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14 Jan

The Deathbed Argument

John Calvin on his deathbed, with members of the Church in attendance. Protestant reformer in Geneva.

The book Death and the Irish: A miscellany is “a medley of 75 perspectives on death and the Irish” edited by Salvador Ryan and published by Wordwell. In a positive review Bridget English makes a minor criticism: “Philosophers have certainly shaped the ways that modern secular society conceives of death, yet there are no entries on the relationship between Ireland and philosophy.”1 Philosophers have also referred to death in arguments, and the review brought one particular philosopher and his “deathbed argument” to mind.

In Francis Hutcheson’s first book (published in 1725) An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, Treatise II argues against Mandeville that there must be motives for benevolent action other than your own pleasure. To illustrate this, Hutcheson uses a thought experiment2
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08 Aug

Francis Hutcheson’s Schooldays

An 18th century school interior. Rows of boys sit, each with a book. To the left the teacher sits at a desk correcting the work on one boy. To the right, two others are writing. Two small children are seated on the ground.

At Killyleagh during last year’s Francis Hutcheson event, someone asked what the school Francis Hutcheson attended there would have been like. This is an expanded version of the answer given then.

In Francis Hutcheson’s day education was officially provided at (Church of Ireland) parish level, with higher level diocesan schools and Royal schools (grammar schools) in each diocese. However in reality many parishes and dioceses had no schools so there were many schoolmasters and schoolmistresses running private schools for pay1. There were also schools providing elementary education associated with other churches.

From the age of eight, Francis Hutcheson attended the school associated with his grandfather’s church. It was run by John Hamilton in a disused meeting house near Saintfield, probably in very basic conditions (a later school in the area had a dirt floor and no ceiling). In addition to the elementary education provided, it is likely that Hutcheson’s grandfather Alexander Hutcheson tutored the more advanced students 2.
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08 Aug

Hutcheson Day: Francis Hutcheson’s Thought

In February 1726 readers of the Dublin Weekly Journal (price 3-half-pence) were seeing something unusual, although they didn’t know it: Francis Hutcheson being sarcastic. In an unusually biting three part essay he lambasted a book called Private Vice, Publick Benefits. In that book the Dutch writer Mandeville argued that vice is necessary to keep a prosperous economy.

Mandeville said morality is, in essence, self-denial and runs counter to our nature. We have to be tricked into self-denial by our rulers. If they are too successful, and greed, vanity and the desire for luxury are stamped out, commerce will fail, followed by the nation: “neither the Friendly Qualities …nor the real Virtues he is capable of acquiring by Reason and Self-Denial, are the Foundation of Society; but that what we call Evil in this World.”

Hutcheson agrees with none of it. He points out “income not spent in one way will be spent in another and if not wasted in luxury will be devoted to useful prudent purposes.” He underlines mockingly that even robbery is a benefit under Mandeville’s scheme since it keeps locksmiths employed. He wonders at Mandeville’s dogmatism – Mandeville would deny even God could create a naturally good man. By the third part he adopts simple ridicule: “He has probably been struck with some old Fanatick Sermon upon self-denial in his youth, and can never get it out of his head since.”

From a talk given on Francis Hutcheson Day (8th August( 2015 at the Guildhall, Saintfield, Co. Down. Full text available on academia.edu.

Further Reading

Storify for Hutcheson Day 2015.

07 Jul

Francis Hutcheson Day, 8th August 2015, Saintfield Co. Down, 11:30am-4pm


On the anniversary of his birth (in 1694 in Saintfield, Co. Down) and death (in 1746), Saintfield Heritage Society will spend a day celebrating Francis Hutcheson, with a tour of his birthplace, where he was educated and talks on his life and thought.

Venue: Saintfield 1st Presbyterian Church Hall
Time: 11.30 am to 4.00 pm
Tickets: £10 (including light lunch)

For more information and booking details see DiscoverSaintfield.com

12 Feb

The Evolution of Evolution: Darwin’s philosophical forebears

Mosaic portrait of Charles Darwin (c) Charis Tsevis/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Mosaic portrait of Charles Darwin
(c) Charis Tsevis/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Charles Darwin (born on 12th February, 1809) famously developed the idea of evolution by natural selection outlined in Origin of the Species (1859). Though still controversial, to some today it seems such an obvious idea it is surprising it took so long to emerge.

Evolutionary ideas had had a long pedigree, appearing as early as the Greek philosopher Anaximander. The problem with them all was there seemed to be only two possible mechanisms available to make creatures – deliberate design or blind chance. This was the great innovation of Darwin: not evolution but the theory of natural selection which gave a plausible account of how radical changes could appear by chance, yet appear designed.

That theory did not arise in a vacuum. Stephen J. Gould (1985) has written about the important insights Darwin obtained from Richard Owen (a vertebrate palaeontologist) and John Gould (an ornithologist) after they examined his Galapagos specimens.

Darwin also had intellectual forebears, most famously Lamarck, de Buffon, Lyell and Hutton. Even Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, had written on evolutionary theory. In addition he was influenced by more conceptual work outside biology and geology. This post (indebted to Gould, 1993) will concentrate on two streams which both happen to cross over in the work of an Irish philosopher.
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03 Dec

Reciprocal Referencing: Hutcheson and Swift

At the end of a downpour on a Dublin street

“Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down,
Threatening with deluge this devoted town.”
Downpour in Dublin (c) Phil Burns/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I came across an article, An image from Francis Hutcheson in Gulliver’s Travels, book IV, chapter 5 by Arnd Bohm, in which he points out the similarity between a passage by Swift and a passage by Hutcheson.

