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31 Mar

Cautious Cartesian: Thomas Gowan

Descartes and Ars Sciendi (edit of  public domain image, Wikimedia)

Descartes and Ars Sciendi
(edit of public domain image, Wikimedia)

While there were few Cartesians in England, there is evidence for Descartes’ philosophy having an important influence in 17th century England (Lamprecht). There is little similar evidence in 17th century Ireland before William Molyneux’s early (possibly the first) translation of Descartes’ Mediations into English in 1680. Even on the continent where the “new philosophy” was freely circulated it seems Irish adopters of Cartesianism were few.

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30 Mar

A brief history of Irish Colleges in the 17th century

Gaelic script reading "Coláisde na nGaedheal" (Irish College) on the gates of the Pontifical Irish College, Ro

A four-part series on The Irish Colleges is currently (March 2015) being shown on BBC2 NI. For those who have access to the BBC iPlayer, it is also available there.

1592 was a pivotal year for Irish philosophy, the year it split along sectarian lines. In that year after decades of wrangling the University of Dublin was founded, along with its first (and only) college, Trinity College Dublin. However it was open only to those who accepted Elizabeth I as the head of the Church. Oxford and Cambridge were already effectively closed to Irish Catholics since graduands had to swear the Oath of Supremacy. This was only part of laws aimed at stamping out Catholicism in the kingdoms she ruled. In 1592 on a visit to Oxford, which was still a hotbed of Catholicism, Elizabeth I made clear in a speech that the requirement for the oath would not be relaxed.
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29 Mar

The God Who May Be

So when Stephen Daedalus says at the beginning of Ulysses, ‘What’s God? A cry in the street,’ he’s right. God is present in the cry in the street. That, it seems to me, is the radical nature of Christ’s message. I think it’s already there, by the way, in the burning bush, in Exodus 3:15, in the Song of Songs, and in certain other texts. But Christianity to me is a very important narrative and story and testimony by Jesus Christ to this fundamental message that the divine cannot be locked up as a thing. And if it is, it leads to war, and then atheism is not only desirable, it’s necessary to rid the world of that religious triumphalism and fundamentalism and self-righteousness, which to this day is still the cause, I believe, of most of our wars.

Richard Kearney on The God Who May Be. From the transcript: ‘The God Who May Be: Richard Kearney on Narrative, Imagination and God,’ IDEAS, ed. David Cayley (CBC Radio).

Also available on audio:

28 Mar

Labour by Mutual Co-operation

But, equal security established, the right of every adult rational being, male or female, to free labour, entire use of its products, and voluntary exchanges, being established; a new question presents itself. Is there no mode of human labour consistent with security – whose paramount importance even to production has been demonstrated [in the Inquiry]- but that of individual competition? May not a mode of labour be found, consistent with security, and still more productive of happiness, than labour by individual competition? […] Nay more, may there not be found a mode of labour consistent with security, which will not only obviate the evils of individual competition, but which will afford its peculiar benefits – abundant production and development of all the faculties – to a greater, an incalculably greater extent, than the best arrangements of individual competition could afford?

No mode of labour can produce preponderant good, which does not respect the natural laws of distribution, “free labour, entire use of its products and voluntary exchanges”, or the principle of equal security regarding wealth.


Such a mode of labour has been proposed. It has been called the system of labour by mutual co-operation; and its object and effect are to produce perfect voluntary equality of enjoyment of all the fruits of united labour.

From chapter V of An inquiry into the principles of the distribution of wealth most conducive to human happiness; applied to the newly proposed system of voluntary equality of wealth (1824) by William Thompson (available on archive.org). This book (along with the Appeal) is regarded as his greatest work.

This crucial chapter is the point where Thompson accepts that his construction of an economic system based on classical liberalism does not fulfil the utilitarian goal of achieving the greatest happiness. The chapter also outlines the various laws which create and perpetuate inequalities (including inheritance.)

“For Thompson, the science of happiness is concerned with the functions of society and social institutions broadly understood, and how these affect individual happiness.” (Mark Kaswan in Happiness, Democracy and the Cooperative Movement: The Radical Utilitarianism of William Thompson).

26 Mar

Irish Kantians: Found in Translation

Kant in Green (c) Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Kant in Green (edit)
(c) Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Irish interest in Kant spans back to Dr J. A. O’Keeffe, whose 1795 Essay on the Progress of Human Understanding included a description of Kant’s conception of the aims of philosophy. We know little of O’Keeffe but we do know that he attended lectures in Leipzig given by Friedrich Gottlob Born, who was translating Kant into Latin. O’Keeffe’s radical leanings were manifest in the book, adding to heated English debate on Kant in 1796, and increasing the association of Kant with radical ideas in the English mind.

O’Keeffe had translated sections of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in discussing it, but the first full translation was by the Scot John Richardson in 1797, and attracted little notice. By 1819 Kant was better known in England, and Richardson published additional translations with limited impact. Mahaffy (1878, p. 207) argues for Sir William Hamilton (not the Irish mathematician), along with Semple’s translations, as the driving force in the 1830s for the study of Kant in Britain, and certainly Scottish translators and commentators were active from the late 1830s on.

