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27 May

Who sharpened Occam’s Razor?

The back label on a bottle of "Occam's Razor" wine (c) David McLeish/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The back label on a bottle of “Occam’s Razor” wine
(c) David McLeish/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Occam’s (or Ockham’s) Razor is a form of the principle of parsimony (broadly, that theories should be as simple as possible but not simpler.) It states: ‘Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.’ (In Latin, Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.) However it seems that William of Occam never said it. As the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy reports:

Although the sentiment is certainly Ockham’s, that particular formulation is nowhere to be found in his texts. Moreover, as usually stated, it is a sentiment that virtually all philosophers, medieval or otherwise, would accept; no one wants a needlessly bloated ontology. The question, of course, is which entities are needed and which are not.

The other question is, who did originally say it? In 1918, William Thorburn published the result of his investigations into this question in Mind. The paper is available from Mind 27 (1918), 345-353; and on wikisource. That research suggested the origin lay with an Irish scholastic, John Punch.

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26 May

Tradition of Scotist Scholars

What kind of works in Philosophy did Scotus leave us? […] What is the current status of his works? The Opera omnia was first edited by my countryman of origin, Luke Wadding, who in the terrible seventeenth century departed Ireland and labored in Italy to edit Scotus and other Franciscan writers. Another Irishman, Maurice O’Fehily, living in Padua, Italy, had edited Scotus’s Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle in 1497, and published the work in Venice. But then, these and some Englishmen were continuing a tradition of scholars who, like Scotus, had gone to Paris in the early fourteenth century, scholars who with John Duns Scotus refused to obey Philip the Fair and with Scotus, had to leave Paris and go back to Oxford in the early fourteenth century namely Ricardus Hibernensis, Odo Hibernensis and Thomas Anglicus.

From Duns Scotus: A Brief Introduction to his Life and Thought by Jeremiah Hackett in “Studies in Scottish Literature” (1991).
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21 May

Philosophical Clarity versus Scientific Clarity

An examiner once said to me: ‘Sir Arthur Keith once remarked to me that the reason why the spleen drained into the portal system was of the greatest importance; but he never told me what that importance was, now can you tell me?’ I had to confess that I couldn’t see any anatomical or physiological significance in this fact. The examiner then went on to say: ‘Do you think there must be a significance, an explanation? As I see it there are two sorts of people: one man sees a bird sitting on a telegraph wire and says to himself: “Why is that bird sitting just there?”, the other man replies “Damn it all, the bird has to sit somewhere”

The reason why this story pleased Wittgenstein was that it made clear the distinction between scientific clarity and philosophical clarity.[…] Scientific explanations lead us on indefinitely from one inexplicable to another, so that the building grows and grows and grows, and we never find a real resting place. Philosophical clarity puts a full-stop to our enquiry and restlessness by showing that our quest is in one sense mistaken. “

From Maurice O’Connor Drury’s “The Danger Of Words” (1973).

19 May

Swift Matters

One of the claims Damrosch makes near the beginning of his book to explain the need for a new biography is that “Swift matters”. This is, I think, justifiable. “Burn everything that comes from England except their people and their coal” used to be his most famous (and most misquoted) soundbite but in recent years changed priorities and transformed relationships have pushed another of his statements to the fore, one in which Swift calls for a law to be passed that would make it mandatory to “hang up half a dozen bankers every year”. Swift matters not just because he said some things which, taken out of context, can be readily assimilated to modern populist sentiment. He perfected the art of crafting phrases snappy enough to become slogans but which, on closer inspection, yield disturbing and contradictory meanings. He also (naturally) had an epigrammatic statement for this reading process, likening satire to “a sort of glass” in which beholders are likely to discern everyone’s face but their own. Not all his reflections will appeal. “

From “This life a long disease” by James Ward in The Dublin Review of Books, reviewing a new biography of Swift, Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, by Leo Damrosch

19 May

The Wild Times of Oliver Goldsmith

At Trinity, Goldsmith was a poor student, in both senses of the word: he didn’t have the money for full fees and therefore had to carry out various menial duties in front of other students. He hated it, and was lucky not to be expelled after playing a role in one of the most infamous events in Trinity’s history, the Black Dog riot.

This was provoked by the arrest of a student. A group of fellow students, led by one Gallows Walsh, set the student free and captured the bailiff who had arrested him, dunking him in the college trough. They then decided to storm Newgate Prison (which was known as the Black Dog), and were joined in the process by a city mob. The prison guards fired on them and two of the mob were killed. For their troubles, four of the ringleaders were expelled from Trinity; Goldsmith was lucky merely to be disciplined.

