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29 Dec

Dissolving Philosophy

It is a curious but indisputable fact that every philosophical baby born alive is either a little positivist or a little Hegelian. […]

Professor J. O. Wisdom of York University, Toronto, once observed that he knew people who thought there was no philosophy after Hegel, and others who thought there was none before Wittgenstein, and that he was prepared to contemplate the possibility that both were right.

Ernest Gellner (1987) “Positivism against Hegelianism” in Relativism and the Social Sciences,  Cambridge University Press. Quote on p. 4.

Wisdom was qualified to comment, as someone who studied both, even if his conclusion is cursing both houses! Wisdom was born 110 years ago, on this day.

13 Dec

Cooke against the radicals

Statue of Henry Cooke against bare tree branches

The statue of Henry Cooke (who died on 13th December 1868) stands in Belfast with its back to the “Inst”, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. Its pose can be seen as a symbol of his determined conflict with the liberal (and, he feared, religiously unorthodox) school [1]. 

A non-denominational establishment founded in 1810 by William Drennan, the Belfast Academical Institution served as both a school and a university. Cooke alleged it was a “seminary of Arianism”, due to the presence of prominent anti-Trinitarians and Unitarians such as William Bruce Jr (chair of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, nephew of William Bruce the printer) and Henry Montgomery (chair of English) [2]

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24 Nov

Science must take her path & Theology hers: Mary Boole’s questions to Darwin

Do you consider the holding of your Theory of Natural Selection, in its fullest & most unreserved sense, to be inconsistent,—I do not say with any particular scheme of Theological doctrine,—but with the following belief, viz:

That knowledge is given to man by the direct Inspiration of the Spirit of God.

That God is a personal and Infinitely good Being.

That the effect of the action of the Spirit of God on the brain of man is especially a moral effect.

And that each individual man has, within certain limits, a power of choice as to how far he will yield to his hereditary animal impulses, and how far he will rather follow the guidance of the Spirit Who is educating him into a power of resisting those impulses in obedience to moral motives.

The reason why I ask you is this. My own impression has always been,—not only that your theory was quite compatible with the faith to which I have just tried to give expression,—but that your books afforded me a clue which would guide me in applying that faith to the solution of certain complicated psychological problems which it was of practical importance to me, as a mother, to solve. I felt that you had supplied one of the missing links,—not to say the missing link,—between the facts of Science & the promises of religion. Every year’s experience tends to deepen in me that impression.

But I have lately read remarks, on the probable bearing of your theory on religious & moral questions, which have perplexed & pained me sorely. I know that the persons who make such remarks must be cleverer & wiser than myself. I cannot feel sure that they are mistaken unless you will tell me so. And I think,—I cannot know for certain, but I think,—that, if I were an author, I would rather that the humblest student of my works should apply to me directly in a difficulty than that she should puzzle too long over adverse & probably mistaken or thoughtless criticisms.

At the same time I feel that you have a perfect right to refuse to answer such questions as I have asked you. Science must take her path & Theology hers, and they will meet when & where & how God pleases, & you are in no sense responsible for it, if the meeting-point should be still very far off.

Letter from Mary Everest Boole, dated 13th December 1886, addressed to Charles Darwin (online at The Darwin Project).
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01 Nov

Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years.

It is this inability to wrestle with difficulty which has obliged the arbitrary Assembly of France to commence their schemes of reform with abolition and total destruction. But is it in destroying and pulling down that skill is displayed? Your mob can do this as well at least as your assemblies. The shallowest understanding, the rudest hand, is more than equal to that task. Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years. The errors and defects of old establishments are visible and palpable. It calls for little ability to point them out; and where absolute power is given, it requires but a word wholly to abolish the vice and the establishment together.

Edmund Burke (1790/2014) Reflections on the Revolution in France, University of Adelaide (online). Emphasis added.

The Reflections were published on this day in 1790.

24 Aug

Travels to the East

Two monks and a guide (Odoric of Pordenone and James of Ireland) encounter a group of naked cannibals outside city walls.

Odoric of Pordenone and James of Ireland in Sumatra.
gallica.bnf.fr / BnF Français 2810, f.104r, 15thC

Ireland is famous, of course, for the peregrinato who left Ireland for the continent in the Early Middle Ages and their scholarly successors. Some, however, went further afield. When the Franciscan missionary Odoric of Pordenone was to Asia (c. 1316–18), he was accompanied by James of Ireland for at least part of this journey. On Odoric’s return to Italy he dictated an account of the things he had seen, dying a few months later (January 14, 1331) on his way to papal court at Avignon1 On the 5th April after Odric’s death, a gift of two marks was given to James by the city of Udine, described by the public books of “companion of the blessed Brother Odoric, loved of God and Ordoric”2.

Odoric’s account was popular in the later Middle Ages, and Odoric was lauded by later writers, including Luke Wadding.

08 Aug

Francis Hutcheson on Empire

Alongside the mercantilist and metrocentic strain in civil philosophy in the 1730s, there was also an anti-imperial and philocolonial strand. This was represented most notably by the Hiberno-Scot Francis Hutcheson’s A System of Moral Philosophy, which he composed between 1734 and 1737, in the period before the anti-Spanish agitations but in the aftermath of the Excise Crisis and the darkest days of Walpole’s premiership. Hutcheson questioned the very foundations in rights of dominium upon which the British Empire rested, and argued that ‘[n]o person or society…can by mere occupation acquire such a right in a vast tract of land quite beyond their power to cultivate’. This denial of the juridical basis on which the British Empire in America was claimed was in its own way as Lockean as that of the author of the Essay on Civil Government, but took seriously Locke’s sufficiency condition for legitimate possession. Hutcheson went even further, and proposed colonial independence should the mother-country impose ‘severe and absolute’ power over its provinces. ‘The insisting on old claims and tacit conventions’, he concluded, ‘to extend civil power over distant nations, and form grand unwieldy empires, without regard to the obvious maxims of humanity, has been one great source of human misery’.