Despite interest in Kant by Irish individuals such as William Rowan Hamilton (introduced to Kant in the early 1830s by Samuel Coleridge), systematic academic interest did not emerge until the 1860s. Maffahy gives an account of the birth of the Kantian school in Trinity:
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20 Mar

Literary Tours of Edgeworthstown, Co. Longford

The House in which Maria Edgeworth Lived Public Domain: from "Irish Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil" by Richard Lovett (1888)

The House in which Maria Edgeworth Lived
Public Domain: from “Irish Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil” by Richard Lovett (1888)

Edgeworthstown was the home of Richard Lovell Edgeworth and his daughter Maria Edgeworth who wrote many novels including Belinda and Caste Rackrent. These two, particularly Maria are the focus of the Literary Tour of Edgeworthstown. Also referenced are Maria’s cousin the Abbé Edgeworth (who was with King Louis XVI when the king was guillotined), Oliver Goldsmith, Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth and Oscar Wilde.

Details of the locations visited are available on the Mostrim website. For details of when the tours are run please contact Mostrim before visiting.

18 Mar

Interior Riches

“A Sentimental Journey” (1768) shows how the language of sensibility became increasingly interiorized in the eighteenth century. Throughout the work Sterne’s interest in his surroundings and in his fellow beings is subordinate to the interior riches they provide him with: the sentimental journey is first and foremost an inner journey, through which “a large volume of adventures may be grasped” and nothing should he missed that “he can fairly lay his hands on”. If the terms here reflect the discourse of acquisitiveness and self-interest, they more generally reveal the self-reflexivity of his perception.

From Christine Levecq Slavery and Sentiment: The Politics of Feeling in Black Atlantic Antislavery Writing, 1770-1850, p. 74.

The term “sentimental”, meaning “emotion-full”, was popularised by Laurence Sterne (24 November 1713 – 18 March 1768) and can be seen of a development of ethical sentimentalism, where feelings of benevolence or sympathy are the motive force for virtue. For Sterne, feelings almost become a virtue in themselves. The benefit of emotions, then, becomes subjective experience rather than outward action.

17 Mar

Appropriating Patrick: Keating, Ussher, Toland and the Early Irish Church

A statue of St Patrick in an antique shop window (c) david perry/flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A statue of St Patrick in an antique shop window
(c) david perry/flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The very oldest texts in any language written in Ireland that have survived relate to St Patrick. One, the Confessio, outlines his own account of his life. To the modern reader, it may seem sparse. There is no mention of Pascal fires, of shamrock or of snakes.

The tale of St Patrick developed over time, and to fulfil different purposes. Muirchú’s Latin Life of Saint Patrick, compiled around the year 680 which includes tales of wonders, was written to confirm Armagh’s pre-eminent place in the Irish Church. Patrick was said to have arrived in Ireland in 432AD to undermine the earlier Palladius who was documented to have arrived in 431AD. The development of the myth continued into the 15th century, with examples to be found in the Book of Lismore and the Leabhar Breac. This tradition emphasised St Patrick as a wonder worker and a prophet. At the same time secular writings such as the 12th century Acallamh na Senorach include stories of Patrick meeting the Fianna.

The Norman invasion saw a parallel tradition emerge, starting with Gerald of Wales’ outline of Patrick’s life in Topographia Hibernica, which included a debunking of the legend of the banaishment of the snakes. Jocelin of Furness’ account, based on resources some of which are now lost, was written as part of the Anglo-Norman attempt to appropriate the saint. Written at the same time as the shrine in Downpatrick was established, it portrays Patrick as a miracle-working prophet, whose mother was related to St. Martin of Tours.
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10 Mar

Lecture Series, David Berman on Berkeley and neo-Berkeleian thought. 23rd, 25th, 26th March, 10am-12noon, Trinity College Dublin

This three part lecture series on The Essential Berkeley and Neo-Berkeleian Idealism/Empiricism will be given by Prof. David Berman as part of Trinity College’s Berkeley Initiative.

All three lectures will be held in the Neill Hoey Lecture Theatre, Trinity Long Room Hub Building, Fellows’s Square, Trinity College Dublin.

Monday 23 March, 10am–12pm
Wednesday 25 March, 10am–12pm
Thursday 26 March, 10am–12pm.

The lectures are free, but registration is required on Eventbrite.

The Lecture Series Abstract from EventBrite:
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08 Mar

Am I not a woman and a sister?

Am I Not a Woman And A Sister?

A variant of the Wedgewood designed seal of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade
Wikimedia – Public Domain

The eighteenth century had seen changes in the position of women, not all positive. While arguments for rights for all citizens clearly offered an opening for women to claim these rights, the tendency to assign women to a separate domestic sphere counteracted this. Even in charity work, where women were long pivotal, the growth of institutions tended to push female control to the sidelines. The setting up of institutions for women by women tended to counteract this trend, and women also continued to operate within the boundaries society had set for them.

The campaign against the slave trade was one philanthropic cause that appealed to women, and for which they could directly act. In January 1792 William Drennan in Dublin wrote to Samuel McTierin Belfast: “The Quakers here are forming associations against sugar, and I should much like to see family resolutions on the subject drawn up and subscribed by some of the matrons of Belfast most famous for conserves and preserves.” If a boycott of West Indian sugar was to be effective, it needed the support of those in charge of food production: the women.
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