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12 Mar

Berkeley’s Pragmatism

So far from denying the external world which we know, Berkeley corroborated it. It was the scholastic notion of a material substance unapproachable by us, BEHIND the external world, deeper and more real than it, and needed to support it, which Berkeley maintained to be the most effective of all reducers of the external world to unreality. Abolish that substance, he said, believe that God, whom you can understand and approach, sends you the sensible world directly, and you confirm the latter and back it up by his divine authority. Berkeley’s criticism of ‘matter’ was consequently absolutely pragmatistic. Matter is known as our sensations of colour, figure, hardness and the like. They are the cash-value of the term. The difference matter makes to us by truly being is that we then get such sensations; by not being, is that we lack them. These sensations then are its sole meaning. Berkeley doesn’t deny matter, then; he simply tells us what it consists of. It is a true name for just so much in the way of sensations.

William James (1907/1981) Pragmatism Hackett Publishing, p. 44.

28 Feb

Student Politics – Choosing the Rector in Glasgow, 1716-1726

The post of Rector in the University of Glasgow dates back to 1452. Today the Rector is elected for a term of three years by the matriculated students of the University of Glasgow, with an election taking place this year (2017)1. Though the Rector was always supposed to be selected by the students, in the past this didn’t always happen. In the 1690s the annual election of the Rector was taken over first by the faculty and then by the Principal and his inner circle.

In Praise of Liberty – Francis Hutcheson

In 1716, the faculty outside the Principal’s circle urged the students to regain their voting rights, including Gershom Carmichael who made a speech to the students “in one of the publick Halls in Praise of Liberty”2 A Royal Commission was held but it was dominated by the university’s managers and found against the students. The rebel staff secured lawyers and when the Principal pushed through the appointment of a new Rector later in 1716 a committee of six divinity students and three undergraduates collected signatures and brought the university to court. The committee included two from Ireland: Peter Butler from Waterford and Francis Hutcheson from Down. Two of the students (including Butler) acted as litigants: the university reacted by refusing their readmission to the divinity school. Further court action to ensure their reinstatement ensued with Francis Hutcheson appearing as one of the witnesses3.
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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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25 Dec

The Teacher Thomas Drennan

Interior of the First Presbyterian Church, Belfast.

Thomas Drennan was born in Belfast on 25th December 1696. Though he appears in the Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, nothing of any philosophical work he did survives: his sermons were never published. A later biography describes him as “an elegant scholar, a man of fine taste, overflowing benevolence and delicate sensibility”1 His major importance is of a source for the many philosophical friends he had though the preservation of his correspondence by his family, and as a link between the philosophy of the 1720s and the United Irishmen of the 1790s.

Drennan was a friend of James Arbuckle from his childhood2. Like the younger Arbuckle he attended Glasgow University, entering in the penultimate year of study and taught by Gershom Carmichael. He graduated MA in 1716 and then studied divinity under John Simson. His attendance overlapped with Francis Hutcheson, the printer John Smith and James Arbuckle.

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09 Dec

Saving Milton: his friend Lady Ranelagh and his defender John Toland

John Milton dictating 'Paradise Lost' to his daughter due to his blindness

John Milton is most famous today for his epic poem Paradise Lost, a poem that was almost lost due to the cause of Milton’s fame (or infamy) in 1660: his work writing defences of the Commonwealth against Royalist attacks. These were written when Milton was Secretary of Foreign Tongues to the Council of State from 1649. The works included Eikonoklastes (1649, justifying Charles I’s execution) and The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660, arguing against the Restoration). After the Restoration, Milton had to be hidden by friends: he eventually was arrested and held in custody for a few months. Friends in high places worked to ensure he was included in the Act of Pardon. Their success meant that Milton could complete his half-finished epic poem 1.

Milton had first come to attention as a poet. His first published work was Lycidas, an acclaimed pastoral elegy written for Dorothy Moore‘s brother Edward King. It’s plausible that Dorothy Moore met at some point, though as far as I’m aware there is no record of it. In the 1640s Milton became acquainted with members of the Hartlib circle, including Samuel Hartlib, John Durie, Henry Oldenburg and Lady Ranelagh. Milton and Hartlib probably met in 1643 and in 1644 Hartlib circulated Milton’s tract Of Education, To Master Samuel Hartlib2.
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24 Nov

The philosophy in Tristram Shandy

From ABC National Radio’s Philosopher’s Zone (2006) The philosophy in Tristram Shandy. “Tristram Shandy” is a novel that plays, not only with form (the unique handmarbled page, the typography, the fact the narrator digresses so much that he only completes the story of his birth in volume 3), but with philosophy, particularly that of Locke.

