1902 Encyclopedia > Belief


BELIEF (_____, Fidet, Foi, _____), with its synonyms Assurance, Confidence, Conviction, Credence, Trust, Per-suasion, Faith, is in popular language taken to mean the acceptation of something as true which is not known to be true, the mental attitude being a conviction that is not so strong as certainty, but is stronger than mere opinion. For the grounds of such conviction, ordinary language refers at once to probable as opposed to intuitive or demonstra-tive evidence. Such popular phrases do not, of course, amount to a definition of belief; but this is not to be expected from them, especially if, as may be laid down with some confidence, no logical definition of the process be possible. It may be described and marked off from similar or contrasted states, but a rigidly scientific defini-tion of what appears to be a simple, ultimate fact is not attainable. The general explanation, however, is so far unsatisfactory in that it throws no light upon the most interesting question with regard to belief, its province, and does not tell us what are the objects of belief as opposed to those of knowledge. To answer this it is necessary to describe somewhat more minutely the mental process under examination.

l This has b«en pointed out by a long line of thinkers, from Aris-totle to Jacob! and Hamilton.
1 So knowledge through the senses is called Offeribarimg by Jacob! and JDotn (Mibrokomws, ill 518).

1. Unfortunately for purposes of analysis, the word belief is used in a variety of relations which seem at first sight to have but little in common. We are said to believe in what lies beyond the limits of our temporal experience, in the supersensible, in God and a future life. Again, we are said to believe in the first principles or ultimate verities from which all trains of demonstration must start; as conditions of demonstration, these are themselves inde-monstrable, and are therefore objects of belief.1 We receive by belief perceptions of single matters of fact, which from their very nature cannot be demonstrated.1 We believe from memory the facts of past experience; we have expectation or belief in future events. We accept truths on the evidence of testimony; and finally, we believe that our actual consciousness of things is in harmony with reality. From this unsystematic arrangement of objects of belief it will be possible to eliminate certain classes by noting in the first instance what we are not said to believe, but to know. By knowledge may be understood generally the conviction of truth which rests on grounds valid for all intelligence, and which is expressed in proposi-tions necessary both for our thinking and for reality. At the same time we are commonly and correctly said to know states of consciousness when they are immediately present, together with their differences, similarities, connections, and relations to self. Whatever is necessarily connected with pre-sent experience, and can be logically deduced from it, is also matter not of belief but of knowledge. Again, we know all propositions of apodictic certainty, such as those of mathematics and logic. Mathematical propositions carry us beyond mere thinking; the laws which flow from the relations of space and time are not only thought but known to be true of all objects of sensible experience, for no objects whatsoever can form part of that experience save under these quantitative conditions. It is therefore an error to say that we believe abstract mathematical laws apply to objects; we know this with absolute certainty. So also our cognizance of logical principles, such as the laws of identity and contradiction, is matter of knowledge, of insight, not of belief. It would appear, therefore, that know-ledge extends to facts immediately present in conscious-ness, and to certain relations true of all facts of sensible experience; but in neither of these classes of cognition does there seem to be given an absolute guarantee for the exist-ence of any fact which is not immediately before us. That one object presented to us is known seems to give no actual knowledge that another object ideally connected with it has at the same time real being. Mathematical and logical laws are absolutely true of all experience to which they apply, but this truth gives no certainty that there will be experience. If there be objects of experience at all, they must be subject to mathematical and logical law; but the question remains, is there any ground, absolutely necessary and compelling assent, for holding that there will be such experience. This is an old matter of debate ; it lies at the very root of the distinction between knowledge and philosophical belief, and leads directly into the deepest problems of metaphysical science, its solution depending upon the answer given to the doubt whether or not our thinking is merely formal, receiving materials and working them up in forms which may have no correlates in reality. Hume, who in this connection has given the impulse to all subsequent British thinking, laid his finger with unerring precision on the crucial point, and deliberately relegated all _matter of fact to the province of belief. According to him, knowledge never passes beyond immediate intuition of ideas and their relations. Whenever we touch upon real existence, past or future, belief, not knowledge, is our instrument. An adequate discussion of the difficulty would lead beyond the limits of the present inquiry; it may suffice to indicate generally what can be said on one typical point of the debate. Is the supposition of a causal connection among phenomena merely belief, or is it a necessary condition of knowledge 3 If the latter, then our thinking carries us with apodictic certainty beyond present experience of facts, for every causal judgment is, ipso facto, universal, and therefore extends to all or any time. Now, no proof of the universality of law among phenomena can ever be given from empirical grounds, for all such attempts virtually involve the very principle in question. It is a necessary presupposition, without which knowledge would be impossible. Its contrary is certainly not self-contradic-tory, if by self-contradiction be meant impossibility of representation, for chaos can be pictured; but the power of imagination is surely not the criterion of truth. It is the power of knowing objects that is in question, and the non-existence of the causal relation among phenomena would render actual experience impossible. Objects cannot be known save under this supposition. A similar line of argument directed towards others of the notions involved in what Kant has called synthetical judgments a priori, would show that such notions are constitutive of our ex-perience, that thought penetrates deeply into phenomena, and that phenomenal relations are but types of the forms of real cognition. It might, of course, still be maintained that all these synthetical propositions are only formal,—are only true if experience be given,—and that a wide field is still left for belief. Under certain conditions this may be admitted. A doubt as to the very existence of experi-ence is hardly a valid argument, but that there should be specific connections of phenomena, permanent and con-stant—that, for example, the same cause should continue to have the same effects—may seem not quite a matter of knowledge. The real element of doubt in such a case is not, however, whether the same cause under the same conditions shall give the same effects, but whether in any definite instance we have attained a thorough knowledge of the cause itself, and whether the conditions will recur. The first of these doubts is overcome in the ordinary pro-gress of knowledge; the other concerns the empirical appearance of the effects, relates therefore to what may be called the contingent, and forms the object of belief.

