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20 Sep

In Our Time: Annie Besant

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Melvyn Bragg and his guests; Lawrence Goldman (University of Oxford), David Stack (University of Reading) and Yasmin Khan (University of London); discuss the life of the prominent 19th-century social reformer Annie Besant (1 October, 1847 – 20 September 1933).

In 1893 Annie Besant wrote: “it has always been somewhat of a grievance to me that I was born in London, ‘within the sound of Bow Bells”, when three-quarters of my blood and all my heart are Irish”1.

This episode of In Our Time follows Besant’s life as an activist for women’s rights, birth control, Socialism, secularism, Irish Home Rule and better conditions for workers. It also covers her later involvement with theosophy, a belief system inspired by Eastern religions that also attracted thinkers like Eva Gore Booth, William Butler Yeats and George “AE” Russell, and with the Indian self-rule movement.

The BBC website page for the programme and the Radio 4 blog post on the programme,

15 Sep

A New World

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Exterior view of Bernal Sphere. Art work: Rick Guidice, courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center

Interior view of Bernal Sphere including human powered flight. Art work: Rick Guidice, courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center

Agricultural modules in cutaway view (multiple toroids). Art work: Rick Guidice, courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center.

Cutaway view of Bernal Sphere. Art work: Rick Guidice, courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center

Artwork of a Bernal Sphere that could house 10,000 people, courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center. This method of building space colonies was proposed in Bernal’s 1929 The World, the Flesh & the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul (Chapter 2: The World):

Imagine a spherical shell ten miles or so in diameter, made of the lightest materials and mostly hollow…The globe would fulfil all the functions by which our earth manages to support life. In default of a gravitational field it has, perforce, to keep its atmosphere and the greater portion of its life inside; but as all its nourishment comes in the form of energy through its outer surface it would be forced to resemble on the whole an enormously complicated single-celled plant.

More on Bernal Spheres here (NSS) and here (Space Anthropology).

08 Sep

Onora O’Neill on Trust

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UCD honored Onora O’Neill by awarding her the UCD Ulysses Medal, on 8th September 2017.

The video above is of a TED talk given by Onora O’Neill in June 2013 entitled “What we don’t understand about trust.” The talk explores misapprehensions about trust and points out that what we really want is more trustworthiness. A link to the talk including transcript is here.

29 Aug

Locke: Key to Irish Philosophy

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John Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding (London, 1690) is, without doubt, the most important external influence on Irish philosophy[…] Without Locke’s Essay there would hardly have been a Berkeley, Browne, Hutcheson, or Burke; at least, they could not have been the philosophers we know them to be. Apart perhaps from Molyneux, no Irish thinker entirely accepted Locke’s philosophy, or described himself as a follower of Locke. Indeed, the Hibernian contribution was in large measure to criticize creatively and reinterpret Locke’s diverse philosophical investigations.[…]

There are two main tendencies in Irish philosophy: one liberal, the other traditional. Molesworth and Shaftesbury follow squarely in the former. They represent the Enlightenment, especially in their sympathy for toleration and in their criticism of the priestly and dogmatic aspects of religion. Locke, as I shall try to show, was employed by both tendencies or movements, but most imaginatively by the forces of tradition.

David Berman (2005) Berkeley and Irish Philosophy, Continuum, pp. 80-1.

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14 Aug

Sophie Bryant advocating Boole’s Symbolic Language

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The value of a uniformization of notation was recognized by late-19th and early-20th centuries logicians, who not only remarked the wide variety of definitions and symbolizations for the most basic elements of logic, but complained about the confusing proliferation of notation systems. Venn divided the 33 forms into seven different general types. The authors whose notations are considered range from Leibniz to Boole and Hamilton, and from Charles Pierce and his students to Frege.[…] In 1888 Sophie Willock Bryant (1850-1922), in her article “On the Nature and Functions of a Complete Symbolic Language” – not unnaturally then – complained of the existence of too many competing logical notations and systems, and she advocated a return to Boole’s original system.

I. H. Anellis (2014) “Pierce’s Role in the History of Logic: Lingua Universalis and Calculus Ratiocinator” in Arnold Koslow and Arthur Buchsbaum (eds.) The Road to Universal Logic: Festschrift for the 50th Birthday of Jean-Yves Béziau, Volume 2, pp. 135-170.
Quote from p. 147.

