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31 Jul

Philip Pettit: Freedom and other Robustly Demanding Goods


This is a lecture on freedom (2 hours 14 mins) given by Professor Philip Pettit on May 6, 2013. The lecture was given at the Australian National University School of Philosophy.

For more information on this topic see Philip Pettit’s article from 2012 on “A Question for Tomorrow: The Robust Demands of the Good” [pdf]. Extract:

Humphrey Lyttelton, the English jazz musician, was once asked where he thought jazz was going. He replied that if he knew where jazz was going, he would be there already. I feel the same about being asked about the questions of tomorrow in the moral and political philosophy. If I knew what they were,
I would be there already. Which raises an interesting thought. Perhaps the best indication of what I think that the questions are is where I am already. And, following that thought, there is a clear path to follow, however narcissistic it may seem. This is to describe a question that I think important — indeed a question that is something of a personal hobby-horse — despite the fact that it is not currently much discussed. Induction from past evidence suggests that it is unlikely to become a question of tomorrow. But I live, as we all must do, in hope.

In thinking over a long period about the various ways in which freedom may be conceptualized, I came to see that it is, as I came to put it, a robustly or modally demanding value.

29 Jul

The Seven Sages

The First. My great-grandfather spoke to Edmund Burke
In Grattan’s house.
The Second. My great-grandfather shared
A pot-house bench with Oliver Goldsmith once.
The Third. My great-grandfather’s father talked of music,
Drank tar-water with the Bishop of Cloyne.
The Fourth. But mine saw Stella once.
The Fifth. Whence came our thought?
The Sixth. From four great minds that hated Whiggery.
The Fifth. Burke was a Whig.
The Sixth. Whether they knew or not,
Goldsmith and Burke, Swift and the Bishop of Cloyne
All hated Whiggery; but what is Whiggery?
A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
That never looked out of the eye of a saint
Or out of drunkard’s eye.
The Seventh. All’s Whiggery now,
But we old men are massed against the world.
The First. American colonies, Ireland, France and India
Harried, and Burke’s great melody against it.
The Second. Oliver Goldsmith sang what he had seen,
Roads full of beggars, cattle in the fields,
But never saw the trefoil stained with blood,
The avenging leaf those fields raised up against it.
The Fourth. The tomb of Swift wears it away.
The Third. A voice
Soft as the rustle of a reed from Cloyne
That gathers volume; now a thunder-clap.
The Sixth. What schooling had these four?
The Seventh. They walked the roads
Mimicking what they heard, as children mimic;
They understood that wisdom comes of beggary.

Yeats’ poem (published 1933) in praise of Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, George Berkeley (the Bishop of Cloyne) and Jonathan Swift. All wrote about oppression and dispossession; Berkeley and Swift in the Irish context (The Querist and A Modest Proposal), Goldsmith in the context of the rich evicting the poor in The Deserted Village, and Burke on the widest canvas of all (India, the American colonies and Ireland).

Yeats’ affiliation with the Georgian (protestant, intellectual) past first emerged in “The Tower” (1928) and “Blood and the Moon” (1929). Yeats also makes reference to the 1798 Rising, “the trefoil stained with blood”, which he previously referred to (“Emmet, Fitzgerald, Tone”) in “The Funeral of Parnell” (1932).

It is a little strange to see four men who attended Trinity College Dublin, three of whom (Swift, Berkeley and Burke) were pillars of the Establishment, described as walking the roads and knowing that “wisdom comes of beggary”. However in Yeats’ 1931 introduction to Hone and Rossi’s Bishop Berkeley1 Yeats argued that the Georgian society they all belonged to was one that allowed “solitaries to flourish” – essentially the same premodern society that supported hermit monks, or Indian sages with begging bowls, or literal beggars and wanderers.
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26 Jul

Burke and Sons: the legacy of the Father of Conservatism

Burke died in 1797. His legacy has been hotly contested. In Edmund Burke in America, the historian Drew Maciag charts the use of Burke by US intellectuals. “Burke will be heard to say whatever needs to be said,” he argues. This is especially true of the past few decades. Neo-conservatives have used his anti-Jacobinism to call for strong military action in the cold war and after 9/11. Religious conservatives have cited Burke’s belief in Providence. Others, foreshadowing the Tea Party, have sought to parallel his reverence for the unwritten English constitution and the Glorious Revolution with theirs for the US constitution and the wars of independence.

In Maciag’s telling, Burke has been abused by American rightwing thinkers. His conservatism ends up appearing kaleidoscopic. Maciag implies that if the father of modern conservatism has spawned such diverse offspring, it makes no sense to think of a single, identifiable “conservatism”.

