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07 Jul

Francis Hutcheson Day, 8th August 2015, Saintfield Co. Down, 11:30am-4pm


On the anniversary of his birth (in 1694 in Saintfield, Co. Down) and death (in 1746), Saintfield Heritage Society will spend a day celebrating Francis Hutcheson, with a tour of his birthplace, where he was educated and talks on his life and thought.

Venue: Saintfield 1st Presbyterian Church Hall
Time: 11.30 am to 4.00 pm
Tickets: £10 (including light lunch)

For more information and booking details see DiscoverSaintfield.com

14 Feb

Thomas Drennan Remembered

I am the son of an honest man, a minister of that gospel which breathes peace and good will among men; a Protestant Dissenting minister, in the town of Belfast; whose spirit I am accustomed to look up, in every trying situation, as my mediator and intercessor with Heaven. He was the friend and associate of good, I may say, great men; of Abernethy, of Bruce, of Duchal, and of Hucheson; and his character of mild and tender benevolence is still remembered by many in the North of Ireland, and by not a few in this city.

I may be imprudent in mentioning, that he was, and that I glory to be, a Protestant Dissenter, […] one of that division of Protestants who regard no authority on earth, in matters of religion, save the words and the works of its author, and whose fundamental principle it is, that every person has a right, and in proportion to his abilities, is under an obligation, to judge for himself in matters of religion; a right, subservient to God alone, not a favour to be derived from the gratuitous lenity of government; a right, the resignation of which produces slavery on the one hand, persecution on the other.

Thomas Drennan (1696–14 Feb 1768) as described by his son William Drennan, in An Intended Defence in a Trial for Sedition, in the year 1794. William links his adherence to religious freedom and toleration to his father, and his father’s friends Francis Hutcheson, William Bruce, John Abernathy and John Duchal. The Latin footnote in the text is a further eulogy to Thomas Drennan.

12 Feb

The Evolution of Evolution: Darwin’s philosophical forebears

Mosaic portrait of Charles Darwin (c) Charis Tsevis/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Mosaic portrait of Charles Darwin
(c) Charis Tsevis/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Charles Darwin (born on 12th February, 1809) famously developed the idea of evolution by natural selection outlined in Origin of the Species (1859). Though still controversial, to some today it seems such an obvious idea it is surprising it took so long to emerge.

Evolutionary ideas had had a long pedigree, appearing as early as the Greek philosopher Anaximander. The problem with them all was there seemed to be only two possible mechanisms available to make creatures – deliberate design or blind chance. This was the great innovation of Darwin: not evolution but the theory of natural selection which gave a plausible account of how radical changes could appear by chance, yet appear designed.

That theory did not arise in a vacuum. Stephen J. Gould (1985) has written about the important insights Darwin obtained from Richard Owen (a vertebrate palaeontologist) and John Gould (an ornithologist) after they examined his Galapagos specimens.

Darwin also had intellectual forebears, most famously Lamarck, de Buffon, Lyell and Hutton. Even Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, had written on evolutionary theory. In addition he was influenced by more conceptual work outside biology and geology. This post (indebted to Gould, 1993) will concentrate on two streams which both happen to cross over in the work of an Irish philosopher.
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20 Jan

‘Political Thought in Ireland: the Contribution of Ulster-Scots’, Queen’s University, Thur 22 Jan 2015, 9.30am – 5pm.

political-symposium-page-001The Ulster-Scots influence on Ireland’s political landscape will explored in a symposium entitled: ‘Political Thought in Ireland: the Contribution of Ulster-Scots’. The symposium is funded by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and supported by DCAL’s Ministerial Advisory Group on the Ulster-Scots Academy.

The event will be held in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at Queen’s University, 6 College Park, Belfast on Thursday 22 January 2015, 9.30am – 5pm. All are welcome to attend. The conference is aimed at those with an interest in local history and the evolution of politics in Ulster.

The conference “will feature discussions covering the history of modern Ireland, from the early role of Presbyterians in the politics of Ireland, the 1798 Rebellion, the complexities of the nineteenth-century, through to partition and beyond.”

The keynote speaker is Professor Ian McBride (King’s College London) who will lecture on the political thought of Francis Hutcheson. Dr Andrew Holmes (Queen’s University Belfast) will respond. Also in attendance will be Wesley Hutchinson, Laurence Kirkpatrick and Carol Baraniuk.