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08 Aug

Francis Hutcheson: the Ulster Stoic

Against a dark background, a hand emerges from a flowing white cuff, holding a book: Cicero's 'De Finibus'
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That Stoicism was an influence on Francis Hutcheson is well known. He translated the lions share of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (his co-translator James Moor was responsible for two of the twelve books), which was published anonymously by Foulis in Glasgow in 17421 He told Thomas Drennan by letter than he hoped the translation would be a public good, and in the Preface he wrote to the work, he said the Meditations inspired “a constant inflexible charity, and good-will and compassion toward our fellows.”2
Hutcheson said he “took the first hints of [his opinions] from some of the greatest Writers of Antiquity” in his Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725) and referenced Aurelius in An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections. Stoicism informs all his work. This is not surprising given the influence of Shaftesbury on Hutchesons moral theory: Shaftesbury was also influenced by Stoicism.
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26 Jul

Three Act Comedy: George Bernard Shaw.

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“You cannot have power for good without having power for evil too. Even mother’s milk nourishes murderers as well as heroes” – George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara.

The first act of George Bernard Shaw’s life started at 33 Synge Street, Dublin on 26th July 1856. Brought up in an outwardly orthodox but unconventional Irish Protestant family, he later declared he was “a freethinker before I knew how to think.” He left Ireland for London aged nineteen and remained there for the rest of his life, though was still concerned with Irish politics. (Iris Murdoch’s novel The Red and the Green mentions his writing circulating in Dublin in 1916.) After decades writing he finally achieved success as a playwright in the 1900s 1

Shaw has been called “one of the most gifted, influential, and well-known intellectuals to have lived”2. He wrote extensively on diverse areas in religion, philosophy, politics, economics, culture and society.
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15 Jun

Edmund Burke on Magna Carta

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The common law, as it then prevailed in England, was in a great measure composed of some remnants of the old Saxon customs, joined to the feudal institutions brought in at the Norman Conquest. And it is here to be observed, that the constitutions of Magna Charta are by no means a renewal of the laws of St. Edward, or the ancient Saxon laws, as our historians and lawwriters generally, though very groundlessly, assert. They bear no resemblance, in any particular, to the laws of St. Edward, or to any other collection of these ancient institutions. Indeed, how should they? The object of Magna Charta is the correction of the feudal policy, which was first introduced, at least in any regular form, at the Conquest, and did not subsist before it. It may be further observed, that in the preamble to the great charter it is stipulated that the barons shall hold the liberties there granted to them and their heirs, from the king and his heirs; which shows that the doctrine of an unalienable tenure was always uppermost in their minds. Their idea even of liberty was not (if I may use the expression) perfectly free; and they did not claim to possess their privileges upon any natural principle or independent bottom, but just as they held their lands from the king. […]
All these were marks of a real and grievous servitude. The great charter was made not to destroy the root, but to cut short the overgrown branches of the feudal service[.]

Edmund Burke An Essay towards an Abridgement of English History, written between 1757 and c. 1763. From Edmund Burke (1852) The Works and Correspondence of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, in Eight Volumes, Vol. IV, London: F. & J. Rivington, pp. 358-9 (Google Books)
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22 May

From Ireland to Manchester: Eva Gore-Booth and women’s labour

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Some vague Utopia?

In his poem “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz”, Yeats called the work of Eva Gore-Booth a dream “of some vague Utopia”. It was, in fact, part of a wider campaign for the rights of working class people and for women that had been happening in Ireland for twenty years and in England, Wales and Scotland for longer.

In January 1907 James Larkin came to Belfast to act as general organiser for the National Union of Dock Labourers. He had previously been an organiser for the union in Liverpool, Preston and Glasgow and his aim was to unionise the unskilled workers of Belfast. That Summer he led the dockworkers in a strike to campaign for the right to organise and join trades unions, and for the rights of working class people. The strike grew into a movement, with women among the early participants. A thousand women walked out of Gallahers Tobaco in solidarity with seven co-workers sacked for attending a lunchtime meeting organised by Larkin. The strike spread to carters, coal heavers, boilermakers and most surprisingly of all, the Royal Irish Constabulary in Belfast. The Independent Orange Order even collected donations for the strikers on 12 July 19071.
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10 May

The Fate of Science

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It is easy for a scientist, in what is still a bourgeois democracy, to look with superior horror at what is happening to science under Fascism. But the fate of science in his own country is at the moment still hanging in the balance, and it depends on factors quite outside the scope of science itself. Unless the scientist is aware of these factors and knows how to use his weigh this position is simply that of the sheep awaiting his turn with the butcher.

J. D. Bernal (1939) The Social Function of Science.

Via @ColdWarScience