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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

17 Apr

Epitaph for William Molyneaux

William Molyneux epitaph, St. Audoen's Church, Cornmarket, Dublin Via Wikicommons/CC

William Molyneux epitaph, St. Audoen’s Church, Cornmarket, Dublin
Via Wikicommons/CC

William Molyneux (17 April 1656 – 11 October 1698)’s epitaph on the wall of the old chancel (now in the open air) of the Church of Ireland St. Audoen’s Church, Cornmarket, in Dublin, Ireland. The section referring to him starts about halfway down the stone.

WILLIAM MOLYNEUX
whom LOCKE was proud to call his friend
author of The Case Of Ireland Stated
of the Dioprica Nova
long the standard authority in optics
and of many other scientific works.
He died 11th October 1698 at the age of 42 years
to the grief of friends
and to the loss of his country.
His remains with those of
many distinguished ancestors & kinsmen
rest in the adjoining vault of the
USSHER & MOLYNEUX families.
WILLIAM MOLYNEUX married LUCY
daughter of SIR WILLIAM DOMVILE and left
an only son SAMUEL not less distinguished
as a statesman & philosopher. He was secretary
to FREDERICK Prince of Wales and the founder
of the celebrated observatory at Kew.
He married LADY ELIZABETH DIANA CAPEL
and died 1727.

15 Oct

Educating the Citizen Lord

Lord Edward Fitzgerald (1797)

Lord Edward Fitzgerald in 1796.
Wikimedia, Public Domain

Lord Edward Fitzgerald was born 250 years ago, on the 15th October 1763, in Carton House, Co. Kildare, the fifth son of the Duke of Leinster. From his earliest days, Edward Fitzgerald was a child of the Enlightenment, and educated according to Enlightenment ideals.

One of the most influential thinkers on education in 18th century Ireland was John Locke. The earliest edition of his “Thoughts on Education” (1683) described itself as “Published at the request of several of the nobility of this kingdom”, and was reprinted three times from 1728-1738, and twice in the late 1770s. It provided a model for a gentleman’s education, and helped popularize the ideal of a paternalistic and educated gentry taking responsibility for improving their local area.

For Locke the goal of education was to instil “the Principle of Virtue”, that is the ability to subvert one’s immediate appetites and desires to the dictates of reason. The aim was to create people who obeyed reason over passion. 
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18 Sep

Incendiary: John Toland and the birth of the Irish Enlightenment

A book burning in London, 1643. (click for source)

A book burning in London, 1643. (Image  is figure 8 in “Incendiary texts”, referenced and linked below)

On 18th (some say 11th) September, 1697 the book “Christianity Not Mysterious” was burned in front of the Irish Parliament Buildings. This had been ordered by the Parliament who declared some days earlier that the heretical book “be publickly burnt by the hands of the common hangman” and the author “be taken into the custody of the Serjeant at Arms and…prosecuted”. Such burning of books by the hangman had been done in England since 1634 (ref), though letters from Molyneaux to Locke suggest it had not happened in Ireland before.

The book had already caused controversy. It was denounced when it was first published in 1696, the first edition anonymously and the second under Toland’s name. The book argues that “[T]here is nothing in the Gospel contrary to Reason, nor above it; and … no Christian Doctrine can be properly called a Mystery.” In other words, nothing in the Gospel can conflict with reason, the Gospel cannot transcend reason (so apparent conflicts with reason cannot be explained away as a mystery) and that no doctrine can at once be Christian and mysterious. The creation of mysteries within Christianity he attributed to innovations of competing sects.

This theory of the relationship between religion and reason went further than other supporters of reason such as Locke had dared. It was especially contentious in Ireland, since it undermined the position of the established Anglican Church over other churches. Archbishop Narcissus Marsh (of the Library) requested the Provost of Trinity College, Dr. Peter Browne, to write an answer to Toland’s book. Browne did so in his 1797 A Letter in answer to a book entitled Christianity not mysterious, condemning Toland as ‘an inveterate enemy of revealed religion’. Browne was later made the Bishop of Cork, due to Marsh’s influence, leading Toland to boast he had ‘made Browne a bishop’.
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29 Aug

John Locke in Ireland

In 1692 John Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding was put on the curriculum of Trinity College Dublin by the provost St George Ashe. This was the first university to do so, unsurprising given the book was only published two years before.

The book was added on the recommendation of William Molyneux, founder of the Dublin Philosophical Society and first translator of Descartes’Meditations into English. In 1692 Molyneux made a flattering reference to Locke in the dedication of his own book, the Dioptrica Nova. He sent a copy to Locke, sparking a correspondence that only ended when Molyneux died. Molyneux was immortalised on a later edition of Locke’s Essay as the creator of Molyneux’s Problem.

When, in 1695, John Toland published his Christianity Not Mysterious, which applied Lockean ideas to religion, Locke was by then known well enough for the arguments refuting Toland to employ the same Lockean ideas. The Irish Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, described by David Berman, produced new theological positions, such as Theological Representationalism, and some important philosophers. “Without Locke’sEssay“, says Berman, “there would hardly have been a Berkeley, Hutcheson or Burke.” Much of Irish philosophy in this “Golden Age” rests on Lockean foundations, and Berkeley’s philosophy is rooted in disputes between different positions based on Locke.
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30 Mar

Molyneux’s Problem

Molyneux’s Problem (and Locke’s comment on it) Youtube 3:11

For more information see the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

Alternatively try this readable account by an optician.

17 Mar

We Irish think otherwise: The Golden Age of Irish Philosophy

Berkeley and his Entourage, by John Smibert Wikimedia, Public Domain

Berkeley and his Entourage, by John Smibert
Wikimedia, Public Domain

Here is a brief sketch of the philosophical struggle that went on in Ireland over the ideas of the Enlightenment. It is based heavily on part II of David Berman’s Berkeley and Irish Philosophy. (“We Irish think otherwise” is a quote from Berkeley. All links in text are Wiki).

The signing of the Treaty of Limerick had marked the final defeat of the old Irish landowning classes. It also marked the end of wars that since 1642 had seen thousands killed, exiled and dispossessed.

Despite the turmoil, Ireland was not isolated from new ideas from Britain and Europe. William Molyneaux, a natural philosopher and founder of the Dublin Philosophical Society (1683) had given his name to Molyneaux’s Problem in his friend Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Another interested in the new ideas was Robert Molesworth, a Whig, a follower of Lord Shaftsbury. Graduates from Trinity mingled with those from Oxford on the Dublin streets.

John Toland published Christianity Not Mysterious in 1696. Much as Augustinus Hibernicus before him had brought Augustine’s thought to a logical conclusion, Toland did the same with the ideas in Locke’s Essay. He argued that only intelligible ideas could be believed. There could be no religious mysteries, such ideas would have to be nonsense.

This position had both religious and political implications, potentially undermining faiths and the basis of the Penal Laws. Toland arrived in Dublin to hear himself and his book denounced from the pulpit. His book was condemned by the Irish government and he left the country to avoid arrest.

Philosophically, though, Toland’s contention needed an answer. In their efforts to create one the Irish Counter Enlightenment also used the ideas of Locke, and thereby triggered a philosophical programme which saw developments in epistemology, aesthetics, religion, ethics and language.
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