In Gulliver’s Travels (book IV, Chapter 5) Gulliver tells the gentle, horse-like Houyhnhnm master about wars among humans, and the death and destruction it involves:

And to set forth the valour of my own dear countrymen, I assured him, “that I had seen them blow up a hundred enemies at once in a siege, and as many in a ship, and beheld the dead bodies drop down in pieces from the clouds, to the great diversion of the spectators.”

The Houyhnhnm is horrified, as we might be well be, at the thought of wholesale death being a “great diversion”. Bohm suggests that the moral indifference shown is emphasised when we realise the likely source of the example Swift is using.
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28 Aug

Hutcheson Redux? Against Empathy.

Cartons labelled "empathy" stacked on shelves.

Empathy in a carton
(c) Geoff Jones/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In the current Boston Review, Paul Bloom has a discussion piece, Against Empathy. He opens by referencing Adam Smith…

The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but here I am adopting its most common meaning, which corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more coldblooded process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy.

Paul Bloom identifies issues with empathy – that we are more likely to feel empathetic towards people like us or people who are attractive; that empathy leads us to focus on individual cases but ignore mass suffering. He argues that empathy is not the only thing that can motivate helping, compassion can too. Read More

10 Aug

Hutcheson Day 2014: links


Here is a selection of links tweeted under the hashtag #HutchesonDay, on 8th August 2014.

Joe Humphreys of the Irish Times talked to historian at the University of Aberdeen and author of Francis Hutcheson in Dublin, 1719-1730: The Crucible of his Thought for the Unthinkable slot. A good introduction for those unaware of the philosopher.

“Hutcheson’s big idea was what he called ‘the moral sense’. At the time, most philosophers agreed with John Locke that human beings had no innate ideas: the mind was a clean slate when a human was born. Although Hutcheson agreed, he disagreed that this meant humans had no inherent moral character. Instead he argued that human beings were born with a natural capacity to approve or disapprove of people’s behaviour. Human beings are effectively judgment-makers.
“Importantly, Hutcheson thought that this moral sense was pre-rational, meaning that deciding whether something was right or wrong did not involve a calculation of your self-interest. In this he disagreed with Thomas Hobbes, who thought humans were motivated by personal interest and material gain.”

Edward O. Wilson (1998) writes in The Atlantic on the modern search for a “natural capacity” to judge morality, mentioning Hutcheson along the way. (For the take of Hutcheson’s contemporaries on the “moral sense”, see the SEP on Sentimentalism).

“Hutcheson influenced most of the Scottish philosophers who succeeded him, perhaps all of them, whether because he helped to set their agenda or because they appropriated, in a form suitable to their needs, certain of his doctrines.” From the SEP article on 18th century Scottish philosophy.
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01 Aug

“Against the doctrine of Aristotle”: Hutcheson on slavery

Monument depicting chained slaves in a pit, located in Zanzibar

On 1st August 1834 slavery was abolished in the British Empire, as the Slavery Abolition Act (1833) came into force.

There were many rationales used to support slavery. One common one was Aristotle’s theory of the “natural slave”. In the Politics, Aristotle said:
For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule…

In other words, it was right that some people were slaves and others their masters. Such natural slaves were lacking certain qualities which would enable them to rule themselves. This justified “chattel” slavery, where the person and all their descendants were property in perpetuity.

This theory, though criticised by some, was widely accepted. Even those who did not accept it argued for slavery on other grounds. Locke, despite asserting that “every Man has a Property in his own person” (in his Second Treatise, §27), and calling slavery “vile and miserable” such that he cannot believe an Englishman would argue for it (Second Treatise, Introduction), justifies some forms of slavery. Locke defined slaves as (§85) “Captives taken in a just War […] by the Right of Nature subjected to the Absolute Dominion and Arbitrary Power of their Masters” and as such cut off from civil society. Moreover despite his theoretical requirement for a just war, in practice Locke tolerates chattel slavery. In Constitutions for Carolina Locke writes: “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over Negro slaves, of what opinion and Religion soever” (see Sypher, 1939 and a discussion on Locke’s attitude to slavery in the notes of the SEP article about him).

The view of slavery as “vile” slowly started to spread in the early 18th century. Steel portrayed slaves sympathetically in the Spectator, though he falls short of attacking the institution, unsurprisingly since he owned a plantation in the West Indies through his wife. Hans Sloane’s account of harsh punishments for slaves also had an effect. However here too we should not read too much into Sloane’s accounts: he also derived income from sugar plantations and says nothing to suggest chattel slavery should be abolished (see more here.)

Also writing in the early 18th century, Hutcheson’s theory of morality (following the lead of Shaftesbury) was based on the idea of a moral sense, which allowed us to approve of moral actions and disapprove of immoral ones. Moral actions are rooted in benevolence – a feeling of goodwill towards others. Unlike Locke (and like Hume), for Hutcheson emotion is our guide for moral behaviour, not reason.
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