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23 Jun

Berkeley’s Foray into Experimental Philosophy

Curiosity leading [Berkeley] one day to see an execution, he returned home pensive and melancholy and could not forbear reflecting on what he had seen. He desired to know what were the pains and symptoms a malefactor felt […] in short he resolved to tuck himself up for a trial; at the same time desiring his companion to take him down at a signal agreed upon […]
Berkeley was, therefore tied up to the ceiling, and the chair taken from under his feet, but soon losing the use of his senses, his companion it seems waited a little too long for the signal agreed upon, and our enquirer had like to have been hanged in good earnest; for as soon as he was taken down he fell senseless and motionless upon the floor.

From Memoirs of the late Dr. Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, as it appeared in Volume 6 of the Annual Register for the Year 1763. It was originally printed in the Weekly Magazine (1759/60) and reprinted/pirated in The British Plutarch in 1762.
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20 Jun

Philip Pettit Public Lecture, “The Infrastructure of Democracy”, 20 June 2014, 6pm, UCD

Philip Pettit will give a public lecture on “The Infrastructure of Democracy” at 6pm on Friday 20th June, 2014, in the FitzGerald Debating Chamber, Student Centre, UCD. Ruairi Quinn TD, Minister for Education and Skills, will respond, followed by a reception.

This lecture is the Opening Keynote for the third annual UCD Garret FitzGerald School. The topic for discussion is Reforming The Republic’s Democratic Institutions, a debate which has recently gained momentum from the Constitutional Convention, debates on the role of the Senate, and possibilities of far-reaching changes in institutions ranging from the judiciary and courts to the educational system.

To register or for more detail on the sessions to be held on Saturday, 21 June 2014 as part of the Summer School see here.

20 Jun

Irish Times Unthinkable: Philip Pettit on the risk corporations pose to freedom

13 Jun

In Our Time: Yeats and Mysticism

In this episode of In Our Time Melvyn Bragg explores the strange and mystical world of the poet W B Yeats, with Roy Foster (Carroll Professor of Irish History at Oxford University), Warwick Gould (Director of the Institute of English Studies, University of London) and Brenda Maddox (author of George’s Ghosts: A New Life of W B Yeats.

Celtic folklore, the Theosophical society, the Golden Dawn group, seances and a wife who communicated with the spirit world all had a huge effect on the work of this great Irish poet. […]
Yeats the dreamer and the poet was also a mystic, a philosopher and a practitioner of magic. From the occult subcultures of Victorian London to the outlandish folklore of the Irish Peasantry, Yeats’ obsession with the spiritual world infused his poetic mind and even drove him to describe his own religion. Why was the period so alive with spiritualism? And how did the poems reflect the dreams?

13 Jun

Yeats on Swift and Liberty

What was this liberty…served through all his life with so much eloquence? ‘I should think,’ he wrote in the Discourse, ‘that the saying, vox populi, vox dei ought to be understood of the universal bent and current of a people, not of the bare majority of a few representatives, which is often procured by little arts, and great industry and application; wherein those who engage in the pursuits of malice and revenge are much more sedulous than such as would prevent them.’ That vox populi or ‘bent and current,’ or what we even more vaguely call national spirit, was the sole theme of his Drapier Letters; its right to express itself as it would through such men as had won or inherited general consent. I doubt if a mind so contemptuous of average men thought…that it found expression also through individual lives, or asked more for those lives than protection from the most obvious evils.

Yeats on Swift (specifically his favourite tract of Swift’s, the Discourse of the Contests and Dissentions…in Athens and Rome) in Wheels and Butterflies (London, 1934), pp. 23-24

The quote was included in W. B. Yeats, Jonathan Swift, and Liberty, which links Swift and Yeats in their fight for a particular vision of liberty, coupled with elitism:
“He knew that the Irish intellect must continue the fight that Swift had led in Ireland against those perpetuations of seventeenth-century materialism–optimism, faith in utopian schemes, trust in democracy–that lay behind the new pious legislation and hedged about modern life. Outside of Ireland he had been accustomed to the extreme opinions of youth, often outrageous and contrary to his own opinions. But not in Ireland. Therefore Yeats felt mightly obliged to be the Swift of his day and outrage youth itself.”

