Posted in Edward Synge b. 1659 John Toland

Belief and the Blind Man

Painting of a line of blind men leading each other
The blind leading the blind. Oil painting after Pieter Bruegel. Wellcome Library, London (CC BY 4.0)

It may sometimes seem to readers of this blog that too many Irish philosophers of the past were far too interested in religion. However an argument that is first outlined in a religious context may have applications elsewhere.

The thesis of John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious is clearly outlined in its subtitle: “A treatise shewing that there is nothing in the gospel contrary to reason, nor above it: and that no Christian Doctrine can be properly call’d a mystery.” Toland’s position is that “reason is the only Foundation of all Certitude” against the Divines who “gravely tell us, we must adore what we cannot comprehend”1. It is impossible, says Toland, to believe what we cannot understand2:

A man may give his verbal assent to he knows-not-what…but as long as he conceives not what he believes, he cannot sincerely acquiesce in it

Continue reading “Belief and the Blind Man”

Posted in George Berkeley

“I refute him thus!”: Misunderstanding Berkeley

Dr Johnson
Johnson definitely not considering kicking the cat
Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr Public Domain
“Johnsoniana” (1836), p. 124

The philosophy of Berkeley seems to have been consistently misunderstood, from Swift refusing to have the door opened to Berkeley since Berkeley believed he could walk through it and Dr Johnson kicking a stone to refute Berkeley’s thought1, to the 19th century satirical summarising of Berkeley’s thought as “I’ve proved it, it’s nothing, depend on it—nothing—bona fide nothing” and Bill Nye’s “if you drop a hammer on your foot, is it real or is it just your imagination? You can run tests a couple of times and I hope you come to agree that it is probably real.” (For more on Nye, see this post by Massimo Pigliucci which includes the video and critiques it.)

There are two different problems here. The first is a misunderstanding of Berkeley’s argument, as shown by the 19th century satire and Bill Nye. Both suggest that Berkeley is saying that everything that we believe exists is not real. That is not what Berkeley is saying. In fact he is saying almost precisely the opposite.

Continue reading ““I refute him thus!”: Misunderstanding Berkeley”

Posted in Cornelius Nary

Catholic Controversialist: Cornelius Nary

Cornelius Nary
Cornelius Nary (detail) © UCD OFM, with permission

Despite living in a time when anti-Catholic legislation was in full force, Cornelius Nary managed to combine scholarship and religious controversy with being a Dublin priest. Little is known of his early life. He was born in Co. Kildare, probably at Tipper, near Naas. Though details of his parents have not been found he was probably the son of a substantial tenant farmer. Two brothers and three sisters are named in his will. He was ordained a priest in Kilkenny in 1682 before starting a course of studies in the Irish College in Paris in 1683. He remained there until 1695 when he obtained a doctorate in civil and canon law 1.

He then appears in London as tutor to the son of Alexander MacDonnell, Catholic third earl of Antrim. His first publication was in 1696, A modest and true account of the chief points in controversy between Roman Catholics and protestants, in which he castigated the late John Tillotson (1630–94), archbishop of Canterbury.

Continue reading “Catholic Controversialist: Cornelius Nary”

Posted in A. A. Luce George Berkeley

Ideas about Berkeley

Berkeley, in his lifetime, was regarded as a disciple of Malebranche. Subsequently he came to be regarded as a Lockian. The new opinion was a natural growth. In the course of time British acquaintance with Malebranche sank, and the fame of Berkeley rose. National sentiment adopted him as the English philosopher in succession to Locke. It may therefore be in place here to mention the danger of over-estimating the degree to which the young Berkeley was anglicized.

There are two national sentiments to be considered, and to hold the balance is not easy. To speak of him, without qualification, as an English philosopher cannot be right. Leslie Stephen’s statement ‘Berkeley always considered himself an Englishman’, is misleading, if not mistaken. Berkeley was born and bred in Ireland. His education was entirely Irish. He speaks of himself as an Irishman several times in the Commonplace Book. Newton to him was ‘a philosopher of a neighbouring nation’. As with many his sentiments were necessarily mixed and his loyalties divided. But credit must go where it is due. Berkeley’s system in so far as it forms part of the heritage of international philosophy was complete before he set foot in England, and in England he wrote little or no philosophy.

The changing views of Berkeley’s influences and nationality. From A. A. Luce (1934) Berkeley and Malebranche, Oxford University Press, pp. 10-11. (archive.org)

Posted in Edmund Burke

Burke: no conservative?

Conservatives have either ignored Burke’s support for colonial rebellion, or maintained that his career was split between two phases: an early period of support for the ‘liberal’ cause of America and a later ‘conservative’ reaction to the Revolution in France. Burke certainly changed his opinions over the course of his career, but these shifts cannot be captured by presuming a contradiction between his support for American resistance and his aversion to the revolution in France. Representations of Burke as a renegade from early idealism are based on the dogmatic assumption that the American and French revolutions were fundamentally ‘the same’. Yet for Burke these two events were absolutely different, and in fact he had good reasons for insisting on their difference.

from Richard Bourke (2015) “Burke was no conservative” in Aeon Magazine (online).

