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17 Aug

Swift’s Crater

A diagram showing the orbits of Mars' moons, Deimos and Phobos.

From Giberne’s “The story of the sun, moon, and stars” (1898) – Public Domain

On the 17th of August 1877, the search of American astronomer Asaph Hall was finally successful. He had doubted the conventional wisdom that Mars had no moon. Using the giant 26-inch refractor of the U. S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., he searched close to the planet and discovered not one but two moons, travelling so close to the surface of Mars that until now they were lost in the planet’s glare. These were named Phobos and Deimos (see more about the moons on the NASA website).

This discovery had been anticipated by a fictional research organisation. In 1726, Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels, describing Gulliver’s visit to Balnibarbi and to Lagado, the island that floats above it where its rulers live. The intelligentsia of Lagado, though unhealthily engrossed in their studies, are advanced in astronomy: Read More

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13 Aug

Truth above all things: G. G. Stokes

Sir George Gabriel Stokes, 1st Bt by George William De Saulles bronze medallion, 1899 NPG 2758 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir George Gabriel Stokes, 1st Bt
by George William De Saulles
bronze medallion, 1899 NPG 2758
© National Portrait Gallery, London

George Gabriel Stokes is one of three great mathematicians associated with Ireland in the 19th century. If Boole translated classical logic into algebra, while Rowan Hamilton used metaphysics as an inspiration for mathematics, Stokes took a third path. His mathematics was inspired by real life problems. As Lord Kelvin wrote in Stokes’ obituary, (memoirs, p. 317)

In pure mathematics he was recognised as a fruitful worker by the whole scientific world. But with Stokes, mathematics was the servant and assistant, not the master. His guiding star was natural philosophy. Sound, light, radiant heat, chemistry, were his fields of labour

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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.

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04 Aug

What has Hamilton to do with philosophy?

William Rowan Hamilton Wikimedia, Public Domain

William Rowan Hamilton
Wikimedia, Public Domain

[T]he visible world supposes an invisible world as its interpreter, and […] in the application of the mathematics themselves there must (if I may venture upon the word) be something meta-mathematical. Though the senses may make known the phenomena, and mathematical methods may arrange them, yet the craving of our nature is not satisfied till we trace in them the projection of ourselves, of that which is divine within us

From a lecture to astronomy students given by William Rowan Hamilton in 1833 (Graves, 1882-9, vol. 2, p. 68).

Hamilton differed from other mathematicians of his time in his focus on abstract mathematical laws, and in finding inspiration in idealist philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Samuel Taylor Coleridge,  as can be seen from the quote. “Hamilton often argued that certain metaphysical views were the primary motivation for his work in mathematics” (Attis, 2004).
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23 Jul

Boolean Expressions (exhibition), UCC’s Lewis Glucksmann Gallery, opens Friday, 24 July 2015 at 3pm

Mel Bochner, Study for Axion of Associations, 1973 (c) UCC, All Rights Reserved

Mel Bochner, Study for Axion of Associations, 1973
Image courtesy UCC. All rights reserved

Boolean Expressions: Contemporary art and mathematical data, a new exhibition investigating how artists have used logic and technology, at UCC’s Lewis Glucksman Gallery this Friday, July 24. It will be opened at 3pm by Lord David Putman. The exhibition, which runs until 8 November, is accompanied by an extensive programme of curated events, talks, art courses and workshops (see the brochure here.)

What is beauty? Irish philosophers have given many different answers. Berkeley suggested beauty was recognised by judgement and that a thing was “perfect in its kind when it answers the end for which it was made.” (Alciphron, p. 129). For Hutcheson, we have an innate sense that recognises beauty: where “there is Uniformity amidst Variety” (An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, I. II. § III). For Hutcheson, theorems could have beauty (I. III.), an idea that might have appealed to Boole.
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14 Jul

The Tree of Liberty

A stone bearing the image of a tree and the "United Irishmen Catechism"

Monument to the 1798 Rebellion, Maynooth.
(c) Irish Philosophy

What is that in your hand?
It is a branch.
Of what?
Of the tree of liberty.
Where did it first grow?
In America.
Where does it bloom?
In France.
Where did the seeds fall?
In Ireland.

