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23 Apr

Shakespeare, aesthetics and morality

So let us start by saying that Shakespeare is the greatest of all artists, and let our aesthetic grow to be the philosophical justification of this judgement. We may note that a similar method can, and in my view should, be used in moral philosophy. That is, if a moral philosophy does not give a satisfactory or sufficiently rich account of what we unphilosophically know to be goodness, then away with it.

Iris Murdoch (1959) “The Sublime and the Good”, Chicago Review, Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 42-55. Quote from p. 42.

For the fourth centenary of  Shakespeare’s death, Iris Murdoch’s judgement of him as the greatest artist of all. Murdoch argues against Tolstoy that both aesthetics and morality have to start from the concrete, not from definitions which determine what is art, or what is good.

13 Apr

Beckett and Philosophy

The theme of Beckett and philosophy can be approached in yet another way. Besides philosophers influencing Beckett, Beckett has also interested – even mesmerised – contemporary philosophers and critics, from Sartre, Lukacs, and Theodor Adorno, to Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Alain Badiou, Gilles Deleuze, George Steiner,Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, Wolfgang Iser, Slavoj Zizek, and many others. They have all been attracted to Beckett’s relentless vision of the world and our human place in it.They have sought to reflect on Beckett’s meaning from quite divergent points of view, seeking to recruit Beckett to one cause or other: from modernism to postmodernism, from structuralism to deconstruction.

Sartre, himself the author of existential plays such as Huis Clos (1946) saw himself as engaged with his fellow dramatist Beckett in a common cause of producing a drama that ‘decentralised the subject’. The Hungarian Marxist critic George Lukacs saw the Beckett’s work as exemplifying capitalist decadence and abstract bourgeois individualism. The German Jewish philosopher and critical theorist Theodor Adorno, however, strongly disagreed with Lukacs. Endgame in particular had a very powerful impact on Adorno, who saw in Beckett a kind of ‘organised meaninglessness’. For him, Beckett exposes the bankruptcy of philosophy ‘as the dreamlike dross of the experiential world and the poetic process shows itself as worn out.’ Beckett identifies the tedium of spirit of our late age.

Dermot Moran (2006) “Beckett and Philosophy”, in Christopher Murray (ed.), Samuel Beckett – One Hundred Years (Dublin: New Island Press), pp. 93–110. Quote from pp. 100-101.

13 Apr

O’Connell and Catholic Emancipation Movements in Europe

By the time of his death in 1847 the international reputation of Daniel O’Connell as one of the most influential Catholic leaders of the period was well established. His demands for an end to secular interference in Church affairs and for the Repeal of the Act of Union attracted a great deal of interest. While European governments, such as those in Berlin and Vienna, had watched the development of O’Connell’s mass movements with suspicion, many of their citizens, particularly members of the increasingly politically aware Catholic middle classes, had seized on his example to develop their own organisations to achieve improved civil and religious rights for the Church and its adherents in their own areas. This was especially true in the states of the German Confederation and culminated in the establishment of a geographically extensive organisation based on O’Connell’s Catholic Association.

Geraldine Grogan (1991) “Daniel O’Connell and European Catholic Thought”, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 80, No. 317 (Spring, 1991), pp. 56-64 (JSTOR). Quote from page 56.

Daniel O’Connell played a key role in obtaining Catholic Emancipation in the United Kingdom, forcing the issue in 1828 (See Encyclopaedia Britannica and UCC: The campaign for Catholic Emancipation, 1823–1829). While Catholics in Ireland had obtained the vote under Grattan’s parliament, the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 (10 Geo. IV, c. 7) gave all Roman Catholics the right to vote (if they fulfilled the other voting criteria) and to sit in Parliament and hold other positions previously barred to them. (The Irish Parliamentary Elections Act, 1829 (10 Geo. IV, c. 8), raised the county freehold franchise from 40 shillings to £10, meaning many Irish Catholics who had had the vote lost it.)

O’Connell’s campaign was followed and supported by the liberal French press, and adopted as a model for other associations in Europe campaigning for political rights for Catholics.

06 Apr

Belief and the Blind Man

Painting of a line of blind men leading each other

The blind leading the blind. Oil painting after Pieter Bruegel. Wellcome Library, London (CC BY 4.0)

It may sometimes seem to readers of this blog that too many Irish philosophers of the past were far too interested in religion. However an argument that is first outlined in a religious context may have applications elsewhere.

The thesis of John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious is clearly outlined in its subtitle: “A treatise shewing that there is nothing in the gospel contrary to reason, nor above it: and that no Christian Doctrine can be properly call’d a mystery.” Toland’s position is that “reason is the only Foundation of all Certitude” against the Divines who “gravely tell us, we must adore what we cannot comprehend”1. It is impossible, says Toland, to believe what we cannot understand2:

A man may give his verbal assent to he knows-not-what…but as long as he conceives not what he believes, he cannot sincerely acquiesce in it

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01 Apr

Persistent Hallucination

Descartes was a recitalist, or formulist, of what he took, often mistakenly, to be true knowledge. He himself established nothing new, nor even a system of pursuing knowledge that was novel. You are fond of quoting his Cogito Ergo Sum. Read my works. He stole that. […] Descartes spent far too much time in bed subject to the persistent hallucination that he was thinking. You are not free from a similar disorder.

St Augustine to de Selby, on Descartes.
Flann O’Brien (1964) The Dalkey Archive, chapter 4.

And by the way, what “St Augustine” says is perfectly true.