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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. As well as during 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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10 May

JD Bernal: politics and science

Eugene Garfield on JD Bernal and Bernal’s book Social Function of Science, which was an inspiration for the field of Scientometrics (the study of “the science of science” as Bernal put it in The Social Function of Science .) From Web of Stories.

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26 Apr

Wittgenstein Uncovered (in Ireland)

On the 129th anniversary of Wittgenstein’s birth, enjoy this programme from the Lyric Feature series (on RTE Lyric FM) originally made in 2002. Exploring Wittgenstein’s thought, it also looks at “Wittgenstein’s pupil” Con Drury, Wittgenstein’s time in Ireland and the reactions of those he encountered. Among those spoken to are the Irish Wittgenstein scholar Cyril Barrett (d. 2004).

More information on the programme is here.

26 Apr

Debating Hume on Miracles

A group of wigged gentlemen sit around a table in discussion. They are attended by a servant and a gun-dog. One man, dressed in blue, stares out at the viewer.

On the Strand in London in 1748, a large clergyman of majestic appearance carrying a weighty manuscript entered the shop of the famous printer and bookseller Andrew Millar. In an accent that marked him as an Ulster man, he asked if Millar would buy the manuscript to print. Millar asked that the manuscript be left in the shop for a few days, so Millar could submit it to an expert who could judge if it was worth the cost of printing. The clergyman did so. Later, (the yet more famous) David Hume came to Millars and examined the manuscript for a few hours, then told Millar, print. It was a good call: the two-volume book was one of the most popular books in its day, requiring a second edition after just over a year. The author got £200 which he spent in book purchases1

The book was Ophiomaches, or Deism Revealed (1749, known as Deism Revealed in the 1751 and subsequent editions) and the writer was Lisburn-born Philip Skelton. The story reveals Hume’s generosity to critics, because the book contains the earliest criticism of Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Skelton had only seen Hume’s Enquiry when travelling to London with his manuscript of Ophiomaches, a book attacking deism in the form of dialogues. He was shown it by Dr Connebear in Oxford and added replies to Hume’s work at Connebear’s request. One of the most important changes was the reworking of the fifth dialogue of Ophiomaches to address Hume’s essay on miracles2

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20 Apr

AE against Conscription

“Conscription for Ireland – A warning to England” – a pamphlet reprint of a letter against conscription by AE (George Russell). Held in UCD Special Collections.

This A4 page leaflet was published by the Mansion House Conference. The text consists of a letter written by George Russell to The Manchester Guardian, printed in the issue of May 11th 1918. This copy is held in UCD Special Collections.
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13 Apr

Handel’s Messiah, John Toland and the fight against Deism.

A bronze statue of a naked male figure raising his arms as if to conduct a choir, baton in hand. He is posed against a background of windows, and walls covered with creeper stems

I have written before about the Irish philosophy connections to Handel’s Messiah, first performed in Dublin on 13th April, 1742. Philosophers Edward Synge and Patrick Delany were captivated by the production that Swift almost had halted. Edward Synge sent a testimonial to Handel praising the music, but also the words. The words, indeed, he believed key to the oratorio’s success1

1 one is the Subject, which is the greatest & most interesting. It Seems to have inspir’d him/
2 Another is the Words, which are all Sublime, or affecting in the greatest degree.
3 a Third reason […] T’is there is no Dialogue […] in this Piece the attention of the Audience is Engag’d from one end to the other […] Many, I hope, were instructed by it, and had proper Sentiments inspir’d in a Stronger Manner on their Minds.

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01 Apr

Calculating Easter: Irish Computus to the Carolingian Renaissance

A bearded Christ with long hair sits, a red book in his left hand, with eagles either side of his head, a cross over him, surrounded by interlaced borders

In his Historia Ecclesiastica (Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, c. 731 AD) Bede noted that the Irish (Scots) and Britons had differed from the rest of the Western Church regarding Easter: “they did not keep Easter Sunday at the proper time, but from the fourteenth to the twentieth moon; which computation is contained in a revolution of eighty-four years” 1

This might suggest the Irish were at fault. Yet, for the past centuries and into the Carolingian Renaissance Irish scholars were at the forefront of “computus”, the development of the ecclesiastical calendar, most particularly the date of Easter. To do this correctly required observation of the moon, and facility at mathematics. “What Irish scholars of the seventh century achieved, therefore, was a comprehensive understanding of Easter reckoning, which was to become the unanimously accepted system for the calculation of Easter, from the ninth century onwards, for the rest of the Middle Ages and in the Orthodox Church to the present day”2.
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18 Mar

Nietzsche: “Laurence Sterne, whom Goethe honoured as the most liberated spirit of his century”

How, in a book for free spirits, should there be no mention of Laurence Sterne, whom Goethe honoured as the most liberated spirit of his century! Let us content ourselves here simply with calling him the most liberated spirit of all time, in comparison with whom all others seem stiff, square, intolerant and boorishly direct.

Nietzsche (1968) Human, All Too Human, p. 238.

17 Mar

Who will separate us? Patrick and division in 17th and 18th century Ireland.

Icon of St Patrick of Ireland standing between St Ambrose and St Gregory

In 2017 the Russian Orthodox Church added Patrick to their calendar of saints1 A saint from before the Great Schism and the Reformation, Patrick is venerated by the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Indeed, many have attempted to claim Patrick as particularly their own.

Patrick has also been invoked in bringing different groups together. While Ireland had a recognisable identity from early times, but like ancient Greece or contemporary Germany, that did not suggest a unitary state. The warring of petty states led to a influx of Normans. Henry II’s assertion of his dominance over those Norman lords led to a separation of the inhabitants into “mere Irish” and “Old English.”

The line between “the king’s English subjects” and “the king’s Irish subjects” was, counter-intuitively, a matter of choice. Those adhering to the native customs outlawed by the Statutes of Kilkenny were declaring themselves outlaws, those adopting an English lifestyle were English regardless of background. For “Old English” Norman families outside the Pale, who intermarried and interacted with Irish Gaelic families, a certain amount of fancy footwork must have been required to balance Irish customs with English laws. The borders of the Pale saw constant aggression that Richard Fitzralph’s admonishing sermons gives witness to2.
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05 Feb

Edwin Schrödinger: What is Life?

A white cat plays with a ball in a box, with a skeleton cat in the same pose diagonally across from it.

If parallel universes exist, there is one in which Eamon de Valera lived out his days as a maths teacher. In that universe, Edwin Schrödinger never came to Dublin, and probably never wrote What is Life?.

Edwin Schrödinger fled Berlin and Nazism in 1933, travelling to Oxford (where he heard he had won the Nobel Prize) and Princeton. The famous Schrödinger’s cat paradox appeared in his essay The present situation in quantum mechanics (1935), based on the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics. A thought experiment where a cat sealed in a box either lived or died depending on whether a quantum event occurred, it seemed to suggest two universes, one with a dead cat and one with a living cat, existed in parallel until an observer saw whether the cat was alive or dead.

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