Religious belief in Newman's Grammar of Assent.
The Grammar is organized into two major parts; the first five chapters on "Assent and Apprehension" deal with the different ways in which we apprehend a proposition, e.g., as a question or an assertion, and the latter five chapters on "Assent and Inference" deal with how we reason to the truth of doctrinal propositions. In each part, the early chapters tend to be systematic, of less interest perhaps than the final chapters of each part (chapters five and ten) when Newman gets to the point of exposition and which are the most instructive and enjoyable parts of the book. The Grammar can best be dealt with in terms of Newman's persistently logical approach applied to its discernible intellectual elements: its informal logic, its moral empiricism, the central importance of conscience, and Newman's attempt to construct a psychology of religious illumination.
Informal Logic of Religious Belief
A large part of the difficulty in approaching the Grammar is that it is not what it appears to be at first glance; that is, the book begins with two expository chapters giving Newman's explanation of the elements of the practical logic of how believers hold to religious doctrines. However, New man is not intending to follow the example of formal systems like those of J. S. Mill, and of his early mentor as a Fellow of Oriel College, the logician Whately, whom Newman assisted in writing a treatise on logic. (3) Thus at the beginning the reader thinks that he must memorize the definitions of assent and inference, capture the manner in which formal arguments are constructed with premises and a conclusion, and distinguish between "notional" and "real" apprehension of the final propositions of an argument. These terms and others which follow in subsequent chapters (e.g., "certitude" and complex versus real assent, and the "Illative Sense") are not definitions or propositions as in a formally organized work like Netwton's Principia or Euclid's Elements. The elements of Newman's "grammar" are not organized in a truly systematic fashion but are themes which he dealt with earlier in his career as an Anglican, and to which he will refer in his treatment of religious and theological issues in subsequent chapters.
The dissonance that readers of the Grammar may feel comes from the peculiar mixture of Newman's literary and imaginative talents applied to religious thought, and his attempt to erect a logical superstructure by which to explain religious belief in the context of his times and culture. His manner of exposition is literary, examining a particular word or idea repeatedly but in various modes, providing additional examples and analogies seemingly repetitively, but each time turning over the topic and re-examining it and providing something new. The Ciceronian "periods" are not there for reason of style but to extend the meaning under the aspect of a different light or frame of reference. This is the delight of Newman's style that gives it much depth, however, such a literary or meditative style precludes the logical type of exposition that Newman implies he is attempting in the first chapters of each of the two major section of the Grammar. The Grammar may be compared to an imaginary work, as if after a long life of controversy and extensive writing and thinking on political affairs, a William F. Buckley, Jr., had written a comprehensive treatise on how people decide on their political positions, an epistemology of politics using the thought of Edmund Burke combined with a contemporary philosophy of science. (4)
The Grammar is an attempt to explain religious belief logically, but in an informal sense, transcending the use of syllogisms or the standard of formal validity found in modern symbolic and mathematical logics. In the Grammar, as earlier in his career as an expositor of the Christian religion, Newman repeatedly makes the point that, rather than one single unbreachable chain of formal proof, the human mind much more often reaches firm conclusions by multiple strands of thought and evidence, unique to the person himself. But it is important to note, as Newman insists, that the relegation of formal logic is not exclusively characteristic of religious belief, for as he shows in multiple examples in the Grammar, such informal modes of proof are typical of human thought in all the practical areas of human life including literature, politics and science.
A new field of logic termed informal logic developed in the late twentieth century, nearly a century after Newman wrote the Grammar. This new field is quite different in approach and method from the formal logic of Aristotle's syllogisms, or the new formal logics, mathematical and symbolic which proliferated in the twentieth century, because it was less interested in standards of deductive validity than in the manner in which people actually think and reach conclusions. According to a standard textbook, interest in informal logic developed because of "the realization that even the sophisticated formalisms of the twentieth century are of limited use in practical reasoning" combined with "a growing demand for a logic which does work efficiently in practice." (5) Newman's main intent in the Grammar follows the same motives, a dissatisfaction with what formal logic could explain as the actual manner in which people of all levels of intelligence and all states of life reached conclusions on religious matters, of which they were certain and to which they gave assent. For example, it has always been apparent that the famous five proofs of Aquinas of the existence of God, no matter how clearly presented, do not lead to religious belief, and thus it becomes apparent that reaching a philosophical conclusion that God exists must in some way be very different from believing in God.
