31 Dec

Irish Times Unthinkable: Prof Peter Simons on the nature of time

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In this recording from 2013 Joe Humphreys talks to Prof Peter Simons, chair of moral philosophy at TCD, on the nature of time. For more read the Irish Times Unthinkable piece.

29 Dec

Testability by Deduction

In the first chapter it was mentioned that the scholastic dictum, “Nihil est in intellectu quod nonpriusfuerit in sensu“, was too narrow; it is in fact equivalent to Hume’s criterion that for a word to have meaning it must denote something with instances.

It is now clear exactly why this is too narrow; there is no instance denoted by the word “gravitation”, and gravitation can be in the intellect even though it cannot be sensed. It is perhaps noteworthy that among early philosophers Berkeley, who was much against the use of words without a corresponding idea, concede that there was a legitimate use of words like “gravitation”.

In that chapter it was indicated that for the scientific outlook a concept must be capable of of being related to perception, directly or indirectly; it is now clear what is the precise way in which a concept is indirectly related to perception — it is by the mechanism of testability by deduction. We may also say that Ockham’s razor expresses this: entities that cannot be related to perception even indirectly are unnecessary and not to be introduced.

J. O. Wilson (2013) Foundations of Inference in Natural Science, London: Routledge, pp. 50-1. The original edition was published in 1952. The book outlines views of scientific inference developed since the end of World War I up to the 1950s (see PhilPapers).

25 Dec

The Teacher Thomas Drennan

Interior of the First Presbyterian Church, Belfast.

Thomas Drennan was born in Belfast on 25th December 1696. Though he appears in the Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, nothing of any philosophical work he did survives: his sermons were never published. A later biography describes him as “an elegant scholar, a man of fine taste, overflowing benevolence and delicate sensibility”1 His major importance is of a source for the many philosophical friends he had though the preservation of his correspondence by his family, and as a link between the philosophy of the 1720s and the United Irishmen of the 1790s.

Drennan was a friend of James Arbuckle from his childhood2. Like the younger Arbuckle he attended Glasgow University, entering in the penultimate year of study and taught by Gershom Carmichael. He graduated MA in 1716 and then studied divinity under John Simson. His attendance overlapped with Francis Hutcheson, the printer John Smith and James Arbuckle.

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14 Dec

Anne Conway and Ireland

Woman reading a letter in a large hall. Her dog is in the foreground and a cat looking down from the stairs behind her.
Detail of Perspective View with a Woman Reading a Letter by Samuel van Hoogstraten Some believe this depicts Anne Conway. Wikimedia, Public Domain

Anne Conway is not an Irish philosopher. Born in England in 1631, her philosophical interests were encouraged by her half-brother Henry Finch, who introduced her to the Cambridge Platonist Henry More, who was one of John’s tutors at Christ’s College, Cambridge. She was corresponding with More on philosophical matters by 1650. She married Edward Conway, later 1st Earl of Conway in 1651. She died in 1679.

via @jdmccafferty
via @jdmccafferty

A small portion of her writing was translated into Latin and published in 1690 as Principia philosophiae antiquissimae et recentissimae (The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy), and translated back to English in 1692. Conroy criticised both the materials (such as Hobbes) and the Cartesians. She argues that there is one substance in the created universe, but this is not inert mechanical matter in motion but living and perceiving, and consists of spirit. Mediating between God and creation is “middle nature”. This brief summary shows the neoPlatonist elements in her thought, a thread within early modern thought that is often overlooked.

While not Irish Anne Conwayhad links to Ireland. Her husband Edward Conway became (in 1755) the 3rd Viscount Killultagh in the Irish peerage. His father was a learned man, who amassed a huge library of 11,000 books which was a casualty of the Irish Rebellion in 1641. Edward Conway had been recalled from his Grand Tour of Europe to defend the Irish lands at Portmore, near Lisburn, Co. Antrim. While he never attended university, Conway was aware of Descartes and Campanella. While Anne Conway became a Quaker, Conway remained Anglican but patronised clergymen and theologians who were “latitudinal in practise and liberal in theology” (Hutton, 2004, p. 58). The best-known of these was Jeremy Taylor, who Conway brought to Portmore in 1658. Both Conways were close to Taylor, who became Bishop of Down and Conor after the Restoration.