It follows from what has been said that we exclude from the province of belief primitive truths and facts of immediate experience, with such phenomena, past or future, as are connected causally or by rational links with facts immediately known. There is still a wide field left for belief, (a.) In the stage of knowledge which we call sensible cognition belief introduces itself; for conscious-ness, which unhesitatingly affirms the correspondence of its content with reality, readily exhibits its falsity when sub-mitted to analysis. The belief, though firm, is shown to be erroneous,—to be merely the rapid summation of a number of signs, which themselves do not come clearly before consciousness, and are therefore accepted without examination. (6.) In memory of our own past experience belief is involved. When I remember, I have present to consciousness ideas which represent past reality. To have ideas simply is to imagine; to have ideas which we are con-vinced represent past experience is to have imagination plus belief, ».e., to remember. It should be observed that we are frequently said to trust our memory, to believe that what we remember is true. This phraseology is objectionable; we cannot properly be said to trust our memory, we simply use it. In the very fact of remembering is involved the reference to past reality which is the essence of belief, (c.) We believe testimony, i.e., we accept as true facts not in our experience, and which possibly may never be. In this case our belief is, that under certain conditions we should have the experience which from the testimony we can picture to ourselves, (d.) Expectation, so far as merely contingent elements are concerned, is a pure case of belief.

2. So far as we have yet seen, all objects of belief have been or may be objects of knowledge; and the most promi-nent distinction between the two is the presence in the one of an actual intuition and its absence in the other. This distinction, however, as we have pointed out,' is not absolute; all thinking of reality is not belief. Belief is rather the thinking of reality which is determined by grounds not necessarily valid for all intelligence, but satis-factory for the individual thinker. The difference between imagination and the thought of some reality does not seem capable of further analysis; it expresses an ultimate fact Attempts, however, have been made to work out a psycho-logy of belief, and to point out the characteristics differen-tiating ideas believed in from mere pictures of the mind. These have been generally due to British thinkers; and, since the time of Hume, the problem has become one of consider-able importance. Locke, who marked out very carefully the province of belief and considered its grounds, made no attempt to analyse the state itself. Hume,1 however, puts the question clearly before himself and returns an unhesi-tating answer. " As it is certain," he says, "there is a great difference betwixt the simple conception of the existence of an object and the belief of it, and as this difference lies not in the parts or composition of the idea which we conceive, it follows that it must be in the manner in which we conceive it. When we are convinced of any matter of fact, we do nothing but conceive it along with a certain feeling, different from what attends the reveries of imagination." " This feeling is nothing but a firmer con-ception or a faster hold that we take cf the object." " This manner of conception arises from a customary con-junction of the object with something present to the memory or senses." From the last sentence to the elaborate theory of James Mill is but a short step. According to Mill, belief is a case of constant association; an idea is believed which is irresistibly called up in connection with present experience. Thus in memory, the ideas of the past experience are irresistibly associated with the idea of myself experiencing them, and this irresistibility constitutes belief. Expectation, again, is the irresistible suggestion by present experience of a consequent or train of consequents. And to memory and expectation all ordinary cases of belief may be reduced.
Both these theories are defective in the same point,—the analysis of what is meant by object in general, and, con-sequently, of what is involved in thmking of an object. Hume's is open to the special objection that he makes the difference between the believed and imagined idea the same as that between impression and idea, which is an ultimate distinction, and yet holds the difference to be merely one of degree. In Mill's account of memory it may be pointed out that the ideas of past experience, and of myself as having had the experience, contain in themselves the very element which is supposed to be got out of their conjunction. With regard to expectation it is clear that ideas irresistibly suggested by present experience are by no means necessarily believed, and further, that many of our beliefs do not arise from any such association. J. S. Mill, who subjects the association theory of belief to a searching examination, comes to the conclusion that the distinction between thinking of a reality and representing to ourselves an imaginary picture is ultimate and primordial With his opinion later investigators, as Mr Sully,2 concur.