David Armitage (2000) The Ideological Origins of the British Empire, Cambridge University Press, p. 188.

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06 Aug

The most famous thing O’Connell said…and Wellington didn’t

Daniel O'Connell and the Duke of Wellington, both dressed as Irish chieftains, argue about Repeal.

Daniel O’Connell had a gift with words. Many of his aphorisms have been passed down to us: “The altar of liberty totters when it is cemented only with blood”1 or “Gentlemen, you may soon have the alternative to live as slaves or die as free men”2  But surely his best known aphorism is this (and its many variants): “being born in a stable does not make a man a horse”.

Wait! Isn’t that a quote from Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington? It’s commonly thought to be so, but when it appears in recent biographies it is often with a caveat. For example, though Gregor Dallas simply reports the remark (as an example of Wellington rejecting his homeland)3, Gordon Corrigan calls the remark “apocryphal” 4 and Richard Holmes qualifies his account of how “he was to deny his Irishness” with a cautious “(so it was said)”5 Why the caution?
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18 Jul

Philosophical paradigm shift: CS Lewis on the fall of English Hegelianism.

I have learnt in other fields of study how transitory the ‘assured results of modern scholarship’ can be. When I was a boy one would have been laughed at for supposing there had been a real Homer: the disintegrators seemed to have triumphed for ever. But Homer seems to be creeping back. Even the belief of the ancient Greeks that the Mycenaeans were their ancestors and spoke Greek has been surprisingly supported. We may without disgrace believe in a historical Arthur. Everywhere, except in theology, there has been a vigorous growth of scepticism about scepticism itself. We can’t keep ourselves from muttering multa renascentur quae jam cecidere.

Nor can a man of my age ever forget how suddenly and completely the idealist philosophy of his youth fell. McTaggart, Green, Bosanquet, Bradley seemed enthroned for ever; they went down as suddenly as the Bastille. And the interesting thing is that while I lived under that dynasty I felt various difficulties and objections which I never dared to express. They were so frightfully obvious that I felt sure they must be mere misunderstandings: the great men could not have made such very elementary mistakes as those which my objections implied. But very similar objections – though put, not doubt, far more cogently than I could have put them – were among the criticisms which finally prevailed. They would now be the stock answers to English Hegelianism.

C.S. Lewis (1996) The Essential C. S. Lewis NY:Scribner, p. 357. Available online .

C. S. Lewis gives his testimony on the suddenness of English Hegelianism’s decline. He views it as the end of a philosophical approach rather than the eclipse of certain ideas. It was, to use Kuhn’s term, a paradigm shift.

The Latin phrase “Multa renascentur quae jam cecidere, cadentque quae nuc sunt in honore” is from Horace and means “Many words now in disuse will revive, and many now in vogue will be forgotten”1. (It is inscribed on Robert Clayton’s memorial in Celbridge, probably expressing the hope that his ideas would be judged more kindly in the future than by his contemporaries. In other words, for an 18th century paradigm shift.)

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09 Jul

Edmund Burke: Constructing the Father of Conservativism

Conservatism is a disposition, not a political doctrine. It is difficult to avoid this implication in statements such as that of Robert Michels (in 1930, as quoted by Richard Bourke) “The Bolsheviks of today are as conservative as the Tsarists of yesterday”. As Bourke points out, “one conserves relative to opposing positions that seem to bring about unwelcome change”1

But if this is the case, why and when did Edmund Burke come to be associated with conservative thought in general, and the British Conservative Party in particular? This happened, as Emily Jones has shown, much later than many would think.

Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Burke was admired more by liberals than by conservatives. Whigs knew him as the man who provided the party manual, the Thoughts on the cause of the present discontents (1770), but also as the man who split the party. The Tories approved of his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) but were deeply aware of his Whig status. “His political legacy was thus divided between Whig exaltation of earlier texts, and Tory adulation of Reflections.” 2

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17 Jun

“We do not adore the painted images” – Dúngal against iconoclasm

A man whitewashes an image of Christ using a sponge on a pole paralleling the sponge on a pole used to offer gall to the crucified Christ.

Simon Blackburn sardonically defines iconoclasm as “the odd pair of beliefs shared by enthusiasts including Cromwell and the Taliban, that while ‘false idols’ have no supernatural powers they are nevertheless so dangerous that they must be destroyed rather than ignored”1 Iconoclasm literally means image breaking and historically has been done for political reasons (as in the French Revolution) and for religious reasons2. In addition to the reformation, iconoclasm was a serious issue in the 7th and 8th centuries in the Byzantine Empire.

The end of the First Iconoclasm and the Frankish Response

At the last ecumenical council, the Synod of Nicaea in 787 which both representatives of the Orthodox and Western Christian Church attended, the issue was put to rest. Images not only could but should be displayed, for “the more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration”3 Byzantian iconoclasm, its forebears and its philosophical aspects are covered in this episode of the History of Philosophy podcast.
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