Newman seeks in the earlier parts of the Grammar to distinguish the manner in which we may accede to the truth of the concluding proposition of a formal or mathematical argument, presented syllogistically with well defined premises and a clearly stated conclusion, as opposed to the manner in which someone who practices one's religion says that one believes in God. It means nothing to us personally whether if A is larger than Band B larger than C, that A is larger than C, or that if all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, that Socrates is mortal, as these are merely an exercise in the classroom. But it does matter to us surely if we believe that since the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and we believe that all things in it are substantially true, that therefore it is true that the Lord God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on the holy mountain or that Jesus came down to earth to die for our sins. Thus Newman distinguishes between the manner in which we apprehend the living truths of religion and merely accede to an inference in the manner of analyzing syllogisms, between real and notional assent.
Given that apprehension of religious truths is not something bound by formal logic, what are the modes of reasoning besides formal deduction by which people conclude and assent to them? Newman utilizes the method of probabilities, which he takes largely from an eighteenth century Anglican divine, Bishop Butler, but contemporary works on informal logic also put great emphasis on probability as the means by which people commonly determine the truth of propositions. (6) Newman adds that the number of premises that are required support the truth of a conclusion is necessarily variable, since it depends upon individual personal judgment how much evidence is needed to really apprehend that a proposition is true. On a personal level, Newman himself had experienced this variability during the five years between the time he ceased active participation in the Anglican Church and became a Roman Catholic, a move many of his fellow Tractarians, including Ward, had made earlier and with less anxiety. (7)
Method of Moral Empiricism
One of the foremost issues in academic philosophy of religion is what to make of reports of religious experience. People will attest to internal sensations and impressions of intimate concourse between themselves and divine agencies, or will affirm that they saw a miracle happen, or report that they felt incomplete and frustrated until they "found God." Such reports are the basis of an argument, because they are the evidence given on behalf of the reality of the objects of religious belief What are we to make of such reports? Certain philosophic responses are indicative. Four decades after Newman published the Grammar, William James gave his famous Gifford Lectures on "The Varieties of Religious Experience" in which he detailed a large number of reports of religious experience organized under headings such as conversion, the divided self, and saintliness. James attributed a truth to such reports, and while quite aware of the scientific point of view, he nevertheless inferred from reports of religious experience that metaphysical reality was such as to support both a religious and a scientific view of the universe (technically a monism.) (8)
Hume a century before Newman had put reports of miraculous occurrences under the strictest kind of epistemological protocol, stating plainly that since miracles were a violation of what experience told us was the ordered course of nature, that we ought to be immediately suspicious of reports of miracles, taking it as a "maxim" that they were either the result of a mistaken perception or an outright lie. What is notable in these two attempts to evaluate the strength of arguments based on reports of religious experiences and miracles is that they are reports of what other people have told the philosopher, not of what the philosopher may have experienced for himself. After all, it would force a significant alteration of Hume's standards if the philosopher had seen a friend whose death he had witnessed raised from the dead, or himself been cured of a fatal disease through his mother's prayers. What philosophic neutrality would endure if the Virgin Mary had spoken to the philosopher directly rather than his taking the reports from the writings of St. Teresa of Avila or Joan of Arc?
Newman's approach to religious experience is neither scientific nor skeptical, rather, perhaps surprisingly, it is modeled on the philosophical tradition of British empiricism. The method of British empiricism begins with a description or an analysis of how ideas are formed within a person's intellect originating from sense experience. The senses transmit an impression or a series of them from which the intellect constructs a mental image of the external entity causing the sensations. Thus, particular impressions of redness, hardness, smoothness, a certain sense of weight and roundness, combined with sensations that occur when biting and tasting an object, are construed by the mind as an external thing, a reality, an apple. From many such experiences, a general idea is formed within the mind, the idea of apples, and so with all the objects of our experience. Such analysis is typical of the philosophy of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume but also of twentieth century British philosophers like H. H. Price and Bertrand Russell.
