Closeup of the Philosophy Now cover, issues 160, featuring the face of an owl over a four leafed shamrock against a blue background.

Irish Philosophy – a quick guide


The February/March edition of Philosophy Now features a number of pieces about Irish Philosophy, including one about how this blog came to be. This post is intended as a roadmap to link to books, people and posts mentioned in that article. As I said in the article, Irish thought encompasses a wide variety of influences, from neo-Platonism to neo-republicanism. 

Before going through the post, I should acknowledge the work of two philosophers without whom this blog would not exist.

The book that started it all was David Berman’s Berkeley and Irish Philosophy (link on Google Books). One of the first pieces I wrote, published on 17th March 2013, was We Irish think otherwise: The Golden Age of Irish Philosophy , based on an essay in that book. I have been lucky enough to meet David Berman and let him know this is his fault! The second philosopher sadly died the year before I discovered his book History of Irish Thought (link on Google Books). That book by Thomas Duddy (read a post about him here) moved beyond the Irish Enlightenment to give a broad account of Irish Philosophy from the earliest times.

The first philosopher in that book was the subject of the first entry on the blog , known only by his nickname of “Augustinus Hibernicus” or the “Irish Augustine”, who in the 7th century wrote explaining miracles as an extension of natural processes, based on the philosophy of his better known namesake. I wrote this based on an article by Damian Bracken (Chronicon 2 (1998) 1: 1-37) only discovering Duddy’s book the following month. His History and his Dictionary of Irish Philosophers have been constant companions. 

Wandering as it does over such a large time period, it can be difficult to find posts on the blog. To search the blog, go to the Search page which includes the ability to find posts based on date published and by category. The main categories are based on date periods: Medieval and Early Modern, the Long Eighteenth Century (circa 1688-1801),  the Long Nineteenth Century (1801-1922) and Contemporary (post 1922). Within those are categories based on individual philosophers.

Before I give a roll-call of philosophers mentioned in the article together with links to their categories, let me suggest that if you want something completely different, why not try these posts on some historic libraries (not including the Long Room…yet!) or this post on Flann O’Brien’s satirical look at philosophy (the site’s most popular post). 

When I read Thomas Duddy’s book, I found the Irish Augustine , along with Eriugena (who needs more posts), Peter of Ireland and Richard Fitzralph. Though the Irish Enlightenment is my first love, that surprising and alien early Irish world drew me in and three of the blog’s most popular posts are about this period: Literacy and Learning in Ireland before and after Patrick  about the adoption of classical learning into Ireland up to the 7th century, Calculating Easter: Irish Computus to the Carolingian Renaissance about the role played by Irish scholars in the calculation of Easter, and a quote from Umberto Eco on the defence of Irish against Latin by Irish grammarians

Duddy’s book also covered pre-Irish-Enlightenment thinkers such as James Ussher and Robert Boyle. The earliest Irish female thinkers I know of, Boyle’s sister Lady Ranelagh and her friend Dorothy Moore, I only discovered in 2015.

In Duddy’s Dictionary if not his History appears the golden age of the Irish Franciscans, where in Leuven and Rome men such as Aodh Mac Aingil and Luke Wadding worked on the philosophy of Duns Scotus (who they mistakenly took for Irish), theology (notably on grace and the status of Mary) and Irish language and history. Their College in Rome also includes in a fresco one of the best depictions of academic cooperation I know (see below). This post on the seventeenth century Irish Colleges is a good introduction.  

Both Duddy and Berman cover the Irish Enlightenment from how William Molyneux brought the thought of John Locke to Ireland (read more: John Locke in Ireland) and how John Toland‘s Christianity Not Mysterious triggered heated debate that sparked the Irish Enlightenment (read more: Incendiary: John Toland and the birth of the Irish Enlightenment or listen to this podcast). David Berman regards the Irish Enlightenment as running 1696 to 1757, though others see it running to the end of the eighteenth century. It was in this time period where well known thinkers like George Berkeley, Francis Hutcheson and Edmund Burke (and less well known ones like the Edward Synges, father and son, Cornelius Nary and Philip Skelton) argued and wrote. Some writers better known for their literary achievements, notably Jonathan Swift and Oliver Goldsmith, also wrote works of philosophical interest. (I should also mention the group of literary women around Jonathan Swift whose poetry was influenced by the Irish Enlightenment.)      

The later eighteenth century saw the radicals of 1798 such as Wolfe Tone, followed in the early nineteenth by the writers of the major feminist tract between Wollstonecraft and Mill,  William Thompson and Anna Doyle Wheeler as were the more conservative  utilitarian-influenced (and politically opposed) Daniel O’Connell and Maria Edgeworth. Maria’s idealist friend William Rowan Hamilton features along with other STEM greats like George Boole. Nationalists like Thomas Davis and Jane Wilde appear, as does Jane’s artistic anarchist son Oscar Wilde. A group not mentioned in my blog was the Kantian School of Trinity College Dublin, who played an important role in translation and understanding of Kant’s work. The Gaelic Revival and the resulting nationalist resurgence took in W.B. Yeats and Sophie Byrant, Eva Gore-Booth, James Connolly and Patrick Pearse. Later twentieth century figures such as Iris Murdoch, Con Drury and John Stewart Bell then give way to contemporary thinkers like Philip Pettit.   

I hope this helps as a guide to this sprawling blog which I trust will convince you that, in the words of Thomas Duddy, that there is indeed such a thing as intellectual Irish thought!

Four friars sit around a table, each working on separate texts, part of the same project. The room in which they sit is lined with shelves filled with books, with two paintings, one of Duns Scotus and one of the Virgin Mary. To the left, two other friars search the shelves for books.
Academic collaboration: the group of Irish Franciscans who edited Duns Scotus in Rome. Courtesy UCD-OFM Partnership

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