John Henry Newman and Synthetic Thinking

Upon further acquaintance (albeit still far from thorough), my opinion of John Henry Newman is improving. I was terribly disappointed by his thoroughly analytical approach to grammar. However, I’m getting a little better acquainted with him at second hand as I read through Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling by James Sire.

Dr. Sire is a great admirer of Newman, and makes him the focus of his attempts to define Christian intellectualism. I’m not even halfway through the book, but this is one of those that you read slowly and mark up heavily. (I’m pretty sure marginalia counts as a contribution to the Great Conversation.)

Because Newman’s prose is typically Victorian, Sire is selective about what he quotes, and he gives us seven suggestive excerpts from Newman’s seminal work, The Idea of a University. Since I’m pretty comfortable with Victorian prose, the language isn’t really a problem.

What was fascinating to me was that every single one of the selected quotes, which are meant to convey the general overview of Newman’s ideas, is basically advocating synthetic thinking. Much more eloquently and thoroughly than that, however. Here are some of the snippets I underlined:

…when we not only learn, but refer what we learn to what we know already.

…a truly great intellect…is one which takes a connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near, and which has insight into the influence of all these, one on another.

It [intellect] possesses the knowledge, not only of things, but also of their mutual and true relations…

…so intimate is it with the eternal order of things…

…he observes how separate truths lie relative to each other…

I suppose Science and Philosophy, in their elementary idea, are nothing else but this habit of viewing, as it may be called, the objects which sense conveys to the mind, of throwing them into system, and uniting and stamping them with one form.

[Raciocination] is the great principle of order in our thinking; it reduces chaos into harmony…

I was really quite enamored, myself, with Newman’s thorough comprehension of synthetic thinking and all that it entails. James Sire says that these excerpts take his breath away, and asserts “They awaken our sleeping minds.”

Which immediately put me in mind of Anne White’s new book, Minds More Awake, which I reviewed here.

Charlotte Mason caught that vision of synthetic thinking which had been the province of intellectuals like John Henry Newman for centuries and devoted her whole life to bringing that vision to the sleeping minds of parents, teachers, and of course, children. James Sire lauds John Henry Newman, and rightly so, for awakening sleeping minds, but I think Charlotte Mason’s influence has been very little less, though her audience was ordinary folks, and not ivory-tower intellectuals. Certainly, I suspect Charlotte Mason continues to be more widely read than Newman in the 21st century. Although I suspect I will have to delve more deeply into Newman, eventually. Maybe after I finish James Sire’s book.

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