I have now said as much as need be said about the relation of Assent to Apprehension, and shall turn to the consideration of the relation existing between Assent and Inference.
As apprehension is a concomitant, so inference is ordinarily the antecedent of assent;—on this surely I need not enlarge;—but neither apprehension nor inference interferes with the unconditional character of the assent, viewed in itself. The circumstances of an act, however necessary to it, do not enter into the act; assent is in its nature absolute and unconditional, though it cannot be given except under certain conditions.
This is obvious; but what presents some difficulty is this, how it is that a conditional acceptance of a proposition,—such as is an act of inference,—is able to lead, as it does, to an unconditional acceptance of it,—such as is assent; how it is that a proposition which is not, and cannot be, demonstrated, which at the highest can only be proved to be truth-like, not true, such as “I shall die,” nevertheless claims and receives our unqualified adhesion. To the consideration of this paradox, as it may be called, I shall now proceed; that is, to the consideration, first, of the act of assent to a proposition, which act is unconditional; next, of the act of inference, which goes before the assent and is conditional; and, thirdly, of the solution of the apparent inconsistency which is involved in holding that an unconditional acceptance of a proposition can be the result of its conditional verification.
§ 1. Simple Assent.
The doctrine which I have been enunciating requires such careful explanation, that it is not wonderful that writers of great ability and name are to be found who have put it aside for a doctrine of their own; but no doctrine on the subject is without its difficulties, and certainly not theirs, though it carries with it a show of common sense. The authors to whom I refer wish to maintain that there are degrees of assent, and that, as the reasons for a proposition are strong or weak, so is the assent. It follows from this that absolute assent has no legitimate exercise, except as ratifying acts of intuition or demonstration. What is thus brought home to us is indeed to be accepted unconditionally; but, as to reasonings in concrete matters, they are never more than probabilities, and the probability in each conclusion which we draw is the measure of our assent to that conclusion. Thus assent becomes a sort of necessary shadow, following upon inference, which is the substance; and is never without some alloy of doubt, because inference in the concrete never reaches more than probability.
Such is what may be called the à priori method of regarding assent in its relation to inference. It condemns an unconditional assent in concrete matters on what may be called the nature of the case. Assent cannot rise higher than its source; inference in such matters is at best conditional, therefore assent is conditional also.
Abstract argument is always dangerous, and this instance is no exception to the rule; I prefer to go by facts. The theory to which I have referred cannot be carried out in practice. It may be rightly said to prove too much; for it debars us from unconditional assent in cases in which the common voice of mankind, the advocates of this theory included, would protest against the prohibition. There are many truths in concrete matter, which no one can demonstrate, yet every one unconditionally accepts; and though of course there are innumerable propositions to which it would be absurd to give an absolute assent, still the absurdity lies in the circumstances of each particular case, as it is taken by itself, not in their common violation of the pretentious axiom that probable reasoning can never lead to certitude.
Locke’s remarks on the subject are an illustration of what I have been saying. This celebrated writer, after the manner of his school, speaks freely of degrees of assent, and considers that the strength of assent given to each proposition varies with the strength of the inference on which the assent follows; yet he is obliged to make exceptions to his general principle,—exceptions, unintelligible on his abstract doctrine, but demanded by the logic of facts. The practice of mankind is too strong for the antecedent theorem, to which he is desirous to subject it.
First he says, in his chapter “On Probability,” “Most of the propositions we think, reason, discourse, nay, act upon, are such as we cannot have undoubted knowledge of their truth; yet some of them border so near upon certainty, that we make no doubt at all about them, but assent to them as firmly, and act according to that assent as resolutely, as if they were infallibly demonstrated, and that our knowledge of them was perfect and certain.” Here he allows that inferences, which are only “near upon certainty,” are so near, that we legitimately accept them with “no doubt at all,” and “assent to them as firmly as if they were infallibly demonstrated.” That is, he affirms and sanctions the very paradox to which I am committed myself.
Again; he says, in his chapter on “The Degrees of Assent,” that “when any particular thing, consonant to the constant observation of ourselves and others in the like case, comes attested by the concurrent reports of all that mention it, we receive it as easily, and build as firmly upon it, as if it were certain knowledge, and we reason and act thereupon, with as little doubt as if it were perfect demonstration.” And he repeats, “These probabilities rise so near to certainty, that they govern our thoughts as absolutely, and influence all our actions as fully, as the most evident demonstration; and in what concerns us, we make little or no difference between them and certain knowledge. Our belief thus grounded, rises to assurance.” Here again, “probabilities” may be so strong as to “govern our thoughts as absolutely” as sheer demonstration, so strong that belief, grounded on them, “rises to assurance,” that is, certitude.
I have so high a respect both for the character and the ability of Locke, for his manly simplicity of mind and his outspoken candour, and there is so much in his remarks upon reasoning and proof in which I fully concur, that I feel no pleasure in considering him in the light of an opponent to views, which I myself have ever cherished as true with an obstinate devotion; and I would willingly think that in the passage which follows in his chapter on “Enthusiasm,” he is aiming at superstitious extravagances which I should repudiate myself as much as he can do; but, if so, his words go beyond the occasion, and contradict what I have quoted from him above.
“He that would seriously set upon the search of truth, ought, in the first place, to prepare his mind with a love of it. For he that loves it not will not take much pains to get it, nor be much concerned when he misses it. There is nobody, in the commonwealth of learning, who does not profess himself a lover of truth,—and there is not a rational creature, that would not take it amiss, to be thought otherwise of. And yet, for all this, one may truly say, there are very few lovers of truth, for truth-sake, even amongst those who persuade themselves that they are so. How a man may know, whether he be so, in earnest, is worth inquiry; and I think, there is this one unerring mark of it, viz. the not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built on will warrant. Whoever goes beyond this measure of assent, it is plain, receives not truth in the love of it, loves not truth for truth-sake, but for some other by-end. For the evidence that any proposition is true (except such as are self-evident) lying only in the proofs a man has of it, whatsoever degrees of assent he affords it beyond the degrees of that evidence, it is plain all that surplusage of assurance is owing to some other affection, and not to the love of truth; it being as impossible that the love of truth should carry my assent above the evidence there is to me that it is true, as that the love of truth should make me assent to any proposition for the sake of that evidence which it has not that it is true; which is in effect to love it as a truth, because it is possible or probable that it may not be true.”
Here he says that it is not only illogical, but immoral to “carry our assent above the evidence that a proposition is true,” to have “a surplusage of assurance beyond the degrees of that evidence.” And he excepts from this rule only self-evident propositions. How then is it not inconsistent with right reason, with the love of truth for its own sake, to allow, in his words quoted above, certain strong “probabilities” to “govern our thoughts as absolutely as the most evident demonstration”? how is there no “surplusage of assurance beyond the degrees of evidence” when in the case of those strong probabilities, we permit “our belief, thus grounded, to rise to assurance,” as he pronounces we are rational in doing? Of course he had in view one set of instances, when he implied that demonstration was the condition of absolute assent, and another set when he said that it was no such condition; but he surely cannot be acquitted of slovenly thinking in thus treating a cardinal subject. A philosopher should so anticipate the application, and guard the enunciation of his principles, as to secure them against the risk of their being made to change places with each other, to defend what he is eager to denounce, and to condemn what he finds it necessary to sanction. However, whatever is to be thought of his à priori method and his logical consistency, his animus, I fear, must be understood as hostile to the doctrine which I am going to maintain. He takes a view of the human mind, in relation to inference and assent, which to me seems theoretical and unreal. Reasonings and convictions which I deem natural and legitimate, he apparently would call irrational, enthusiastic, perverse, and immoral; and that, as I think, because he consults his own ideal of how the mind ought to act, instead of interrogating human nature, as an existing thing, as it is found in the world. Instead of going by the testimony of psychological facts, and thereby determining our constitutive faculties and our proper condition, and being content with the mind as God has made it, he would form men as he thinks they ought to be formed, into something better and higher, and calls them irrational and immoral, if (so to speak) they take to the water, instead of remaining under the narrow wings of his own arbitrary theory.
