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25 Dec

Ritual and Language

Wittgenstein got me to read aloud to him the opening chapters of Frazer’s Golden Bough. Frazer thinks he can make clear the origin of the rites and ceremonies he describes by regarding them as primitive and erroneous scientific beliefs. […] Now Wittgenstein made it clear to me that on the contrary the people who practised these rites already possessed a considerable scientific achievement: agriculture, metal working, building, etc., etc.; and the ceremonies existed alongside these sober techniques. They were not mistaken beliefs that produced the rites but the need to express something; the ceremonies were a form of language, a form of life. Thus today if we are introduced to someone we shake hands; if we enter a church we take off our hats and speak in a low voice; at Christmas perhaps we decorate a tree. These are expressions of friendliness, reverence, and of celebration.”

Maurice O’Connor Drury in the preface of “The Danger of Words”, on ritual and tradition as a form of life and a language.

18 Dec

Small and Far Away: Thomas Kingsmill Abbott

Landscape by George Barret Wikimedia, Public Domain

Landscape by George Barret
Wikimedia, Public Domain

Dublin born Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (26 March 1829 – 18 December 1913) is probably best known for his translations of Kant’s ethical works published in 1873 which remained the standard English texts into the 1940s (Duddy, 2004). He had a wide range of scholarly interests, being professor various of Moral Philosophy, Greek and Hebrew in Trinity College Dublin. However his greatest philosophical contribution was made in his early career, where he disputed the theory of vision outlined by (fellow Trinity man) George Berkeley.

The roots of Berkeley’s theory are in Locke. Just before he introduces (William) Molyneaux’s Problem, in his Essay on Human Understanding (IX, 8) Locke states that “When we set before our eyes a round globe of any uniform colour […] it is certain that the idea thereby imprinted on our mind is of a flat circle”. The roundness we think we see, says Locke, is the effect of experience, which differentiates what we see: “…only a plane variously coloured, as is evident in painting.” He does not, however, claim we cannot tell that the sphere is at a distance.

William Molyneaux does claim this, however, in his Dioptrica Nova (1692, 113):

Distance of itself is not to be perceived. For it is a line (or a length) presented to our eye with its end toward us which must therefore be only a point, and that is invisible.

Berkeley expands these ideas in A Essay towards a New Theory of Vision (1709/1732), referenced previously in relation to the Moon Illusion. Berkeley agrees with Molyneaux that distance cannot be seen (II): Read More

08 Dec

Forgotten Genius: George Boole

A five minute documentary on George Boole, creator of Boolean algebra and forefather of the digital age. The memorials mentioned are those in Lincoln where Boole was born. Click here for the Lincoln Boole Foundation, who encourage citizens of Lincoln and the world to celebrate George Boole’s digital legacy -especially in 2014 & 2015, his binary bicentenary.

Also see UCC’s commemoration here.

08 Dec

Ones and Zeros

George Boole in sunglasses

Boole is Cool
(c) IrishPhilosophy (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Mathematician and logician George Boole died 150 years ago today, on 8th December, 1864. Today also marks the start of the year-long schedule of events UCC are running to commemorate Boole, culminating in the bicentenary of his birth on 2nd November 2015 (see GeorgeBoole.com for more).

George Boole was born in Lincoln, the eldest son in a family of modest means. For details of his life as a self-taught mathematician to first professor in UCC (then Queens College Cork) in 1849, where he lived until his death see the detailed biography here.

Boole had a large impact on mathematics, providing the basis for invariant theory, and working on differential and difference equations, and probability. Developments of his work such as set theory and boolean algebra are taught to school children today.

However, of most interest philosophically are The Mathematical Analysis of Logic, and its successor An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, on which are founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities published in 1854. These proposed that ideas expressed in language can be expressed in algebraic form. This combination of philosophical logic and algebra, as DeMorgan said “would not have been believed until it was proved.
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03 Dec

Reciprocal Referencing: Hutcheson and Swift

At the end of a downpour on a Dublin street

“Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down,
Threatening with deluge this devoted town.”
Downpour in Dublin (c) Phil Burns/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I came across an article, An image from Francis Hutcheson in Gulliver’s Travels, book IV, chapter 5 by Arnd Bohm, in which he points out the similarity between a passage by Swift and a passage by Hutcheson.

In Gulliver’s Travels (book IV, Chapter 5) Gulliver tells the gentle, horse-like Houyhnhnm master about wars among humans, and the death and destruction it involves:

And to set forth the valour of my own dear countrymen, I assured him, “that I had seen them blow up a hundred enemies at once in a siege, and as many in a ship, and beheld the dead bodies drop down in pieces from the clouds, to the great diversion of the spectators.”

The Houyhnhnm is horrified, as we might be well be, at the thought of wholesale death being a “great diversion”. Bohm suggests that the moral indifference shown is emphasised when we realise the likely source of the example Swift is using.
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01 Dec

C.S. Lewis, Irish philosopher?

A photograph of C. S. Lewis hanging in The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford

A photograph of C. S. Lewis hanging in The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford
(c) Freddie Phillips/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

C. S. Lewis was born in Belfast on 29th November 1898, and a festival in that city celebrating him is in its second year.

So for the purposes of this, he’s Irish. But is C. S. Lewis a philosopher? A piece in the University of Oxford Practical Ethics blog argues that he is, in C. S Lewis as a moral philosopher:

All decent people believe essentially the same things, he thought. There is, in other words, not just a Universal Moral Grammar, but a Universal Moral Vocabulary. This is an old idea. It’s inherent in the idea and language of natural law. ‘[T]aking the race as a whole’, wrote Lewis, those who referred to the “Law of Nature’ ‘thought that the human idea of decent behaviour was obvious to every one. And I believe they were right.’ Our moral norms are hardwired. ‘It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong. People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong. But they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table.’

Readers may see a certain similarity to the ethical theory of another Ulster man, Francis Hutcheson.
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