Q&A with Marial Corona

We were pleased to chat with Marial Corona about her research on John Newman’s life and contributions to philosophical study, which is the focus of her book The Philosophy of John Henry Newman and Pragmatism. Corona completed her PhD at the University of Navarra (2020) and is currently the program coordinator for the cultural forum at the Lumen Christi Institute in Chicago.

Q: Newman is often thought of as a theologian, apologist, or even an educator, not a philosopher. Why did you choose to study his work from this vantage point?

A: Newman was not a systematic thinker and did not see himself as a philosopher. However, through his published works, sermons, and personal correspondence, he labored to provide a coherent response to the idealism that permeated much of the twentieth century. When he was twenty, he expressed in his diary his determination to follow the truth wherever it may lead him, and in the seventy years that followed, he sought not only to be coherent with truth in his own thoughts and actions but to articulate how can every person, educated or not, come to know the truth and assent to it. The earliest lecture on Newman’s philosophy I found was made by his first biographer, Wilfrid Ward, in 1914. Since then, there’s been a sparse but steady study of his philosophical contributions, which has intensified in recent years. His commitment to truth that steered clear of fundamentalism and relativism, made his work personally attractive to me.

Q: How did the connection between Newman and Charles Peirce came about? 

A: After I completed my Master’s thesis on Newman’s educational ideas, my advisor gave me a book that compiled his articles on Charles Peirce and was subtitled A Thinker for the 21st Century. As I read the chapter devoted to abduction, its affinity with Newman’s illative sense firmly caught my attention. Before committing to a research topic for my doctoral dissertation, I wrote a short essay in which I identified six affinities between Newman’s and Peirce’s thought to test whether my intuition of placing Newman within the orbit of pragmatism, as a possible forerunner, was doable. In doing so, I realized that there are broad lines of convergence between these two authors. In fact, the studies of Newman’s philosophy from the early twentieth century placed him within the pragmatist tradition. While Newman did not know about Peirce, Peirce was familiar with Newman’s work and owned a copy of the Grammar of Assent. The fact both described aspects of the reasoning process with almost identical words within a 4-year time frame persuaded me that studying their thought side-by-side could be a fruitful endeavor. 

Q: What would you say is pragmatism’s contribution to philosophical research?

A: Charles Peirce, the father of pragmatism, sustained that philosophy can provide a service to human reason by examining ideas in terms of their effects on behavior. By focusing on “conceivable effects,” Peirce did not deny the objectivity of truth, nor did he examine it from an abstract point of view. Precisely because he believed that truth exists and individuals can come to its knowledge, he identified the scientific method as an effective means of inquiry. He did not equate it with consensus; rather, he identified it with the objective existing reality discovered through inquiry when carried out by a community of experts who build upon the findings of those who preceded them. My study favors a Peircean account of pragmatism which, I believe, offers effective resources to think about pluralism, consensus, and compromise, much-needed values in today’s world. John Dewey followed Peirce’s account of pragmatism; I deeply resonate with his admonition to philosophers: “Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.”

Q: Can you share something that startled you about Newman? What is your main takeaway after these years of study?

A: I deeply enjoyed reading his correspondence which, thanks to the priests of the Oratory, has been compiled into 31 volumes, and to the National Institute for Newman Studies has been digitalized. The honesty of his life-long search for and commitment to truth deeply convicted me. When he was 58, after a few particularly trying years, he wrote to a dear friend “I have always preached that things which are really useful, still are done, according to God’s will, at one time or another and that, if you attempt at a wrong time, what in itself is right, you perhaps become a heretic or schismatic. What I may aim at may be real and good, but it may be God’s will it should be done a hundred years later […] Of course it is discouraging to be out of joint with time, and to be snubbed and stopped as soon as I begin to act.” How he dealt with this discouragement while continuing to be deeply committed to his evangelizing mission is a great model for me to follow.

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