The empiricist account of how "sense-data" enter our intellects is taken to be the scientific view in the "representative theory" of perception, which for example provides an account of how our apprehension of colors is really caused by light waves that are reflected off the surface of an object into the lenses, rods, and cones of our eyeballs, and which are then transmitted as a series of electronic impulses along the optic nerve to that portion of our brain in which external objects are (somehow) seen. Nevertheless, a serious philosophic issue arises in the empiricist account: How do we know that the sense impressions from which we construct our ideas and our general idea of the external world are reflections of reality? How can we prove from sense-data alone that our impressions are not self-created in some way, as in the false reports on a radar screen which result from glitches in the system?
The empiricist account with its emphasis on isolable impressions is the model which Newman uses in his analysis of religious experience. There is obviously an essential difference, namely that sense-data impressions are physical since they are caused presumably by interactions with the physical universe, while religious experiences are moral since they are caused presumably by interactions with spiritual agencies and an extra-physical realm. Newman proceeds to use that philosophic tradition with which he is most familiar and with which he is most at home. Newman whose profession after all was to be an expert practitioner and scholar of religion and the Christian religion in particular was readily familiar with those "tokens" and "signs," including those seeming coincidences that are apparent in history and within the realm of one's own life experience, all of which intimate the presence of design, purpose, or supernatural agency. Newman was also familiar personally with direct spiritual experiences, although we have to infer this about Newman since, unlike Augustine, he did not readily refer to them. Newman, a proper Englishman, a "John Bull" as he called himself, was a most reticent mystic.
Unlike James, Newman does not make a catalog of divine inspirations, rather he finds the equivalent of sense-data in the moral data of conscience. He writes at length in the fifth chapter of the Grammar of how we react without training when we are aware that we have done something morally wrong which he compares to a feeling we might get if we had done something that hurt our mother's feelings, and how we react in conscience when we are aware of having done something right. He writes, " ... take an ordinary child, but one who is safe from influences destructive of his religious instincts. Supposing he has offended his parents, he will all alone and without effort, as if it were the most natural of acts, place himself in the presence of God, and beg of Him to set him to set him right with them."(9) It is from these sensations of conscience that Newman proceeds to describe how we construct not an image of the external world, but a concept of God. Here we may infer that Newman is speaking autobiographically for although he does not refer in the Grammar to his own experiences, in the Apologia when describing the origins of his religious opinions as a young teenager, he famously refers to " ... rest[ing] in the thought of two and two only supreme and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator. ..."(10)
Newman's method at this point resembles less that of Locke or Russell, who had to deal with the issue of how to prove the existence of an external, physical world starting with sense-data, than that of Descartes, who moved from his cogito to the next step which was to rationally prove the existence of God.(11) Newman takes the same step relying not on deductive ratiocination, but on the moral (probabilistic) inference that an agent whose presence provokes a sense of guilt and shame and to whom reparation is owed does exist. The section in Chapter 5 in which he describes the progress from personal conscience to a sense of the reality of God is the closest that Newman gets to offering a "proof for the existence of God" and is the high point of the Grammar. Yet it needs to be considered whether Newman was able to solve or finesse the problem which afflicts empiricist accounts of reality, for how is it possible to escape the bounds of description of internal states to infer that there really is something "out there"?
Religious Evidence of Conscience
Natural religion is the common inheritance of the human race and Newman masterfully explicates its general tendencies in the tenth chapter; he deals with the issue of supernatural religious belief by assuming a "natural" or easeful transition between natural and supernatural knowledge. Rather than introducing a new set of principles when proceeding to explain the apprehension or inference of revealed religious beliefs, he merely intensifies the principles which he has previously introduced to explain and justify the beliefs of natural religion. In this way there is a ready passage from the natural to the supernatural (a term which Newman revealingly does not use in this context) on the epistemological and inferentially on the ontological level.
For Newman the physical universe is an image and veil for the supernatural universe and the separation between the two is the result of the deficiencies of human moral perception. It is true that a new principle is introduced to explain revealed religious belief in PartII, namely the Illative Sense; as Newman systematically points out, however, the Illative Sense is operative in all kinds of human knowledge including science, politics, literary criticism, as well as religion. (12) The Illative Sense is not an element that only applies to religious belief, and is an intensification and development of Newman's use of probability to explain how we reason to the truth of significant propositions and is not necessarily to be understood as a separate faculty of the human intellect.
