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28 Jun

No God but The Good

When the great Irish novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch took up the old ontological argument that Anselm and Spinoza wrestled with, she came out not with Anselm’s God the Father, or Spinoza’s Nature, but, simply, Good. For her, “No existing thing could be what we have meant by God”; the God of religions is just a shadow of what beauty points us toward. (“Only an atheist can believe in what is unintended,” a novelist friend once told me.) What are we left with? “The unavoidable nature of morality,” Murdoch says. No matter how we try to avoid them, right and wrong pervade the universe. The Good exists, which is precisely why she believed that God does not.

Quote from 10 Proofs That Will Change How You Think About God, by in the Huffington Post. An excellent summary of ethical and religious beliefs of the only Irish philosopher mentioned (a more technical post on Murdoch’s position is here).

The whole piece is worth a read.

26 Jun

Robert Boyle and the decline of teleology in science

No longer did scientists think in terms of organisms: they thought in terms of machines. […] The 17th-century English chemist and philosopher Robert Boyle realised that as soon as you start to think in the mechanical fashion, then talking about ends and purposes really isn’t very helpful. A planet goes round and round the Sun; you want to know the mechanism by which it happens, not to imagine some higher purpose for it. In the same way, when you look at a clock you want to know what makes the hands go round the dial — you want the proximate causes.

But surely machines have purposes just as much as organisms do? The clock exists in order to tell the time just as much as the eye exists in order to see. True, but as Boyle also saw, it is one thing to talk about intentions and purposes in a general, perhaps theological way, but another thing to do this as part of science. You can take the Platonic route and talk about God’s creative intentions for the universe, that’s fine. But, really, this is no longer part of science (if it ever was) and has little explanatory power. “

Anglo-Irish chemist and philosopher if you please. And look out for theRobert Boyle Summer School.

From Does life have a purpose?, by Michael Ruse in Aeon Magazine, on the move away from teleology (the focus on the purpose of things) in science.

24 Jun

A Swift solution for Irish banking

The lowness of interest, in all other countries a sign of wealth, is in us a proof of misery, there being no trade to employ any borrower. Hence alone comes the dearness of land, since the savers have no other way to lay out their money.
[…]
I have sometimes thought, that this paradox of the Kingdom growing rich, is chiefly owing to those worthy gentlemen the BANKERS, who, except some custom-house officers, birds of passage, oppressive thrifty squires, and a few others that shall be nameless, are the only thriving people among us: And I have often wished that a law were enacted to hang up half a dozen bankers every year, and thereby interpose at least some short delay, to the further ruin of Ireland.”

Jonathan Swift on banking in his 2008 1728 Tract, A short view of the state of Ireland.

His account of rising prices, and Dublin being full of new buildings as builders hire each other is oddly familiar.

24 Jun

Philosophy in Marsh’s Library

Marsh's Library, © Janetmck on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Gate to Marsh’s Library © Janetmck on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The current exhibition in Marsh’s Library (ends 30th June 2013) displays science books from their collection. Given that “science” as a term only replaced “natural philosophy” in the mid 19th century, there are many books by philosophers included. So as well as treatises by Johannes and Elisabetha Hevelius, Galileo, Kepler, Tycho, and a 14th century Irish translation of an astronomical treatise based on Arab works, there are also books of Aristotle (translated and with a commentary from Averroes), Lucretius’ Epicurean poetry, Pascal, Descartes and Gassendi. Robert Boyle’s complete works can been seen, as well as William Molyneaux’s (1690) Treatise on Dioptricks, dedicated in the author’s handwriting to Narcissus Marsh himself.

Marsh’s Library was the first public library in Ireland. Marsh had long contemplated a library for “publick use, where all might have free access seeing they cannot have it in [Trinity] College”. The library (the tour guide informed us) was open to all, regardless of religion.