Yes, another review of Jesse Norman’s Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet along with Drew Maciag’s Edmund Burke in America: The Contested Career of the Father of Modern Conservatism.

John McDermott’s “Burke & Sons” (Financial Times) goes further than a simple review however, briefly exploring to what extent Burke can be said to be the father of a thing called conservatism, touching on Maciag, Corey Robin and today’s UK politics on the way.

21 Jul

Ireland’s first recorded blasphemy trial

NPG D8717; Thomas Emlyn by Gerard Vandergucht, after Joseph Highmore

Thomas Emlyn;
(c) National Portrait Gallery (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Thomas Emlyn spent fourteen of his seventy-eight years in Dublin (1691-1705), but they were easily the most eventful of his life. He wrote his An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture Account of Jesus Christ as a result of events there. That Inquiry led to his appearance as the plaintiff in what “appears to have been the first reported blasphemy prosecution in Irish law” (UK Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales First Report).

Thomas Emlyn was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire, on 27 May 1663. His family were non-conformist (protestants who were not Anglicans). He first came to Ireland as the domestic chaplain of the Countess of Donegall, a Presbyterian. During these four years he was first invited to minister to the Presbyterian congregation of Wood Street, Dublin. Instead he returned to London and became chaplain to Sir Robert Rich. In September 1690 the offer of the Wood Street congregation was made again and accepted. Emlyn became colleague to Joseph Boyse, the same minister who later arranged for Francis Hutcheson to become head of a dissenting academy in Dublin, in which Boyse taught divinity.
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17 Jul

Æ on the Irish Mind

We wish the Irish mind to develop to the utmost of which it is capable, and we have always believed that the people now inhabiting Ireland…made up of Gael, Dane, Norman and Saxon, has infinitely greater intellectual possibilities…a more complex mentality. Ireland has not only the unique Gaelic tradition, but it has also given birth, if it accepts all of its children, to many men who have influenced European culture and science, Berkeley, Swift, Goldsmith, Burke, Sheridan, Moore, Hamilton, Kelvin, Tyndall, Shaw, Yeats, Synge and many others of international repute.

Quoted by Richard Kearney in the Sunday Independent, May 26, 1985. These words were also included in the opening of a collection of essays, The Irish Mind, published in 1985 and edited by Kearney. The quote was intended to act as an epigraph for the book, outlining the context of and acting as a preface to the subject.

AE, aka George William Russell originally wrote this in the Irish Statesman(17 January 1925).

15 Jul

Seeking the Sun: Murdoch and the Good

Dame Iris Murdoch Bill Strain/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Dame Iris Murdoch
Bill Strain/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Murdoch and Nietzsche start from with the same assumptions when considering morality. But interestingly, they end up in different places.

Iris Murdoch, in the essay The Sovereignty of Good over other Concepts, gives her starting assumptions as follows (p. 76-7)

That human beings are naturally selfish seems true on the evidence, whenever and however we look at them, in spite of a very small number of apparent exceptions. […]

That human life has no external point or Telos is a view as difficult to argue as its opposite, and I shall simply assert it. I can see no evidence to suggest that human life is not something self-contained.

These principles are ones Nietzsche would agree with. Added to this the disagreement among those who consider the matter as to what principles morality is based on, lead Nietzsche to scepticism about the existence of morality (see the upcoming paper by Leiter which outlines Nietzsche’s position in full).

Murdoch takes another path. She agrees that modern attempts to analyse moral concepts without success, but argues that the failure is due to the abandonment of images and metaphors, which are “the fundamental forms of our awareness of our condition”. Though such philosophy does not arrive at a conclusion, it does contain concepts which lose substance when an attempt is made to remove the metaphorical aspects.
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10 Jul

Oscar Wilde in 20th century Ireland

Clery was far from endorsing Wilde – in an intriguing speculation he suggested that “an over-dose of patriotism in his Merrion Square home had something to do with the sinister frivolity” of his outlook; nonetheless he regarded him as a significant, contrarian intelligence. From his own Catholic perspective, he saw Wilde as an enemy of Victorian materialism who, by means of paradox, sought to undermine the great nineteenth century commonplaces, those misapprehensions of the nature of the world which seemed so obvious and were yet untrue. “It must,” Clery reflected, “have been a sense of this underlying falsehood in so much popular truth that led Wilde to attack platitude with the weapon of paradox, a weapon which was to gain for him before his fall the intellectual supremacy which I, for one, am old enough to remember.”