More information on Facebook and The Ulster Scots Agency. The agenda is here (pdf on Queens University website). Contact Dr John Greer james.greer@qub.ac.uk for further details. .

03 Dec

Reciprocal Referencing: Hutcheson and Swift

At the end of a downpour on a Dublin street

“Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down,
Threatening with deluge this devoted town.”
Downpour in Dublin (c) Phil Burns/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I came across an article, An image from Francis Hutcheson in Gulliver’s Travels, book IV, chapter 5 by Arnd Bohm, in which he points out the similarity between a passage by Swift and a passage by Hutcheson.

In Gulliver’s Travels (book IV, Chapter 5) Gulliver tells the gentle, horse-like Houyhnhnm master about wars among humans, and the death and destruction it involves:

And to set forth the valour of my own dear countrymen, I assured him, “that I had seen them blow up a hundred enemies at once in a siege, and as many in a ship, and beheld the dead bodies drop down in pieces from the clouds, to the great diversion of the spectators.”

The Houyhnhnm is horrified, as we might be well be, at the thought of wholesale death being a “great diversion”. Bohm suggests that the moral indifference shown is emphasised when we realise the likely source of the example Swift is using.
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01 Dec

C.S. Lewis, Irish philosopher?

A photograph of C. S. Lewis hanging in The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford

A photograph of C. S. Lewis hanging in The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford
(c) Freddie Phillips/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

C. S. Lewis was born in Belfast on 29th November 1898, and a festival in that city celebrating him is in its second year.

So for the purposes of this, he’s Irish. But is C. S. Lewis a philosopher? A piece in the University of Oxford Practical Ethics blog argues that he is, in C. S Lewis as a moral philosopher:

All decent people believe essentially the same things, he thought. There is, in other words, not just a Universal Moral Grammar, but a Universal Moral Vocabulary. This is an old idea. It’s inherent in the idea and language of natural law. ‘[T]aking the race as a whole’, wrote Lewis, those who referred to the “Law of Nature’ ‘thought that the human idea of decent behaviour was obvious to every one. And I believe they were right.’ Our moral norms are hardwired. ‘It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong. People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong. But they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table.’

Readers may see a certain similarity to the ethical theory of another Ulster man, Francis Hutcheson.
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31 Oct

An Historical Essay concerning Witchcraft

From page 127 of 'Domestic Annals of Scotland from the Reformation to the Rebellion of 1745" Courtesy British Library, Public Domain

From page 127 of ‘Domestic Annals of Scotland from the Reformation to the Rebellion of 1745″ Courtesy British Library, Public Domain

Dr. Wallace Notestein chose an end date of 1718 for his A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718 because “that year was marked by the publication of Francis Hutchinson’s notable attack upon the belief. Hutchinson levelled a final and deadly blow at the dying superstition.”

Historical Essay concerning witchcraft
This view of the importance of An Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft is echoed in more recent works. For example, The Devil in Disguise (2011) concurs with the assessment of the Essay and also suggests that an earlier pamphlet The Case of the Hertfordshire Witchcraft Consider’d is likely to have been written by Hutchinson. An account of that Hertfordshire witch trial against Jane Wenham, together with Hutchinson and Hans Sloane’s involvement is to be found on the Sloane Letters blog. Hutchison was concerned by the level of superstition which characterised the witch hunts, and moved from sharing that concern with Sloane to publishing his Essay in 1718, with the aim of preventing that superstition from spreading.

Sloane is not the only Irish link to this story. A second edition of the Historical Essay was published in 1720, the year Hutchinson was appointed Bishop of Down and Conor. While not active in his religious duties as bishop, he took an interest in conditions in his diocese. He was particularly concerned with the problems of Irish speakers in the Church of Ireland, especially the community on Rathlin Island. He had a bilingual catechism and primer printed for their use, and later an Irish catechism. In all these the Irish was rendered phonetically in a Roman script. More on his adaptation of Irish and his attempts to proselytize among the Catholic population is available on History Ireland.
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28 Aug

Hutcheson Redux? Against Empathy.

Cartons labelled "empathy" stacked on shelves.

