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.

The immediate counter argument to the assertion we can only believe what we literally understand was that our conceptions of God represent but do not resemble God. This position first put forward by Edward Synge is called by Berman Theological Representationalism. A core metaphor was of a blind man who is told of colours and may represent them to himself, but the representations are not like the colours.

To support this position, such philosophical innovations such as a sensationalist theory of mind (Peter Browne) and teleological pragmatism (William King) were set forward. Berman credits Brown with being the first full-blooded sensationist, going further than Locke in insisting we only can know what we receive though our senses. King argued for a pragmatic understanding of theological language – if it led the hearer towards theism then the words were pragmatically as opposed to cognitively true.

After Toland and the arrest of Thomas Emlyn for questioning the Trinity in 1702, rationalist debate stopped at least in public. It revived among the Molesworth Circle, a group centred on Molesworth in the 1720s, which leaned towards toleration and liberty in the exercise of religion. The circle’s greatest influence is via its most famous alumnus, Francis Hutcheson. His move to Scotland in the 1730s lead to him influencing philosophers there, particularly Adam Smith. Hutcheson is recognised as a Founder of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Returning to the Irish context , Berman argues that Berkeley’s emotive theory of meaning (Christian beliefs are emotive not cognitive) is also a reaction to Toland. However Berkeley’s philosophy resists categorisation, and he reacted to arguments on both sides. His emotivism, for example, runs counter to the idea language had purely cognitive meaning.

Berman goes on to suggest that Brown’s sensationalism and Berkeley’s emotivism are core ingredients in Edmund Burke‘s Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful. Berman sets the end of the Irish Enlightenment at 1757, the date of publication of the Sublime and the Beautiful, arguably the last great work of Irish philosophy.

Perhaps the argument had run out of steam. Burke was an adherent of Theological Representationalism but otherwise does not fit the mould, especially in his tolerance toward Catholics. Resistance to the Penal Laws was gathering. The Irish Golden Age of Philosophy, from Toland’s rock thrown in the Irish pond in 1696 to the last “sublime” ripples had lasted sixty years.


What started all the problem: Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Toland’s influence on English Deism from the IEP.

Worth a listen, In Our Time on Empiricism – covers Berkeley

George BerkeleyDavid Wilkins TCD links, /IEP page/, /SEP page/.

Edmund Burke SEP

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