We need to start talking about the ‘meanings’ of life

World Philosophy Day, which takes place this Thursday, is one of the more neglected anniversaries in the calendar.

Last year it fell on the same date as World Toilet Day, a synchronicity that might have insulted some philosophers but had a certain logic.

As UCD lecturer Dr Áine Mahon pointed out, when launching the new organisation Philosophy Ireland last August, philosophy can be seen as a type of “plumbing”.

Attributing the analogy to veteran moral philosopher Mary Midgley (97), Mahon said beneath the surface of our culture was a complex system of ideas and concepts that “sometimes goes wrong”.

Said Mahon: “If our concepts are working badly . . . begin to drip through the ceiling and swamp the kitchen floor it’s at that moment that we phone for the philosopher”.  Continue reading

Sabina Higgins backs campaign for teaching philosophy in schools

Teaching philosophy in schools is essential to prepare children for modern life, Sabina Higgins has said at the launch of a new organisation aimed at promoting “thinking time” in the classroom.

“If we believe that all our children, the citizens of the future, should be offered the opportunity of understanding the decisions that affect their lives then we must offer them the capacity to do so,” Mrs Higgins, wife of President Michael D. Higgins, told the inaugural gathering of Philosophy Ireland at City Assembly House, Dublin.

Secondary schools will be able to offer philosophy as an optional short course under the new Junior Cycle programme, being rolled out on a limited basis this year.  Continue reading

I’m a philosopher, get me out of here!

Two new books, The Philosopher: A History in Six Types and Philosophy and Practical Engagement, ask if an ancient discipline has lost its way

Philosophy is an odd pursuit in that its practitioners aren’t quite sure what it’s for. Scientists add to the stock of human knowledge. Medics cure ailments. Lawyers administer justice. Philosophers question, doubt and probe the underlying assumptions of others.

They ask open-ended, infuriating and perhaps unanswerable questions, like ‘Is it possible to know anything?’, ‘What does it mean to be just?’ and ‘Can suffering be meaningful?’ It’s no wonder a lot people find them annoying.

A selection of views about philosophy from a new book on the subject by Justin EH Smith gives a taste of the discipline’s ill-defined nature:

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Philosophy is precisely that intellectual inquiry in which anything is open to critical challenge and scrutiny.” – Graham Priest

“I see philosophy not as groundwork for science, but as continuous with science.” – WVO Quine

“The myth-lover is in a sense a philosopher, since myths are composed of wonders.” – Aristotle  Continue reading

How the left can rise again – in three steps

Liberals and left-wing types are usually well-educated, yet, time and again, they show extraordinary ignorance about what motivates people to take one political stance over another.

The idea that voters calmly and unemotionally weigh up the pros and cons of Remain versus Leave, for example, or Clinton versus Trump, is a fantasy.

As the Scottish Enlightenment thinker David Hume wrote: “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

A hundred years of cognitive science has shown this to be the case: humans are intuitive creatures. Emotions come first, justifications for a decision or action come later.

It might be a welcome thing if we were all unflappable, reasoning machines, but if the political left is banking on this to achieve its goals, it will have to wait effectively until society is run by artificial intelligence.

So what should the left do? As someone who always self-identified in that camp, I humbly suggest three things:  Continue reading

Rebranding socialism as humane and socially responsible capitalism

Thirty years ago Desmond Fennell observed that socialist thought in Ireland was “virtually non-existent”. James Connolly “is still the chief reference source of Irish socialism, with no other Irish thinker intervening” since.

That summation still holds good, as does Fennell’s conclusion that “socialist activism has been confined to the margins”. Since the foundation of the State, the s-word has been a turn-off for the electorate.

In the 1969 general election, the Labour Party campaigned under the slogan “the seventies will be socialist” and it promptly lost four seats. The IRA’s promise to deliver, by violence, a “32-county socialist republic” did little to help the left-wing brand. And while the electorally successful Bertie Ahern proclaimed to be “one of the few socialists left in Irish politics”, voters – understandably – took this as a joke.

Today, socialism continues to play badly at the ballot box. Those politicians who used to canvass under the socialist tag now go by the name Anti-Austerity Alliance–People Before Profit, presumably because they copped on the Irish are more likely to vote against austerity than for an “ism”.  Continue reading

Stop kidding yourself, you have no human rights

Next time you bleat about your right to something think about what’s being done in your name in the Mediterranean

My opinion piece published by The Irish Times today:

“The conception of human rights based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships – except that they were still human. The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.”

When the political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote these words in ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’ in 1951 she was making no abstract claim.  Continue reading