Empathy in a carton
(c) Geoff Jones/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In the current Boston Review, Paul Bloom has a discussion piece, Against Empathy. He opens by referencing Adam Smith…

The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but here I am adopting its most common meaning, which corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more coldblooded process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy.

Paul Bloom identifies issues with empathy – that we are more likely to feel empathetic towards people like us or people who are attractive; that empathy leads us to focus on individual cases but ignore mass suffering. He argues that empathy is not the only thing that can motivate helping, compassion can too. Read More

10 Aug

Hutcheson Day 2014: links


Here is a selection of links tweeted under the hashtag #HutchesonDay, on 8th August 2014.

Joe Humphreys of the Irish Times talked to historian at the University of Aberdeen and author of Francis Hutcheson in Dublin, 1719-1730: The Crucible of his Thought for the Unthinkable slot. A good introduction for those unaware of the philosopher.

“Hutcheson’s big idea was what he called ‘the moral sense’. At the time, most philosophers agreed with John Locke that human beings had no innate ideas: the mind was a clean slate when a human was born. Although Hutcheson agreed, he disagreed that this meant humans had no inherent moral character. Instead he argued that human beings were born with a natural capacity to approve or disapprove of people’s behaviour. Human beings are effectively judgment-makers.
“Importantly, Hutcheson thought that this moral sense was pre-rational, meaning that deciding whether something was right or wrong did not involve a calculation of your self-interest. In this he disagreed with Thomas Hobbes, who thought humans were motivated by personal interest and material gain.”

Edward O. Wilson (1998) writes in The Atlantic on the modern search for a “natural capacity” to judge morality, mentioning Hutcheson along the way. (For the take of Hutcheson’s contemporaries on the “moral sense”, see the SEP on Sentimentalism).

“Hutcheson influenced most of the Scottish philosophers who succeeded him, perhaps all of them, whether because he helped to set their agenda or because they appropriated, in a form suitable to their needs, certain of his doctrines.” From the SEP article on 18th century Scottish philosophy.
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01 Aug

“Against the doctrine of Aristotle”: Hutcheson on slavery

Monument depicting chained slaves in a pit, located in Zanzibar

On 1st August 1834 slavery was abolished in most of the British Empire, as the Slavery Abolition Act (1833) came into force. (It only applied in India after the 1843 Indian Slavery Act.)

There were many rationales used to support slavery. One common one was Aristotle’s theory of the “natural slave”. In the Politics, Aristotle said:
For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule…

In other words, it was right that some people were slaves and others their masters. Such natural slaves were lacking certain qualities which would enable them to rule themselves. This justified “chattel” slavery, where the person and all their descendants were property in perpetuity.

This theory, though criticised by some, was widely accepted. Even those who did not accept it argued for slavery on other grounds. Locke, despite asserting that “every Man has a Property in his own person” (in his Second Treatise, §27), and calling slavery “vile and miserable” such that he cannot believe an Englishman would argue for it (Second Treatise, Introduction), justifies some forms of slavery. Locke defined slaves as (§85) “Captives taken in a just War […] by the Right of Nature subjected to the Absolute Dominion and Arbitrary Power of their Masters” and as such cut off from civil society. Moreover despite his theoretical requirement for a just war, in practice Locke tolerates chattel slavery. In Constitutions for Carolina Locke writes: “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over Negro slaves, of what opinion and Religion soever” (see Sypher, 1939 and a discussion on Locke’s attitude to slavery in the notes of the SEP article about him).

The view of slavery as “vile” slowly started to spread in the early 18th century. Steel portrayed slaves sympathetically in the Spectator, though he falls short of attacking the institution, unsurprisingly since he owned a plantation in the West Indies through his wife. Hans Sloane’s account of harsh punishments for slaves also had an effect. However here too we should not read too much into Sloane’s accounts: he also derived income from sugar plantations and says nothing to suggest chattel slavery should be abolished (see more here.)

Also writing in the early 18th century, Hutcheson’s theory of morality (following the lead of Shaftesbury) was based on the idea of a moral sense, which allowed us to approve of moral actions and disapprove of immoral ones. Moral actions are rooted in benevolence – a feeling of goodwill towards others. Unlike Locke (and like Hume), for Hutcheson emotion is our guide for moral behaviour, not reason.
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