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Duo portrait of Immanuel Kant and John Henry Newman.
Magis CenterApril 26, 20238 min read

What is Conscience? Quotes from Immanuel Kant and John Henry Newman

Plato believed that the highest reality was the good itself, that the good itself was present to human beings, and that we could know it through questioning and dialectic.

St. Paul brought these considerations to a whole new level by showing that all human beings could know the good (as well as evil) through their consciences. For St. Paul, “the law” is God’s law, and he asserts that God writes this law on the hearts of all people so distinctly that it accuses and defends them. 

St. Thomas Aquinas concurred with St. Paul and formulated a general explanation of conscience which has become a cornerstone of philosophy up to the present time. Conscience has two components: synderesis (an attraction to the good and a fear of evil) and an awareness of certain general precepts of the good. Aquinas associated these precepts of conscience with the natural law, holding that the natural law is part of God’s eternal law (see Summa Theologica I-II, Q. 91, art. 2).

Now, all of the above thinkers presume the existence of God and attempt to show that the good we know in our conscience comes from God. However, in the 18th Century, Immanuel Kant looked at the reverse contention. 

What is Conscience? Quotes from Immanuel Kant 

Instead of assuming the existence of God and inferring his presence in our conscience, Kant begins with the moral obligation imposed by conscience and moves to the existence of God: 

“Through the idea of the supreme good as object and final end of the pure practical reason the moral law leads to religion, that is, to the recognition of all duties as divine commands, not as sanctions, that is, as arbitrary commands of an alien will which are contingent in themselves, but as essential laws of every free will in itself, which, however, must be looked on as commands of the supreme Being, because it is only from a morally perfect (holy and good) and at the same time all-powerful will, and consequently only through harmony with this will, that we can hope to attain the highest good, which the moral law makes it our duty to take as the object of our endeavour.” —Immanuel Kant, Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason and Other Works on the Theory of Ethics 

Portrait of Immanuel Kant.Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

The essence of Kant’s thought here may be summarized in two statements (found in his Opus Postumum):

“In the moral-practical reason lies the categorical imperative to regard all human duties as divine commands.” —Immanuel Kant, Opus Postumum 

Which causes him to view God as follows:

“The concept of God is the concept of an obligation-imposing subject outside myself.” —Immanuel Kant, Opus Postumum

For Kant, the good (within our consciousness) is embedded within an absolute duty to do that good, which in its turn, is embedded within a divine source of that absolute duty. He cannot conceive of the good without the duty to do it (for what makes the good recognizable is the duty or imperative to do it), and he cannot conceive of an absolute duty to do the good without an absolute obligation-imposing subject outside himself. 

What is Conscience? Quotes from John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman brought this line of thought to a new level about eighty years later. Though he borrows the general structure of “existential inference” from Kant, he shifts the emphasis from an “obligation-imposing subject outside ourselves” to an “interpersonal, caring, fatherly authority who is the source of goodness and law.” While Kant moves from the good to God through two existential inferences, Newman uses five inferences (detailed below)—carefully to distinguish his sense of conscience from other natural phenomena. 

Portrait of John Henry Newman.Saint John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

John Henry Newman’s Main Contention

“Ward thinks I hold that moral obligation is, because there is a God. But I hold just the reverse, viz. there is a God, because there is a moral obligation. I have a certain feeling on my mind, which I call conscience. When I analyse this, I feel it involves the idea of a Father and a Judge—of one who sees my heart, etc.” —John Henry Newman, “Proof of Theism,” from The Argument from Conscience to the Existence of God according to J.H. Newman

Newman then proceeds to an assessment of the unity of his consciousness and his existence, which shows that his consciousness is as undeniable as his existence (since one cannot be aware of the latter without being aware of the former). He further shows that he has an immediate awareness of his consciousness, and therefore he does not have to deduce it or believe in it. 

“This is Conscience, and, from the nature of the case, its very existence carries on our minds to a Being exterior to ourselves; or else, whence did it come?” —John Henry Newman, “Proof of Theism,” from The Argument from Conscience to the Existence of God according to J.H. Newman

John Henry Newman’s 5 Inferences on Conscience 

Newman offers five inferences on Conscience. Below we look at his arguments and back them up with quotes. 

1. John Henry Newman observes that conscience commands him, and that this command includes "praise, blame, promise, a future, and the unseen."

