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08 Dec

Ones and Zeros: George Boole

George Boole in sunglasses

Boole is Cool
(c) IrishPhilosophy (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Mathematician and logician George Boole died 150 years ago today, on 8th December, 1864. Today also marks the start of the year-long schedule of events UCC are running to commemorate Boole, culminating in the bicentenary of his birth on 2nd November 2015 (see GeorgeBoole.com for more).

George Boole was born in Lincoln, the eldest son in a family of modest means. For details of his life as a self-taught mathematician to first professor in UCC (then Queens College Cork) in 1849, where he lived until his death see the detailed biography here.

Boole had a large impact on mathematics, providing the basis for invariant theory, and working on differential and difference equations, and probability. Developments of his work such as set theory and boolean algebra are taught to school children today.

However, of most interest philosophically are The Mathematical Analysis of Logic, and its successor An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, on which are founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities published in 1854. These proposed that ideas expressed in language can be expressed in algebraic form. This combination of philosophical logic and algebra, as DeMorgan said “would not have been believed until it was proved.
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27 Nov

Thoughts for Feelings

What too many people in Ireland mistake for thoughts are feelings. It is enough to them to vent like or dislike, inherited prejudices or passions, and they think when they have expressed feeling they have given utterance to thought. The nature of our political controversies provoked passion, and passion has become dominant in our politics. Passion truly is a power in humanity, but it should never enter into national policy.

Chapter I, The National Being (1916), by (A.E.) George William Russell.

20 Nov

What ish my nation?

"Yet could we turn those years again" illustration from Yeats' "September 1913" (c) lusciousblopster/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“Yet could we turn those years again”
 illustration from Yeats’ “September 1913”
(c) lusciousblopster/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


MacMorris, gallivanting
around the Globe, whinged[…]
“What ish my nation?”
And sensibly, though so much
later, the wandering Bloom
replied, “Ireland,” said Bloom,
“I was born here. Ireland.”
Traditions, Seamus Heaney

Bloom may have been sensible, but his simple statement was not undisputed. A spit on the ground is the response to his reply in Ulysses. MacMorris, the original stage Irishman in Henry V declares “Ish a villain and a bastard and a knave and a rascal”, a admission unsurprising, Heaney suggests, to an English audience with a low opinion of the Irish. Identity is complicated, Irish identity perhaps especially so.

“[T]he histories of dependant, colonized nations are for the most part histories of ‘accidents'” – whether of births at home, ventures abroad, fortunes of war (Duddy, History of Irish Thought, p. xiii). Simple criteria to try and define the products of such a complicated history inevitably exclude – something Joyce was deliberately targetting when he wrote the words of Bloom’s reply. Could Bloom, nonCatholic and nonChristian, be accepted as Irish?
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12 Nov

The Need for Audacity of Thought

The intellect of Ireland is irreligious. I doubt if one could select from any Irish writer of the last two hundred years until the present generation a solitary sentence that might be included in a reputable anthology of religious thought. Ireland has produced but two men of religious genius: Johannes Scotus Erigena who lived a long time ago, and Bishop Berkeley who kept his Plato by his Bible; and its moral system, being founded upon habit, not intellectual conviction, has shown of late that it cannot resist the onset of modern life. We are quick to hate and slow to love; and we have never lacked a Press to excite the most evil passions. To some extent Ireland but shows in an acute form the European problem, and must seek a remedy where the best minds of Europe seek it — in audacity of speculation and creation.

William Butler Yeats, The Need for Audacity of Thought p 201 of The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats Vol X: Later Articles and Reviews. (First published in Dial, LXXX, Feb 1926)

02 Nov

George Boole 200 (UCC)

This video gives a brief introduction to the importance of George Boole, who will be the subject of a year of celebration in UCC next year, 2015. George Boole’s major achievement was Boolean Algebra, a major development in logic, which Frege later built on.

For Boole’s life and his contribution to the digital age, see this video Forgotten Genius: George Boole (YouTube), and for his place in philosophy Logic –The Structure of Reason Great Ideas of Philosophy (YouTube) (Boole is featured from 15:43 to 17:42). A biography of Boole is here.

24 Oct

What Kind of Nation (Once Again)?

Thomas Osbourne Davis Wikicommons (Public Domain)

Thomas Osborne Davis
Wikicommons (Public Domain)

Thomas Osborne Davis was born two hundred years ago in Mallow Co. Cork on 24 October 1814 (the date is disputed – some say the 14th October). He is best known as a poet (see here), with one of his most famous songs being “A Nation Once Again” (version by the Dubliners here).

