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05 May

“What is a Republic?” Maynooth University, 23 May 2016, 11:00 – 19:00

On 23rd May 2016, Maynooth University will host a conference asking “What is a Republic”:

1916 is not merely a nationalist commemoration but a republican one also. The signatories of the 1916 proclamation committed themselves not merely to Irish national sovereignty but to a particular tradition of sovereignty – a republican tradition. Any commemoration of 1916 therefore demands a commitment to a better understanding of what people have tried to communicate by words such as “republic” and “republican” and the extent to which these international and historical invocations can claim meaningful continuity and contemporary relevance. The conference intends to debate the Irish republican proclamation and heritage in a larger international and historical context, investigating the range of aspirations – political, civic, aesthetic, and other – implied by republican definitions. The extent to which these aspirations are misapplied, traduced and betrayed as well as renewed, extended and expanded will form a critical commentary on the experience of 1916 commemoration.

Registration is 11am, the opening plenary (Margaret O’Callaghan) will be at 11.30am, panel papers will be in the afternoon and the closing plenary (Philip Pettit) will be at 6pm.

Registration for the “What is a Republic” day is now open on Eventbrite. A recommended Registration Donation of €10 is suggested for wage earning attendees.

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23 Apr

Shakespeare, aesthetics and morality

So let us start by saying that Shakespeare is the greatest of all artists, and let our aesthetic grow to be the philosophical justification of this judgement. We may note that a similar method can, and in my view should, be used in moral philosophy. That is, if a moral philosophy does not give a satisfactory or sufficiently rich account of what we unphilosophically know to be goodness, then away with it.

Iris Murdoch (1959) “The Sublime and the Good”, Chicago Review, Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 42-55. Quote from p. 42.

For the fourth centenary of  Shakespeare’s death, Iris Murdoch’s judgement of him as the greatest artist of all. Murdoch argues against Tolstoy that both aesthetics and morality have to start from the concrete, not from definitions which determine what is art, or what is good.

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13 Apr

Beckett and Philosophy

The theme of Beckett and philosophy can be approached in yet another way. Besides philosophers influencing Beckett, Beckett has also interested – even mesmerised – contemporary philosophers and critics, from Sartre, Lukacs, and Theodor Adorno, to Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Alain Badiou, Gilles Deleuze, George Steiner,Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, Wolfgang Iser, Slavoj Zizek, and many others. They have all been attracted to Beckett’s relentless vision of the world and our human place in it.They have sought to reflect on Beckett’s meaning from quite divergent points of view, seeking to recruit Beckett to one cause or other: from modernism to postmodernism, from structuralism to deconstruction.

Sartre, himself the author of existential plays such as Huis Clos (1946) saw himself as engaged with his fellow dramatist Beckett in a common cause of producing a drama that ‘decentralised the subject’. The Hungarian Marxist critic George Lukacs saw the Beckett’s work as exemplifying capitalist decadence and abstract bourgeois individualism. The German Jewish philosopher and critical theorist Theodor Adorno, however, strongly disagreed with Lukacs. Endgame in particular had a very powerful impact on Adorno, who saw in Beckett a kind of ‘organised meaninglessness’. For him, Beckett exposes the bankruptcy of philosophy ‘as the dreamlike dross of the experiential world and the poetic process shows itself as worn out.’ Beckett identifies the tedium of spirit of our late age.

Dermot Moran (2006) “Beckett and Philosophy”, in Christopher Murray (ed.), Samuel Beckett – One Hundred Years (Dublin: New Island Press), pp. 93–110. Quote from pp. 100-101.

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13 Apr

O’Connell and Catholic Emancipation Movements in Europe

By the time of his death in 1847 the international reputation of Daniel O’Connell as one of the most influential Catholic leaders of the period was well established. His demands for an end to secular interference in Church affairs and for the Repeal of the Act of Union attracted a great deal of interest. While European governments, such as those in Berlin and Vienna, had watched the development of O’Connell’s mass movements with suspicion, many of their citizens, particularly members of the increasingly politically aware Catholic middle classes, had seized on his example to develop their own organisations to achieve improved civil and religious rights for the Church and its adherents in their own areas. This was especially true in the states of the German Confederation and culminated in the establishment of a geographically extensive organisation based on O’Connell’s Catholic Association.

Geraldine Grogan (1991) “Daniel O’Connell and European Catholic Thought”, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 80, No. 317 (Spring, 1991), pp. 56-64 (JSTOR). Quote from page 56.

Daniel O’Connell played a key role in obtaining Catholic Emancipation in the United Kingdom, forcing the issue in 1828 (See Encyclopaedia Britannica and UCC: The campaign for Catholic Emancipation, 1823–1829). While Catholics in Ireland had obtained the vote under Grattan’s parliament, the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 (10 Geo. IV, c. 7) gave all Roman Catholics the right to vote (if they fulfilled the other voting criteria) and to sit in Parliament and hold other positions previously barred to them. (The Irish Parliamentary Elections Act, 1829 (10 Geo. IV, c. 8), raised the county freehold franchise from 40 shillings to £10, meaning many Irish Catholics who had had the vote lost it.)

O’Connell’s campaign was followed and supported by the liberal French press, and adopted as a model for other associations in Europe campaigning for political rights for Catholics.