1 Note* to J. Mill's Analysis, i. Of. Dissertations, iii.
3 Sensation and Intuition. (On the Development of Belief.)

Professor Bain, in opposition to other psychologists, holds that belief is not so much an intellectual state as a " phase of our active nature, otherwise called the will." " It is a growth or development of the will under the pursuit of intermediate ends." When, for instance, we perform certain acts as means towards a desired end with as much vigour as if we were realizing the end itself, " we are in a very peculiar situation, not implied in desire." This situation is belief, which is essentially " an anticipation of the pleasure " of attaining the end. Belief being a form of activity, our primitive state is one of complete confidence. The mind is filled with its present experience, and con-fidently believes that the future will resemble it Ideas are so strongly taken up by the mind that they are accepted as real, and influence the will The various disappoint-ments of this primitive confidence give rise to definite avoidances of certain actions, and to pursuit of others, in order to escape pain or gain pleasure. Action directed towards these intermediate ends involves, or rather is, belief. This theory has to explain expectation and memory. With regard to the first, " we make light of the difference between the conceived future and the real present;" or in other words, " we are disposed to act in any direction where we have never been checked." Our primitive disposi-tion to act is equivalent to full expectation. It may be pointed out that this explanation throws no light on ex-pectation of events in which our activity could by no possibility be involved. But the theory seems to break down entirely when applied to memory. There is first to be explained the fact of memory, and then it has to be shown how reference to activity is contained in it. " In surrendering our mind to the idea still remaining, and so imparting a momentary quasi-reality, we have an experience possessing the characteristic features of present reality." " We really make no radical difference between a present and a proximate past." This, in the first place, would apply only to certain cases of memory. Secondly, impart-ing a quasi-reality is not an explanation of the peculiar phenomenon of an idea representing the past. It is an error, even on Professor Bain's own principles (see note to Mill's Analysis, i. 342; Emotions and Will, 2d ed. 525), to speak of belief in a present reality, while here memory is explained as a pseudo-realization of the ideas. Nor is he more successful in referring memory to activity. To identify my remembrance of having run up against a wall to avoid a carriage with the conviction that, should such a danger recur, I should again run up against the wall (see Emotionsand Will, 2d. ed., 554),is absurd. The whole theory seems but an instance of a not uncommon error in psycho-logy,—the confusion of the test or measure of a thing with the thing itself. Belief is truly a motive to action,8 and all that has been said of it by Professor Bain would hold good of it in this relation; to identify the two is to run together totally distinct processes.