1. Now the first question which this theory leads me to consider is, whether there is such an act of the mind as assent at all. If there is, it is plain it ought to show itself unequivocally as such, as distinct from other acts. For if a professed act can only be viewed as the recessary and immediate repetition of another act, if assent is a sort of reproduction and double of an act of inference, if when inference determines that a proposition is somewhat, or not a little, or a good deal, or very like truth, assent as its natural and normal counterpart says that it is somewhat, or not a little, or a good deal, or very like truth, then I do not see what we mean by saying, or why we say at all, that there is any such act. It is simply superfluous, in a psychological point of view, and a curiosity of subtle minds, and the sooner it is got out of the way the better. When I assent, I am supposed, it seems, to do precisely what I do when I infer, or rather not quite so much, but something which is included in inferring; for, while the disposition of my mind towards a given proposition is identical in assent and in inference, I merely drop the thought of the premisses when I assent, though not of their influence on the proposition inferred. This, then, and no more after all, is what nature prescribes; and this, and no more than this, is the conscientious use of our faculties, so to assent forsooth as to do nothing else than infer. Then, I say, if this be really the state of the case, if assent in no real way differs from inference, it is one and the same thing with it. It is another name for inference, and to speak of it at all does but mislead. Nor can it fairly be urged as a parallel case that an act of conscious recognition, though distinct from an act of knowledge, is after all only its repetition. On the contrary, such a recognition is a reflex act with its own object, viz. the act of knowledge itself. As well might it be said that the hearing of the notes of my voice is a repetition of the act of singing:—it gives no plausibility then to the anomaly I am combating.
I lay it down, then, as a principle that either assent is intrinsically distinct from inference, or the sooner we get rid of the word in philosophy the better. If it be only the echo of an inference, do not treat it as a substantive act; but on the other hand, supposing it be not such an idle repetition, as I am sure it is not, supposing the word “assent” does hold a necessary place in language and in thought, if it does not admit of being confused with concluding and inferring, if the two words are used for two operations of the intellect which cannot change their character, if in matter of fact they are not always found together, if they do not vary with each other, if one is sometimes found without the other, if one is strong when the other is weak, if sometimes they seem even in conflict with each other, then, since we know perfectly well what an inference is, it comes upon us to consider what, as distinct from inference, an assent is, and we are, by the very fact of its being distinct, advanced one step towards that account of it which I think is the true one. The first step then towards deciding the point, will be to inquire what the experience of human life, as it is daily brought before us, teaches us of the relation to each other of inference and assent.
(1.) First, we know from experience that assents may endure without the presence of the inferential acts upon which they were originally elicited. It is plain, that, as life goes on, we are not only inwardly formed and changed by the accession of habits, but we are also enriched by a great multitude of beliefs and opinions, and that on a variety of subjects. These beliefs and opinions, held, as some of them are, almost as first principles, are assents, and they constitute, as it were, the clothing and furniture of the mind. I have already spoken of them under the head of “Credence” and “Opinion.” Sometimes we are fully conscious of them; sometimes they are implicit, or only now and then come directly before our reflective faculty. Still they are assents; and, when we first admitted them, we had some kind of reason, slight or strong, recognized or not, for doing so. However, whatever those reasons were, even if we ever realized them, we have long forgotten them. Whether it was the authority of others, or our own observation, or our reading, or our reflections, which became the warrant of our assent, any how we received the matters in question into our minds as true, and gave them a place there. We assented to them, and we still assent, though we have forgotten what the warrant was. At present they are self-sustained in our minds, and have been so for long years; they are in no sense conclusions; they imply no process of thought. Here then is a case in which assent stands out as distinct from inference.
(2.) Again; sometimes assent fails, while the reasons for it and the inferential act which is the recognition of those reasons, are still present, and in force. Our reasons may seem to us as strong as ever, yet they do not secure our assent. Our beliefs, founded on them, were and are not; we cannot perhaps tell when they went; we may have thought that we still held them, till something happened to call our attention to the state of our minds, and then we found that our assent had become an assertion. Sometimes, of course, a cause may be found why they went; there may have been some vague feeling that a fault lay at the ultimate basis, or in the underlying conditions, of our reasonings; or some misgiving that the subject-matter of them was beyond the reach of the human mind; or a consciousness that we had gained a broader view of things in general than when we first gave our assent; or that there were strong objections to our first convictions, which we had never taken into account. But this is not always so; sometimes our mind changes so quickly, so unaccountably, so disproportionately to any tangible arguments to which the change can be referred, and with such abiding recognition of the force of the old arguments, as to suggest the suspicion that moral causes, arising out of our condition, age, company, occupations, fortunes, are at the bottom. However, what once was assent is gone; yet the perception of the old arguments remains, showing that inference is one thing, and assent another.
(3.) And as assent sometimes dies out without tangible reasons, sufficient to account for its failure, so sometimes, in spite of strong and convincing arguments, it is never given. We sometimes find men loud in their admiration of truths which they never profess. As, by the law of our mental constitution, obedience is quite distinct from faith, and men may believe without practising, so is assent also independent of our acts of inference. Again, prejudice hinders assent to the most incontrovertible proofs. Again, it not unfrequently happens, that while the keenness of the ratiocinative faculty enables a man to see the ultimate result of a complicated problem in a moment, it takes years for him to embrace it as a truth, and to recognize it as an item in the circle of his knowledge. Yet he does at last so accept it, and then we say that he assents.
(4.) Again; very numerous are the cases, in which good arguments, and really good as far as they go, and confessed by us to be good, nevertheless are not strong enough to incline our minds ever so little to the conclusion at which they point. But why is it that we do not assent a little, in proportion to those arguments? On the contrary, we throw the full onus probandi on the side of the conclusion, and we refuse to assent to it at all, until we can assent to it altogether. The proof is capable of growth; but the assent either exists or does not exist.
(5.) I have already alluded to the influence of moral motives in hindering assent to conclusions which are logically unimpeachable. According to the couplet,—
“A man convinced against his will
Is of the same opinion still;”—
assent then is not the same as inference.
(6.) Strange as it may seem, this contrast between inference and assent is exemplified even in the province of mathematics. Argument is not always able to command our assent, even though it be demonstrative. Sometimes of course it forces its way, that is, when the steps of the reasoning are few, and admit of being viewed by the mind altogether. Certainly, one cannot conceive a man having before him the series of conditions and truths on which it depends that the three angles of a triangle are together equal to two right angles, and yet not assenting to that proposition. Were all propositions as plain, though assent would not in consequence be the same act as inference, yet it would certainly follow immediately upon it. I allow then as much as this, that, when an argument is in itself and by itself conclusive of a truth, it has by a law of our nature the same command over our assent, or rather the truth which it has reached has the same command, as our senses have. Certainly our intellectual nature is under laws, and the correlative of ascertained truth is unreserved assent.
But I am not speaking of short and lucid demonstrations; but of long and intricate mathematical investigations; and in that case, though every step may be indisputable, it still requires a specially sustained attention and an effort of memory to have in the mind all at once all the steps of the proof, with their bearings on each other, and the antecedents which they severally involve; and these conditions of the inference may interfere with the promptness of our assent.
Hence it is that party spirit or national feeling or religious prepossessions have before now had power to retard the reception of truths of a mathematical character; which never could have been, if demonstrations were ipso facto assents. Nor indeed would any mathematician, even in questions of pure science, assent to his own conclusions, on new and difficult ground, and in the case of abstruse calculations, however often he went over his work, till he had the corroboration of other judgments besides his own. He would have carefully revised his inference, and would assent to the probability of his accuracy in inferring, but still he would abstain from an immediate assent to the truth of his conclusion. Yet the corroboration of others cannot add to his perception of the proof; he would still perceive the proof, even though he failed in gaining their corroboration. And yet again he might arbitrarily make it his rule, never to assent to his conclusions without such corroboration, or at least before the lapse of a sufficient interval. Here again inference is distinct from assent.
