11 Aug

Robert Boyle’s To-Do List for Future Scientists

Boyle wish 1

Boyle Papers 8, fol. 208, The Royal Society. Via Anna Marie Roos, © The Royal Society (with permission).

Boyle wish 2

Boyle Papers 8, fol. 209, The Royal Society. Via Anna Marie Roos, © The Royal Society (with permission).

The two pictures above are a to-do list for future scientists written by Robert Boyle in his own beautiful hand. Click to see the originals on Anna Marie Roos’ blog post, together with a list of to-dos for future scientists compiled by scientists of today. She notes that, “As part of a charter granted by King Charles II, the Society charged itself, in that delightfully immodest manner characteristic of the Restoration, to ‘extend not only the boundaries of the Empire, but also the very arts and sciences.’ So, the list Boyle left us was all about boundary breaking, and a successful list it was.”

The “desiderata” are:

The Prolongation of Life.
The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour’d as in youth.
The Art of Flying.
The Art of Continuing long under water, and exercising functions freely there.
The Cure of Wounds at a Distance.
The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation.
The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions.
The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only.
The Acceleration of the Production of things out of Seed.
The Transmutation of Metalls.
The makeing of Glass Malleable.
The Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals, and Vegetables.
The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums.
The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses.
The making Armor light and extremely hard.
The practicable and certain way of finding Longitudes.
The use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to watches.
Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc.
A Ship to saile with All Winds, and A Ship not to be Sunk.
Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men.
Pleasing Dreams and physicall Exercises exemplify’d by the Egyptian Electuary and by the Fungus mentioned by the French Author.
Great Strength and Agility of Body exemplify’d by that of Frantick Epileptick and Hystericall persons.
A perpetuall Light.
Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing.

27 May

Who sharpened Occam’s Razor?

The back label on a bottle of "Occam's Razor" wine (c) David McLeish/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The back label on a bottle of “Occam’s Razor” wine
(c) David McLeish/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Occam’s (or Ockham’s) Razor is a form of the principle of parsimony (broadly, that theories should be as simple as possible but not simpler.) It states: ‘Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.’ (In Latin, Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.) However it seems that William of Occam never said it. As the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy reports:

Although the sentiment is certainly Ockham’s, that particular formulation is nowhere to be found in his texts. Moreover, as usually stated, it is a sentiment that virtually all philosophers, medieval or otherwise, would accept; no one wants a needlessly bloated ontology. The question, of course, is which entities are needed and which are not.

The other question is, who did originally say it? In 1918, William Thorburn published the result of his investigations into this question in Mind. The paper is available from Mind 27 (1918), 345-353; and on wikisource. That research suggested the origin lay with an Irish scholastic, John Punch.

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26 May

Tradition of Scotist Scholars

What kind of works in Philosophy did Scotus leave us? […] What is the current status of his works? The Opera omnia was first edited by my countryman of origin, Luke Wadding, who in the terrible seventeenth century departed Ireland and labored in Italy to edit Scotus and other Franciscan writers. Another Irishman, Maurice O’Fehily, living in Padua, Italy, had edited Scotus’s Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle in 1497, and published the work in Venice. But then, these and some Englishmen were continuing a tradition of scholars who, like Scotus, had gone to Paris in the early fourteenth century, scholars who with John Duns Scotus refused to obey Philip the Fair and with Scotus, had to leave Paris and go back to Oxford in the early fourteenth century namely Ricardus Hibernensis, Odo Hibernensis and Thomas Anglicus.

From Duns Scotus: A Brief Introduction to his Life and Thought by Jeremiah Hackett in “Studies in Scottish Literature” (1991).
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23 Apr

The Political Importance of Brian Boru

Brian Boru from Geoffrey Keating's General History of Ireland, printed in 1723.

Brian Boru from Geoffrey Keating’s General History of Ireland (1723)
© Marsh’s Library (CC)

The Battle of Clontarf was fought on the 23th April 1014 at Clontarf, near Dublin. The history of early Ireland, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (literally Foundation of Knowledge on Ireland though often known as The History of Ireland) by Geoffrey Keating gives one of the best known early descriptions of the Battle of Clontarf. A (heavily criticised) 1723 English language translation of the Foras by Dermot O’Connor contains the first printed image of Brian Boru, shown above. The original work was written in Irish.

