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08 Jun

John Toland: “Brahminical theology”

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© 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

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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

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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?

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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.

Read More

26 May

Tradition of Scotist Scholars

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What kind of works in Philosophy did Scotus leave us? […] What is the current status of his works? The Opera omnia was first edited by my countryman of origin, Luke Wadding, who in the terrible seventeenth century departed Ireland and labored in Italy to edit Scotus and other Franciscan writers. Another Irishman, Maurice O’Fehily, living in Padua, Italy, had edited Scotus’s Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle in 1497, and published the work in Venice. But then, these and some Englishmen were continuing a tradition of scholars who, like Scotus, had gone to Paris in the early fourteenth century, scholars who with John Duns Scotus refused to obey Philip the Fair and with Scotus, had to leave Paris and go back to Oxford in the early fourteenth century namely Ricardus Hibernensis, Odo Hibernensis and Thomas Anglicus.

From Duns Scotus: A Brief Introduction to his Life and Thought by Jeremiah Hackett in “Studies in Scottish Literature” (1991).
Continue reading

21 May

Philosophical Clarity versus Scientific Clarity

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An examiner once said to me: ‘Sir Arthur Keith once remarked to me that the reason why the spleen drained into the portal system was of the greatest importance; but he never told me what that importance was, now can you tell me?’ I had to confess that I couldn’t see any anatomical or physiological significance in this fact. The examiner then went on to say: ‘Do you think there must be a significance, an explanation? As I see it there are two sorts of people: one man sees a bird sitting on a telegraph wire and says to himself: “Why is that bird sitting just there?”, the other man replies “Damn it all, the bird has to sit somewhere”

The reason why this story pleased Wittgenstein was that it made clear the distinction between scientific clarity and philosophical clarity.[…] Scientific explanations lead us on indefinitely from one inexplicable to another, so that the building grows and grows and grows, and we never find a real resting place. Philosophical clarity puts a full-stop to our enquiry and restlessness by showing that our quest is in one sense mistaken. “

From Maurice O’Connor Drury’s “The Danger Of Words” (1973).

19 May

Swift Matters

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One of the claims Damrosch makes near the beginning of his book to explain the need for a new biography is that “Swift matters”. This is, I think, justifiable. “Burn everything that comes from England except their people and their coal” used to be his most famous (and most misquoted) soundbite but in recent years changed priorities and transformed relationships have pushed another of his statements to the fore, one in which Swift calls for a law to be passed that would make it mandatory to “hang up half a dozen bankers every year”. Swift matters not just because he said some things which, taken out of context, can be readily assimilated to modern populist sentiment. He perfected the art of crafting phrases snappy enough to become slogans but which, on closer inspection, yield disturbing and contradictory meanings. He also (naturally) had an epigrammatic statement for this reading process, likening satire to “a sort of glass” in which beholders are likely to discern everyone’s face but their own. Not all his reflections will appeal. “

From “This life a long disease” by James Ward in The Dublin Review of Books, reviewing a new biography of Swift, Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, by Leo Damrosch

19 May

The Wild Times of Oliver Goldsmith

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At Trinity, Goldsmith was a poor student, in both senses of the word: he didn’t have the money for full fees and therefore had to carry out various menial duties in front of other students. He hated it, and was lucky not to be expelled after playing a role in one of the most infamous events in Trinity’s history, the Black Dog riot.

This was provoked by the arrest of a student. A group of fellow students, led by one Gallows Walsh, set the student free and captured the bailiff who had arrested him, dunking him in the college trough. They then decided to storm Newgate Prison (which was known as the Black Dog), and were joined in the process by a city mob. The prison guards fired on them and two of the mob were killed. For their troubles, four of the ringleaders were expelled from Trinity; Goldsmith was lucky merely to be disciplined.

From “The good die young: the wild times of Oliver Goldsmith” by Colin Murphy in the Irish Independent (18 May 2014).

The Black Dog riot took place on 21st May 1747. Goldsmith was disciplined for his part in it as the piece mentions. It has been suggested that Edmund Burke was also there and that a passage in Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) refers to the experience of being in the riot and being drawn to identify with the emotions of the crowd:

The shouting of multitudes has a similar effect; and by the sole strength of the sound, so amazes and confounds the imagination, that in this staggering, and hurry of the mind, the best established tempers can scarcely forbear being bor[n]e down, and joining in the common cry, and common resolution of the croud.

11 May

ABC Radio National: Philip Pettit on Freedom

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Philip Pettit talks to Joe Gelonesi about freedom. He argues that freedom from government interference is not enough and that ancient ideas could hold clues to a freer future.

Alternatively read the ABC article which outlines many of the ideas from the recording.

You’ve got a big choice: do you think it should be everyone for themselves, a laissez faire, rip it up society? If this is what freedom means for you then you’re looking a free-for-all, with huge inequalities and lots of dependencies, a chaotic place.

For another view on Pettit, see Prof Maeve Cooke (UCD) talking to Irish Times Unthinkable about Freedom (Soundcloud audio here)