I have been showing that inference and assent are distinct acts of the mind, and that they may be made apart from each other. Of course I cannot be taken to mean that there is no legitimate or actual connexion between them, as if arguments adverse to a conclusion did not naturally hinder assent; or as if the inclination to give assent were not greater or less according as the particular act of inference expressed a stronger or weaker probability; or as if assent did not always imply grounds in reason, implicit, if not explicit, or could be rightly given without sufficient grounds. So much is it commonly felt that assent must be preceded by inferential acts, that obstinate men give their own will as their very reason for assenting, if they can think of nothing better; “stat pro ratione voluntas.” Indeed, I doubt whether assent is ever given without some preliminary, which stands for a reason; but it does not follow from this, that it may not be withheld in cases when there are good reasons for giving it to a proposition, or may not be withdrawn after it has been given, the reasons remaining, or may not remain when the reasons are forgotten; or must always vary in strength, as the reasons vary; and this substantiveness, as I may call it, of the act of assent is the very point which I have wished to establish.
2. And in showing that assent is distinct from an act of inference, I have gone a good way towards showing in what it differs from it. If assent and inference are each of them the acceptance of a proposition, but the special characteristic of inference is that it is conditional, it is natural to suppose that assent is unconditional. Again, if assent is the acceptance of truth, and truth is the proper object of the intellect, and no one can hold conditionally what by the same act he holds to be true, here too is a reason for saying that assent is an adhesion without reserve or doubt to the proposition to which it is given. And again, it is to be presumed that the word has not two meanings: what it has at one time, it has at another. Inference is always inference; even if demonstrative, it is still conditional; it establishes an incontrovertible conclusion on the condition of incontrovertible premisses. To the conclusion thus drawn, assent gives its absolute recognition. In the case of all demonstrations, assent, when given, is unconditionally given. In one class of subjects, then, assent certainly is always unconditional; but if the word stands for an undoubting and unhesitating act of the mind once, why does it not denote the same always? what evidence is there that it ever means any thing else than that which the whole world will unite in witnessing that it means in certain cases? why are we not to interpret what is controverted by what is known? This is what is suggested on the first view of the question; but to continue:—
In demonstrative matters assent excludes the presence of doubt: now are instances producible, on the other hand, of its ever coexisting with doubt in cases of the concrete? As the above instances have shown, on very many questions we do not give an assent at all. What commonly happens is this, that, after hearing and entering into what may be said for a proposition, we pronounce neither for nor against it. We may accept the conclusion as a conclusion, dependent on premisses, abstract, and tending to the concrete; but we do not follow up our inference of a proposition by giving an assent to it. That there are concrete propositions to which we give unconditional assents, I shall presently show; but I am now asking for instances of conditional, for instances in which we assent a little and not much. Usually, we do not assent at all. Every day, as it comes, brings with it opportunities for us to enlarge our circle of assents. We read the newspapers; we look through debates in Parliament, pleadings in the law courts, leading articles, letters of correspondents, reviews of books, criticisms in the fine arts, and we either form no opinion at all upon the subjects discussed, as lying out of our line, or at most we have only an opinion about them. At the utmost we say that we are inclined to believe this proposition or that, that we are not sure it is not true, that much may be said for it, that we have been much struck by it; but we never say that we give it a degree of assent. We might as well talk of degrees of truth as of degrees of assent.
Yet Locke heads one of his chapters with the title “Degrees of Assent;” and a writer, of this century, who claims our respect from the tone and drift of his work, thus expresses himself after Locke’s manner: “Moral evidence,” he says, “may produce a variety of degrees of assents, from suspicion to moral certainty. For, here, the degree of assent depends upon the degree in which the evidence on one side preponderates, or exceeds that on the other. And as this preponderancy may vary almost infinitely, so likewise may the degrees of assent. For a few of these degrees, though but for a few, names have been invented. Thus, when the evidence on one side preponderates a very little, there is ground for suspicion, or conjecture. Presumption, persuasion, belief, conclusion, conviction, moral certainty,—doubt, wavering, distrust, disbelief,—are words which imply an increase or decrease of this preponderancy. Some of these words also admit of epithets which denote a further increase or diminution of the assent.”
Can there be a better illustration than this passage supplies of what I have been insisting on above, viz. that, in teaching various degrees of assent, we tend to destroy assent, as an act of the mind, altogether? This author makes the degrees of assent “infinite,” as the degrees of probability are infinite. His assents are really only inferences, and assent is a name without a meaning, the needless repetition of an inference. But in truth “suspicion, conjecture, presumption, persuasion, belief, conclusion, conviction, moral certainty,” are not “assents” at all; they are simply more or less strong inferences of a proposition; and “doubt, wavering, distrust, disbelief,” are recognitions, more or less strong, of the probability of its contradictory.
There is only one sense in which we are allowed to call such acts or states of mind assents. They are opinions; and, as being such, they are, as I have already observed, when speaking of Opinion, assents to the plausibility, probability, doubtfulness, or untrustworthiness, of a proposition; that is, not variations of assent to an inference, but assents to a variation in inferences. When I assent to a doubtfulness, or to a probability, my assent, as such, is as complete as if I assented to a truth; it is not a certain degree of assent. And, in like manner, I may be certain of an uncertainty; that does not destroy the specific notion convened in the word “certain.”
I do not know then when it is that we ever deliberately profess assent to a proposition without meaning to convey to others the impression that we accept it unreservedly, and that because it is true. Certainly, we familiarly use such phrases as a half-assent, as we also speak of half-truths; but a half-assent is not a kind of assent any more than a half-truth is a kind of truth. As the object is indivisible, so is the act. A half-truth is a proposition which in one aspect is a truth, and in another is not; to give a half-assent is to feel drawn towards assent, or to assent one moment and not the next, or to be in the way to assent to it. It means that the proposition in question deserves a hearing, that it is probable, or attractive, that it opens important views, that it is a key to perplexing difficulties, or the like.
3. Treating the subject then, not according to à priori fitness, but according to the facts of human nature, as they are found in the concrete action of life, I find numberless cases in which we do not assent at all, none in which assent is evidently conditional;—and many, as I shall now proceed to show, in which it is unconditional, and these in subject-matters which admit of nothing higher than probable reasoning. If human nature is to be its own witness, there is no medium between assenting and not assenting. Locke’s theory of the duty of assenting more or less according to degrees of evidence, is invalidated by the testimony of high and low, young and old, ancient and modern, as continually given in their ordinary sayings and doings. Indeed, as I have shown, he does not strictly maintain it himself; yet, though he feels the claims of nature and fact to be too strong for him in certain cases, he gives no reason why he should violate his theory in these, and yet not in many more.
Now let us review some of those assents, which men give on evidence short of intuition and demonstration, yet which are as unconditional as if they had that highest evidence.
First of all, starting from intuition, of course we all believe, without any doubt, that we exist; that we have an individuality and identity all our own; that we think, feel, and act, in the home of our own minds; that we have a present sense of good and evil, of a right and a wrong, of a true and a false, of a beautiful and a hideous, however we analyze our ideas of them. We have an absolute vision before us of what happened yesterday or last year, so as to be able without any chance of mistake to give evidence upon it in a court of justice, let the consequences be ever so serious. We are sure that of many things we are ignorant, that of many things we are in doubt, and that of many things we are not in doubt.