Yeats’ version of Swift’s epitaph pares the original down to liberty and indignation:

Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his Breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-Besotted Traveler; he
Served human liberty.

12 Jun

Oxford Podcast Series: Philip Pettit on “Making Good: The Challenge of Robustly Demanding Values”

Oxford Podcast Series: Philip Pettit on “Making Good: The Challenge of Robustly Demanding Values”

This is a series of three podcasts, each a lecture from the 2011 Annual Uehiro Lecture Series on the theme “Making Good: The Challenge of Robustly Demanding Values” given by Philip Pettit.

08 Jun

John Toland: “Brahminical theology”

© Trustees of the British Museum (reproduced under  standard terms of use

Design for a monument to Sir William Jones. © Trustees of the British Museum (standard terms of use)

From pages 172-3, Sea of Faith (1984) by Don Cupitt:

There is one rather puzzling early example of knowledge of Indian religion. John Toland (1670-1722), an eccentric freelance Anglo-Irish writer and pamphleteer, was a man known to Leibniz. A theological radical, he was the inventor of the word ‘pantheism’, and in quoting precedents for this idea he mentions ‘the Brahminical theology’. Where Toland learnt this, I do not know. It is usually said that the first translations of Indian sacred texts into European languages came much later: Charles Wilke’s version of the Gita(1785), Sir William Jones’s Shakuntala (1789) and The Laws of Manu (1794) and […] Peron’s translation of some fifty of the Upsanisads(1802).”

Intriguing. But even if texts were not available in European languages, there were certainly people from the Indian subcontinent in London, notably Lascars serving on ships from India. He had also spent time in Holland which also had links with East Indies. Might Toland have learned this though word of mouth?

02 Jun

Swift Satire Festival, July 12-13, 2014

Gulliver meets the King of Broddingnag, in Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" Source: Wikicommons/cc

Gulliver meets the King of Broddingnag, in Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”
Source: Wikicommons/cc

The Swift Satire Festival, held in Trim Co. Meath, celebrates the life, works and legacy of Jonathan Swift. It will take place on July 12-13, 2014. (Trim is the closest large town to Laracor, where Swift was appointed vicar in in 1700.)

More details here.

02 Jun

The (Moral) Persuasiveness of Narrative

For Murdoch, the most crucial moral virtue was a kind of attentiveness to detail, a wise, trained capacity for vision, which could see what was really going on in a situation and respond accordingly. The sort of psychological insight and attentiveness to detail necessary for writing fiction was also, for Murdoch, what enables a person to live a morally good life. ‘It is obvious here,’ she wrote, ‘what is the role, for the artist or spectator, of exactness and good vision:
unsentimental, detached, unselfish, objective attention.
It is also clear that in moral situations a similar exactness is called for.’

For Murdoch, what so often keeps us from acting morally is not that we fail to follow the moral rules that tell us how to act; rather, it is that we misunderstand the situation before us.[…] As [Jonathan] Dancy once described it, to give one’s justifications for responding in a certain way
‘is just to lay out how one sees the situation…The persuasiveness here is the persuasiveness of narrative: an internal coherence in the account which compels assent. We succeed in our aim when our story sounds right.’
Murdoch the novelist would have approved.

From Godless yet good, a piece on secular ethics by Troy Jollimore in Aeon Magazine.

27 May

Who sharpened Occam’s Razor?

The back label on a bottle of "Occam's Razor" wine (c) David McLeish/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The back label on a bottle of “Occam’s Razor” wine
(c) David McLeish/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Occam’s (or Ockham’s) Razor is a form of the principle of parsimony (broadly, that theories should be as simple as possible but not simpler.) It states: ‘Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.’ (In Latin, Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.) However it seems that William of Occam never said it. As the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy reports:

Although the sentiment is certainly Ockham’s, that particular formulation is nowhere to be found in his texts. Moreover, as usually stated, it is a sentiment that virtually all philosophers, medieval or otherwise, would accept; no one wants a needlessly bloated ontology. The question, of course, is which entities are needed and which are not.

The other question is, who did originally say it? In 1918, William Thorburn published the result of his investigations into this question in Mind. The paper is available from Mind 27 (1918), 345-353; and on wikisource. That research suggested the origin lay with an Irish scholastic, John Punch.

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