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  • An Educated Conscience:Perception and Reason in Newman's Account of Conscience
  • Frederick D. Aquino (bio)

An important feature of conscience, for John Henry Newman, is the capacity to sense things divine.1 This feature entails a kind of moral perception. In some texts, for example, Newman describes conscience as the capacity to "perceive the voice, or the echoes of the voice, of a Master, living, personal, and sovereign" (Grammar 77; see also Philosophical Notebook 59; Certain Difficulties 247, 255; Parochial and Plain Sermons 237). However, he complicates things a bit in his sermon, "The Usurpations of Reason," by stating that our capacity to detect moral truths happens "without any intelligible reasoning process" (Fifteen Sermons 56). At first glance, one may conclude from this quotation that conscience and reason, for Newman, are not only distinct but that the former does not need the latter to detect moral truths.

In this article, I argue that such a conclusion misses both the subtlety of Newman's employment of the term "reasoning" in this sermon and his understanding of the relationship between conscience and reason. More specifically, Newman's discussion of the relationship between reason and conscience needs to be couched within his overall account of faith and reason. For example, one of Newman's main concerns in the Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford is to examine existing accounts of faith and reason and thus to clarify the conditions under which Christian belief (or for that matter any belief) can be considered rational. Conscience certainly includes a perceptual feature, especially given Newman's emphasis on its basic or pre-trained aspect, but background beliefs, training, experience, and practice play a crucial role in how we learn to perceive and make sense of things divine. As I hope to show, Newman's notion of an "educated conscience" is saturated (or shaped) by a kind of implicit reasoning, the operation of which is external to a person's awareness.2

Along these lines, I will restrict the focus of this article to four aspects of Newman's thought on conscience. The first section will explain in what sense Newman thinks of conscience as a natural element of our cognitive existence. The second section will spell out Newman's notion of an educated [End Page 63] conscience. The training and development of conscience is important for learning to render apt moral judgments concerning particulars. The third section will show how his distinction between the domains of papal and civil authority illustrates the importance and relevance of forming an educated conscience. The fourth section will clarify Newman's seemingly stark contrast between conscience and reason in "The Usurpations of Reason." I will conclude with some brief constructive suggestions on how to re-read Newman's concept of an educated conscience in light of recent work on perception.

Conscience as a Natural Element of Mind

Newman's conception of conscience is a nice illustration of his naturalized epistemology.3 In line with the British Naturalist tradition, Newman thinks that our actual cognitive existence serves as a fundamental basis for taking up the question about the status of the operations of our cognitive faculties and their reliability. Natural belief-forming faculties such as memory, sense perception, and reason enable us to acquire epistemic goods such as rational beliefs, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. For Newman, conscience is likewise a natural element of our mind (not some secret sense that is added to our nature). It is as much of a native endowment as memory, sense perception, and reason (Grammar 73–74). In a letter to Charles Meynell, Newman says that "the dictate of conscience, which is natural and the voice of God, is a moral instinct, and its own evidence—as the belief in an external world is an instinct on the apprehension of sensible phenomena. That to deny those instincts is an absurdity, because they are the voice of nature" (Letters and Diaries 24: 294). The moral sense, Newman adds, is "so intimately one with our minds that it may justly be considered a natural principle" (Theological Papers 120).4

Although Newman thinks that conscience is a natural part of our cognitive...


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