Nor is the assent which we give to facts limited to the range of self-consciousness. We are sure beyond all hazard of a mistake, that our own self is not the only being existing; that there is an external world; that it is a system with parts and a whole, a universe carried on by laws; and that the future is affected by the past. We accept and hold with an unqualified assent, that the earth, considered as a phenomenon, is a globe; that all its regions see the sun by turns; that there are vast tracts on it of land and water; that there are really existing cities on definite sites, which go by the names of London, Paris, Florence, and Madrid. We are sure that Paris or London, unless swallowed up by an earthquake or burned to the ground, is to-day just what it was yesterday, when we left it.
We laugh to scorn the idea that we had no parents, though we have no memory of our birth; that we shall never depart this life, though we can have no experience of the future; that we are able to live without food, though we have never tried; that a world of men did not live before our time, or that that world has had no history; that there has been no rise and fall of states, no great men, no wars, no revolutions, no art, no science, no literature, no religion.
We should be either indignant or amused at the report of our intimate friend being false to us; and we are able sometimes, without any hesitation, to accuse certain parties of hostility and injustice to us. We may have a deep consciousness, which we never can lose, that we on our part have been cruel to others, and that they have felt us to be so, or that we have been, and have been felt to be, ungenerous to those who love us. We may have an overpowering sense of our moral weakness, of the precariousness of our life, health, wealth, position, and good fortune. We may have a clear view of the weak points of our physical constitution, of what food or medicine is good for us, and what does us harm. We may be able to master, at least in part, the course of our past history; its turning-points, our hits, and our great mistakes. We may have a sense of the presence of a Supreme Being, which never has been dimmed by even a passing shadow, which has inhabited us ever since we can recollect any thing, and which we cannot imagine our losing. We may be able, for others have been able, so to realize the precepts and truths of Christianity, as deliberately to surrender our life, rather than transgress the one or to deny the other.
On all these truths we have an immediate and an unhesitating hold, nor do we think ourselves guilty of not loving truth for truth’s sake, because we cannot reach them through a series of intuitive propositions. Assent on reasonings not demonstrative is too widely recognized an act to be irrational, unless man’s nature is irrational, too familiar to the prudent and clear-minded to be an infirmity or an extravagance. None of us can think or act without the acceptance of truths, not intuitive, not demonstrated, yet sovereign. If our nature has any constitution, any laws, one of them is this absolute reception of propositions as true, which lie outside the narrow range of conclusions to which logic, formal or virtual, is tethered; nor has any philosophical theory the power to force on us a rule which will not work for a day.
When, then, philosophers lay down principles, on which it follows that our assent, except when given to objects of intuition or demonstration, is conditional, that the assent given to propositions by well-ordered minds necessarily varies with the proof producible for them, and that it does not and cannot remain one and the same while the proof is strengthened or weakened,—are they not to be considered as confusing together two things very distinct from each other, a mental act or state and a scientific rule, an interior assent and a set of logical formulas? When they speak of degrees of assent, surely they have no intention at all of defining the position of the mind itself relative to the adoption of a given conclusion, but they mean to determine the relation of that conclusion towards its premisses. They are contemplating how representative symbols work, not how the intellect is affected towards the thing which those symbols represent. In real truth they as little mean to assert the principle of measuring our assents by our logic, as they would fancy they could record the refreshment which we receive from the open air by the readings of the graduated scale of a thermometer. There is a connexion doubtless between a logical conclusion and an assent, as there is between the variation of the mercury and our sensations; but the mercury is not the cause of life and health, nor is verbal argumentation the principle of inward belief. If we feel hot or chilly, no one will convince us to the contrary by insisting that the glass is at 60°. It is the mind that reasons and assents, not a diagram on paper. I may have difficulty in the management of a proof, while I remain unshaken in my adherence to the conclusion. Supposing a boy cannot make his answer to some arithmetical or algebraical question tally with the book, need he at once distrust the book? Does his trust in it fall down a certain number of degrees, according to the force of his difficulty? On the contrary, he keeps to the principle, implicit but present to his mind, with which he took up the book, that the book is more likely to be right than he is; and this mere preponderance of probability is sufficient to make him faithful to his belief in its correctness, till its incorrectness is actually proved.
My own opinion is, that the class of writers of whom I have been speaking, have themselves as little misgiving about the truths which they pretend to weigh out and measure, as their unsophisticated neighbours; but they think it a duty to remind us, that since the full etiquette of logical requirements has not been satisfied, we must believe those truths at our peril. They warn us, that an issue which can never come to pass in matter of fact, is nevertheless in theory a possible supposition. They do not, for instance, intend for a moment to imply that there is even the shadow of a doubt that Great Britain is an island, but they think we ought to know, if we do not know, that there is no proof of the fact, in mode and figure, equal to the proof of a proposition of Euclid; and that in consequence they and we are all bound to suspend our judgment about such a fact, though it be in an infinitesimal degree, lest we should seem not to love truth for truth’s sake. Having made their protest, they subside without scruple into that same absolute assurance of only partially-proved truths, which is natural to the illogical imagination of the multitude.
4. It remains to explain some conversational expressions, at first sight favourable to that doctrine of degrees in assent, which I have been combating.
(1.) We often speak of giving a modified and qualified, or a presumptive and primâ facie assent, or (as I have already said) a half-assent to opinions or facts; but these expressions admit of an easy explanation. Assent, upon the authority of others is often, as I have noticed, when speaking of notional assents, little more than a profession or acquiescence or inference, not a real acceptance of a proposition. I report, for instance, that there was a serious fire in the town in the past night; and then perhaps I add, that at least the morning papers say so;—that is, I have perhaps no positive doubt of the fact; still, by referring to the newspapers I imply that I do not take on myself the responsibility of the statement. In thus qualifying my apparent assent, I show that it was not a genuine assent at all. In like manner a primâ facie assent is an assent to an antecedent probability of a fact, not to the fact itself; as I might give a primâ facie assent to the Plurality of worlds or to the personality of Homer, without pledging myself to either absolutely. “Half-assent,” of which I spoke above, is an inclination to assent, or again, an intention of assenting, when certain difficulties are surmounted. When we speak without thought, assent has as vague a meaning as half-assent; but when we deliberately say, “I assent,” we signify an act of the mind so definite, as to admit of no change but that of its ceasing to be.
(2.) And so, too, though we sometimes use the phrase “conditional assent,” yet we only mean thereby to say that we will assent under certain contingencies. Of course we may, if we please, include a condition in the proposition to which our assent is given; and then, that condition enters into the matter of the assent, but not into the assent itself. To assent to—“If this man is in a consumption, his days are numbered,”—is as little a conditional assent, as to assent to—“Of this consumptive patient the days are numbered,”—which, (though without the conditional form,) is an equivalent proposition. In such cases, strictly speaking, the assent is given neither to antecedent nor consequent of the conditional proposition, but to their connexion, that is, to the enthymematic inferentia. If we place the condition external to the proposition, then the assent will be given to “That ‘his days are numbered’ is conditionally true;” and of course we can assent to the conditionality of a proposition as well as to its probability. Or again, if so be, we may give our assent not only to the inferentia in a complex conditional proposition, but to each of the simple propositions, of which it is made up, besides. “There will be a storm soon, for the mercury falls;”—here, besides assenting to the connexion of the propositions, we may assent also to “The mercury falls,” and to “There will be a storm.” This is assenting to the premiss, inferentia, and thing inferred, all at once;—we assent to the whole syllogism, and to its component parts.
(3.) In like manner are to be explained the phrases, “deliberate assent,” a “rational assent;” a “sudden,” “impulsive,” or “hesitating” assent. These expressions denote, not kinds or qualities, but the circumstances of assenting. A deliberate assent is an assent following upon deliberation. It is sometimes called a conviction, a word which commonly includes in its meaning two acts, both the act of inference, and the act of assent consequent upon the inference. This subject will be considered in the next Section. On the other hand, a hesitating assent is an assent to which we have been slow and intermittent in coming; or an assent which, when given, is thwarted and obscured by external and flitting misgivings, though not such as to enter into the act itself, or essentially to damage it.
