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24 Mar

Newton in the Letters to Serena

The signature of Bruno’s ideas on motion and matter is evident throughout Toland’s Letters to Serena (1704). In Serena, matter is one, motion is inherent in matter, and no void exists. Toland’s matter is the source of life itself, whereas Newtonian matter is ‘sluggish, inactive, brute and stupid’. Toland fully accepted Newton’s physics. In fact he was one of the first writers to bring word of Newton’s science into France. However, he argued that Newton’s interpretation of his own laws was not the only possible interpretation.

The acceptance of Newton’s physics in Letters to Serena by the most notorious freethinker of the time had the effect of making Newton somewhat suspect to orthodox Anglicans. The first edition of Opticks (1704) had only sixteen queries; Newton added seven more between 1704 and the 1706 Latin version. However, there is in existence an early draft of the twenty-third query which differs significantly from the later (published) version. Thus Newton wrote and rewrote this query between the publication of Serena, and the Latin edition of Opticks in 1706. Here he tried to grapple with the significance of Toland’s hylozoism [the doctrine that all matter has life]. The draft version of the twenty-third query states:

it seems to have been an ancient opinion that matter depends upon a Deity for its laws of motion as well as for its existence. These are passive laws and to affirm that there are no others is to speak against experience. …all matter duly formed is attended with signes of life.

This text does not appear in the final version of query twenty-three. As the person who had given the English ruling class its ideological justification, publicly stating that ‘all matter duly formed is attended with signes of life’ would have undermined the status quo and aligned Newton with Toland and the heretic Bruno! One suspects that Newton may have become a prisoner of his own ideology, trapped in the cul-de-sac of orthodoxy.

From Philip McGuinness (1996) ‘The Hue and Cry of Heresy’ John Toland, Isaac Newton & the Social Context of Scientists, History Ireland, Issue 4.

23 Mar

Irish Times Unthinkable: Dr Ian Leask on the legacy of John Toland

22 Mar

Jesse Norman on Edmund Burke

From My Favourite Political Thinker series on Daily Politics. Giles Dilnot talks to Jesse Norman about Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, who shaped the UK politics of today according to Norman. 

Source: BBC.

21 Mar

Fall in the House of Ussher

Ussher represented the best of scholarship in his time. He was part of a substantial research tradition, a large community of intellectuals working toward a common goal under an accepted methodology–Ussher’s shared “house” if you will pardon my irresistible title pun. Today we rightly reject a cardinal premise of that methodology–belief in biblical inerrancy–and we recognize that this false assumption allowed such a great error in estimating the age of the earth. […]

The textbook writers do not know that attempts to establish a full chronology for all human history (not only to date the creation as a starting point) represented a major effort in seventeenth-century thought. These studies did not slavishly use the Bible, but tried to coordinate the records of all peoples. Moreover, the assumption of biblical inerrancy doesn’t give you an immediate and dogmatic answer–for many alternative readings and texts of the Bible exist, and you must struggle to a basis for choice among them. As a primary example, different datings for key events are given in the Septuagint (or Greek Bible, first translated by the Jewish community of Egypt in the third to second centuries B.C. and still used by the Eastern churches) and in the standard Hebrew Bible favored by the Western churches.

Stephen Jay Gould, “Fall in the House of Ussher.” Natural History 100 (November 1991): 12-21 (available online here)
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20 Mar

In Our Time: Bishop Berkeley

This In Our Time covers the life and philosophy of George Berkeley, one of the most important philosophers of the 18th century. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Peter Millican, Gilbert Ryle Fellow and Professor of Philosophy at Hertford College, Oxford; Tom Stoneham, Professor of Philosophy at the University of York and Michela Massimi, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Science at the University of Edinburgh.

The programme explores the influences on Berkeley, what his immaterialism entailed, how he never said esse est percipi, how Johnson’s famous refutation fails and how God is less central to his philosophy than Ronald A. Knox’s pair of Limericks would suggest.

In Our Time: Bishop Berkeley page, including further reading.

17 Mar

Patrick and a question of identity

Statue of St Patrick overlooking green fields and a rainbow

Image: starbeard /Flickr (CC BY)

Last year Vox Hiberionacum published two posts on the historical Patrick and the voicing of early Irish identity: one relating to classical and early medieval terms used by outsiders and a sequel on terms used in Patrick’s own writings. In brief, Patrick used the term Scotti, which had with negative connotations, but mainly to refer to the pagan Irish. The converts he referred to as Irish/Hibernae, including in the famous account of his dream where ‘the voice of the (not yet converted) Irish’ calls on him to return to Ireland, and in contexts referring to existing converts. Vox Hiberionacum points out the complexity of identity involved in both terms – the people referred to in both were of multiple backgrounds, classes and tribes. Some were not even born in Ireland. In his Letter to Coroticus protesting the killing and enslavement of Irish converts to Christianity by a British chieftain, Patrick writes

Indignum est illis Hiberionaci sumus
‘For them, it is a disgrace/shameful that we are from Ireland‘. 

Whether this is a slip or a rhetorical device, it is the first insular expression of an Irish ‘we’, and it includes not only the Irish born in Ireland but Patrick himself.

This complexity inherent in the term “Irish” brought to mind two of Ireland’s greatest philosophers. Johannes Scotus Eriugena adopted two names denoting his Irishness, plausibly because even by his time being an Irishman (Scotus) did not automatically mean born in Ireland (Eriugena). George Berkeley in several places in his Philosophical Commentaries writes, “we Irish” (“we Irish do not hold with this”, “We Irish think otherwise”). Yet he is often claimed as English. Both philosophers are enmeshed in the complexities of Irish identity.
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