Modern German psychology has not approached the pro-blem of belief from the same side as the English. Beneke alone, by his analysis of tact (see Lehrbuch der Psych., § 158, and System der Logih, i. 268, seq.), has opened up a somewhat fresh vein of thinking. His hints have been carried out by Germar (Die alte Streitfrage, Glauben oder Wissen, 1856), who gives the following definition of belief: "If the consciousness (of the truth of what we think) arises from tact, and therefore without consciousness of the factors or grounds through which it is produced, it is called belief; it is elevated to knowledge when these factors are brought before consciousness" (p. 58).' In general the example of Kant has been followed, who looked upon the question as belonging not so much to psychology as to the theory of knowledge. His own discussion of the subject and his distinction between Meinen, Glauben, and Wissen have powerfully influenced later thought. Accord-ing to him, Glaube (belief, in the sense of Fides as opposed to Gredulitas, Foi as opposed to Groyance) should be con-fined to such propositions as rest on grounds subjectively not merely sufficient but necessary; that is to say, the pro-positions believed in are recognized as the demands of our moral or practical reason, and their truth can never be disproved, for such disproof would be radically inconsistent with the moral nature which we are conscious of possessing. Our confidence in their truth is unwavering and practi-cal, i.e., leading to action; for without them we could not act in conformity with our moral nature. Never-theless, of the objects of such propositions we can never have scientific knowledge.

great diffienlty in reconciling his theory with ordinary phraseology. Such an expression as the following has a curions ring:—" Belief is identical with the activity or active disposition, at the moment, and with reference to the thing belimed."—(Note to Analysis, i. $96.) * With this view may be compared much of what is said by J. H. i Newman, Grammar of Assent; see specially 73, 281

3. Kant's distinction of Meinung and Glaube leads us directly to the one species of belief which has not yet been considered. All objects of belief, so far as has yet appeared, might come within our temporal experience; but we are said to believe in the supersensible, which from its very defini-tion seems to surpass experience and, consequently, know-ledge. To such belief the name faith is properly restricted, and in its nature it differs somewhat from the belief hitherto discussed. There is not, of course, included in it the specifically theological notion of faith as Fiducia (qwx est apprehensio meriti ®tav6punrov appropriativa ad me et te in individuo); it corresponds rather to the Notitia and Atsem-sus, which are also elements in theological faith, and may be defined as the subjective expression of man's relation to God. When understood in this sense, religious belief is by no means a mere feeling, though it contains feeling as one of the stages in its development, for mere feeling is in itself blind and valueless, whereas faith is intelligent or rational. Nor is it a blank faith which would have the same value whatever were the objects believed in, for religious belief has a definite content; it is the acceptation of certain facts and truths and the active realization of them. As its content is definite (for if it were not so, the religions of Christ and of Mahomet, of Buddha and of Zoroaster, would stand on the same level, all hat ing sub-jective faith or conviction), belief of necessity involves knowledge, rational construction of the facts.. believed. Faith is but the lower stage of completed insight, and in its own development follows the natural order of progress in knowledge, which begins with feeling and intuition, rises through concrete representation into logical connection, and finally culminates in rational cognition. So religious belief, which is primarily little more than a vague feeling of something over and beyond the present state of exist-ence, combined with the dim sense of our own finite and dependent condition, gradually rises to a higher stage, and in its efforts to attain some cognizance of the supersensible, begins even to attach itself to natural objects. But as it can find in these no satisfaction, it is compelled to con-struct some representations of the supernatural which shall harmonize with our spiritual wants. In the formation of these religious ideas we are not left without help, nor are they to be looked upon as mere figments of the mind. The revelation which has been given in nature, both physical and moral, and in the special experience to which the name is more frequently applied, furnishes matter which is laid hold of and pressed into the service. Religious belief or faith always attaches itself to representa-tions, intuitions, or facts; it gives what Newman has called Real as opposed to Notional Assent. But it is not the less necessary that faith should be raised to insight, and that we should construe in terms of thought what religious experience brings before us as direct intuition. There must be theology as well as religion. Nothing is believed which is not held to be so connected with the rational nature of man as irretrievably to injure that nature should its truth be overthrown. This is not to put know-ledge in place of faith, if knowledge be understood to apply only to the logically necessary; nor is it to assert that what have been called truths of revelation could have been discovered by natural reason. Knowledge, however, can-not be confined to the abstract understanding; and nothing is more delusive than the total opposition of revelation and reason. " What is there in the nature of things," says Augustine, " that God has done unreasonably ?" To affirm that reason does not of itself discover the truths of reve-lation, is simply to bring against it the reproach it may well bear, that it does not create experience. Reason has not to make new facts, but to accept given experience, and evolve from it the pure elements of thought which it con-tains, and in which its truth consists. Faith, therefore, precedes knowledge, as Anselm used to say; but its priority is that of time, not of authority.