Anne Conway spent little if any time in Ireland. However she corresponded with Robert Boyle. More knew Boyle through the Hartlib Circle, and the Conway and Boyle families knew each other through their interests in Ireland. That link raises the possibility that Anne Conway knew Lady Ranelagh but if there was any correspondence it no longer survives. It is likely that Anne Conway corresponded with Dorothy Moore: there is a suggestion she contacted Moore regarding Henry More’s health. In addition Moore had connections with the Court of the Winter Queen in the Hague while Conway corresponded with the Winter Queen’s daughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia. It’s tantalisingly possible Anne Conway, Lady Ranelagh and Dorothy Moore had discussions together, but it’s likely we’ll never know for sure. Indeed, if Conway’s Principia had not been printed, we would almost certainly have no idea how extensive her philosophical work had been. It shows how fragile the records of 17th century women, and many 17th century men, were.

Further reading
A good place to start exploring Anne Conway and her work is on her Project Vox page, which includes biography, key facts, portraits, connections, online resources and more:
Conway (1631-1679): Anne Conway, Viscountess Conway and Killultagh

The text (English) of The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy
by Anne Finch, Viscountess of Conway [aka Anne Conway] (London: 1692) is available online from the University of Pennsylvania.

A “translation” in contemporary English is available from Early Modern Texts.

Further information on Anne Conway’s philosophy from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Lady Anne Conway (by Sarah Hutton).

For a biography of Anne Conway see: Sarah Hutton (2004) Anne Conway, a Woman Philosopher, Cambridge University Press. This is the main source for the post above.

Samuel Lewis (1840) A topographical dictionary of Ireland includes an entry on Ballinderry and Portmore mentioning Edward Conway and Jeremy Taylor.

09 Dec

Saving Milton: his friend Lady Ranelagh and his defender John Toland

John Milton dictating 'Paradise Lost' to his daughter due to his blindness

John Milton is most famous today for his epic poem Paradise Lost, a poem that was almost lost due to the cause of Milton’s fame (or infamy) in 1660: his work writing defences of the Commonwealth against Royalist attacks. These were written when Milton was Secretary of Foreign Tongues to the Council of State from 1649. The works included Eikonoklastes (1649, justifying Charles I’s execution) and The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660, arguing against the Restoration). After the Restoration, Milton had to be hidden by friends: he eventually was arrested and held in custody for a few months. Friends in high places worked to ensure he was included in the Act of Free and General Pardon, Indempnity and Oblivion. Their success meant that Milton was released from prison, allowing him to complete his half-finished epic poem 1.

Milton had first come to attention as a poet. His first published work was Lycidas, an acclaimed pastoral elegy written for Dorothy Moore‘s brother Edward King. It’s likely that Dorothy Moore met Milton at some point, though as far as I’m aware there is no record of it. In the 1640s Milton became acquainted with members of the Hartlib circle, including Samuel Hartlib, John Durie, Henry Oldenburg and Lady Ranelagh. Milton and Hartlib probably met in 1643 and in 1644 Hartlib circulated Milton’s tract Of Education, To Master Samuel Hartlib2.
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08 Dec

“Pious opinion”: the Irish Franciscans and the Immaculate Conception

Fresco of Virgo Immaculata (Mary, the Immaculate Conception) from St. Isidore's (Irish) College Rome

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, possibly the most misunderstood feast in the Roman Catholic calendar. It celebrates the conception of Mary (the conception of Jesus is the feast of the Annunciation, celebrated on the 25th March.) Why “Immaculate”? In 1854 Pope Pius IX pronounced that Mary “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin”1.

This dogma was debated long before the 19th century. Irish involvement in the debate means that this is also a highly appropriate day to look at the group of scholars who disprove the theory that Ireland produced no influential religious thinkers2. (James Ussher can be cited as another 17th century counter-example.)

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