For a transcript of the programme and further information, please click here.
Further Reading and Listening

Glasgow University Library (2000) Book of the Month October 2000: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (online)

Karen Harvey (2014) “Nose to nose with Laurence Sterne and Tristram Shandy” OUP Blog (online)

BBC Radio 4: In Our Time (2014) Tristram Shandy (online). Featuring podcast with guests Judith Hawley, John Mullan and Mary Newbould and links to further information.

17 Nov

Toleration in 18th century Ireland

Allegoric statue of "Tolerance", depicted as a seated woman with a torch in her right hand, and a shield on her left with the words "Concordia religionum" (harmony in religions).

This year, World Philosophy Day (17th November 2016) is celebrated immediately after International Day for Tolerance (16th November every year). The theme for World Philosophy Day 2016, therefore, is Tolerance.

In her message on World Philosophy Day 2016, Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova has this to say on tolerance and philosophy1:

Philosophy does not offer any ready-to-use solutions, but a perpetual quest to question the world and try to find a place in it. Along this road, tolerance is both a moral virtue and a practical tool for dialogue. It has nothing to do with the naive relativism that claims everything is equally valid; it is an individual imperative to listen, all the more striking because it is founded on a resolute commitment to defend the universal principles of dignity and freedom.

While an accurate description of the ideal of tolerance, it should be remembered that tolerance was not obviously a virtue in the past. It had to be argued for, and the acceptance of toleration waxed and waned over time. 

In the religious wars of 16th and 17th century Europe, toleration was generally a term of insult. The Thirty-Year War and the Eighty-Year War sought to establish right religion within Europe. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 saw all countries recognise the 1555 Peace of Augsburg in which each ruler would have the right to determine the religion of his own state while allowing other Christians to worship privately and (limitedly) in public. This had some strange ramifications in Ireland.
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08 Nov

Eternal Vigilance

[F]rom the history of the early periods of this corporation, and a view of its charters and bye-laws, it appears that the Commons had, from the earliest periods, participated in the important right of election to that high trust ; and it was natural and just that the whole body of citizens, by themselves or their representatives, should have a share in electing those magistrates who were to govern them, as it was their birthright to be ruled only by laws which they had a share in enacting. The Aldermen, however, soon became jealous of this participation, encroached by degrees upon the Commons, and at length succeeded in engrossing to themselves the double privilege of eligibility and of election; of being the only body out of which, and by which the Lord Mayor could be chosen.

Nor is it strange that, in those times, a board consisting of so small a number as twenty-four members, with the advantages of a more united interest, and a longer continuance in office, should have prevailed, even contrary to so evident principles of natural justice and constitutional right, against the unsteady resistance of competitors so much less vigilant, so much more numerous, and, therefore, so much less united. It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance, which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime, and the punishment of his guilt.

“Election of Lord Mayor of Dublin,” speech before the Privy Council, July 10, 1790.
From Thomas Davis (ed) (1847) The Speeches of the Right Honorable John Philpot Curran, pp. 103-131 (archive.org). Quote is from p. 105.

John Philpott Curran was one of the best-known lawyers of his time. He had associations with the United Irishmen and defended Archibald Rowan Hamilton. The above quote is from one of his political speeches made on the occasion of a disputed election. The agreement of both Aldermen and the Common Council was required to elect a Lord Mayor but the aldermen disputed the validity of the Common Council’s rejection of their selection. Curran’s famous linking of liberty and vigilance was made while reviewing the background to the dispute as the extended quote above makes clear.

The last two sentences are the ones most commonly quoted and Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (1980, 15th ed, p. 397, footnote 8) gives them as the source of “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” .

05 Nov

Who called it a “Glorious Revolution”?

On the 5th November 1688 William of Orange landed at Torbay, a key event in the “Glorious Revolution”. It has been said of the Glorious Revolution that it was not glorious and not a revolution. But who called it that in the first place?

The first history of the events which culminated in the crowning of William and Mary was written in 1689. The title called the change in ruler a revolution (“The history of the late revolution in England”). The first person recorded adding the adjective “Glorious” was a Whig radical, John Hampden Jr, who used the term while giving testimony to a committee of the House of Lords in the autumn of 1689. “When that term appeared again it was in 1706 in sermons by Bishop Gilbert Burnet (a friend and confidant of King William and Queen Mary) and nonconformist preachers.”1

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07 Oct

His Native Potatoes

NPG D12313; Edmund Burke ('Cincinnatus in retirement') by James Gillray, published by  Elizabeth d'Achery

by James Gillray, published by Elizabeth d’Achery, hand-coloured etching, published 23 August 1782
© National Portrait Gallery, London

For National Potato Day, a satirical portrait of Edmund Burke eating potatoes. The caption reads “Cincinnatus in retirement falsely supposed to represent Jesuit Padre driven back to his native potatoes. See Romanish Commonwealth.”
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