4. There remains to be taken into account the interesting question of the grounds and motives for belief. It is, of course, necessary to distinguish between these two ; the cause of a belief may not be exactly a reason for it. Belief, though natural, is not always rational, but frequently rests with happy unconsciousness on foundations utterly inade-quate to its support. But if we disregard this distinction and include both causes and reasons under the title principles of belief, these may be divided into three classes —(1), Testimony; (2), Feelings, Desires, or Wishes ; (3), Evidence of Reason. These are rarely dissevered in actual practice. Testimony, to the reception of which the name belief is frequently restricted, is familiar enough to require no extended notice. Our natural tendency is to accept all testimony as true; it is experience alone that teaches caution. Where from the nature of the case no such experience is to be had, credulity settles down into firm and ineradicable conviction. The majority of men would be astonished to find how much their belief depends upon the society into which they have been born and in which they live. Dogmas at first forced upon a people gradually become ingrained in the minds of those brought up in habitual contact with them. There is hardly a limit to the possibility of mstilling beliefs through continued custom, and no resistance to analysis is so strong as that .offered by mere customary opinion, which has impercep-tibly introduced itself into the very life's blood of those who share it.

The feelings, though not so directly a source of convic-tions as testimony, exercise an extensive and complex influence on belief. It has always been a popular saying that a man believes what he wishes—that " the wish is father to the thought;" and there can be no doubt that the superior force given to an idea by the concentration on it of desire or affection, causes it to bulk so largely in consciousness as to exclude the thought of its non-realiza-tion. The very idea of a result opposed to what we earnestly desire is unpleasant enough to make us resolutely shut it out of sight. This, however, is but a partial and limited effect. We know very well that our belief is only occasionally swayed by our wishes, and that necessity too often constrains us to believe what we willingly would not. Our volition cannot directly compel belief. But the feelings play a more important part; for it is by their means primarily that we stretch beyond the field of direct knowledge and complete our limited experience with what we feel to be necessary for the harmony of our moral and religious nature. We believe that without which our nature would be dissatisfied, and this belief takes its rise in the feelings,—the blind expressions of intellectual want,— which form the first stage towards completed insight

It is hardly necessary to do more than refer to the rational grounds for belief. Wherever our knowledge of any object or law is incomplete, belief is ready to step in and fill up the gap by some hypothesis, which is in conformity with our experience, is rationally connected with the facts to be explained, and is not yet known to be true. Great portions of our so-called scientific knowledge are nothing but rational belief,—hypotheses unverified, perhaps even unverifiable,—and the settlement of the conditions or legitimacy of such presumptions forms the principal part of inductive logic.

Besides the works already referred to, the following treat of belief in general:— Fechner, Drei Motive und Grunde des Glaubens, 1863; Ulrici, Glauben und Wissen, Speculation und exacte Wissenschaft, 1858 ; of religious belief in particular, in addition to works on dogmatic theology or philosophy of religion:—Schwarz, Das Wesm der Religion, 1847; Asher, Der religiose Glaube, 1860; J. Kbstlin, Der Glaube, 1860 ; Venn, Hulsean Lectures for 1869. (R. AD.)


l This has b«en pointed out by a long line of thinkers, from Aris-totle to Jacob! and Hamilton.
1 So knowledge through the senses is called Offeribarimg by Jacob! and JDotn (Mibrokomws, ill 518).

Of. Lotxe, Mik., iii. 547. " When one affirms that every object of thought is identical with itself, that the same under the same con-ditions has the same oonsequenoes, under different conditions different oonsequenoes, that a cause precedes every effect,—all these are universal truths, which tell us, indeed, what must be or take place if there should

A theory somewhat similar to that of Hnme is worked oat by Mr Bagehot, Contemporary Review, April 1871.

be a case of their application, bat which tell as nothing of the real existence of any case."

It is so defined by Bain (Ment. and Moral Sc., 372), who finds

great difficulty in reconciling his theory with ordinary phraseology. Snch an expression as the following has a curions ring:—" Belief is identical with the activity or active disposition, at the moment, and with reference to the thing belimed."—(Note to Analysis, i. $96.) * With this view may be compared much of what is said by J. H. i Newman, Grammar of Assent; see specially 73, 281

See Scotus Erigena, De Divis. Natur., i. 69.

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