The most important element of transition between natural and revealed religion is not the Illative Sense, but rather the conscience as explained in the fifth and tenth chapters of the Grammar since in those places it becomes apparent that conscience is at the center of Newman's religious philosophy. Newman once said (during the Ultramontanist controversy) that he would raise a toast to the Pope, but to conscience first. (13) This statement apparently has been taken as a defense of self-expression in the contemporary manner as an exaggerated statement of one's own importance, or a derogation of received tradition as the standard of religious truth. Neither of these inferences is true for Newman and in order to judge his actual ideas about conscience, two points may be made.
First, conscience for Newman is the moral organ by which a person knows God and knows Him not as the notional conclusion to an argument, but with a real assent and apprehension of His reality. In this way, Newman solves the problem that faces empiricist philosophy of justifying the immediate and automatic apprehension that our internal sensations refer to an external reality. "How do we know that we know?" is the pertinacious problem of modern Western philosophy and neither the rationalist Descartes nor the British empiricists succeeded in solving this problem from within the confines of their starting point, i.e., by describing human knowledge. The only way to break the circle of self-analysis is by looking at knowledge from the outside, so to speak, not as an internal process but as a holistic relationship between the knower utilizing his senses and intellect, and the reality which is known.
Newman breaks the circle by describing conscience as the representative of the voice of the true God within our psyches. While this solution may seem circular, it may also be said to correspond to the way in which contemporary scientists studying cognition do not worry whether the rods and cones in their own eyes are giving them a false sense of the reality of the rods and cones they observe in experimental subjects. It is the difference between the approaches taken by the academic philosopher and formal logician versus that of the empirical researcher and religious believer. For Newman, to have certainty that we know God is itself the evidence that we do in fact know Him. "Thus conscience is a connecting principle between the creature and his Creator, and the firmest hold of theological truths is gained by habits of personal religion."(14) Newman celebrates conscience because he understands that it is the means by which we attain certain knowledge of the reality of God, real and not notional apprehension to use his terminology.
To understand better Newman's regard for conscience we can compare it with Freud's theory of the superego. Freud thought of the human psyche as made up of three elements in his later thought: the id, which is the source of unregulated desire; the ego, which is the arranged face of personality that the human person presents to the world; and the superego, which is the set of behavioral standards imposed from early childhood by parents, religion, and society generally. Since Freud's idea of the human person is materialistic, the superego is simply the set of opinions forced on the human individual in order to make him a fit member of society, for civilization cannot proceed if human individuals remain in an infantile, unregulated state. But since human individuals inevitably experience the unresolved tension between their desires and their superego, which is termed their "conscience," civilization must always and inevitably carry with it an intense sense of discontent. For Freud the individual conscience is imposed entirely from outside the person and is merely a social force which acts to counter and to suppress the id. (15) For Newman, however, the conscience is a moral organ whose whispers and intimations of guilt and responsibility are part of the universal experience of mankind. They are not signs of an ill-regulated psyche and repressed desire, but the actual content of God's judgment upon our actions.
Psychology and Logic of the Mystic State
It has been alleged that Newman's thought has a strongly subjective element in it, and Father Jaki refers to what "looked at superficially, is an amalgam of empiricism, phenomenology and personalism." (16) It is true that Newman deals with the psychological elements of religious belief, of conscience especially, but also of those tokens, intimations, interior urgings, miracle accounts, hagiographies, apparent coincidences and direct testimonies from which the human individual erects his idea of God and of religion. Further, he has done this in a masterful way, describing the process of religious knowledge against the cultural background of his own time, impressively utilizing the latest developments of literary criticism, philosophy, historiography, and mathematics. (17) appears that Newman is not as close to the abyss of subjectivism as Father Jaki fears, but is, in a real sense, rationalistic in his approach to religious belief. Indeed, the Grammar follows the Thomistic pattern of grace building on nature in an exact manner as Newman proceeds from the natural to the revealed kinds of religious belief in the fifth and tenth chapters.
