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By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

11/2/2012 (4 years ago)

Catholic Online (

The illative sense also guides us to the unknown known, to the God unknown by reason, whom we know nevertheless exists

The illative sense is what allows us to take our concrete human experiences--whether they be of nature's beauty, of the demands of conscience (the feeling of guilt, the pangs of remorse, the search for forgiveness), of the sense of the contingency of life, of the peaceful joy elicited by the shallow breathing of your sleeping child beside you in bed, of the honor given to a soldier who sacrificed his life for his fellows, of the haunting beauty of the second movement of Schubert's Piano Sonata in A major, of the pathos of G. M. Hopkins' poem "Spring and Fall," of indeed any created good or beautiful thing--and come to the conclusion that there must be a transcendent reality behind it all, ultimately, He whom we call or know as God.


By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (

11/2/2012 (4 years ago)

Published in Year of Faith

Keywords: illative sense, God, natural theology, proofs of God, John Henry Cardinal Newman, Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - Most of us have not heard of the "illative sense," but we all possess it.  "It is a grand word for a common thing," wrote Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman in his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent.  It is not fatal that we don't know how to define the illative sense, so long as we have it and use it.  We might adapt that famous saying of Thomas ŕ Kempis regarding compunction: we should rather want to have the illative sense than define it, though perhaps best of all would be to be able to both define it and have it.

To have a natural theology, that is, to know that God exists through reason, we need to recruit our illative sense.  The illative sense is what allows us to take our concrete human experiences--whether they be of nature's beauty, of the demands of conscience (the feeling of guilt, the pangs of remorse, the search for forgiveness), of the sense of the contingency of life, of the peaceful joy elicited by the shallow breathing of your sleeping child beside you in bed, of the honor given to a soldier who sacrificed his life for his fellows, of the haunting beauty of the second movement of Schubert's Piano Sonata in A major, of the pathos of G. M. Hopkins' poem "Spring and Fall," of indeed any created good or beautiful thing--and come to the conclusion that there must be a transcendent reality behind it all, ultimately, He whom we call or know as God.

The potential fodder of the illative sense is the whole host of human experiences: desire, truth, perfection, transcendence, contingency, justice, good, hope, joy, beauty, love.  These experiences are the stuff with which the illative sense works.

The word "illative" comes from the Latin word "illatus," which means "brought in" or "carried into."  And so it is that the illative sense brings us into or carries us into faith, sort of like a butler invites us into the master's mansion.  In Aidan Nichols' words, the illative sense is the kind of reason that "gathers up the fragments of experience into a single and unified judgment," and this "heaping together of tiny indications, not on which by itself is conclusive, produces certitude in ordinary human affairs."

Without the illative sense, we would not be open to the transcendent, and therefore never be open to the reality of a God who has revealed himself to us.  Without this preliminary openness to God as a result of reason's illative sense, we would not be able to put our faith in that God who has revealed himself to us.  The illative sense is therefore a preamble to the faith.  It is the prelude to the "reasonable worship" of God, a "reasonable worship" to which St. Paul calls us to (Rom. 12:1) and to which today the Church, in what she calls the New Evangelization, calls us.

In his book An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, the Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman expanded on the notion of the illative sense.  He applied it to the human experience of conscience and moral duty to argue to the conclusion, based upon reason alone, that there must be a divine legislator, and hence God. 

As Newman himself put it: "My true informant, my burdened conscience. . . . pronounces without any misgiving that God exists, and it pronounces quite as surely that I am alienated from him . . . . Thus it solves the world's mystery and sees in that mystery only a confirmation of its own original teaching." 

But, as Aidan Nichols argues in his book A Grammar of Consent, the illative sense can be applied to a whole host of human experiences, and not only the internal experience of conscience to arrive at probable conclusions that God exists.

In fact, we may reasonably rely on the experiences of others, Nichols argues, and not only our own.  Nichols warns however that if we are going to rely on the experience of others in a sort of appeal to authority or argumentum ad verecundiam, we ought to make sure that we look toward "persons of outstanding oral and intellectual integrity."

The illative sense is not the sort of narrow reason which is used in the empirical sciences, or mathematics, or logic, or any serious academic or professional discipline--what Newman called "explicit reason," and what the medieval scholastic called ratio. The conclusions yielded by this reason, which are built upon inference and are clearly demonstrable, are solid but rigid, sort of like an iron rod.  They have their place.  But they also have their place.

There is another place and another kind of reason adequate to that other place.  This is the reason Newman called the illative sense.

The illative sense is found in that broader reason which Newman called "implicit reason," and what the medieval scholastic called intellectus.  Implicit reason is almost an intellectual feltness.  It is the kind of thinking we use every day, all the time, without even thinking about it.  The conclusions it yields, which are based upon converging probabilities and not strict demonstration, result in assent, and, when dealing with ultimate reality and with the aid of grace, the unique assent we call faith.  These converging and convincing probabilities are like a cable, each individual strand cannot stand on its own, but when all the strands of its thought are all considered together, it has formidable strength but also pliability.

