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13 Jun

The world is a vision, the state is a tree

In Gaelic literature we have something that the English-speaking countries have never possessed – a great folk literature. We have in Berkeley and in Burke a philosophy on which it is possible to base the whole life of a nation. That, too, is something which England, great as she is in modern scientific thought and every kind of literature, has not, I think. The modern Irish intellect was born more than two hundred years ago when Berkeley defined in three or four sentences the mechanical philosophy of Newton, Locke, and Hobbes, the philosophy of England in his day, and I think of English up to our day, and wrote after each, “We Irish do not hold with this”, or some like sentence. Feed the immature imagination upon that old folk life, and the mature intellect upon Berkeley and the great modern idealist philosophy created by his influence, upon Burke who restored to political thought its sense of history, and Ireland is reborn, potent, armed and wise. Berkeley proved that the world was a vision, and Burke that the State was a tree, no mechanism to be pulled in pieces and put up again, but an oak tree that had grown through centuries.

Speech to Irish Literary Society, 30 Nov. 1925; in The senate speeches of W. B. Yeats, Donald R. Pearce (eds), p.171-72.

A forerunner to his celebration of the 18th century philosophers in his poetry. This outlines the intellectual tradition he wished to resuscitate, which would feed the Irish intellect as the old Gaelic tales would feed the Irish imagination.

10 Mar

Lecture Series, David Berman on Berkeley and neo-Berkeleian thought. 23rd, 25th, 26th March, 10am-12noon, Trinity College Dublin

This three part lecture series on The Essential Berkeley and Neo-Berkeleian Idealism/Empiricism will be given by Prof. David Berman as part of Trinity College’s Berkeley Initiative.

All three lectures will be held in the Neill Hoey Lecture Theatre, Trinity Long Room Hub Building, Fellows’s Square, Trinity College Dublin.

Monday 23 March, 10am–12pm
Wednesday 25 March, 10am–12pm
Thursday 26 March, 10am–12pm.

The lectures are free, but registration is required on Eventbrite.

The Lecture Series Abstract from EventBrite:
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18 Dec

Small and Far Away: Thomas Kingsmill Abbott

Landscape by George Barret Wikimedia, Public Domain

Landscape by George Barret
Wikimedia, Public Domain

Dublin born Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (26 March 1829 – 18 December 1913) is probably best known for his translations of Kant’s ethical works published in 1873 which remained the standard English texts into the 1940s (Duddy, 2004). He had a wide range of scholarly interests, being professor various of Moral Philosophy, Greek and Hebrew in Trinity College Dublin. However his greatest philosophical contribution was made in his early career, where he disputed the theory of vision outlined by (fellow Trinity man) George Berkeley.

The roots of Berkeley’s theory are in Locke. Just before he introduces (William) Molyneaux’s Problem, in his Essay on Human Understanding (IX, 8) Locke states that “When we set before our eyes a round globe of any uniform colour […] it is certain that the idea thereby imprinted on our mind is of a flat circle”. The roundness we think we see, says Locke, is the effect of experience, which differentiates what we see: “…only a plane variously coloured, as is evident in painting.” He does not, however, claim we cannot tell that the sphere is at a distance.

William Molyneaux does claim this, however, in his Dioptrica Nova (1692, 113):

Distance of itself is not to be perceived. For it is a line (or a length) presented to our eye with its end toward us which must therefore be only a point, and that is invisible.

Berkeley expands these ideas in A Essay towards a New Theory of Vision (1709/1732), referenced previously in relation to the Moon Illusion. Berkeley agrees with Molyneaux that distance cannot be seen (II): Read More

26 Nov

Moon Illusion

berkeley moon

When, therefore, the Horizontal Moon is said to appear greater than the Meridional Moon; this must be understood, not of a greater Visible Extension, but of a greater Tangible Extension; which, by reason of the more than ordinary Faintness of the Visible Appearance, is suggested to the Mind along with it.

Berkeley on the Moon Illusion in his 1709 An Essay towards a new Theory of Vision. These lines are from section LXXIV. The Moon Illusion is discussed from section LXVII – note in LXXV his mention of the “gross blunders” of Descartes, Hobbes and Gassendi, shown up by Mr Molyneaux (not William but his brother Thomas.) Thomas Molyneaux’s paper in Philosophical Transactions is here.

Both the 1709 and the 1732 versions of An Essay towards a new Theory of Vision are available here , more on the Moon Illusion from Nautilus Magazine here.

12 Nov

The Need for Audacity of Thought

The intellect of Ireland is irreligious. I doubt if one could select from any Irish writer of the last two hundred years until the present generation a solitary sentence that might be included in a reputable anthology of religious thought. Ireland has produced but two men of religious genius: Johannes Scotus Erigena who lived a long time ago, and Bishop Berkeley who kept his Plato by his Bible; and its moral system, being founded upon habit, not intellectual conviction, has shown of late that it cannot resist the onset of modern life. We are quick to hate and slow to love; and we have never lacked a Press to excite the most evil passions. To some extent Ireland but shows in an acute form the European problem, and must seek a remedy where the best minds of Europe seek it — in audacity of speculation and creation.