Apart from its historical interest, the book plays a part in the history of Irish thought. The Feasa is intended not merely to document events but to put forward a particular viewpoint – to defend Ireland against criticisms going back as far as Gerald of Wales, to outline the relationship of Ireland to the English king and define Irish identity.

The work also includes the concept of rule by consent, an idea that became very important in the 17th and 18th centuries [FFÉ, p. 183]:

We do not read in the seanchas that there was ever any king of Ireland from the time of Slainghe to the Norman invasion but a king who obtained the sovereignty of Ireland by the choice of the people, by the excellence of his exploits, and by the strength of his hand.

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21 Mar

Fall in the House of Ussher

Ussher represented the best of scholarship in his time. He was part of a substantial research tradition, a large community of intellectuals working toward a common goal under an accepted methodology–Ussher’s shared “house” if you will pardon my irresistible title pun. Today we rightly reject a cardinal premise of that methodology–belief in biblical inerrancy–and we recognize that this false assumption allowed such a great error in estimating the age of the earth. […]

The textbook writers do not know that attempts to establish a full chronology for all human history (not only to date the creation as a starting point) represented a major effort in seventeenth-century thought. These studies did not slavishly use the Bible, but tried to coordinate the records of all peoples. Moreover, the assumption of biblical inerrancy doesn’t give you an immediate and dogmatic answer–for many alternative readings and texts of the Bible exist, and you must struggle to a basis for choice among them. As a primary example, different datings for key events are given in the Septuagint (or Greek Bible, first translated by the Jewish community of Egypt in the third to second centuries B.C. and still used by the Eastern churches) and in the standard Hebrew Bible favored by the Western churches.

Stephen Jay Gould, “Fall in the House of Ussher.” Natural History 100 (November 1991): 12-21 (available online here)
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17 Mar

Patrick and a question of identity

Statue of St Patrick overlooking green fields and a rainbow

Image: starbeard /Flickr (CC BY)

Last year Vox Hiberionacum published two posts on the historical Patrick and the voicing of early Irish identity: one relating to classical and early medieval terms used by outsiders and a sequel on terms used in Patrick’s own writings. In brief, Patrick used the term Scotti, which had with negative connotations, but mainly to refer to the pagan Irish. The converts he referred to as Irish/Hibernae, including in the famous account of his dream where ‘the voice of the (not yet converted) Irish’ calls on him to return to Ireland, and in contexts referring to existing converts. Vox Hiberionacum points out the complexity of identity involved in both terms – the people referred to in both were of multiple backgrounds, classes and tribes. Some were not even born in Ireland. In his Letter to Coroticus protesting the killing and enslavement of Irish converts to Christianity by a British chieftain, Patrick writes

Indignum est illis Hiberionaci sumus
‘For them, it is a disgrace/shameful that we are from Ireland‘. 

Whether this is a slip or a rhetorical device, it is the first insular expression of an Irish ‘we’, and it includes not only the Irish born in Ireland but Patrick himself.

This complexity inherent in the term “Irish” brought to mind two of Ireland’s greatest philosophers. Johannes Scotus Eriugena adopted two names denoting his Irishness, plausibly because even by his time being an Irishman (Scotus) did not automatically mean born in Ireland (Eriugena). George Berkeley in several places in his Philosophical Commentaries writes, “we Irish” (“we Irish do not hold with this”, “We Irish think otherwise”). Yet he is often claimed as English. Both philosophers are enmeshed in the complexities of Irish identity.
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05 Jul

Peter of Ireland, Teacher of Aquinas

The first biographies of Thomas Aquinas, the immensely influential philosopher and theologian, were written about forty years after his death. In the first (by William of Tocco) it is said that Aquinas was educated at Naples in grammar and logic by Master Martin and in natural philosophy by “Petrus de Ibernia” ie. Peter of Ireland. In the second (by Peter Calo), Aquinas is said to have quickly learnt all that Master Martin could teach him in grammar, leading to his transfer to Master Peter the Irishman who taught him logic and natural philosophy.

This would have been in the time period 1239-44. So who was this Irish teacher of Thomas Aquinas?

Research done in the eighteenth century (by a Dominican Bernardo Rossi de Rubeis) found two potential candidates in Naples at the right time. One, called Magistro Petro de Hybernia, has been excluded by later research, but the second, a Benedictine monk named Petrus de Donis and described as Ultonienis remains a possibility. This man might be the same as a Petrus de Dunis, a member of the Benedictine community of Down, founded about 1177-78 by John de Courcy who brought Anglo-Norman monks there from Chester.