There is another sense in which we speak of a hesitating or uncertain assent; viz. when we assent in act, but not in the habit of our minds. Till assent to a doctrine or fact is my habit, I am at the mercy of inferences contrary to it; I assent to-day, and give up my belief, or incline to disbelief, to-morrow. I may find it my duty, for instance, after the opportunity of careful inquiry and inference, to assent to another’s innocence, whom I have for years considered guilty; but from long prejudice I may be unable to carry my new assent well about me, and may every now and then relapse into momentary thoughts injurious to him.
(4.) A more plausible objection to the absolute absence of all doubt or misgiving in an act of assent is found in the use of the terms firm and weak assent, or in the growth of belief and trust. Thus, we assent to the events of history, but not with that fulness and force of adherence to the received account of them with which we realize a record of occurrences which are within our own memory. And again, we assent to the praise bestowed on a friend’s good qualities with an energy which we do not feel, when we are speaking of virtue in the abstract: and if we are political partisans, our assent is very cold, when we cannot refuse it, to representations made in favour of the wisdom or patriotism of statesmen whom we dislike. And then as to religious subjects we speak of “strong” faith and “feeble” faith; of the faith which would move mountains, and of the ordinary faith “without which it is impossible to please God.” And as we can grow in graces, so surely can we inclusively in faith. Again we rise from one work of Christian Evidences with our faith enlivened and invigorated; from another perhaps with the distracted father’s words in our mouth, “I believe, help my unbelief.”
Now it is evident, first of all, that habits of mind may grow, as being a something permanent and continuous; and by assent growing, it is often only meant that the habit grows and has greater hold upon the mind.
But again, when we carefully consider the matter, it will be found that this increase or decrease of strength does not lie in the assent itself, but in its circumstances and concomitants; for instance, in the emotions, in the ratiocinative faculty, or in the imagination.
For instance, as to the emotions, this strength of assent may be nothing more than the strength of love, hatred, interest, desire, or fear, which the object of the assent elicits, and this is especially the case when that object is of a religious nature. Such strength is adventitious and accidental; it may come, it may go; it is found in one man, not in another; it does not interfere with the genuineness and perfection of the act of assent. Balaam assented to the fact of his own intercourse with the supernatural, as well as Moses; but, to use religious language, he had light without love; his intellect was clear, his heart was cold. Hence his faith would popularly be considered wanting in strength. On the other hand, prejudice implies strong assents to the disadvantage of its object; that is, it encourages such assents, and guards them from the chance of being lost.
Again, when a conclusion is recommended to us by the number and force of the arguments in proof of it, our recognition of them invests it with a luminousness, which in one sense adds strength to our assent to it, as it certainly does protect and embolden that assent. Thus we assent to a review of recent events, which we have studied from original documents, with a triumphant peremptoriness which it neither occurs to us, nor is possible for us, to exercise, when we make an act of assent to the assassination of Julius Caesar, or to the existence of the Abipones, though we are as securely certain of these latter facts as of the doings and occurrences of yesterday.
And further, all that I have said about the apprehension of propositions is in point here. We may speak of assent to our Lord’s divinity as strong or feeble, according as it is given to the reality as impressed upon the imagination, or to the notion of it as entertained by the intellect.
(5.) Nor, lastly, does this doctrine of the intrinsic integrity and indivisibility (if I may so speak) of assent interfere with the teaching of Catholic theology as to the pre-eminence of strength in divine faith, which has a supernatural origin, when compared with all belief which is merely human and natural. For first, that pre-eminence consists, not in its differing from human faith, merely in degree of assent, but in its being superior in nature and kind, so that the one does not admit of a comparison with the other; and next, its intrinsic superiority is not a matter of experience, but is above experience. Assent is ever assent; but in the assent which follows on a divine announcement, and is vivified by a divine grace, there is, from the nature of the case, a transcendant adhesion of mind, intellectual and moral, and a special self-protection, beyond the operation of those ordinary laws of thought, which alone have a place in my discussion.
§ 2. Complex Assent.
I have been considering assent as the mental assertion of an intelligible proposition, as an act of the intellect direct, absolute, complete in itself, unconditional, arbitrary, yet not incompatible with an appeal to argument, and at least in many cases exercised unconsciously. On this last characteristic of assent I have not dwelt, as it has not come in my way; nor is it more than an accident of acts of assent, though an ordinary accident. That it is of ordinary occurrence cannot be doubted. A great many of our assents are merely expressions of our personal likings, tastes, principles, motives, and opinions, as dictated by nature, or resulting from habit; in other words, they are acts and manifestations of self: now what is more rare than self-knowledge? In proportion then to our ignorance of self, is our unconsciousness of those innumerable acts of assent, which we are incessantly making. And so again in what may be almost called the mechanical operation of our minds, in our continual acts of apprehension and inference, speculation, and resolve, propositions pass before us and receive our assent without our consciousness. Hence it is that we are so apt to confuse together acts of assent and acts of inference. Indeed, I may fairly say, that those assents which we give with a direct knowledge of what we are doing, are few compared with the multitude of like acts which pass through our minds in long succession without our observing them.
That mode of assent which is exercised thus unconsciously, I may call simple assent, and of it I have treated in the foregoing Section; but now I am going to speak of such assents as must be made consciously and deliberately, and which I shall call complex or reflex assents. And I begin by recalling what I have already stated about the relation in which Assent and Inference stand to each other,—Inference, which holds propositions conditionally, and Assent, which unconditionally accepts them; the relation is this:—
Acts of inference are both the antecedents of assent before assenting, and its usual concomitants after assenting. For instance, I hold absolutely that the country which we call India exists, upon trustworthy testimony; and next, I may continue to believe it on the same testimony. In like manner, I have ever believed that Great Britain is an island, for certain sufficient reasons; and on the same reasons I may persist in the belief. But it may happen that I forget my reasons for what I believe to be so absolutely true; or I may never have asked myself about them, or formally marshalled them in order, and have been accustomed to assent without a recognition of my assent or of its grounds, and then perhaps something occurs which leads to my reviewing and completing those grounds, analyzing and arranging them, yet without on that account implying of necessity any suspense, ever so slight, of assent, to the proposition that India is in a certain part of the earth, and that Great Britain is an island. With no suspense of assent at all; any more than the boy in my former illustration had any doubt about the answer set down in his arithmetic-book, when he began working out the question; any more than he would be doubting his eyes and his common sense, that the two sides of a triangle are together greater than the third, because he drew out the geometrical proof of it. He does but repeat, after his formal demonstration, that assent which he made before it, and assents to his previous assenting. This is what I call a reflex or complex assent.
I say, there is no necessary incompatibility between thus assenting and yet proving,—for the conclusiveness of a proposition is not synonymous with its truth. A proposition may be true, yet not admit of being concluded;—it may be a conclusion and yet not a truth. To contemplate it under one aspect, is not to contemplate it under another; and the two aspects may be consistent, from the very fact that they are two aspects. Therefore to set about concluding a proposition is not ipso facto to doubt its truth; we may aim at inferring a proposition, while all the time we assent to it. We have to do this as a common occurrence, when we take on ourselves to convince another on any point in which he differs from us. We do not deny our faith, because we become controversialists; and in like manner we may employ ourselves in proving what we believe to be true, simply in order to ascertain the producible evidence in its favour, and in order to fulfil what is due to ourselves and to the claims and responsibilities of our education and social position.
