Chapter 2. Assent considered as Apprehensive

{13} I HAVE already said of an act of Assent, first, that it is in itself the absolute acceptance of a proposition without any condition; and next that, in order to its being made, it presupposes the condition, not only of some previous inference in favour of the proposition, but especially of some concomitant apprehension of its terms. I proceed to the latter of these two subjects; that is, of Assent considered as apprehensive, leaving the discussion of Assent as unconditional for a later place in this Essay.

By apprehension of a proposition, I mean, as I have already said, the interpretation given to the terms of which it is composed. When we infer, we consider a proposition in relation to other propositions; when we assent to it, we consider it for its own sake and in its intrinsic sense. That sense must be in some degree known to us; else, we do but assert the proposition, we in no wise assent to it. Assent I have described to be a mental assertion; in its very nature then it is of the mind, and not of the lips. We can assert without assenting; assent is more than assertion just by this much, that it is accompanied by some apprehension {14} of the matter asserted. This is plain; and the only question is, what measure of apprehension is sufficient.

And the answer to this question is equally plain:—it is the predicate of the proposition which must be apprehended. In a proposition one term is predicated of another; the subject is referred to the predicate, and the predicate gives us information about the subject;—therefore to apprehend the proposition is to have that information, and to assent to it is to acquiesce in it as true. Therefore I apprehend a proposition, when I apprehend its predicate. The subject itself need not be apprehended per se in order to a genuine assent: for it is the very thing which the predicate has to elucidate, and therefore by its formal place in the proposition, so far as it is the subject, it is something unknown, something which the predicate makes known; but the predicate cannot make it known, unless it is known itself. Let the question be, "What is Trade?" here is a distinct profession of ignorance about "Trade;" and let the answer be, "Trade is the interchange of goods;"—trade then need not be known, as a condition of assent to the proposition, except so far as the account of it which is given in answer, "the interchange of goods," makes it known; and that must be apprehended in order to make it known. The very drift of the proposition is to tell us something about the subject; but there is no reason why our knowledge of the subject, whatever it is, should go beyond what the predicate tells us about it. Further than this the subject need not be apprehended: as far as this it must; it will not be apprehended thus far, unless we apprehend the predicate. {15}

If a child asks, "What is Lucern?" and is answered, "Lucern is medicago sativa, of the class Diadelphia and order Decandria;" and henceforth says obediently, "Lucern is medicago sativa, &c.," he makes no act of assent to the proposition which he enunciates, but speaks like a parrot. But, if he is told, "Lucern is food for cattle," and is shown cows grazing in a meadow, then, though he never saw lucern, and knows nothing at all about it, besides what he has learned from the predicate, he is in a position to make as genuine an assent to the proposition "Lucern is food for cattle," on the word of his informant, as if he knew ever so much more about lucern. And as soon as he has got as far as this, he may go further. He now knows enough about lucern, to enable him to apprehend propositions which have lucern for their predicate, should they come before him for assent, as, "That field is sown with lucern," or "Clover is not lucern."

Yet there is a way, in which the child can give an indirect assent even to a proposition, in which he understood neither subject nor predicate. He cannot indeed in that case assent to the proposition itself, but he can assent to its truth. He cannot do more than assert that "Lucern is medicago sativa," but he can assent to the proposition, "That lucern is medicago sativa is true." For here is a predicate which he sufficiently apprehends, what is inapprehensible in the proposition being confined to the subject. Thus the child's mother might teach him to repeat a passage of Shakespeare, and when he asked the meaning of a particular line, such as "The quality of mercy is not strained," or "Virtue itself {16} turns vice, being misapplied," she might answer him, that he was too young to understand it yet, but that it had a beautiful meaning, as he would one day know: and he, in faith on her word, might give his assent to such a proposition,—not, that is, to the line itself which he had got by heart, and which would be beyond him, but to its being true, beautiful, and good.

Of course I am speaking of assent itself, and its intrinsic conditions, not of the ground or motive of it. Whether there is an obligation upon the child to trust his mother, or whether there are cases where such trust is impossible, are irrelevant questions, and I notice them in order to put them aside. I am examining the act of assent itself, not its preliminaries, and I have specified three directions, which among others the assent may take, viz. assent immediately to a proposition itself, assent to its truth, and assent both to its truth and to the ground of its being true,—"Lucern is food for cattle,"—"That lucern is medicago sativa is true,"—and "My mother's word, that lucern is medicago sativa, and is food for cattle, is the truth." Now in each of these there is one and the same absolute adhesion of the mind to the proposition, on the part of the child; he assents to the apprehensible proposition, and to the truth of the inapprehensible, and to the veracity of his mother in her assertion of the inapprehensible. I say the same absolute adhesion, because unless he did assent without any reserve to the proposition that lucern was food for cattle, or to the accuracy of the botanical name and description of it, he would not be giving an unreserved assent to his mother's word: yet, though {17} these assents are all unreserved, still they certainly differ in strength, and this is the next point to which I wish to draw attention. It is indeed plain, that, though the child assents to his mother's veracity, without perhaps being conscious of his own act, nevertheless that particular assent of his has a force and life in it which the other assents have not, insomuch as he apprehends the proposition, which is the subject of it, with greater keenness and energy than belongs to his apprehension of the others. Her veracity and authority is to him no abstract truth or item of general knowledge, but is bound up with that image and love of her person which is part of himself, and makes a direct claim on him for his summary assent to her general teachings.

Accordingly, by reason of this circumstance of his apprehension he would not hesitate to say, did his years admit of it, that he would lay down his life in defence of his mother's veracity. On the other hand, he would not make such a profession in the case of the propositions, "Lucern is food for cattle," or "That lucern is medicago sativa is true;" and yet it is clear too, that, if he did in truth assent to these propositions, he would have to die for them also, rather than deny them, when it came to the point, unless he made up his mind to tell a falsehood. That he would have to die for all three propositions severally rather than deny them, shows the completeness and absoluteness of assent in its very nature; that he would not spontaneously challenge so severe a trial in the case of two out of the three particular acts of assent, illustrates in what sense one assent may be stronger than another. {18}

It appears then, that, in assenting to propositions, an apprehension in some sense of their terms is not only necessary to assent, as such, but also gives a distinct character to its acts. If therefore we would know more about Assent, we must know more about the apprehension which accompanies it. Accordingly to the subject of Apprehension I proceed.

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