However, we have no evidence that Peter of Ireland was present in the 1240s and he is not mentioned in early accounts of Aquinas. But there seems to be little reason for William of Tocco to invent a story that Martin and Peter taught Aquinas. It is neither colourful nor likely to inflate Aquinas’ standing, and it is information Tocco could have heard it from Aquinas himself.

At this distance it seems very unlikely we can ever know if Petrus de Donis was Peter of Ireland, but we can establish one thing based on the name alone. Peter of Ireland was probably Anglo-Norman, since Peter was not used as a name by the Gaelic population. It is also unlikely that an Irish man of Gaelic race at that time would have had a career that would take him abroad for his university education, most likely to Oxford (there was no Irish university), and from there to Paris and Naples. Peter of Ireland’s presence in the Sicilian court is interesting in its own right; it is plausible he had some connections with Normans in Sicily.

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26 Jun

Robert Boyle and the decline of teleology in science

No longer did scientists think in terms of organisms: they thought in terms of machines. […] The 17th-century English chemist and philosopher Robert Boyle realised that as soon as you start to think in the mechanical fashion, then talking about ends and purposes really isn’t very helpful. A planet goes round and round the Sun; you want to know the mechanism by which it happens, not to imagine some higher purpose for it. In the same way, when you look at a clock you want to know what makes the hands go round the dial — you want the proximate causes.

But surely machines have purposes just as much as organisms do? The clock exists in order to tell the time just as much as the eye exists in order to see. True, but as Boyle also saw, it is one thing to talk about intentions and purposes in a general, perhaps theological way, but another thing to do this as part of science. You can take the Platonic route and talk about God’s creative intentions for the universe, that’s fine. But, really, this is no longer part of science (if it ever was) and has little explanatory power. “

Anglo-Irish chemist and philosopher if you please. And look out for theRobert Boyle Summer School.

From Does life have a purpose?, by Michael Ruse in Aeon Magazine, on the move away from teleology (the focus on the purpose of things) in science.

16 Jun

Nothingness of Bloomsday

It is fitting, then, that every 16 June the Irish should commemorate a day on which nothing much happened. Like many modernist works, Ulysses revolves on a botched revelation or bungled epiphany, as Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus finally meet to no momentous effect. Nothingness is a traditional topic of Irish writing, all the way from the negative theology of the great medieval schoolman John Scottus Eriugena to the vision of hell of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. It is true that nothing, like something, happens anywhere, but it tends to happen more in a down-at-heel colony (‘an afterthought of Europe’, Joyce scornfully called it) than it does on Wall Street or in Whitehall. Riba’s parental home strikes him as ‘more and more Irish’ precisely because nothing ever happens there. It is full of ghosts, as indeed Dublinesque is as a whole. Ireland, too, is haunted by a history which is dead but won’t lie down.

Quoted from “Irishness is for other people”, LRB. A review by Terry Eagleton of Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, trans. by Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey

26 May

Hegel on Eriugena

Scholastic philosophy is considered to begin with John Scotus Erigena who flourished about the year 860, and who must not be confused with the Duns Scotus of a later date. We do not quite know whether he belonged to Ireland or to Scotland, for Scotus points to Scotland, and Erigena to Ireland. With him true philosophy first begins, and his philosophy in the main coincides with the idealism of the Neo-Platonists. […]

Scotus was also the author of some original works, which are not without depth and penetration, upon nature and its various orders (De naturæ divisione), &c. Dr. Hjort, of Copenhagen, published an epitome of the writings of Scotus Erigena, in 1823. Scotus Erigena sets to work philosophically, expressing himself in the manner of the Neo-Platonists, and not freely, and as from himself, Thus in the method of expression adopted by Plato, and also by Aristotle, we are rejoiced to find a new conception, and on bringing it to the test of philosophy, to find it both correct and profound; but here everything is ready to hand, cut and dry. Yet, with Scotus, theology is not yet built on exegesis, and on the authority of the Church; the Church in many cases rejected his writings. Thus Scotus is reproached by a Lyons church council […] Scotus Erigena hence even said: “The true Philosophy is the true Religion, and the true Religion is the true Philosophy. The separation came later on. Scotus then made a beginning, but properly he does not belong to the scholastics

From Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy: Part Two. Philosophy of the Middle Ages. This second section covers The Scholastic Philosophy.

The entire lecture, including an unabridged version of the quote above is available here.