“Man has within his breast a certain commanding dictate, not a mere sentiment, not a mere opinion, or impression, or view of things, but a law, an authoritative voice, bidding him do certain things and avoid others. I do not say that its particular injunctions are always clear, or that they are always consistent with each other; but what I am insisting on here is this, that it commands, that it praises, it blames, it promises, it threatens, it implies a future, and it witnesses the unseen.” —John Henry Newman, Sermons On Various Occasions 

2. John Henry Newman then observes that intrinsic to this “praise, blame, promise, etc.” is a concomitant awareness of an external source.

Here Newman is relating a dimension of his experience of conscience:

“Its very existence throws us out of ourselves and beyond ourselves, to go and seek for Him in the height and depth, whose voice it is.” —John Henry Newman, “Proof of Theism,” from The Argument from Conscience to the Existence of God according to J.H. Newman

3. John Henry Newman then shows that these feelings are not reducible to other kinds of feelings within human consciousness.

Newman contrasts the experience of conscience to the experience of what he calls “taste” (aesthetic experience) and shows that aesthetic experiences do not call me out of myself in an interpersonal way as does the experience of conscience. If conscience were only intrapersonal (private), it would resemble aesthetic experience, but it is so much more: 

“Now I can best explain what I mean by this peculiarity of feeling [intrinsic to conscience], by contrasting it with the rules of taste. As we have a notion of wrong and right, so we have of beautiful and ugly; but the latter set of notions is attended by no sanction. No hope or fear, no misgiving of the future, no feeling of being hurt, no tender sorrow, no sunny self-satisfaction, no lightness of heart attends on the acting with beauty or deformity. It is these feelings, which carry the mind out of itself and beyond itself, which imply a tribunal in future, and reward and punishment which are so special.” —John Henry Newman, “Proof of Theism,” from The Argument from Conscience to the Existence of God according to J.H. Newman

4. John Henry Newman shows that there is a personal dimension intrinsic to these special qualities of the feelings of conscience. 

He focuses on these special feelings to distill their interpersonal nature of them, revealing that these feelings could not be experienced were it not through a relationship with another person: 

“[T]he feeling is one analogous or similar to that which we feel in human matters towards a person whom we have offended; there is a tenderness almost tearful on going wrong, and a grateful cheerfulness when we go right, which is just what we feel in pleasing or displeasing a father or revered superior.” —John Henry Newman, “Proof of Theism,” from The Argument from Conscience to the Existence of God according to J.H. Newman

5. John Henry Newman shows this personal dimension is not completely similar to those experienced by human beings.

Newman demonstrates that the personal dimension is not completely similar to those experienced with human beings but has a divine dimension that is implicit in its supreme authority (like an unseen father):

“So that contemplating and revolving on this feeling the mind will reasonably conclude that it is an unseen father who is the object of the feeling. And this father has necessarily some of those special attributes which belong to the notion of God. He is invisible—He is the searcher of hearts—He is omniscient as far as man is concerned—He is (to our notions) omnipotent…” —John Henry Newman, “Proof of Theism,” from The Argument from Conscience to the Existence of God according to J.H. Newman

The Transcendental Nature of Our Conscience

Both Kant's and Newman's analysis of conscience show that anyone who cares to probe the distinctive quality of the good within himself will sense the presence of an obligation-imposing subject within it. If we allow the good to reveal itself within us, we will not only know of its divine origin, we will also know that the Divine is present to us—at once outside of us and embedded in the absolute duty of the good within us. 

Here we find God present to human consciousness in the omniscient, invisible, searcher of hearts who bids us to do good and avoid evil. This undeniable presence implies that we are transcendental (we have a soul).

Are there any other ways God is present in our consciousness? Both Rudolph Otto’s numinous experience and Mircea Eliade’s religious intuition also inform us of our connection to a sacred-transcendent reality. Learn more about the numinous experience and religious intuition in our articles, Rudolf Otto's 'Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans' in Our Experience of the Numen and What Draws Us to the Sacred? Mircea Eliade on Hierophany, Myths, and Homo Religiosus.

Note: This article is an adaption from Fr. Spitzer’s “Evidence of a Transcendent Soul.” To read the full text, click here.

Preview of Evidence for the Soul fact sheet.


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