From Oscar Wilde and the Irish by Brian Earls in the Dublin Review of Books.

The essay explores how Wilde, far from being marginalised or excluded from Irish discussion in the early twentieth century was evoked by Free State supporters (Béaslaí and O’Hegarty), republicans (Clery and Corkery), and cultural figures such as Austin Clarke and Liam Mac Liammóir. The extract above outlines Arthur Clery’s thoughts on Wilde, as published in the Jesuit journal Studies.

08 Jul

Everyday Irish Philosophy: Padraig Colum on feminism

Padraic Colum

Padraic Colum c. 1913 Wikimedia, Public Domain

We have seen that Yeats and other writers were reading the works of neoPlatonist philosophers in the early 20th century, but what about the rest of the public? The fact that the Irish Independent (24th February, 1910) decided to publish the article reproduced below suggests that there was some interest in philosophy, at least in relation to the debate on the role of women. Padraig Colum was part of the Irish Literary Revival, and would also have been familiar with student discussion around UCD, and perhaps that of clerks in the city. Female Emancipation was news – the suffragettes feature in many other Irish Independent stories.

Padraig Colum 1910 Feb 24 glow

All the same, Nietzsche is only mentioned 36 times in the Irish and Sunday Independent in the 40 years to the end of 1945, so general interest was limited at best. That is not to say this philosophy was not influential. In one of pieces between 1905 and 1945, the philosopher is credited by TG. Kelleher (The Irish Theatre Movement, January 06, 1929) for  “putting the Irish dramatic movement on its feet, for Yeats, its dominant force, was at that time under his thumb.” In another (Unfamiliar Shaw, Tiresome Eloquence, June 09, 1928), the writer notes that people no longer find Nietzsche as fascinating as they did eighteen years ago. Nietzsche may, then, have peaked in his popularity as Colum wrote this article.
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05 Jul

Peter of Ireland, Teacher of Aquinas

The first biographies of Thomas Aquinas, the immensely influential philosopher and theologian, were written about forty years after his death. In the first (by William of Tocco) it is said that Aquinas was educated at Naples in grammar and logic by Master Martin and in natural philosophy by “Petrus de Ibernia” ie. Peter of Ireland. In the second (by Peter Calo), Aquinas is said to have quickly learnt all that Master Martin could teach him in grammar, leading to his transfer to Master Peter the Irishman who taught him logic and natural philosophy. This would have been in the time period 1239-44. So who was this Irish teacher of Thomas Aquinas?

Research done in the eighteenth century (by a Dominican Bernardo Rossi de Rubeis) found two potential candidates in Naples at the right time. One, called Magistro Petro de Hybernia, has been excluded by later research, but the second, a Benedictine monk named Petrus de Donis and described as Ultonienis remains a possibility. This man might be the same as a Petrus de Dunis, a member of the Benedictine community of Down, founded about 1177-78 by John de Courcy who brought Anglo-Norman monks there from Chester.

At this distance it seems very unlikely we can ever know if Petrus de Donis was Peter of Ireland, but we can establish one thing based on the name alone. Peter of Ireland was probably Anglo-Norman, since Peter was not used as a name by the Gaelic population. It is also unlikely that an Irish man of Gaelic race at that time would have had a career that would take him abroad for his university education, most likely to Oxford (there was no Irish university), and from there to Paris and Naples. It is plausible he had some connections with Normans in Sicily.

While his Irish roots are sketchy we do have some examples of his work. Read More

04 Jul

The Pursuit of Happiness

Once the Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed in the summer of 1776, the pursuit of happiness — the pursuit of the good of the whole, because the good of the whole was crucial to the genuine well-being of the individual — became part of the fabric (at first brittle, to be sure, but steadily stronger) of a young nation.

The thinking about happiness came to American shores most directly from the work of John Locke and from Scottish-Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson. During the Enlightenment, thinkers and politicians struggled with redefining the role of the individual in an ethos so long dominated by feudalism, autocratic religious establishments and the divine rights of kings. A key insight of the age was that reason, not revelation, should have primacy in human affairs. That sense of reason was leading Western thinkers to focus on the idea of happiness, which in Jefferson’s hands may be better understood as the pursuit of individual excellence that shapes the life of a broader community.”

From Free to Be Happy, by Jon Meacham in Time Magazine, on the meaning of happiness in the US constitution.

Hutcheson was primarily concerned with “flourishing” rather than happiness as hedonism, though it should be noted that he was not a puritan and had no problem with luxury or consumption as long as it was not excessive.