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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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08 Mar

Writing History, Making History, Rewriting History. Women in Ireland 1888-1938.

Painting portraying the 1916 Rising in the GPO, including Pearse, Connolly and two nurses.

In this year in which the 1916 Rising is to be commemorated, some have expressed concern about its history being rewritten 1. This suggests that there is a complete and perfect history in place that should never need revising – an idea that is clearly mistaken. History is always being rewritten as new perspectives and new data emerge, and this has always been the case for Irish history. Since at least the 17th century there have been different accounts of Irish history conflicting with each other, reflecting different understandings. And even when women weren’t mentioned in those histories, they were still there.

Writing History
When Maud Gonne first came to Ireland in 1888, she met with John O’Leary with the aim of working for Ireland, but found that all the nationalist groups were closed to her. Arguing that women should be involved and citing the work done by the Ladies Land League, Gonne was told that “they did too good work and some of us found they could not be controlled.”2

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03 Mar

Catholic Controversialist: Cornelius Nary

Cornelius Nary

Cornelius Nary (detail) © UCD OFM, with permission

Despite living in a time when anti-Catholic legislation was in full force, Cornelius Nary managed to combine scholarship and religious controversy with being a Dublin priest. Little is known of his early life. He was born in Co. Kildare, probably at Tipper, near Naas. Though details of his parents have not been found he was probably the son of a substantial tenant farmer. Two brothers and three sisters are named in his will. He was ordained a priest in Kilkenny in 1682 before starting a course of studies in the Irish College in Paris in 1683. He remained there until 1695 when he obtained a doctorate in civil and canon law 1.

He then appears in London as tutor to the son of Alexander MacDonnell, Catholic third earl of Antrim. His first publication was in 1696, A modest and true account of the chief points in controversy between Roman Catholics and protestants, in which he castigated the late John Tillotson (1630–94), archbishop of Canterbury.

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20 Feb

Eco on a Perfect Language: Gaelic

The dream of a perfect language did not only obsess European culture. The story of the confusion of tongues, and of the attempt to redeem its loss through the rediscovery or invention of a language common to all humanity, can be found in every culture.
[…]
It is in the seventh century, before any known document written in Romance or Germanic languages, that the first allusion to our theme appears. It is contained in an attempt, on the part of the Irish grammarians, to defend spoken Gaelic over written Latin. In a work entitled Auracepit na n-Éces (‘the precepts of the poets’), the Irish grammarians refer to the structural material of the tower of Babel as follows: ‘Others affirm that in the tower there were only nine materials, and that these were clay and water, wool and blood, wood and lime, pitch, linen and bitumen…These represent noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, participle, conjunction, preposition, interjection.’
Ignoring the anomaly of the nine parts of the tower and only eight parts of speech, we are meant to understand that the structure of language and the construction of the tower are analogous. This is part of an argument that the Gaelic language constituted the first and only instance of a language that overcame the confusion of tongues. It was the first, programmed language, constructed after the confusion of tongues, and created by the seventy-two wise men of the school of Fenius.

Umberto Eco (1995) The Search for a Perfect Language (trans. James Fentress), London:Fontana Press, pp. 1, 17, 18.

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15 Feb

Sophie Bryant, (Irish) Renaissance Woman

Sophie Bryant

by W. & D. Downey, published by Cassell & Company, Ltd, carbon print, published 1894
cropped (c) National Portrait Gallery (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Sophie Bryant (née Willock) was a true renaissance woman – suffragist, educationalist, mathematician, psychologist, theorist and “one of the most sophisticated and perceptive of the revivalist thinkers” 1 Born in Sandymount, near Dublin, on 15 February 1850 to Revd William Alexander Willock, a mathematician and fellow of Trinity College Dublin, and his wife, daughter of J. P. Morris of Skreen Castle. The family moved to London when Bryant was thirteen.

She married in 1869, but her husband died the next year. She was appointed to teach mathematics in North London Collegiate School, confounding the popular idea that girls were not suited for mathematics by sending a succession of girls to study the subject in Girton. She studied for her own degree at the same time, taking a BSc (London) in 1881 with a first in mental and moral science and a second in mathematics. Three years later she became the first woman to be awarded a DSc (in psychology). She became headmistress of the North London Collegiate in 1895, and was active in the development of education, including teacher training 2

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