In one of his sermons, Newman compares this sort of implicit reason to a rock climber.  Anyone who has climbed up the side of a cliff will immediately grasp what Newman is talking about:

"The mind ranges to and fro, and spreads out, and advances forward with a quickness which has become a proverb, and a subtlety and versatility which baffle investigation.  It passes on from point to point, gaining one  by some indication; another on a probability; then availing itself of an association; then falling back on some received law; next seizing on testimony; then committing itself to some popular impression, or some inward instinct, or some obscure memory; and thus it makes progress not unlike a clamberer on a steep cliff, who, by quick eye, prompt hand, and firm foot, ascends, how he knows not himself, by personal endowments and by practice, rather than by rule, leaving no track behind him, and unable to teach another."

This broader reason, a sort of intrinsic transcendental blik within us, allows us to go beyond our experiences and transcend them.  As Aidan Nichols puts it, this reason, basing itself upon human experience, prompts us (but doesn't force us, for it is a delicate instrumentality and we can squelch it) nevertheless to make assertions that transcend or go beyond that experience, yet in a manner that cannot be considered "abuses of reason" or even "beyond reason."  This means that reason can make assertions of reality that reason itself does not fully understand.  Reason tends to go beyond our experience.  "Reason itself tends to exceed the evidence: if it did not . . . human living would be rendered impossible," observes Nichols. 

The fact is that there are "many truths in concrete matter, which no one can demonstrate yet every one unconditionally accepts," Newman observes.  Newman lists a number of them: that we are not the only being in the world that exists, that there is an external world different from us, that there is such a thing as parts and a whole, that the universe appears to operate through certain laws, that the future relies upon the past, that we are the cause of certain things.  These truths extend beyond abstract truths to even concrete truths such as that the earth is a globe and revolves around a sun, that there are cities that exist though we may not have visited them or that they continue to exist though we have not visited them in a long time, that Charlemagne was the King of the Franks many years ago.  The existence of God is the kind of truth that falls within this kind of truth.

Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of State under George W. Bush, famously stated, "There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."  Rumsfeld left out one category.  There are also unknown knowns, the things we do not know we know. 

The known knowns are our human experiences.  In the words of Newman we have real apprehension of these.  The known unknowns and the unknown knowns are what the illative sense or intellectus is all about. In Newman's words, these are notional apprehensions.   From a known known--our experience--we are able, through the illative sense to know a known unknown--that God, the First Cause and Final Cause, exists, and this though we do not see him. 

The illative sense also guides us to the unknown known, to the God unknown by reason, whom we know nevertheless exists.  This is the famous "unknown God" to reason, the agnostos theos, the true God whom the Greeks unknowingly worshiped, as St. Paul described it to the Athenians in his speech at the Areopagus.  (Acts 17:23)  It is this God whose existence we can can be certain of from the things that are made (Rom. 1:20) by using the illative sense.  This illative sense is in us "so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us.  For 'In him we live and move and have our being,' as even some of your poets have said, 'For we too are his offspring.'"  (Acts 17:27-28)

Once at this threshold of knowing the existence of the unknown God, something reason's path takes us to, we are at the threshold out of realm of reason which is the same threshold that will lead us into the realm of faith.  Here, Newman's great contribution in his An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent is to show how it is reasonable to believe what you cannot know by reason alone (an unknown known) and how you can believe what you cannot absolutely prove by reason alone (a known unknown). 

Faith in the God who reveals, and faith in that which God has revealed, though not the result of reason and not within its power  (it is the result of a gift, a grace, of the revealing God), is not unreasonable, but in fact seems to be a perfect supernatural fit to the limits of natural reason.  It is like a peg which fits perfectly in the pocket reason has made for it.

As Newman put it in the lips of the Catholic priest in his novel Loss and Gain: "You must make a venture; faith is a venture before a man is a Catholic; it is a grace after it." 

Reason's illative sense is the "venture."  The Catholic faith is the "grace." 

The illative sense, relying upon the created world for its data, will lead to the morally certain conclusion that God exists.  The Catholic faith, relying on what that God has revealed in the deposit of faith, will lead us to a different kind of certainty, one yet more sure.  It will leads us to assent to the truth that: "In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word." (Heb. 1:1-3).

As we go from the illative sense to faith, we invariably find ourselves in the posture of prayer:  As St. Anselm put it invoking the words of the prophet Isaiah (7:9):  "I do not try, Lord, to attain Your lofty heights, because my understanding is in no way equal to it. But I do desire to understand Your truth a little, that truth that my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that 'unless I believe, I shall not understand.'"

From illation, to prayer, to faith: semper superne nitens.


Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at


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