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13 May

Book: Dictionary of Irish Philosophers

Dictionary of Irish Philosophers

About (via Bloomsbury Publishing)

Since 1999 Thoemmes Press (now Thoemmes Continuum) has been engaged in a large-scale programme of biographical dictionaries of philosophy and related subjects. This volume on Irish philosophers follows the standard format of arranging entries alphabetically by thinker.
It includes two forms of entry: (1) entries reproduced from previous editions of Thoemmes encyclopedias of British philosophy and (2) wholly new entries on early (renaissance-period) and  modern (20th century) philosophers, together with some new entries on the intervening centuries.

My new bible! The hardback is going for £175, but I got a copy of the paperback secondhand for $14 including shipping (as of May 2013).

The book includes an introductory overview which summarises the history of Irish philosophy from the Irish Augustine up to the 21st century. It also explains the logic behind the inclusions. The idea for the dictionary in the first place stemmed from the difficulty surrounding the Irish entries in the British dictionaries. Thomas Duddy outlines the debate that went on regarding this Irish Dictionary, in which differing definitions of “Irish” clashed, he feeling birth in Ireland was a necessary criterion, another consulting editor M. A. Stewart feeling birth in Ireland was neither necessary (what of those born abroad who had their career in Ireland?) nor sufficient (someone born in Ireland but who had no connection thereafter). Thus the selection of entries involved compromise and excluded several philosophers with more tenuous connections.

 As with the Thoemmes Encyclopedias an inclusive definition of philosopher, including writers on philosophical subjects whose contribution was small, plus celebrated figures from other domains such as literature, science or mathematics, who had made philosophical contributions.

There are entries on “over 180 philosophers”, with no entries on any living person. The selection includes all the well-known names, medieval philosophers, forgotten scholastics and academics. Where works by the subject have been published a bibliography is included, along with further reading.

11 May

Oxford University General Philosophy: Berkeley and Locke, Problems with Resemblance

09 May

What you see is what you get

This, too, is a feature of Irish thought. A nervousness of abstraction underlies the conservative politics of Berkeley, Swift and Burke, leading them to belabour impious rationalists and idle utopianists. It is not surprising that Burke, with his passion for the particular, should have produced one of the first great works of aesthetics in these islands. It fitted well with his hatred of revolutionary rationalism across the Channel. It may seem odd to say that Berkeley was wary of abstractions when he produced such a wildly speculative doctrine as esse est percipi, but the truth is that he thought it no more than common sense. It was, he thought, what the man in the street believed too. The common people were not metaphysically inclined, and so did not subscribe to the notion that there was some mysterious ‘substance’ that supposedly underlay our sensory impressions of things. For them as for Berkeley himself, what you see is what you get.

From “What you see is what you get” in the LRB, Terry Eagleton’s review of “The Correspondence of George Berkeley”, edited by Marc Hight (subscription required).

The piece is 90% Eagleton on Irish thought, and 10% the volume being reviewed, but none the worse for that.

09 May

Yale: Moral Foundations of Politics: Edmund Burke

Yale: Moral Foundations of Politics (PLSC 118) Edmund Burke

This 48 minute lecture looks at Edmund Burke’s political thought, which as Professor Ian Shapiro points out, was more revolutionary in its time than Marx in his.

This lecture is part of the Open Yale Course PLSC 118: The Moral Foundations of Politics. Also see the version of the course on Coursera.

08 May

Singing Life

Singing is an event of the highest interest. Compare a singing being with something inanimate. The wind blows around a bush and makes a whir or low burr, but neither the wind or bush properly sings. But a bird chirps, a thrush sings out again and again a line of lush notes, and we sense a presence there that was not manifest before. Something is coming awake in singing life. “

William Desmond (1990) Philosophy and Its Others: Ways of Being and Mind, p. 269

07 May

Edmund Burke: the Man in the Moon


Not everyone disliked Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” as much as Paine did. Yet even the positive reviews suggested Burke’s position as regards the revolution in France was inconsistent with his previous support for the American Colonists. As “The Critical Review” (Vol 60, p. 529) puts it, “revolutions, or the calamities of kings, have not formerly been odious to Mr Burke”.

This argument is illustrated in the caricature above (from the Library of Congress). Edmund Burke is the Man in the Moon, writing a pamplet seated at a table placed on a crescent moon. The table is covered with a cloth, bearing the words “French Revolution” and a figure with a liberty cap in one hand and a crown in the other. The figure is trampling a man holding broken chains and torture implements.

Broken chains hang from Burkes wrists. He says, “By Vision Celestial and Fury Infernal I’ll give them a Crown Touch”. In each corner Burke’s (changing) principles are listed (based on speeches):
Continue reading

06 May

Reactionary Prophet

The astonishment Paine expresses in Rights of Man at Burke’s refusal to criticize or even to enumerate the crimes and cruelties of the ancien régime is clearly genuine. So is his scorn at Burke’s concept of the franchise as a reward for property and piety. (Until Paine tried to salvage it, the term “democracy”—like the words “Tory” and, later, “suffragette” and “impressionist”—had been deployed only as an insult.) Paine was a Newtonian and a believer in economic growth and modern technique; Burke was a prisoner of the feudal and the landed conception of society, who employed the words “innovation” and “despotism” as virtual twins. Notice, for example, how the word “economist” in the Marie Antoinette passage is used as a synonym for knavery. Paine was for a written constitution and a carefully designed welfare state (adumbrated in the second half of Rights of Man), whereas Burke was for the semi-mystical “unwritten constitution” of a Crowned Parliament, and spared few thoughts even for the deserving poor.