I have been speaking of investigation, not of inquiry; it is quite true that inquiry is inconsistent with assent, but inquiry is something more than the mere exercise of inference. He who inquires has not found; he is in doubt where the truth lies, and wishes his present profession either proved or disproved. We cannot without absurdity call ourselves at once believers and inquirers also. Thus it is sometimes spoken of as a hardship that a Catholic is not allowed to inquire into the truth of his Creed;—of course he cannot, if he would retain the name of believer. He cannot be both inside and outside of the Church at once. It is merely common sense to tell him that, if he is seeking, he has not found. If seeking includes doubting, and doubting excludes believing, then the Catholic who sets about inquiring, thereby declares that he is not a Catholic. He has already lost faith. And this is his best defence to himself for inquiring, viz. that he is no longer a Catholic, and wishes to become one. They who would forbid him to inquire, would in that case be shutting the stable-door after the steed is stolen. What can he do better than inquire, if he is in doubt? how else can he become a Catholic again? Not to inquire is in his case to be satisfied with disbelief.
However, in thus speaking, I am viewing the matter in the abstract, and without allowing for the manifold inconsistencies of individuals, as they are found in the world, who attempt to unite incompatibilities; who do not doubt, but who act as if they did; who, though they believe, are weak in faith, and put themselves in the way of losing it by unnecessarily listening to objections. Moreover, there are minds, undoubtedly, with whom at all times to question a truth is to make it questionable, and to investigate is equivalent to inquiring; and again, there may be beliefs so sacred or so delicate, that, if I may use the metaphor, they will not wash without shrinking and losing colour. I grant all this; but here I am discussing broad principles, not individual cases; and these principles are, that inquiry implies doubt, and that investigation does not imply it, and that those who assent to a doctrine or fact may without inconsistency investigate its credibility, though they cannot literally inquire about its truth.
Next, I consider that, in the case of educated minds, investigations into the argumentative proof of the things to which they have given their assent, is an obligation, or rather a necessity. Such a trial of their intellects is a law of their nature, like the growth of childhood into manhood, and analogous to the moral ordeal which is the instrument of their spiritual life. The lessons of right and wrong, which are taught them at school, are to be carried out into action amid the good and evil of the world; and so again the intellectual assents, in which they have in like manner been instructed from the first, have to be tested, realized, and developed by the exercise of their mature judgment.
Certainly, such processes of investigation, whether in religious subjects or secular, often issue in the reversal of the assents which they were originally intended to confirm; as the boy who works out an arithmetical problem from his book may end in detecting, or thinking he detects, a false print in the answer. But the question before us is whether acts of assent and of inference are compatible; and my vague consciousness of the possibility of a reversal of my belief in the course of my researches, as little interferes with the honesty and firmness of that belief while those researches proceed, as the recognition of the possibility of my train’s oversetting is an evidence of an intention on my part of undergoing so great a calamity. My mind is not moved by a scientific computation of chances, nor can any law of averages affect my particular case. To incur a risk is not to expect reverse; and if my opinions are true, I have a right to think that they will bear examining. Nor, on the other hand, does belief, viewed in its idea, imply a positive resolution in the party believing never to abandon that belief. What belief, as such, does imply is, not an intention never to change, but the utter absence of all thought, or expectation, or fear of changing. A spontaneous resolution never to change is inconsistent with the idea of belief; for the very force and absoluteness of the act of assent precludes any such resolution. We do not commonly determine not to do what we cannot fancy ourselves ever doing. We should readily indeed make such a formal promise if we were called upon to do so; for, since we have the truth, and truth cannot change, how can we possibly change in our belief, except indeed through our own weakness or fickleness? We have no intention whatever of being weak or fickle; so our promise is but the natural guarantee of our sincerity. It is possible then, without disloyalty to our convictions, to examine their grounds, even though in the event they are to fail under the examination, for we have no suspicion of this failure.
And such examination, as I have said, does but fulfil a law of our nature. Our first assents, right or wrong, are often little more than prejudices. The reasonings, which precede and accompany them, though sufficient for their purpose, do not rise up to the importance and energy of the assents themselves. As time goes on, by degrees and without set purpose, by reflection and experience, we begin to confirm or to correct the notions and the images to which those assents are given. At times it is a necessity formally to undertake a survey and revision of this or that class of them, of those which relate to religion, or to social duty, or to politics, or to the conduct of life. Sometimes this review begins in doubt as to the matters which we propose to consider, that is, in a suspension of the assents hitherto familiar to us; sometimes those assents are too strong to allow of being lost on the first stirring of the inquisitive intellect, and if, as time goes on, they give way, our change of mind, be it for good or for evil, is owing to the accumulating force of the arguments, sound or unsound, which bear down upon the propositions which we have hitherto received. Objections, indeed, as such, have no direct force to weaken assent; but, when they multiply, they tell against the implicit reasonings or the formal inferences which are its warrant, and suspend its acts and gradually undermine its habit. Then the assent goes; but whether slowly or suddenly, noticeably or imperceptibly, is a matter of circumstance or accident. However, whether the original assent is continued on or not, the new assent differs from the old in this, that it has the strength of explicitness and deliberation, that it is not a mere prejudice, and its strength the strength of prejudice. It is an assent, not only to a given proposition, but to the claim of that proposition on our assent as true; it is an assent to an assent, or what is commonly called a conviction.
Of course these reflex acts may be repeated in a series. As I pronounce that “Great Britain is an island,” and then pronounce “That ‘Great Britain is an island’ has a claim on my assent,” or is to “be assented-to,” or to be “accepted as true,” or to be “believed,” or simply “is true” (these predicates being equivalent), so I may proceed, “The proposition ‘that Great-Britain-is-an-island is to be believed,’ is to be believed,” &c., &c., and so on to ad infinitum. But this would be trifling. The mind is like a double mirror, in which reflexions of self within self multiply themselves till they are undistinguishable, and the first reflexion contains all the rest. At the same time, it is worth while to notice two other reflex propositions:—“That ‘Great Britain is an island’ is probable” is true;—and “That ‘Great Britain is an island’ is uncertain” is true:—for the former of these is the expression of Opinion, and the latter of formal or theological Doubt, as I have already determined.
* * *
I have one step farther to make:—let the proposition to which the assent is given be as absolutely true as the reflex act pronounces it to be, that is, objectively true as well as subjectively:—then the assent may be called a perception, the conviction a certitude, the proposition or truth a certainty, or thing known, or a matter of knowledge, and to assent to it is to know.
Of course, in thus speaking, I open the all-important question, what is truth, and what apparent truth? what is genuine knowledge, and what is its counterfeit? what are the tests for discriminating certitude from mere persuasion or delusion? Whatever a man holds to be true, he will say he holds for certain; and for the present I must allow him in his assumption, hoping in one way or another, as I proceed, to lessen the difficulties which lie in the way of calling him to account for so doing. And I have the less scruple in taking this course, as believing that, among fairly prudent and circumspect men, there are far fewer instances of false certitude than at first sight might be supposed. Men are often doubtful about propositions which are really true; they are not commonly certain of such as are simply false. What they judge to be a certainty is in matter of fact for the most part a truth. Not that there is not a great deal of rash talking even among the educated portion of the community, and many a man makes professions of certitude, for which he has no warrant; but that such offhand, confident language is no token how these persons will express themselves when brought to book. No one will with justice consider himself certain of any matter, unless he has sufficient reasons for so considering; and it is rare that what is not true should be so free from every circumstance and token of falsity as to create no suspicion in his mind to its disadvantage, no reason for suspense of judgment.
However, I shall have to remark on this difficulty by and by; here I will mention two conditions of certitude, in close connexion with that necessary preliminary of investigation and proof of which I have been speaking, which will throw some light upon it. The one, which is à priori, or from the nature of the case, will tell us what is not certitude; the other, which is à posteriori, or from experience, will tell us in a measure what certitude is.
1. Certitude, as I have said, is 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,” or “I know that I know that I know,”—or simply “I know;” for one reflex assertion of the mind about self sums up the series of self-consciousnesses without the need of any actual evolution of them.
