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28 Feb

Student Politics – Choosing the Rector in Glasgow, 1716-1726

The post of Rector in the University of Glasgow dates back to 1452. Today the Rector is elected for a term of three years by the matriculated students of the University of Glasgow, with an election taking place this year (2017)1. Though the Rector was always supposed to be selected by the students, in the past this didn’t always happen. In the 1690s the annual election of the Rector was taken over first by the faculty and then by the Principal and his inner circle.

In Praise of Liberty – Francis Hutcheson

In 1716, the faculty outside the Principal’s circle urged the students to regain their voting rights, including Gershom Carmichael who made a speech to the students “in one of the publick Halls in Praise of Liberty”2 A Royal Commission was held but it was dominated by the university’s managers and found against the students. The rebel staff secured lawyers and when the Principal pushed through the appointment of a new Rector later in 1716 a committee of six divinity students and three undergraduates collected signatures and brought the university to court. The committee included two from Ireland: Peter Butler from Waterford and Francis Hutcheson from Down. Two of the students (including Butler) acted as litigants: the university reacted by refusing their readmission to the divinity school. Further court action to ensure their reinstatement ensued with Francis Hutcheson appearing as one of the witnesses3.
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06 Feb

Catholic Modernist: George Tyrrell

George Tyrrell

In a previous post I argued against the idea that there were no Irish theological thinkers of note. Another example is the 19th and 20th century thinker George Tyrrell, whose ideas were received very differently by the Catholic Church. He was dismissed from the Society of Jesus in 1906 due to his modernist ideas.

George Tyrrell was born on 6 February 1861 at 91 Dorset St, Dublin. Born into an impoverished Church of Ireland family, he converted to Roman Catholicism in London aged eighteen and entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1880. He took his first vows in 1882, and studied philosophy in Stonyhurst College and theology in St Beuno’s College in North Wales (following in the footsteps of Gerard Manley Hopkins a decade earlier). He was ordained in 18911.
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14 Jan

The Deathbed Argument

John Calvin on his deathbed, with members of the Church in attendance. Protestant reformer in Geneva.

The book Death and the Irish: A miscellany is “a medley of 75 perspectives on death and the Irish” edited by Salvador Ryan and published by Wordwell. In a positive review Bridget English makes a minor criticism: “Philosophers have certainly shaped the ways that modern secular society conceives of death, yet there are no entries on the relationship between Ireland and philosophy.”1 Philosophers have also referred to death in arguments, and the review brought one particular philosopher and his “deathbed argument” to mind.

In Francis Hutcheson’s first book (published in 1725) An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, Treatise II argues against Mandeville that there must be motives for benevolent action other than your own pleasure. To illustrate this, Hutcheson uses a thought experiment2
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29 Dec

Testability by Deduction

In the first chapter it was mentioned that the scholastic dictum, “Nihil est in intellectu quod nonpriusfuerit in sensu“, was too narrow; it is in fact equivalent to Hume’s criterion that for a word to have meaning it must denote something with instances.

It is now clear exactly why this is too narrow; there is no instance denoted by the word “gravitation”, and gravitation can be in the intellect even though it cannot be sensed. It is perhaps noteworthy that among early philosophers Berkeley, who was much against the use of words without a corresponding idea, concede that there was a legitimate use of words like “gravitation”.

In that chapter it was indicated that for the scientific outlook a concept must be capable of of being related to perception, directly or indirectly; it is now clear what is the precise way in which a concept is indirectly related to perception — it is by the mechanism of testability by deduction. We may also say that Ockham’s razor expresses this: entities that cannot be related to perception even indirectly are unnecessary and not to be introduced.

J. O. Wilson (2013) Foundations of Inference in Natural Science, London: Routledge, pp. 50-1. The original edition was published in 1952. The book outlines views of scientific inference developed since the end of World War I up to the 1950s (see PhilPapers).

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25 Dec

The Teacher Thomas Drennan

Interior of the First Presbyterian Church, Belfast.

Thomas Drennan was born in Belfast on 25th December 1696. Though he appears in the Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, nothing of any philosophical work he did survives: his sermons were never published. A later biography describes him as “an elegant scholar, a man of fine taste, overflowing benevolence and delicate sensibility”1 His major importance is of a source for the many philosophical friends he had though the preservation of his correspondence by his family, and as a link between the philosophy of the 1720s and the United Irishmen of the 1790s.

Drennan was a friend of James Arbuckle from his childhood2. Like the younger Arbuckle he attended Glasgow University, entering in the penultimate year of study and taught by Gershom Carmichael. He graduated MA in 1716 and then studied divinity under John Simson. His attendance overlapped with Francis Hutcheson, the printer John Smith and James Arbuckle.

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09 Dec

Saving Milton: his friend Lady Ranelagh and his defender John Toland

John Milton dictating 'Paradise Lost' to his daughter due to his blindness

John Milton is most famous today for his epic poem Paradise Lost, a poem that might have been lost itself. In 1660, Milton was best known for his work writing defences of the Commonwealth against Royalist attacks as Secretary of Foreign Tongues to the Council of State (since 1649). These included Eikonoklastes (1649, justifying Charles I’s execution) and The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660, arguing against the Restoration). After the Restoration, Milton had to be hidden by friends: he eventually was arrested and held in custody for a few months. Friends in high places worked to prevent his exclusion from the Act of Pardon. Their success meant that Milton could complete his half-finished epic poem 1.

Milton had first come to attention as a poet. His first published work was Lycidas, an acclaimed pastoral elegy written for Dorothy Moore‘s brother Edward King. It’s plausible that Dorothy Moore met at some point, though as far as I’m aware there is no record of it. In the 1640s Milton became acquainted with members of the Hartlib circle, including Samuel Hartlib, John Durie, Henry Oldenburg and Lady Ranelagh. Milton and Hartlib probably met in 1643 and in 1644 Hartlib circulated Milton’s tract Of Education, To Master Samuel Hartlib2.
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08 Dec

“Pious opinion”: the Irish Franciscans and the Immaculate Conception

Fresco of Virgo Immaculata (Mary, the Immaculate Conception) from St. Isidore's (Irish) College Rome

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, possibly the most misunderstood feast in the Roman Catholic calendar. It celebrates the conception of Mary (the conception of Jesus is the feast of the Annunciation, celebrated on the 25th March.) Why “Immaculate”? In 1854 Pope Pius IX pronounced that Mary “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin”1.

This dogma was debated long before the 19th century. Irish involvement in the debate means that this is also a highly appropriate day to look at the group of scholars who disprove the theory that Ireland produced no influential religious thinkers2. (James Ussher can be cited as another 17th century counter-example.)

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