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05 Feb

What is Life?

A white cat plays with a ball in a box, with a skeleton cat in the same pose diagonally across from it.

If parallel universes exist, there is one in which Eamon de Valera lived out his days as a maths teacher. In that universe, Edwin Schrödinger never came to Dublin, and probably never wrote What is Life?.

Edwin Schrödinger fled Berlin and Nazism in 1933, travelling to Oxford (where he heard he had won the Nobel Prize) and Princeton. The famous Schrödinger’s cat paradox appeared in his essay The present situation in quantum mechanics (1935), based on the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics. A thought experiment where a cat sealed in a box either lived or died depending on whether a quantum event occurred, it seemed to suggest two universes, one with a dead cat and one with a living cat, existed in parallel until an observer saw whether the cat was alive or dead.
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15 Jan

Iris Murdoch on the unity of the virtues

[M]oral advance carries with it intuitions of unity which are increasingly less misleading. Courage, which seemed at first to be something on its own, a sort of specialised daring of spirit, is now seen to be a particular operation of wisdom and love.[…] ​Freedom, we find out, is not an inconsequential chucking of one’s weight about, it is the disciplined overcoming of self. Humility is not a peculiar habit of self-effacement, rather like having an inaudible voice, it is self-less respect for reality and one of the most difficult and central of all virtues.

Iris Murdoch (1970/2013) The Sovereignty of Good, Routledge, p. 93.

01 Jan

“My accomplished friend”: the life and philosophy of Maria Edgeworth

Maria Edgeworth was born at Black Bourton, Oxfordshire, 250 years ago on 1 January 1768. She was the eldest daughter and third child of the inventor Richard Lovell Edgeworth and his first wife, Anna Maria Elers. Maria Edgeworth’s mother died when she was six and her father remarried the following year.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth had inherited both an estate in Mastrim, Co. Longford and an neglectful attitude to it. He spent little time there until 1782, when the entire family removed there. The move was partially prompted by the views of the English midlands industrialists and philanthropists with whom he associated (he was a Benthamite and a friend of many members of the Lunar society including Erasmus Darwin, James Watt, and Josiah Wedgewood). This was also constitutionally an interesting time: there was an ongoing demand in Ireland for parliamentary reform, and Grattan’s Parliament was established the following year.

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29 Dec

The Irish Constitution and the evolution of Human Rights

The statue of Hibernia that stands on the Dublin General Post Office, with an Irish flag in the background

The Irish Constitution is the fundamental law of Ireland (the Republic of Ireland). Approved by a statewide plebiscite held on 1 July 1937, it came into force on 29th December 1937, 80 years ago today.

A constitution absolutely ours

It replaced the 1922 Constitution that established the Free State after the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. The Treaty caused deep division, resulting in the splitting of Sinn Fein into pro-Treaty (Cumann na nGaedheal, later Fine Gael) and anti-Treaty factions and a bloody eleven-month civil war1. The anti-treaty side lost, and abstained from participation in the Dail. In 1926 Sinn Fein split further when Eamon de Valera suggested ending abstention. de Valera’s group formed Fianna Fail, which went on to win the 1932 General Election. From 1933, de Valera started a series of amendments to a constitution that he viewed as “imposed from without” by the British. In 1935 he stated “I hope…that we will be able to bring in a constitution which…will be absolutely ours.”2

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23 Dec

CS Lewis critiquing Christmas

Lucy meets Tumnus: against a snowy landscape, a little girl and a faun carrying parcels stand under a wrought iron streetlight.

“Always winter and never Christmas!” The dismay expressed at that idea in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe does not mean that C.S. Lewis was an uncritical fan of Christmas. In 1957 he wrote “What Christmas means to me”, critiquing the idea of Christmas1

Lewis outlines the three meanings of Christmas: as a religious festival (“important and obligatory for Christians…of no interest to anyone else”), a popular holiday (“an occasion
for merry-making and hospitality…I much approve of merry-making”) and a commercial racket. This third is what Lewis objects to.

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30 Nov

The quotable Swift – is that his only relevance today?

Jonathan Swift, by Francis Bindon, oil on canvas, circa 1735.