Newman's intellectual background was Oxfordian and one of his strengths was that he was thereby enabled to depart from the Medieval structures of thought to explain Catholic Christianity. His thought in the Grammar reveals that he was in tune with a contemporary development of scientific interest in psychology, for among his actual contemporaries (although they were years younger) were Freud, James, and Watson the behaviorist. In his sermons, especially those preached while he was an Anglican, Newman gave a detailed and psychologically acute analysis of religious belief, of those self-deceptions, presumptions, and forms of complacency that tempt the religious person. But such interest in and ability to integrate the psychology of religion into his understanding of religious belief does not qualify Newman as a subjectivist in approach.
Newman does not explain the objects of religious belief as self-created, but he does have intense appreciation that, once certainty is attained and assent is given to the propositions that God exists the logical picture changes. The religious believer, once assenting to a the revelation of the One God, no longer assents to religious proposition or apprehends the variety of different truths contained in revelation by gathering evidence and making inferences, but rather assents to these individual truths at once on the authority of the revelation itself. It is as if the whole process of apprehension of religious truth is mystically illumined from within and takes place intuitionally. Human knower and divine known somehow exist in one place and are no longer immediately separable, a relation not just of knowledge but of love (although this is an interpretation not Newman's own words). (18)
The state of affairs of what we are characterizing as a "mystic illumination" is the experienced character of religious faith in revealed doctrine; however, it is not exclusive to mystics, saints, or religious geniuses but common to all believers in revealed religion. (19) This religious or mystical state is explainable in a logical sense as the immediate apprehension of the truth of revealed doctrines because they are part of the whole revelation. Not incidentally, the coherence of various propositions with one another is used in the abstract regions of empirical science such as "string theory" as the standard of truth of newly proposed theories when direct experimental evidence for them is not available. That is, the formal agreement and the internal consistency of the newly proposed theories with a more encompassing, accepted scientific theory is what qualifies them as having the aspect of truth. Reliance on the coherence of the whole set of doctrines is no less the case in the scientific arguments for the existence of short-lived sub-atomic particles or the mathematical laws describing unseen forces than in the religious doctrines of justification or the perpetual virginity of Mary.
There are scientific facts which are not obvious and which contradict common sense such as that a certain isotope of uranium eventually turns into lead, or that invisible bacteria are the cause of fever and disease, and in order to accept them, the modern mind has to be prepared to accept the scientific view of the universe. Physical causes that are experimentally testable and mathematically describable are taken by science to be the ultimate explanation of events in the physical universe, and in order to prove the case, the previous successes of scientific theories and the enormous practicality of their technological applications are touted. Following certain statements in the Gospels, he observes that in order to accept the truth of religious doctrines the mind must be prepared to accept them. (20) There is no use putting forth the pearls of revealed truth before the swinish disposition to reject anything that does not fit into the strictures of nineteenth century materialism or twenty-first century evolutionism.
In the last chapter, the Grammar culminates in an extended treatment of the evidences for Christianity, starting with the special position of the "Hebrew" nation and explaining the Christian religion as its completion (not supersession!), dealing with objections such as why early miracles are no longer happening, or why God's presence is not more fully revealed in the world. Newman places great emphasis on classical anticipations of Christianity from Roman poets and Greek philosophers, as well as the expectation of a Savior prominent among the Jewish population in Israel at the time of Christ's coming. In this closing argument, Newman is relying on his Oxford background, assuming that his readers are familiar with the sources since Latin and Greek were taught in schools at that time. Unfortunately this argument is less persuasive today than it was originally. Nowadays, the proponent of Christianity, or of a religious point of view in general, must deal with an audience which has more knowledge of popular than classical culture (the epic tales of Odysseus replaced by episodes of Seinfeld), and which lives in a disparate postmodern world clearly struggling for an identity that will not be so vulgar that it cannot be the basis of a common understanding of a dignified human nature.