William Butler Yeats, The Need for Audacity of Thought p 201 of The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats Vol X: Later Articles and Reviews. (First published in Dial, LXXX, Feb 1926)

21 Aug

Sense and Sensibilia

I have found these sense-data and sensibilia. I have not made them. I do not know how to make them. I have not brought them together. […]
What holds them together? Why not ask first, “What separated them? What broke them up?” And the answer is, of course, “My analysis separated them and broke them up.” What holds them together? Why, they are together.[…]
What holds them together? Why, nothing. What holds them together? Why, everything. Canst thou lose the bonds of Orion? What holds together the sense-data of the apple? They are together. That is the way the apple is made; that is the way God made it grow.

From Sense without Matter (1954), pp 62-3.

This book outlines Luce’s version of Berkeley’s thought, which is similar but not identical, and uses the terms current rather than those used by Berkeley. As with Berkeley, Luce is attacking the philosophical (rather than common sense) view of matter. In this section he deals with the objection that sense-data such as the taste, smell, feel and appearance of an apple always appear together, so must be linked by matter.

23 Jun

Berkeley’s Foray into Experimental Philosophy

Curiosity leading [Berkeley] one day to see an execution, he returned home pensive and melancholy and could not forbear reflecting on what he had seen. He desired to know what were the pains and symptoms a malefactor felt […] in short he resolved to tuck himself up for a trial; at the same time desiring his companion to take him down at a signal agreed upon […]
Berkeley was, therefore tied up to the ceiling, and the chair taken from under his feet, but soon losing the use of his senses, his companion it seems waited a little too long for the signal agreed upon, and our enquirer had like to have been hanged in good earnest; for as soon as he was taken down he fell senseless and motionless upon the floor.

From Memoirs of the late Dr. Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, as it appeared in Volume 6 of the Annual Register for the Year 1763. It was originally printed in the Weekly Magazine (1759/60) and reprinted/pirated in The British Plutarch in 1762.
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04 Apr

Irish Times Unthinkable: Prof David Berman on George Berkeley

04 Apr

Goldsmith: a coda to the Irish Golden Age of Philosophy

Detail of the Goldsmith statue outside Trinity College Dublin Source: Wikicommons/CC (Edit)

Detail of the Goldsmith statue outside Trinity College Dublin
Source: Wikicommons/CC (Edit)

David Berman places the publishing of Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful as marking the end of the Irish Golden Age of Philosophy.

“Irish aesthetics begins in the 1720s with Hutcheson, and it may be said to end in 1757 with Burke” (Berman, p. 129) As well as distinguishing between the terms “sublime” and “beautiful”, Burke also argued against George Berkeley’s utility theory of beauty: “‘…beauty riseth from the appearance of use …’. (Berman, p. 130 (quoting Alciphron, III. 9.) and p. 131) Burke notes

if the utility theory were correct ‘the wedge-like snout of a swine, with its tough cartilage at the end, the little sunk eyes, and the whole make of the head, so well adapted to its office of digging and rooting, would be extremely beautiful’.

In a coda to the Irish aesthetics debate, and to the Golden Age itself, Oliver Goldsmith reviewed Burke’s book in the Monthly Review in which he described the book, and argued against some points in footnotes. In one, he suggested that utility can in fact lead to ideas of beauty:
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17 Mar

Patrick and a question of identity

Statue of St Patrick overlooking green fields and a rainbow

Image: starbeard /Flickr (CC BY)

Last year Vox Hiberionacum published two posts on the historical Patrick and the voicing of early Irish identity: one relating to classical and early medieval terms used by outsiders and a sequel on terms used in Patrick’s own writings. In brief, Patrick used the term Scotti, which had with negative connotations, but mainly to refer to the pagan Irish. The converts he referred to as Irish/Hibernae, including in the famous account of his dream where ‘the voice of the (not yet converted) Irish’ calls on him to return to Ireland, and in contexts referring to existing converts. Vox Hiberionacum points out the complexity of identity involved in both terms – the people referred to in both were of multiple backgrounds, classes and tribes. Some were not even born in Ireland. In his Letter to Coroticus protesting the killing and enslavement of Irish converts to Christianity by a British chieftain, Patrick writes

Indignum est illis Hiberionaci sumus
‘For them, it is a disgrace/shameful that we are from Ireland‘. 

Whether this is a slip or a rhetorical device, it is the first insular expression of an Irish ‘we’, and it includes not only the Irish born in Ireland but Patrick himself.

This complexity inherent in the term “Irish” brought to mind two of Ireland’s greatest philosophers. Johannes Scotus Eriugena adopted two names denoting his Irishness, plausibly because even by his time being an Irishman (Scotus) did not automatically mean born in Ireland (Eriugena). George Berkeley in several places in his Philosophical Commentaries writes, “we Irish” (“we Irish do not hold with this”, “We Irish think otherwise”). Yet he is often claimed as English. Both philosophers are enmeshed in the complexities of Irish identity.
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