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06 Apr

Belief and the Blind Man

Painting of a line of blind men leading each other

The blind leading the blind. Oil painting after Pieter Bruegel. Wellcome Library, London (CC BY 4.0)

It may sometimes seem to readers of this blog that too many Irish philosophers of the past were far too interested in religion. However an argument that is first outlined in a religious context may have applications elsewhere.

The thesis of John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious is clearly outlined in its subtitle: “A treatise shewing that there is nothing in the gospel contrary to reason, nor above it: and that no Christian Doctrine can be properly call’d a mystery.” Toland’s position is that “reason is the only Foundation of all Certitude” against the Divines who “gravely tell us, we must adore what we cannot comprehend”1. It is impossible, says Toland, to believe what we cannot understand2:

A man may give his verbal assent to he knows-not-what…but as long as he conceives not what he believes, he cannot sincerely acquiesce in it

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01 Apr

Persistent Hallucination

Descartes was a recitalist, or formulist, of what he took, often mistakenly, to be true knowledge. He himself established nothing new, nor even a system of pursuing knowledge that was novel. You are fond of quoting his Cogito Ergo Sum. Read my works. He stole that. […] Descartes spent far too much time in bed subject to the persistent hallucination that he was thinking. You are not free from a similar disorder.

St Augustine to de Selby, on Descartes.
Flann O’Brien (1964) The Dalkey Archive, chapter 4.

And by the way, what “St Augustine” says is perfectly true.

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27 Mar

A Right to Rebel?

Constance Markievicz

Studio photograph of Constance Markievicz
Wikimedia, Public Domain

I wrote some time back that discussion of the rights and wrongs of the Easter Rising seemed to be entirely focused on Just War Theory, a theory probably not best suited to judge a rebellion. The discussion still seems focused there, even though the best known proponent of Just War Theory, Thomas Aquinas, draws a distinction between war and sedition (conflict between parts of the state), and states that there is no sedition in disturbing a government which is not directed towards the common good1.

Philosophy of Rebellion – a brief history

This idea has roots in Isidore of Seville’s suggestion that an unjust ruler was no ruler at all, and John of Salisbury’s endorsement of killing tyrants under specific circumstances2. In the natural law tradition the validity of tyranicide was still argued into modern times. Some argued that only judges or the pope could intervene, but others such as Luis de Molina SJ (1535-1600) said that a tyrant who was an usurper or invader ‘can be justly killed by any member of the commonwealth’ as long as the action would not cause greater evil3.

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17 Mar

Literacy and Learning in Ireland before and after Patrick

National Heritage Park, Wexford (c) Irish Philosophy

National Heritage Park, Wexford. (c) Irish Philosophy

There are two myths about early medieval Ireland. One is that it was an ignorant, isolated place. The other is that without Ireland, civilisation would have been lost.

Pollen evidence suggests a growing population in the Ireland of the third and fourth centuries, with agricultural expansion and forest clearance taking place after a previous decline. The landscape was dominated by pastureland, intermingled with scrubby woodland and mixed farming, with few large areas of forest1.

This was a rural society, broken up into túatha and kingdoms. However it was not isolated from the world. Tacitus tells us in the first century AD Roman traders knew the major routes to, and harbours in, Ireland. Imports included wine and fine cloth. There were also Roman-Irish contacts via Romano-British slaves in Ireland and Irish settlements in Wales2. In Wales as well as in Ireland itself we find evidence of the first Irish writing, Ogham.

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14 Mar

Before the Split

Bank of Ireland College Green, displaying banner © Paul Reynolds, with permission

A banner has appeared on the Bank of Ireland in College Green (pictured above) provoking reactions from bemusement to annoyance. One of a series of banners being erected in advance of St Patrick’s day it depicts four faces: Henry Grattan (of Grattan’s Parliament), Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond.

Part of the reaction stems from the fact all but one of those depicted were dead by 1916, and that one, Redmond, expressed “detestation and horror” at the Rising and suggested it was a German plot1. Dublin City Council deputy city librarian Brendan Teeling defended the banner, saying that the majority in 1916 supported parliamentary nationalists and it would be “unhistorical” to leave them out. “It is not making a grand claim,” he said2

But it looks like it is making a big claim.

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12 Mar

“I refute him thus!”: Misunderstanding Berkeley

Dr Johnson

Johnson definitely not considering kicking the cat
Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr Public Domain
“Johnsoniana” (1836), p. 124

The philosophy of Berkeley seems to have been consistently misunderstood, from Swift refusing to have the door opened to Berkeley since Berkeley believed he could walk through it and Dr Johnson kicking a stone to refute Berkeley’s thought1, to the 19th century satirical summarising of Berkeley’s thought as “I’ve proved it, it’s nothing, depend on it—nothing—bona fide nothing” and Bill Nye’s “if you drop a hammer on your foot, is it real or is it just your imagination? You can run tests a couple of times and I hope you come to agree that it is probably real.” (For more on Nye, see this post by Massimo Pigliucci which includes the video and critiques it.)

There are two different problems here. The first is a misunderstanding of Berkeley’s argument, as shown by the 19th century satire and Bill Nye. Both suggest that Berkeley is saying that everything that exists is not real. That is not what Berkeley is saying. It is almost precisely the opposite.

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