Interior of Marsh's Library © Marsh's Library (CC)

Interior of Marsh’s Library © Marsh’s Library (CC)

Marsh donated his entire collection of over 10,000 volumes, including the collection of Bishop Edward Stillingfleet which he had bought for £2,500, to the public library. The first librarian, Dr. Elias Bouhereau, a Huguenot refugee who fled France in 1695, was the first librarian, and also donated his library. An additional bequest was made in 1745 by John Sterne Bishop of Clogher.
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24 Jun

The Middle Edward Synge, Archbishop of Tuam

St Mary's Cathedral, Tuam (c) Valeria Luongo/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

St Mary’s Cathedral, Tuam
(c) Valeria Luongo/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Writing about Bishop Edward Synge requires some care. There were three of them, all related. The Edward Synge who is the subject of this post was the son of Edward Synge, bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross. He was also the nephew of George Synge (1594–1653), bishop of Cloyne; and the father of Bishops Edward Synge (1691–1762) and Nicholas Synge (1693–1771).

Edward Synge the Elder, as we will distinguish him from his father and son, was born in Inishannon, Cork on 6 April 1659. After his education in Cork, Oxford and Dublin he was rector in Laracor, Co. Meath (1682–6) and then vicar of Holy Trinity and prebendary of Christ Church, Cork (1686-1706). In that period he wrote his first major work A Gentleman’s Religion (1693), originally published anonymously.

After the challenge of John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), Edward Synge added an appendix to later editions of Gentleman’s Religion (David Berman suggests as a direct response.) Toland had argued that religious mysterious such as the Holy Trinity could not be properly part of Christianity since they could not be believed, since they were contrary to or above reason.
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22 Jun

Blended with Catholics

The youth of the Kingdom too, they who in a few years must determine this question, they have decided for the emancipation, with a liberality which is natural to youth, and a sagacity which is peculiar to years — and they will sit soon in these seats, blended with Catholics, while we, blended with Catholics, shall repose in the dust. Another age shall laugh at all this.

In 1793 the Catholic Relief Act was passed, allowing Catholics who took an oath and fulfilled the other criteria to vote. This was the latest step in a long slow process eroding the Penal Laws. However it still fell a great deal short of what Tone had argued for in his Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland.

On 4th May 1795 Henry Grattan proposed “A bill for the relief of His Majesty’s Roman Catholic Subjects”. This would have allowed Catholic MPs. The young that Grattan refers to are the students of Trinity, who presented an address in favour of Catholic emancipation. The bill was rejected 155 to 84.

Full Catholic Emancipation had to wait until 1829, nine years after Grattan’s death.

20 Jun

Wolfe Tone’s Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland

Theobald Wolfe Tone and the frontispiece of "Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland"

Theobald Wolfe Tone and the frontispiece of “Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland”

In 1724 Swift asked in the Drapier Letters, “Were not the People of Ireland born as Free as those of England?”  In 1791 Theobald Wolfe Tone answered, “We are free in theory, but slaves in fact.”

Theobald Wolfe Tone was born in Dublin 250 years ago (on 20th June, 1763). He is not an original thinker, nor a systematic one. But he does act as a “lightning conductor” (as Thomas Duddy puts it), bringing together ideas about liberty, independence and popular sovereignty and applying them to the Irish situation. These ideas picked up over time were incorporated in pamphlets, writings and finally in Wolfe Tone’s actions. He died in prison in Dublin, after arrest for his part in the failed 1798 Rising, on 19th November, 1798.

