Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts in Philosophy



First Advisor

Fritz Wenisch


The central problem of this paper is to decide the significance of formal argument for God's existence, in light of John Henry Newman's distinction between notional and real assent. If God in fact exists, then only real assent to the proposition asserting his existence is adequate. Notional assent is inadequate because it is assent to a notion or abstraction, and not to a present reality. But on Newman's view it is notional assent which normally follows on a formal inference, therefore the significance of traditional formal arguments is thrown into question.

Newman has claimed that our attitude toward a proposition may be one of three; we may doubt it, infer it, or assent to it, and to assent to it is to hold it unconditionally. That unconditional assent may be of two kinds, notional or real. A notional assent is an assent to a proposition whose terms are apprehended as notions; a real assent is an assent to a proposition whose terms stand for things or for images, and Newman says alternately both. The former position, that in real assent the terms of a proposition stand for things, requires a strongly realistic theory of knowledge, which Newman seems to deny. Because the distinction cannot be tied to that between notions and things; because of epistemologicai constraints, nor to singular and general terms, because the relationship is indirect, images assume great importance. But Newman is concerned with assents to many propositions containing terms we cannot imagine in the ordinary sense, consequently "image" is understood broadly.

One of those propositions is the proposition "God exists" and Newman offers an argument in its support, an argument from conscience, and he describes the characteristics of a real assent to God's existence. It involves an image especially of the predicate term, which is personal because it arises out of the individual's experience, and practical because images affect our feelings, and we act when our feelings direct us. The argument divides conscience into sanction, or "commanding- ness" and law, or what is commanded. It derives its force from the sanction of conscience; conscience could not have its authority over us, and we would not respond emotionally as we do, if God did not exist.

Newman has overlooked traditional metaphysical proofs as a source of the same kind of real, imaginative, assent. Existential interpreters of Thomas Aquinas, and existentialists in general have described quite well the real apprehension of existence which makes possible real assent to the proposition "God exists", and at the same time lends force to the traditional argument from contingent existence.



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