Certitude is the knowledge of a truth:—but what is once true is always true, and cannot fail, whereas what is once known need not always be known, and is capable of failing. It follows, that if I am certain of a thing, I believe it will remain what I now hold it to be, even though my mind should have the bad fortune to let it drop. Since mere argument is not the measure of assent, no one can be called certain of a proposition, whose mind does not spontaneously and promptly reject, on their first suggestion, as idle, as impertinent, as sophistical, any objections which are directed against its truth. No man is certain of a truth, who can endure the thought of the fact of its contradictory existing or occurring; and that not from any set purpose or effort to reject that thought, but, as I have said, by the spontaneous action of the intellect. What is contradictory to the truth, with its apparatus of argument, fades out of the mind as fast as it enters it; and though it be brought back to the mind ever so often by the pertinacity of an opponent, or by a voluntary or involuntary act of imagination, still that contradictory proposition and its arguments are mere phantoms and dreams, in the light of our certitude, and their very entering into the mind is the first step of their going out of it. Such is the position of our minds towards the heathen fancy that Enceladus lies under Etna; or, not to take so extreme a case, that Joanna Southcote was a messenger from heaven, or the Emperor Napoleon really had a star. Equal to this peremptory assertion of negative propositions is the revolt of the mind from suppositions incompatible with positive statements of which we are certain, whether abstract truths or facts; as that a straight line is the longest possible distance between its two extreme points, that Great Britain is in shape an exact square or circle, that I shall escape dying, or that my intimate friend is false to me.
We may indeed say, if we please, that a man ought not to have so supreme a conviction in a given case, or in any case whatever; and that he is therefore wrong in treating opinions which he does not himself hold, with this even involuntary contempt;—certainly, we have a right to say so, if we will; but if, in matter of fact, a man has such a conviction, if he is sure that Ireland is to the West of England, or that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, nothing is left to him, if he would be consistent, but to carry his conviction out into this magisterial intolerance of any contrary assertion; and if he were in his own mind tolerant, I do not say patient (for patience and gentleness are moral duties, but I mean intellectually tolerant), of objections as objections, he would virtually be giving countenance to the views which those objections represented. I say I certainly should be very intolerant of such a notion as that I shall one day be Emperor of the French; I should think it too absurd even to be ridiculous, and that I must be mad before I could entertain it. And did a man try to persuade me that treachery, cruelty, or ingratitude were as praiseworthy as honesty and temperance, and that a man who lived the life of a knave and died the death of a brute had nothing to fear from future retribution, I should think there was no call on me to listen to his arguments, except with the hope of converting him, though he called me a bigot and a coward for refusing to inquire into his speculations. And if, in a matter in which my temporal interests were concerned, he attempted to reconcile me to fraudulent acts by what he called philosophical views, I should say to him, “Retro Satana,” and that, not from any suspicion of his ability to reverse immutable principles, but from a consciousness of my own moral changeableness, and a fear, on that account, that I might not be intellectually true to the truth. This, then, from the nature of the case, is a main characteristic of certitude in any matter, to be confident indeed that that certitude will last, but to be confident of this also, that, if it did fail, nevertheless, the thing itself, whatever it is, of which we are certain, will remain just as it is, true and irreversible. If this be so, it is easy to instance cases of an adherence to propositions, which does not fulfil the conditions of certitude; for instance:—
(1.) How positive and circumstantial disputants may be on both sides of a question of fact, on which they give their evidence, till they are called to swear to it, and then how guarded and conditional their testimony becomes! Again, how confident are they in their rival accounts of a transaction at which they were present, till a third person makes his appearance, whose word will be decisive about it! Then they suddenly drop their tone, and trim their statements, and by provisos and explanations leave themselves loopholes for escape, in case his testimony should turn out to their disadvantage. At first no language could be too bold or absolute to express the distinctness of their knowledge on this side or that; but second thoughts are best, and their giving way shows that their belief does not come up to the mark of certitude.
(2.) Again, can we doubt that many a confident expounder of Scripture, who is so sure that St. Paul meant this, and that St. John and St. James did not mean that, would be seriously disconcerted at the presence of those Apostles, if their presence were possible, and that they have now an especial “boldness of speech” in treating their subject, because there is no one authoritatively to set them right, if they are wrong?
(3.) Take another instance, in which the absence of certitude is professed from the first. Though it is a matter of faith with Catholics that miracles never cease in the Church, still that this or that professed miracle really took place, is for the most part only a matter of opinion, and when it is believed, whether on testimony or tradition, it is not believed to the exclusion of all doubt, whether about the fact or its miraculousness. Thus I may believe in the liquefaction of St. Pantaleon’s blood, and believe it to the best of my judgment to be a miracle, yet, supposing a chemist offered to produce exactly the same phenomena under exactly similar circumstances by the materials put at his command by his science, so as to reduce what seemed beyond nature within natural laws, I should watch with some suspense of mind and misgiving the course of his experiment, as having no Divine Word to fall back upon as a ground of certainty that the liquefaction was miraculous.
(4.) Take another virtual exhibition of fear; I mean irritation and impatience of contradiction, vehemence of assertion, determination to silence others,—these are the tokens of a mind which has not yet attained the tranquil enjoyment of certitude. No one, I suppose, would say that he was certain of the Plurality of worlds: that uncertitude on the subject is just the explanation, and the only explanation satisfactory to my mind, of the strange violence of language which has before now dishonoured the philosophical controversy upon it. Those who are certain of a fact are indolent disputants; it is enough for them that they have the truth; and they have little disposition, except at the call of duty, to criticize the hallucinations of others, and much less are they angry at their positiveness or ingenuity in argument; but to call names, to impute motives, to accuse of sophistry, to be impetuous and overbearing, is the part of men who are alarmed for their own position, and fear to have it approached too nearly. And in like manner the intemperance of language and of thought, which is sometimes found in converts to a religious creed, is often attributed, not without plausibility (even though erroneously in the particular case), to some flaw in the completeness of their certitude, which interferes with the harmony and repose of their convictions.
(5.) Again, this intellectual anxiety, which is incompatible with certitude, shows itself in our running back in our minds to the arguments on which we came to believe, in not letting our conclusions alone, in going over and strengthening the evidence, and, as it were, getting it by heart, as if our highest assent were only an inference. And such too is our unnecessarily declaring that we are certain, as if to reassure ourselves, and our appealing to others for their suffrage in behalf of the truths of which we are so sure; which is like our asking another whether we are weary and hungry, or have eaten and drunk to our satisfaction.
All laws are general; none are invariable; I am not writing as a moralist or casuist. It must ever be recollected that these various phenomena of mind, though signs, are not infallible signs of uncertitude; they may proceed, in the particular case, from other circumstances. Such anxieties and alarms may be merely emotional and from the imagination, not intellectual; parallel to the beating of the heart, nay, as I have been told, the trembling of the limbs, of even the bravest men, before a battle, when standing still to receive the first attack of the enemy. Such too is that palpitating self-interrogation, that trouble of the mind lest it should not believe strongly enough, which, and not doubt, underlies the sensitiveness described in the well-known lines,—
“With eyes too tremblingly awake,
To bear with dimness for His sake.”
And so again, a man’s over-earnestness in argument may arise from zeal or charity; his impatience from loyalty to the truth; his extravagance from want of taste, from enthusiasm, or from youthful ardour; and his restless recurrence to argument, not from personal disquiet, but from a vivid appreciation of the controversial talent of an opponent, or of his own, or of the mere philosophical difficulties of the subject in dispute. These are points for the consideration of those who are concerned in registering and explaining what may be called the meteorological phenomena of the human mind, and do not interfere with the broad principle which I would lay down, that to fear argument is to doubt the conclusion, and to be certain of a truth is to be careless of objections to it;—nor with the practical rule, that mere assent is not certitude, and must not be confused with it.