Posted in Jonathan Swift

In Our Time: Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’

[soundcloud height=200]https://soundcloud.com/in-our-time-culture/swifts-a-modest-proposal[/soundcloud]

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the most brilliant and shocking satires ever written in English – Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. Masquerading as an attempt to end poverty in Ireland once and for all, a Modest Proposal is a short pamphlet that draws the reader into a scheme for economic and industrial horror.

Published anonymously but written by Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal lays bare the cruel presumptions, unchecked prejudice, the politics and the poverty of the 18th century, but it also reveals, perhaps more than anything else, the character and the mind of Swift himself.

With John Mullan, Professor of English at University College London; Judith Hawley, Professor of 18th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London and Ian McBride, Senior Lecturer in the History Department at King’s College London

The programme explains the background of the Proposal, including the confiscation of land, the growth of mathematical problem solving (referencing William Petty, surveyor of Ireland) and the conditions at the time.

Posted in John Abernathy

A Brief Account of John Abernathy

Recent biographies concur that John Abernathy was probably born in Bligh (near Cookstown), Co. Tyrone on 19th October 1680. His father, also John, was a Presbyterian minister there. In 1698 John Abernathy senior went to London with Patrick Adair to communicate Irish Presbyterian support for William III. His mother took refuge in Derry/Londonderry: John’s siblings were among the 10,000 who died in the famous siege. John had been sent instead to relatives in Ballymena who then brought him to Scotland where he was educated. In 1692 he returned to his parents in Coleraine. He went to Glasgow University aged 13, graduated MA in 1696, studied divinity in Edinburgh and returned to Ireland in 1701/2.

He was ordained in 1703 and became minister in Antrim. He married Susannah Jordan (d. 1712), with whom he had one son and three daughters.

Abernathy had a leading role in the Irish Presbyterian debate over whether ministers should be obliged to sign up to the Westminister Profession of Faith, an obligation only introduced in the Irish Presbyterian Church in 1705. The debate raged from 1719 until 1726, when the non-subscribing ministers, including John Abernathy, were sequestered in the Presbytery of Antrim.
Continue reading “A Brief Account of John Abernathy”

Posted in Archibald Hamilton Rowan

God-Provoking Democrat: Archibald Hamilton Rowan

god-provoking

God Provoking CoverGuest Post: Fergus Whelan

This is the address given by Fergus Whelan at the launch of his new book, God-Provoking Democrat: The Remarkable Life of Archibald Hamilton Rowanpublished by New Island Press. The launch was held at The Church, Dublin – originally St Mary’s Church of Ireland, where Hamilton Rowan is buried.


My subject Archibald Hamilton Rowan the United Irishman was conceived in Ireland but was born and grew up in England in wealth and privilege. His mother contrived to keep him out of Ireland. She feared that her son would develop passions there which might lead to his ruin. Her fears came close to being realised in the great tumult in Ireland at the close of the eighteenth century. Continue reading “God-Provoking Democrat: Archibald Hamilton Rowan”

Posted in Jonathan Swift

Swift’s Crater

A diagram showing the orbits of Mars' moons, Deimos and Phobos.
From Giberne’s “The story of the sun, moon, and stars” (1898) – Public Domain

On the 17th of August 1877, the search of American astronomer Asaph Hall was finally successful. He had doubted the conventional wisdom that Mars had no moon. Using the giant 26-inch refractor of the U. S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., he searched close to the planet and discovered not one but two moons, travelling so close to the surface of Mars that until now they were lost in the planet’s glare. These were named Phobos and Deimos (see more about the moons on the NASA website).

This discovery had been anticipated by a fictional research organisation. In 1726, Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels, describing Gulliver’s visit to Balnibarbi and to Lagado, the island that floats above it where its rulers live. The intelligentsia of Lagado, though unhealthily engrossed in their studies, are advanced in astronomy: Continue reading “Swift’s Crater”

Posted in Francis Hutcheson

Hutcheson Day: Francis Hutcheson’s Thought

In February 1726 readers of the Dublin Weekly Journal (price 3-half-pence) were seeing something unusual, although they didn’t know it: Francis Hutcheson being sarcastic. In an unusually biting three part essay he lambasted a book called Private Vice, Publick Benefits. In that book the Dutch writer Mandeville argued that vice is necessary to keep a prosperous economy.

Mandeville said morality is, in essence, self-denial and runs counter to our nature. We have to be tricked into self-denial by our rulers. If they are too successful, and greed, vanity and the desire for luxury are stamped out, commerce will fail, followed by the nation: “neither the Friendly Qualities …nor the real Virtues he is capable of acquiring by Reason and Self-Denial, are the Foundation of Society; but that what we call Evil in this World.”

Hutcheson agrees with none of it. He points out “income not spent in one way will be spent in another and if not wasted in luxury will be devoted to useful prudent purposes.” He underlines mockingly that even robbery is a benefit under Mandeville’s scheme since it keeps locksmiths employed. He wonders at Mandeville’s dogmatism – Mandeville would deny even God could create a naturally good man. By the third part he adopts simple ridicule: “He has probably been struck with some old Fanatick Sermon upon self-denial in his youth, and can never get it out of his head since.”

From a talk given on Francis Hutcheson Day (8th August( 2015 at the Guildhall, Saintfield, Co. Down. Full text available on academia.edu.

Further Reading

Storify for Hutcheson Day 2015.