Three and a half centuries after his birth, we’re still quoting Swift. “Burn everything that comes from England except their people and their coal” was a byword in Ireland during the Anglo-Irish trade war of the 1930s, and his advice to “hang up half a dozen bankers every year” was revived after the Celtic Tiger collapsed. In these days of Brexit, both leavers and remainers quote him, perhaps pointing out that “[i]t is the folly of too many to mistake the echo of a London coffee-house for the voice of the kingdom” or that “falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it”.

While Swift might provide a quote for all seasons, some applications of his words might have enraged him. The reworking of “[r]easoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired” against religion is a case in point: Swift made the remark against freethinkers (such as the man who shared his birthday, John Toland.) Yet it would not have surprised him. Swift was as cynical about the world he lived in as he was hostile to the forces he saw stirring within it.

It may seem strange that the father of microcredit and the father of mental health care in Ireland should have been hostile to progress. Perhaps his family motto Festina Lente (Swiftly, Slowly) gives a clue. Swift saw the wisdom of the past being rejected in favour of the new philosophy (much of which we would call the new science.) All too swiftly, traditional ideas in politics, religion and society were being overturned indiscriminately.
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21 Nov

Voltaire and Swift

SIR,

I sent the other day a cargo of French dulness to my lord lieutenant. My lady Bolingbroke has taken upon herself to send you one copy of the Henriade. She is desirous to do that honour to my book; and I hope the merit of being presented to you by her hands, will be a commendation to it. However, if she has not done it already, I desire you to take one of the cargo, which is now at my lord lieutenant’s. I wish you a good hearing; if you have got it, you want nothing. I have not seen Mr. Pope this winter; but I have seen the third volume of the Miscellanea; and the more I read your works, the more I am ashamed of mine. I am, with respect, esteem, and gratitude, sir, your most humble and most obedient servant,

VOLTAIRE.

John Nichols (ed) 1801 The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift, DD, Dean of St Patricks Dublin, arranged by Thomas Sheridan, Volume 12, London, p. 269.
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16 Nov

The Mindful Asking of Essential Questions

The charge of lack of progress can also be equivocal. If philosophy is the mindful asking of essential questions, perhaps there are never ready-made answers that can be encapsulated in univocal categories, hence packaged and transmitted through time, like mail handled through the post. […] No genuine philosopher can accept answers ready-made from others: this is simply the nature of the philosophical enterprise as a metaxological dialogue. This may seem to confirm the prejudice that philosophy is just sophisticated, not to say sophistical garrulousness. The deeper meaning is that each age and every individual must struggle, in the overdetermined ambiguity of the middle, to renew for itself a mindfulness of the essential questions. Nothing, not even scientific method, can stand proxy for this struggle.

William Desmond (1990) Philosophy and Its Others, Albany NY: State University of New York Press, pp. 31-2.
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31 Oct

Perspectives on Ireland and the Reformation

Luther stands in front of the church doors as his theses are nailed to it. A watching crowd has mixed reactions: friars leave angrily, one well-dressed man cheers, most look on in curiosity.

Luther sent his ninety-five theses to the Archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Brandenburg, on 31 October 1517. He may also have fixed them to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on that day, but there is no contemporary evidence of it. The first reference to the supposed nailing of the theses is in 1558 (twelve years after Luther’s death) from Philip Melanchthon, an ally of Luther who was not in Wittenberg in 1517. If the theses was fixed to the church door, a practice at the time, one would have expected in line with that practice that they would have been fixed by wax1

Very early in the history of Protestantism, history became important. Confronted with the question of “where was your church before Luther” a succession of scholars set out to establish that their church was not new, starting with Magdeburg Centuries (1559-1574) 2 Luther was not the first to call for reform in the Church, and forebears could be traced: Jan Hus and John Wycliffe. And before Wycliffe, at least according to John Foxe (born in 1517), an Irishman: Richard FitzRalph.
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25 Oct

Character of the Invisible

What if the beautiful itself be the expression of something behind this material world, some character of the Invisible of which the visible is the revelation?

John Todhunter (1872) The Theory of the Beautiful, p. 17. Quoted in Jane Elizabeth Wright (2002) “Todhunter, John” in Thomas Duddy (ed) The Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, Thoemmes, pp. 329-30.

Todhunter’s idealist aesthetics saw the beautiful as an expression of the “Kosmical Order”, of which the Sublime was another expression. The essence of beauty for Todhunter was harmony, and the emotion produced by it was love.