From “The good die young: the wild times of Oliver Goldsmith” by Colin Murphy in the Irish Independent (18 May 2014).

The Black Dog riot took place on 21st May 1747. Goldsmith was disciplined for his part in it as the piece mentions. It has been suggested that Edmund Burke was also there and that a passage in Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) refers to the experience of being in the riot and being drawn to identify with the emotions of the crowd:

The shouting of multitudes has a similar effect; and by the sole strength of the sound, so amazes and confounds the imagination, that in this staggering, and hurry of the mind, the best established tempers can scarcely forbear being bor[n]e down, and joining in the common cry, and common resolution of the croud.

11 May

ABC Radio National: Philip Pettit on Freedom

Philip Pettit talks to Joe Gelonesi about freedom. He argues that freedom from government interference is not enough and that ancient ideas could hold clues to a freer future.

Alternatively read the ABC article which outlines many of the ideas from the recording.

You’ve got a big choice: do you think it should be everyone for themselves, a laissez faire, rip it up society? If this is what freedom means for you then you’re looking a free-for-all, with huge inequalities and lots of dependencies, a chaotic place.

For another view on Pettit, see Prof Maeve Cooke (UCD) talking to Irish Times Unthinkable about Freedom (Soundcloud audio here)

10 May

Just Freedom

In this rigorous distillation of his political philosophy, Philip Pettit, author of the landmark work Republicanism, champions a simple standard for our most complex political judgments, offering a challenging ideal that nevertheless holds out a real prospect for social and democratic progress.

Whereas many thinkers define freedom as the absence of interference—we are left alone to do as we please—Pettit demands that in their basic life choices free persons should not even be subject to a power of interference on the part of others. This notion of freedom as non-domination offers a yardstick for gauging social and democratic progress and provides a simple, unifying standard for analyzing our most entangled political quandaries.

From the description of Just Freedom by Philip Pettit, published by W.W. Norton.

Further information

02 May

Swift, satire and censorship

Clip from The First Georgians, which covers an important but often overlooked time in British and Irish history.

What is said about censorship is true. Britain was freer than most after the legal mechanisms for policing print lapsed in 1695. Still, many works were published anonymously, for fear of public reaction. Swift is an excellent example…even though his satire was so entertaining that Gulliver’s Travels is widely read today without any notion of its satirical intent (nicely explained in this video).

Works judged blasphemous or seditious could still get you arrested. Toland, Emyln and Swift himself (not to mention his printer) could all attest to that.

Still, to steal a title from Swift, this was truly a time when a “Battle of the Books” was first allowed to take place. More on the political and philosophical background to Gulliver’s Travels here on Cliffs Notes.

02 May

estheryear’s marsh narcissus, dodwell disgustered

Only snuffers’ cornets drifts my way that the cracka dvine chucks out of his cassock, with her estheryear’s marsh narcissus to make him recant his vanitty fair. Foul strips of his chinook’s bible I do be reading, dodwell disgustered but chickled with chuckles at the tittles is drawn on the tattlepage.

Finnegans Wake 212.30-4. First published in May 1939.

This extract lives up to the book’s reputation for being impenetrable – would it help to point out there are coded references to Archbishop Narcissus Marsh, and Marsh’s friend Henry Dodwell, the philosopher and theologian?
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02 May

Toland: the republican who argued for (limited) monarchy

Sophia of Hanover

The young Sophia of Hanover
Wikimedia, public domain.

At first glance it may seem bizarre that John Toland, whose first book was burned by Act of Parliament, was a member of Lord Macclesfield’s delegation in 1701, delivering the Act of Succession to the Electress Sophia. This Act named her the heiress to Anne (soon to be Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland), as her closest Protestant relative. (The religious distinction was crucial; there were scores of closer Catholic relatives.)

In fact this was just one piece in an ongoing role advocating for Protestant liberties and the Hanoverian succession, a fact made odder in modern eyes because Toland was a republican. Not merely an armchair republican, Toland was actively engaged in editing and re-publishing English republican works of the 1650s (Milton, Ludlow, Sidney and Harrington). However he was living in a time when republicanism was still vilified and linked to regicide and rebellion; naturally so given the Civil War and rule of Cromwell were events in living memory. To become respectable republicanism became more moderate.

In reviving and reworking republicanism, Toland was not working alone. He moved in Whig circles, supported by figures such as Robert Molesworth (of the Molesworth Circle) and Lord Shaftesbury. In these circles, and for ‘commonwealthsmen’ around Europe “the act that confirmed the succession of Sophia of Hanover was a republican device to exclude both popery and tyranny.” (1). It was, after all, subtitled ‘for the further limitation of the crown and better securing the rights and liberties of the subject’.
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