2. Now to consider what Certitude positively is, as a matter of experience.
It is accompanied, as a state of mind, by a specific feeling, proper to it, and discriminating it from other states, intellectual and moral, I do not say, as its practical test or as its differentia, but as its token, and in a certain sense its form. When a man says he is certain, he means he is conscious to himself of having this specific feeling. It is a feeling of satisfaction and self-gratulation, of intellectual security, arising out of a sense of success, attainment, possession, finality, as regards the matter which has been in question. As a conscientious deed is attended by a self-approval which nothing but itself can create, so certitude is united to a sentiment sui generis in which it lives and is manifested. These two parallel sentiments indeed have no relationship with each other, the enjoyable self-repose of certitude being as foreign to a good deed, as the self-approving glow of conscience is to the perception of a truth; yet knowledge, as well as virtue, is an end, and both knowledge and virtue, when reflected on, carry with them respectively their own reward in the characteristic sentiment, which, as I have said, is proper to each. And, as the performance of what is right is distinguished by this religious peace, so the attainment of what is true is attested by this intellectual security.
And, as the feeling of self-approbation, which is proper to good conduct, does not belong to the sense or to the possession of the beautiful or of the becoming, of the pleasant or of the useful, so neither is the special relaxation and repose of mind, which is the token of Certitude, ever found to attend upon simple Assent, on processes of Inference, or on Doubt; nor on investigation, conjecture, opinion, as such, or on any other state or action of mind, besides Certitude. On the contrary, those acts and states of mind have gratifications proper to themselves, and unlike that of Certitude, as will sufficiently appear on considering them separately.
(1.) Philosophers are fond of enlarging on the pleasures of Knowledge, (that is, Knowledge as such,) nor need I here prove that such pleasures exist; but the repose in self and in its object, as connected with self, which I attribute to Certitude, does not attach to mere knowing, that is, to the perception of things, but to the consciousness of having that knowledge. The simple and direct perception of things has its own great satisfaction; but it must recognize them as realities, and recognize them as known, before it becomes the perception and has the satisfaction of certitude. Indeed, as far as I see, the pleasure of perceiving truth without reflecting on it as truth, is not very different, except in intensity and in dignity, from the pleasure, as such, of assent or belief given to what is not true, nay, from the pleasure of the mere passive reception of recitals or narratives, which neither profess to be true nor claim to be believed. Representations of any kind are in their own nature pleasurable, whether they be true or not, whether they come to us, or do not come, as true. We read a history, or a biographical notice, with pleasure; and we read a romance with pleasure; and a pleasure which is quite apart from the question of fact or fiction. Indeed, when we would persuade young people to read history, we tell them that it is as interesting as a romance or a novel. The mere acquisition of new images, and those images striking, great, various, unexpected, beautiful, with mutual relations and bearings, as being parts of a whole, with continuity, succession, evolution, with recurring complications and corresponding solutions, with a crisis and a catastrophe, is highly pleasurable, quite independently of the question whether there is any truth in them. I am not denying that we should be baulked and disappointed to be told they were all untrue, but this seems to arise from the reflection that we have been taken in; not as if the fact of their truth were a distinct element of pleasure, though it would increase the pleasure, as investing them with a character of marvellousness, and as associating them with known or ascertained places. But even if the pleasure of knowledge is not thus founded on the imagination, at least it does not consist in that triumphant repose of the mind after a struggle, which is the characteristic of Certitude.
And so too as to such statements as gain from us a half-assent, as superstitious tales, stories of magic, of romantic crime, of ghosts, or such as we follow for the moment with a faint and languid assent,—contemporary history, political occurrences, the news of the day,—the pleasure resulting from these is that of novelty or curiosity, and is like the pleasure arising from the excitement of chance and from variety; it has in it no sense of possession: it is simply external to us, and has nothing akin to the thought of a battle and a victory.
(2.) Again, the Pursuit of knowledge has its own pleasure,—as distinct from the pleasures of knowledge, as it is distinct from that of consciously possessing it. This will be evident at once, if we consider what a vacuity and depression of mind sometimes comes upon us on the termination of an inquiry, however successfully terminated, compared with the interest and spirit with which we carried it on. The pleasure of a search, like that of a hunt, lies in the searching, and ends at the point at which the pleasure of Certitude begins. Its elements are altogether foreign to those which go to compose the serene satisfaction of Certitude. First, the successive steps of discovery, which attend on an investigation, are continual and ever-extending informations, and pleasurable, not only as such, but also as the evidence of past efforts, and the earnest of success at the last. Next, there is the interest which attaches to a mystery, not yet removed, but tending to removal,—the complex pleasure of wonder, expectation, sudden surprises, suspense, and hope, of advances fitful, yet sure, to the unknown. And there is the pleasure which attaches to the toil and conflict of the strong, the consciousness and successive evidences of power, moral and intellectual, the pride of ingenuity and skill, of industry, patience, vigilance, and perseverance.
Such are the pleasures of investigation and discovery; and to these we must add, what I have suggested in the last sentence, the logical satisfaction, as it may be called, which accompanies these efforts of mind. There is great pleasure, as is plain, at least to certain minds, in proceeding from particular facts to principles, in generalizing, discriminating, reducing into order and meaning the maze of phenomena which nature presents to us. This is the kind of pleasure attendant on the treatment of probabilities which point at conclusions without reaching them, or of objections which must be weighed and measured, and adjusted for what they are worth, over and against propositions which are antecedently evident. It is the special pleasure belonging to Inference as contrasted with Assent, a pleasure almost poetical, as twilight has more poetry in it than noon-day. Such is the joy of the pleader, with a good case in hand, and expecting the separate attacks of half a dozen acute intellects, each advancing from a point of his own. I suppose this was the pleasure which the Academics had in mind, when they propounded that happiness lay, not in finding the truth, but in seeking it. To seek, indeed, with the certainty of not finding what we seek, cannot in any serious matter, be pleasurable, any more than the labour of Sisyphus or the Danaides; but when the result does not concern us very much, clever arguments and rival ones have the attraction of a game of chance or skill, whether or not they lead to any definite conclusion.
(3.) Are there pleasures of Doubt, as well as of Inference and of Assent? In one sense, there are. Not indeed, if doubt simply means ignorance, uncertainty, or hopeless suspense; but there is a certain grave acquiescence in ignorance, a recognition of our impotence to solve momentous and urgent questions, which has a satisfaction of its own. After high aspirations, after renewed endeavours, after bootless toil, after long wanderings, after hope, effort, weariness, failure, painfully alternating and recurring, it is an immense relief to the exhausted mind to be able to say, “At length I know that I can know nothing about any thing,”—that is, while it can maintain itself in a posture of thought which has no promise of permanence, because it is unnatural. But here the satisfaction does not lie in not knowing, but in knowing there is nothing to know. It is a positive act of assent or conviction, given to what in the particular case is an untruth. It is the assent and the false certitude which are the cause of the tranquillity of mind. Ignorance remains the evil which it ever was, but something of the peace of Certitude is gained in knowing the worst, and in having reconciled the mind to the endurance of it.
* * *
I may seem to have been needlessly diffuse in thus dwelling on the pleasurable affections severally attending on these various conditions of the intellect, but I have had a purpose in doing so. That Certitude is a natural and normal state of mind, and not (as is sometimes objected) one of its extravagances or infirmities, is proved indeed by the remarks which I have made above on the same objection, as directed against Assent; for Certitude is only one of its forms. But I have thought it well in addition to suggest, even at the expense of a digression, that as no one would refuse to Inquiry, Doubt, and Knowledge a legitimate place among our mental constituents, so no one can reasonably ignore a state of mind which not only is shown to be substantive by possessing a sentiment sui generis and characteristic, but is analogical to Inquiry, Doubt, and Knowledge, in the fact of its thus having a sentiment of its own.