Later writers have argued for Davis as more than a poet and writer, however. T. W. Rolleston (in the introduction to The prose writings of Thomas Davis) goes as far as to cite Davis as the mingling of two streams in Irish thought: Swift’s defence from enemies without and Berkeley’s encouragement of improvements by the Irish people themselves. Davis did not write systematically or academically, but he did succeed in his self-set task as populariser. He set out a vision of Ireland that proved influential. Not only were his works (mostly written for newspapers) collected and republished, but he was invoked by Padraig Pearse and Arthur Griffith, and cited as inspiration by Fenian John O’Leary. Most directly, he influenced the group around him, who had joined O’Connell’s Repeal Movement with him in 1841 and who were christened by a reporter “Young Ireland”.
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16 Oct

Quaternion Bridge

The quaternion plaque on Broombridge © Cliff Bilbrey on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The quaternion plaque on Broombridge
© Cliff Bilbrey on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This plaque commemorates the discovery of the quaternion formula (i2=j2=k2=ijk=-1) by Sir William Rowan Hamilton on 16th October 1843, as he walked along the canal from Dunsink on his way to a meeting in Dublin. Without paper to hand he scratched the formula into one of the bridge’s stones.

There is a commemorative Hamilton Walk organised by the Maynooth University Maths department every year. There is also a virtual version here.

For a Storify of Hamilton Day 2015 and the 25th Hamilton Walk, click here.

16 Oct

The Only Thing Worse Than Being Talked About…

Statue of Oscar Wilde, Merrion Sq, Dublin © Eoin Gardiner on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Statue of Oscar Wilde, Merrion Sq, Dublin
© Eoin Gardiner on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

…is not being talked about. Here is a roundup of links for Oscar Wilde’s 160th birthday.

With the release of a new play The Trials of Oscar Wilde the Independent asked Is Oscar Wilde’s reputation due for another reassessment? One of the authors is Merlin Holland, Wilde’s only grandchild.

An Oscar Wilde photograph from Ashford Castle is to go to auction, while a photograph of Harry Bushell, who may be been the fellow prisoner Wilde mentioned in letters, has been in the papers today. The photograph is just one item turned up by Prof Peter Stoneley, University of Reading, which will form part of a new exhibition, Oscar Wilde and Reading Gaol.
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03 Oct

Tyranny and Government

A democratic republic cannot be permanently maintained in any country, unless there prevail amongst the people much public spirit and intelligence; and even if it be maintained, civic virtues of the highest kind are required to prevent the existence of evils incidental to the abuse of power. In the republics of ancient Greece, oppression was practised by the dominant majority of the multitude, with as much recklessness as has ever been exhibited by the caprice of imperial tyranny. The republic of Rome was never free from faction.
These observations are made, not for the purpose of reconciling the reader to the maintenance of tyranny in any form; not for the purpose of deterring him from seeking the greatest possible perfectibility in political institutions; but in order to prevent him from being misled by mere names, and in order to convince him that much of evil must be expected under even the most perfect form of government that can be devised.”

From Principles of Government, Or Meditations in Exile, by William Smith O’Brien (p. 126, American Edition, 1857).

25 Jul

Fairy Field of Fiction

[Passions] borrow the language of reason to seduce us from her maxims. Our sex is more particularly exposed to this illusion. Our whole course of education is, in general, calculated to give additional force to the power of imagination, and to weaken, in a correspondent degree, the influence of judgment. You, my Harriet have in this respect an advantage over many of your sex. […] Your mind has not been suffered to run wild in the fairy field of fiction; it has been turned to subjects of real and permanent utility.

From Elizabeth Hamilton’s novel Memoirs of Modern Philosophers.

Elizabeth Hamilton (1756?–1816) was born in Belfast, probably on 25th July 1756, but lived much of her life in Scotland. Like her friend Maria Edgeworth she wrote novels and also philosophical pieces, mostly on education.

The primary aims of Modern Philosophers was to explore the role of women and to argue against “Jacobinism” or New Philosophy, that philosophy espoused by William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine. However, she also shared some of the concerns of that radical group. This passage, a letter written by Mrs Martha to her niece Harriet, criticises the education given to women; a topic that equally concerned Hamilton, Maria Edgeworth and Mary Wollstonecraft.

The first sentence is part of a larger quote from Rousseau.