woman and acts like a child. I have no reason to complain of such being the case, as this actual constitution has procured for me one of the keenest intellectual joys a man can taste." That will do for M. Renan; now for Dr. Ward's more immediate contrast.

Again the risk of doing an injustice is avoided by our being able to quote an autobiographical sketch, of which the responsibility lies with the subject. Speaking of his part in the Oxford movement Mr. T. Mozley says:{b} "Why did I go so far in the movement, and why did I go no further? Why enter upon arguments, and not accept their conclusions? Why advance to stand still, and in doing so commit myself to a final retreat? The reasons of this lame and impotent conclusion lay within myself, wide apart from the great controversy in which I was but an intruder. I was never really serious, in a sober, business-like way. I had neither the power nor the will to enter into any great argument, with the resolution to accept the legitimate conclusion. Even when I was sacrificing my days, my strength, my means, my prospects, my peace and quiet, all I had, to the cause, it was an earthly contest not a spiritual one. It occupied me, it excited me, it gratified my vanity, it soothed my self-complacency, it identified me in what I honestly believed to be a very grand crusade, it offered me the hope of contributing to very grand achievements. But good as the cause might be, and considerable as my part might be in it, I was never the better man for it."

If it may be permitted to allude to yet a third autobiography, we will mention the Memoirs of Mark Pattison, who tells how, having engaged in the Tractarian movement, he ended by diverting his thoughts from it to scientific ideas, and his Tractarianism succumbed, not to argument, but to "inanition" -- died of starvation.

In the order of God's providence these things are "written for our instruction," that so far as we have the opportunity and the need, we may train our minds to follow a more rigorous method of thinking. It is suggestive in the course of reading, to notice who are the authors who express their contempt for philosophic system, and who claim a free range for thinking as they fancy. A significant list could be drawn up, in which the much-belauded Goethe would stand as a warning example; though not all would recognise that his want of hold upon systematic truth was a calamity (Goethe, Sein Leben und Seine Werke, von Alexander Baumgartner, S.J., Vol. I. pp. 27, 28).

(2) In behalf of the view that human thought is essentially loose and inaccurate, it may be argued that philosophy has shown the same characters in the formation of grammatical forms. Far from having a strict propriety in them, many are traced back to bad analogies, to pieces of clumsiness, and to downright blunders; so that a man who has had a little insight into the origin of some usages, is not much inclined, at this late hour, to do vigorous battle in the cause of a fancied purism against established usage. If it he asked, Why may not thought have its inner anomalies of a like character? the reply is ready at once, Because thought is not language. The latter is made up of conventional signs, which may very well have had an illogical origin; whereas thought is no conventional sign, but the most natural of all natural signs. Thought, if anomalous, is simply undone.

(3) What is called "unconscious thought," by the aid of which many of the mind's gathered materials are supposed to be automatically arranged, will be considered in the chapter on consciousness. It may very be that certain cerebral changes go on unconsciously, which yet are most useful or needful for the clearing up and arranging of thoughts; but whatever these processes, the final outcome will have to be judged on conscious principles before it can reasonably be pronounced true or false.

(4) In reference to what has been said about the reasonable defensibility of all vital truths, we may profitably quote a decree of the Congregation of the Index, of June 11, 1855: "Reason can establish with certainty the existence of God, the spiritual nature of the soul, and the freedom of man's will."{c}

{1} Outlines of Psychology, c. iii. Reasoning.

{2} Psychology, Part II. c. viii. § 305.

{3} Faust, translated by Theodore Martin, Act II. Scene 1, p. 89. See too Mansel's criticisms upon Locke's "simple ideas." (Prolegom. Log. c.vi. p. 185.)

{a} Recollections of my Youth, the Part entitled, St. Renan, p. 65. (English Translation.)

{b} Reminiscences of Oriel, Vol. II. c. cx. p. 270. Compare c. cxvi.

{c} "Ratio Dei existentiam, animae spiritualitatem, hominis libertatem, cum certitudine probare potest."

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