In the Grammar, Newman passes from a Thomistic to an Augustinian stance, describing religious belief first in terms of propositions and arguments but subsequently in terms of conviction and faith. Yet, he never leaves his inherently logical methodology, which is representative of the penetrating power of his intellect, and he never tells of his own experiences, except in an indirect manner. The advantage of Newman's logical yet informal approach is that he is able to integrate contemporary developments in knowledge into a general account of religious belief. This was important in Newman's day when Liberalism and skepticism were weakening the social fabric of religious belief. Our present situation is more dire, for the collapse of religious belief which Newman predicted has led to a general decline in morality and weakened the perception that a religious or even a moral idea of the universe is possible. (21) Following Newman's example, we may ask: What are the materials of contemporary thinking that will aid in a renewed apprehension of religious truth?
The thought of twentieth-century philosophers has been decried because of its nihilism and subjectivism, the leading example of which is Heidegger. However, the truer fruit of the phenomenological school founded by Heidegger's mentor Edmund Husserl was more positive and encouraging. Other students found in Husserl's philosophy a basis for religious belief, among them Max Scheler, the moral philosopher whose work has been of interest to the late Pope John Paul II and to Edith Stein, who became a cloistered nun and suffered martyrdom for her love of the Lord and her witness the One God. Husserl's influence is not the only example of unnoticed positive consequences of twentieth-century philosophy; among Wittgenstein's students were the Catholic converts G. E. M. Anscomb and Norman Malcolm, who revived interest in the onto-logical proof. There also currently exists a lively school of "analytic Thomism" that combines English analytic philosophy with the thought of Thomas Aquinas.
A fellow poet once said of T. S. Eliot that the academic character of his poetry should not disguise the fact that Eliot's poems were written in direct response to strongly felt emotions and personal crises. So also with Newman, each of whose major themes in the Grammar was developed in direct response to a controversy in which he was the point man, or a personal crisis when he faced challenges to his religious convictions. It is possible to mistake his British reticence about his spiritual experiences for an abstract, notional knowledge. Unlike when reading St. Augustine, Teresa of Avila, or George Fox, whose personal testimonies are vivid and explicit, it is up to Newman's readers to infer the power of feeling, the extent of motivation and depth of belief required to pursue a lifetime of intellectual writing, pastoral activity, and defense of the Christian faith.
(1). John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (Garden City, 1955). Introduction by Etienne Gilson. (2.) Stanley L. Jaki "Meditation on Newman's Grammar of Assent," available at. www.ewtn.com/library/THEOLOGY/FR89101.htm. See also the "Editor's Introduction" to Newman's Grammar by Ian Ker (Oxford, Eng., 1985), 1 -lxx for an extensive review of critical comments from a wide variety of scholars on the Grammar. (The Image Books version of the Grammar is referred to in this essay, however). (3.) Ian Ker, John Henry Newman (Oxford, Eng., 1988), 19. (4.) The right-wing scholar Thomas Sowell has written such attempts, e.g., The Vision of the Anointed (New York, 1995), for a leftwing epistemology of politics, see Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Knowledge and Politics (New York, 1975). (5.) John Eric Nolt, Informal Logic (New York, 2002). (6.) Grammar, 252-253. (7.) John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (New York, 1950), 35. (8.) William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York, 1999), 453, 529-564. (9.) Grammar, 101. (10.) Apologia Pro Vita Sua: 36. (11.) Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book IV, Chap. xi, "Our Knowledge of the Existence of Other Things," Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic (Garden City, 1957), "The Relation of Sense-data to Physics," 140-173. (12.) Grammar, 279-281. (13.) Ker, 690. (14.) Grammar, 106. (15.) Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, trans. J. Strachey (New York, 1961), 78-80. (16.) Jaki, 2. (17.) Grammar, for literary criticism, 217-220, 235-236; for philosophy, 282,290; for historiography, 284-289; for mathematics, 254,286. (18.) Grammar, 320,321. Earlier in his career as an Anglican in a treatment of justification, Newman placed great emphasis on the "indwelling of the Holy Spirit." Ker, 153-154. (19.) Grammar, 115-116, 126-127, 245-246, 264-265, 304. (20.) Grammar, 106, 242, 246-249, 320-322. (21.) Gertrude Himmelfarb, The De-moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (New York, 1996).
JOHN CAIAZZA earned his doctorate in philosophy from Boston University. His latest book is The War of the Jesus and Darwin Fishes: Religion and Science in the Postmodern World (2007).
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|Title Annotation:||John Henry Cardinal Newman|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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