Tone’s best argued piece is probably Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, published in 1791. It is an argument based on justice, liberty and the rights of man. In the preface To the Reader he appeals directly to the work of Thomas Paine. Tone does not, he says, make an argument about “the abstract right of the people to reform their legislature; for after PAINE, who will, or who need, be heard on the subject?”
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18 Jun

Swift Crowned

Swift Crowned

This year (2013) marks the 300th anniversary of Swift becoming Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral (he was installed on 13th June, 1713). The picture above is from the title page to Jonathan Swift’s Works of 1735. Beneath Swift’s feet lies a figure, probably Mr. Wood, with his brass half-pennies strewn below. Ireland kneels before Swift to thank him. The Latin inscription, from Horace, says, “I have made a monument more lasting than brass.” This all refers to Swift’s work that combines political philosophy with rhetoric, the Drapier Letters,

Drapier’s Letters were a series of pamphlets, supposedly written by a Mr. Drapier, a draper by trade. They were written in response to the decision in 1722 to allow Mr Wood to create new copper coinage for Ireland up to the value of £180,000, a right obtainedafter payment of £100,000 as a bribe to the Duchess of Kendal, mistress to King George I. New coinage was needed in Ireland but this measure was imposed on Ireland without the consultation or control of the Irish government.

The first Drapier’s Letter was A Letter to the shopkeepers, tradesmen, farmers and the common people of Ireland concerning the brass halfpence coined by Mr. Woods (1724) . His analysis of the faults of the inferior coinage and its probable effects on the Irish economy due to hoarding of good quality coinage triggered an enquiry, which advised reducing the number of coins. It also produced a report by Isaac Newton, head of the Mint arguing that the coins were good.

Swift continued on the offensive, however. In  A Letter to Mr. Harding the printer, he criticised the assay process and urged that the Irish people should refuse the coins. Mr Wood, “Drapier” says, will force the coins onto a nation who do not want them, and profit greatly thereby. Who “with the figure of a man can think with patience of being devoured alive by a rat?” In this way, Swift widened the field of the controversy: the question of the patent is framed by the wider question of the lack of freedom of the Irish, whose indifference “Drapier” can scarcely credit. As a result of this letter, a group comprising bankers, merchants and tradesmen gathered together to declare they would not accept Wood’s coins. However Walpole’s government pressed on with the plan, despite a noticeable lack of support from the Irish parliament.
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16 Jun

Nothingness of Bloomsday

It is fitting, then, that every 16 June the Irish should commemorate a day on which nothing much happened. Like many modernist works, Ulysses revolves on a botched revelation or bungled epiphany, as Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus finally meet to no momentous effect. Nothingness is a traditional topic of Irish writing, all the way from the negative theology of the great medieval schoolman John Scottus Eriugena to the vision of hell of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. It is true that nothing, like something, happens anywhere, but it tends to happen more in a down-at-heel colony (‘an afterthought of Europe’, Joyce scornfully called it) than it does on Wall Street or in Whitehall. Riba’s parental home strikes him as ‘more and more Irish’ precisely because nothing ever happens there. It is full of ghosts, as indeed Dublinesque is as a whole. Ireland, too, is haunted by a history which is dead but won’t lie down.

Quoted from “Irishness is for other people”, LRB. A review by Terry Eagleton of Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, trans. by Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey

15 Jun

In Memoriam: Thomas Duddy

Thomas Duddy, philosopher, teacher and poet, died on this day last year (15th June, 2012), aged 62.

Frequent readers of this blog will know that Dr Tom Duddy is something of a patron saint of this site. His Dictionary of Irish Philosophers (2004) is used both for selection and information purposes. Within its pages are many forgotten thinkers, some deservedly, some rewarding a second look. His History of Irish Thought(2002), described as “strikingly original and sorely needed” by Terry Eagleton, is a wonderful survey of Irish thought and thinkers from the 7th to the 20th century. He also edited two important anthologies of Irish writing on philosophical questions, Irish Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century (2002) and The Irish Response to Darwinism (2003).

Born in Ramolin near Shrule, Co Mayo, he studied English and philosophy in University College Galway (now National University of Ireland, Galway). His graduate studies in philosophy focused on philosophy of mind, publishing Mind, Self and Interiority, “a critique of the indiscriminate anti-Cartesianism of contemporary philosophy of mind” in 1995. As well as his work in Irish philosophy, he also wrote on the question of morality and the environment, and on the visual arts. He was senior lecturer in the department of philosophy at the National University of Ireland, Galway.
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