The philosophical background of the French Revolution (up to 1799) was to be found in Montesquieu, Rousseau and Locke. Rousseau and Locke were already popular in Ireland, with the United Irishman Edward Fitzgerald educated along principles laid out by the two philosophers. William Drennan, who first formulated the idea of the United Irishmen, was a great admirer of Rousseau.

In 1789, the month before the Bastille fell, a Whig Club was founded in Dublin, and in the following year in Belfast. These Whig Clubs held commemorations of the Fall of the Bastille in 1791, the same year Thomas Paine wrote his Rights of Man in answer to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, Wolfe Tone published his An argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland and the United Irishmen was founded (chronology, A concise history of Ireland (1909).

There were further commemorations of Bastille Day in 1792, and in France that November Edward Fitzgerald renounced his title. France acted as inspiration for the revolt of 1798, both politically and philosophically, and (Wolfe Tone hoped) as a source of support. Ultimately it ushered in over half a century of civil insurrection in Ireland, Europe and around the world.

A last Irish link – one of the seven prisoners in the Bastille the day it fell was Irish: Chevalier James F.X. Whyte, born in Dublin in 1730.

(Images of the French Revolution here and here)

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11 Jul

A public-spirited citizen: William Bruce

William Bruce was born in 1702 in Killyleagh Co. Down and died on the 11th of July, 1755. He was the third and youngest surviving son of the Presbyterian minister Rev James Bruce and Margaret, neé Traill. His two older brothers were Presbyterian ministers, unsurprising in a line where the previous three generations had also been ministers. His first cousin was Francis Hutcheson (son of Margaret’s sister Magdalen). Hutcheson attended the dissenting academy in Killyleagh, which William’s father James was instrumental in setting up. This is probably where the two cousins first met and became close friends.

We next hear of William Bruce in Dublin, in the month of July 1725, entering into partnership with John Smith in his printing business at the sign of the Philosopher’s Head, on Blind Quay (now Lower Exchange St.) Dublin. John’s existing partner, William Smith, was moving to the Netherlands, where he would act as continental book buyer for the firm. The Smiths, both graduates of the University of Glasgow, had already published (as their first imprint) Hutcheson’s Inquiry into…ideas of beauty and virtue (1725). Future editions were published under the imprint of Smiths and W. Bruce as was Hutcheson’s  An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections (1728).
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07 Jul

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

image

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

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03 Jul

Saving Science from Pseudo-facts

Every scientific hypothesis is a transitory and to some extent arbitrary affair. It must never be allowed to solidify into a pseudo-fact. But why not? What harm is done? So it is time we got back to Justinian and the question Macaulay puts into his mouth. ‘What profitable truth has philosophy taught us that we should not equally have known without it? What has it taught us to do which we could not have equally done without it?’

I would like to think that Isidore replied in the true spirit of Socrates. Good sir, you mistake our purpose. We add nothing to the sum total of human cleverness and skill. Our function is otherwise. When the Delphic oracle told our father founder that he was the wisest man in Athens, he understood this to mean that he alone knew how little he understood. That still remains our function in society. To insist that people say only just as much as they really know; that when, as happens in every generation, new advances in knowledge are made, they are not taken to be more important than they really are. “

Quoted from The Danger of Words by Maurice O’Connor Drury. In this section, “Hypotheses and Philosophy”, Drury explores what he thinks the function of philosophy is and how it and science are necessary to each other.

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23 Jun

Register of Popish Priests, 1704

1704 Register of Priests as required by the Penal Laws c Marsh's Library (CC)

1704 Register of Priests as required by the Penal Laws
© Marsh’s Library (CC)

On the 23rd June 1704, An Act for registering the Popish Clergy came into force. Under this Penal law all Catholic secular priests were required to register, with bonds for their good behaviour. This page listing Dublin priests includes Cornelius Nary, who later debated tolerance for Catholics with Edward Synge, Church of Ireland Bishop of Tuam

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