08 Mar

Hutcheson’s Labours Lost?

Th’ internal Senses painted here we see:
They’re born in others, but they live in thee.
O were our Author with thy Converse blest,
Could he behold the Virtues, of thy Breast;
His needless Labours with Contempt he’d view;
And bid the World not read — but copy you!

Constantina Grierson “To the Honourable Mrs. Percival, 
with Hutcheson’s Treatise on Beauty and Order.” Eighteenth Century Poetry Archive

For International Women’s Day, one Irish woman praising another.

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07 Apr

Mary Delany, the Triumfeminate and other Dublin Women: Swift’s “Female Senate”

This post originally appeared on my personal blog. However at the recent conference on Irish Philosophy in the Age of Berkeley, Christine Gerrard gave a fascinating presentation on What the Dublin Women of the ‘Triumfeminate’ did with John Locke”. I have therefore moved this post here to serve as an introduction to these women.


In 1752 John Boyle (5th earl of Cork and Orrery), erstwhile friend of Jonathan Swift, wrote in his life of the Dean, “You see the command which Swift had over all his females, and you would have smiled to have found his house a constant seraglio of very virtuous women, who attended him from morning til night”. Boyle blamed Swift’s women for Swift publishing papers he would have been wiser to withhold, since “he communicated every composition as soon as finished, to his female senate.”

Patrick Delany, who had been close friends with Swift since meeting him in 1718, wasted no time in defending the reputation of Swift and his friends in Observations Upon Lord Orrery’s Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr. Jonathan Swift. As well as giving explanations of Swift’s relationships with Esther Johnson (‘Stella’) and Esther Vanhomrigh (‘Vanessa’), he insisted that women almost never visited the Dean’s house, and then only by invitation. Delany had every opportunity of knowing this: “[Delany’s] house at Glasnevin was the scene of the weekly meetings at which Swift and his circle would read poems to each other and submit them for correction” (Andrew Carpenter, 2004). The house, Delville, has since been demolished but stood on the site of the present Bon Secours Hospital, Dublin.

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04 Mar

The Forum for Philosophy: the Irish Enlightenment

The Forum for Philosophy: The Irish Enlightenment (4 March 2019)

On 4th March 2019, the Forum for Philosophy hosted a discussion on the Irish Enlightenment at the LSE. Contributors were Ian McBride (Oxford),
Katherine O’Donnell  (UCD) and Tom Stoneham (University of York). The chair was Clare Moriarty (Forum for Philosophy and UCD).

This interesting discussion is an excellent introduction to the subject of the Irish Enlightenment. The podcast website is here.

01 Nov

Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years.

It is this inability to wrestle with difficulty which has obliged the arbitrary Assembly of France to commence their schemes of reform with abolition and total destruction. But is it in destroying and pulling down that skill is displayed? Your mob can do this as well at least as your assemblies. The shallowest understanding, the rudest hand, is more than equal to that task. Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years. The errors and defects of old establishments are visible and palpable. It calls for little ability to point them out; and where absolute power is given, it requires but a word wholly to abolish the vice and the establishment together.

Edmund Burke (1790/2014) Reflections on the Revolution in France, University of Adelaide (online). Emphasis added.

The Reflections were published on this day in 1790.

08 Aug

Francis Hutcheson on Empire

Alongside the mercantilist and metrocentic strain in civil philosophy in the 1730s, there was also an anti-imperial and philocolonial strand. This was represented most notably by the Hiberno-Scot Francis Hutcheson’s A System of Moral Philosophy, which he composed between 1734 and 1737, in the period before the anti-Spanish agitations but in the aftermath of the Excise Crisis and the darkest days of Walpole’s premiership. Hutcheson questioned the very foundations in rights of dominium upon which the British Empire rested, and argued that ‘[n]o person or society…can by mere occupation acquire such a right in a vast tract of land quite beyond their power to cultivate’. This denial of the juridical basis on which the British Empire in America was claimed was in its own way as Lockean as that of the author of the Essay on Civil Government, but took seriously Locke’s sufficiency condition for legitimate possession. Hutcheson went even further, and proposed colonial independence should the mother-country impose ‘severe and absolute’ power over its provinces. ‘The insisting on old claims and tacit conventions’, he concluded, ‘to extend civil power over distant nations, and form grand unwieldy empires, without regard to the obvious maxims of humanity, has been one great source of human misery’.