However often one awards the winning of the longer-term argument to Paine, the fact remains that he and Jefferson and Lafayette never even dreamed of the advent of Bonapartism. They all believed, at the time that the argument was actually taking place, that France would become a constitutional monarchy, or had actually become one already. It was Burke who took this romantic delusion—a delusion shared by Charles James Fox and the leaders of Burke’s own Whig party, and even for a time by William Pitt and the more pragmatic Tories—and mercilessly exploded it. He also showed that the outcome of the French Revolution would be war on a continental scale. The tremendous power of the Reflections lies in this, the first serious argument that revolutions devour their own children and turn into their own opposites.

From Reactionary Prophet, a 2004 book review of “Reflections on the French Revolution” by Christopher Hitchens in Atlantic.

03 May

Giants of the Scottish Enlightenment – Francis Hutcheson

A video (8:30) from the Institute for Humane Studies.

Prof. James Stacey Taylor discusses the contributions of Francis Hutcheson, an intellectual of the Scottish Enlightenment who was instrumental in advancing the sentimentalist approach to morality.

Good despite the random insults to Scotland.

Source: http://www.youtube.com/)

02 May

Sentimentalism: Moral Theory from the Celtic Fringe

With the exception of Shaftesbury, none of the moralists we have been examining was English. In fact, the English are in as short supply among this group as they are in the ranks of so-called English literary modernism. Almost all of the thinkers we have been discussing stemmed from the Gaelic margins of the metropolitan nation, a fact that may not be insignificant. Gaels like Burke, Hume, Hutcheson, Smith, Fordyce and Ferguson, along with figures like Goldsmith, Steele, Brooke and Sterne who were born in Ireland or of part-Gaelic provenance, were no doubt more inclined to the cult of sentiment and benevolence than their Anglo-Saxon counter-parts. This is not because Gaels are genetically more genial than the English, but because Scotland and Ireland both had powerful traditions of clan- or community-based allegiances.

It is true that kinship structures, binding customs, unwritten obligations and so-called moral economy had long been under siege in both nations from a colonially imposed system of contractual relations and possessive individualism. But aspects of this traditional way of life survived precariously alongside more modem institutions, and in the political militancy of
small tenants, crofters and labourers could offer such modernity some ferocious resistance throughout the Age of Reason.

From Terry Eagleton (2008) Trouble with Strangers, p. 77.

The first section of this book explores Sentimentalism, also known as Moral Sense Theory. Moral sentimentalists argue against the theory that human motivation is based on self-interest but also deny that morality can be derived from pure reason. Instead they hold the position that morality and altruism are based in sentiment: in the feelings human beings have for one another and their concern for each others welfare.

Of the names Eagleton mentions, Burke, Hutcheson, Goldsmith, Steele,Brooke and Sterne are Irish-born (all links to the Irish Compendium of Biography, 1878). How happy the Scottish philosophers Hume, Smith, Fordyce and Ferguson would be to be called “Gaels”, I am not entirely sure.

01 May

The Appeal of NeoPlatonism to the Irish

After Yeats’ death I bought for a Jesuit library some of his fine volumes of Classical texts and secondary literature in Greens bookshop in Kildare Street. I do not remember if Stephen MacKenna’s translation of Plotinus On Beauty (1.6), which Yeats used extensively in his discourses to duchesses in London, was among them. […]
[Sean O’Faolain] was frustrated however, by his inability to “lay his hands”, so to speak, on Plotinus and neoPlatonism, for the very good reason that, apart from MacKenna’s inspired but not wholly reliable translation, modern scholarship had not yet done its duty to them. Padraic Colum had already told me of how moved he was by what he gleaned of Neoplatonism from my “Young Augustine” (which treated of the influence of the Neoplatonists on Augustine’s conversion): the mystic in him wanted more. Since the times of Yeats, Colum and O’Faolain both a reliable Greek text and an English translation have become available, and there is now much secondary work on Neoplatonism – some of it done by scholars connected with Ireland. And the interest in Neoplatonic themes endures – as is to be seen, for example, in Thomas Kinsella’s “Out of Ireland”. I have myself been curious about the appeal of Neoplatonism for the Irish throughout the centuries, and notable since the very Neoplatonist Irish scholar, John Scottus Eriugena in the ninth century.

John J. O’Meara (1915-2003), “On the Fringe of Letters”, Irish University Review (Vol. 27, No. 2, 1997, pp. 310-324) available on JSTOR (limited free access on registration).

John O’Meara, one of the great scholars of St. Augustine of Hippo and an early translator of Gerald of Wales muses on the appeal of neoPlatonism to the Irish, focusing on anecdotes about writers O’Meara encountered.