David Armitage (2000) The Ideological Origins of the British Empire, Cambridge University Press, p. 188.

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09 Jul

Edmund Burke: Constructing the Father of Conservativism

Conservatism is a disposition, not a political doctrine. It is difficult to avoid this implication in statements such as that of Robert Michels (in 1930, as quoted by Richard Bourke) “The Bolsheviks of today are as conservative as the Tsarists of yesterday”. As Bourke points out, “one conserves relative to opposing positions that seem to bring about unwelcome change”1

But if this is the case, why and when did Edmund Burke come to be associated with conservative thought in general, and the British Conservative Party in particular? This happened, as Emily Jones has shown, much later than many would think.

Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Burke was admired more by liberals than by conservatives. Whigs knew him as the man who provided the party manual, the Thoughts on the cause of the present discontents (1770), but also as the man who split the party. The Tories approved of his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) but were deeply aware of his Whig status. “His political legacy was thus divided between Whig exaltation of earlier texts, and Tory adulation of Reflections.” 2

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26 Apr

Debating Hume on Miracles

A group of wigged gentlemen sit around a table in discussion. They are attended by a servant and a gun-dog. One man, dressed in blue, stares out at the viewer.

On the Strand in London in 1748, a large clergyman of majestic appearance carrying a weighty manuscript entered the shop of the famous printer and bookseller Andrew Millar. In an accent that marked him as an Ulster man, he asked if Millar would buy the manuscript to print. Millar asked that the manuscript be left in the shop for a few days, so Millar could submit it to an expert who could judge if it was worth the cost of printing. The clergyman did so. Later, (the yet more famous) David Hume came to Millars and examined the manuscript for a few hours, then told Millar, print. It was a good call: the two-volume book was one of the most popular books in its day, requiring a second edition after just over a year. The author got £200 which he spent in book purchases1

The book was Ophiomaches, or Deism Revealed (1749, known as Deism Revealed in the 1751 and subsequent editions) and the writer was Lisburn-born Philip Skelton. The story reveals Hume’s generosity to critics, because the book contains the earliest criticism of Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Skelton had only seen Hume’s Enquiry when travelling to London with his manuscript of Ophiomaches, a book attacking deism in the form of dialogues. He was shown it by Dr Connebear in Oxford and added replies to Hume’s work at Connebear’s request. One of the most important changes was the reworking of the fifth dialogue of Ophiomaches to address Hume’s essay on miracles2

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13 Apr

Handel’s Messiah, John Toland and the fight against Deism.

A bronze statue of a naked male figure raising his arms as if to conduct a choir, baton in hand. He is posed against a background of windows, and walls covered with creeper stems

I have written before about the Irish philosophy connections to Handel’s Messiah, first performed in Dublin on 13th April, 1742. Philosophers Edward Synge and Patrick Delany were captivated by the production that Swift almost had halted. Edward Synge sent a testimonial to Handel praising the music, but also the words. The words, indeed, he believed key to the oratorio’s success1

1 one is the Subject, which is the greatest & most interesting. It Seems to have inspir’d him/
2 Another is the Words, which are all Sublime, or affecting in the greatest degree.
3 a Third reason […] T’is there is no Dialogue […] in this Piece the attention of the Audience is Engag’d from one end to the other […] Many, I hope, were instructed by it, and had proper Sentiments inspir’d in a Stronger Manner on their Minds.

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18 Mar

Nietzsche: “Laurence Sterne, whom Goethe honoured as the most liberated spirit of his century”

How, in a book for free spirits, should there be no mention of Laurence Sterne, whom Goethe honoured as the most liberated spirit of his century! Let us content ourselves here simply with calling him the most liberated spirit of all time, in comparison with whom all others seem stiff, square, intolerant and boorishly direct.

Nietzsche (1968) Human, All Too Human, p. 238.