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
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
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
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
In an opinion piece in The Irish Times yesterday, I wrote about what I perceive to be a counterproductive and unnecessarily hostile tone to the debate between atheists and Christians, citing the recent discussions on the role of religion in education.
I’ve previously written about the question of school patronage in Ireland, and why the Catholic Church should abandon its “Catholic first” admissions policy not just on humanist grounds but on Christian grounds.
To clarify a few points, the article yesterday was not prescriptive – and nor was it designed to be – regarding the best approach to school divestment or patronage reform. It was a commentary on the nature of this, and similar discussions, where atheists and Catholics have clashed over issues of public concern. Continue reading
Unthinkable took to the road this month for a debate, “Are science and religion really in conflict?”
(Left to right: William Reville, Siobhán Garrigan, Joe Humphreys, Cathy Barry, Kevin Mitchell. Pics: Alan Betson/IrishTimes)
Who won? Was there a knock-down argument to resolve this vexed question?
Judge for yourself. It’s remixed here as a three-minute Socratic dialogue (with apologies to Plato):
The Republic of Unthinkable
I went down to the Science Gallery in Dublin with William Reville (WR), emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC; Dr Siobhán Garrigan (SG), chair of Catholic theology, TCD; Dr Kevin Mitchell (KM), neuroscientist and blogger at wiringthebrain.com; and Cathy Barry (CB), philosophy graduate and blogger at irishphilosophy.com, to talk about gods.
WR: “I am a scientist and I accept everything that science has discovered and will discover, but I am also a Christian. It is my belief that science and religion occupy separate domains and there is no necessary conflict between science and religion once each remains in its own domain.” Continue reading
‘Unthinkable: Great Ideas for Now’ from Irish Times Books www.irishtimes.com/irishtimesbooks
New thinking is needed to tackle the problems of a rapidly-changing world.
Irish Times journalist and author Joe Humphreys tracks down leading thinkers to answer some of the most pressing questions facing humanity. Drawn from his absorbing columns in The Irish Times, Unthinkable seeks to road-test your reasoning, and raise the quality of public debate.
He speaks to 70 philosophers and scientists who put forward ideas capable of changing not just your mind but the world for the better.
– How do you eat ethically?
– Why should men care about gender equality?
– Can atheists tolerate God?
– Who’s in charge, you or your brain?
– How should we deal with disagreement?
In Unthinkable no question in out of bounds and no idea too radical to dismiss outright.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.” – Albert Einstein
Unthink front and back cover
The Irish Times, OpEd, Aug 21st 2015, Joe Humphreys writes:
There was once a time when popularity was viewed as suspect. “Popular culture”, for example, was what you called stuff that people liked but was generally rubbish. It was distinguished from actual culture, which people had to learn to appreciate and which could be measured by objective standards.
Similarly, popular – or populist – governments were what you called jingoistic if not dangerously nationalistic entities which pandered to citizens’ basest instincts. The Brazilian educator Paulo Freire captured some of the wariness of a previous generation of populism when he said: “The multitude is always in the wrong.”
For more read:
The Irish Times, feature, Sat Aug 15th:
We’re only about 2,500 years behind the Greeks but Philosophy is finally making it on to the school curriculum. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is drafting plans for a short course in the subject to be introduced as part of the new Junior Cycle curriculum.
It comes as a fresh wave of research highlights the benefits of philosophy for children (or “P4C”). A study at Durham University of 3,000 pupils in 48 state primary schools published last month associated P4C with significant gains in children’s literacy and maths scores, and even improved conduct.
For more read:
The Irish Times, OpEd, Fri Aug 14th, Joe Humphreys writes:
A hazard of this time of year is bumping into parents bragging about how many points their children got in the Leaving Cert. It’s not just distasteful, it’s ignorant because it assumes their little darlings deserved what they got.
Anyone who is on nodding terms with reality will know that you don’t get what you deserve in life. Some people are born with severe disabilities. Others suffer physical or psychological damage as they grow up. Others inherit a handy set of genes, and are raised in stable homes where there’s ample money for summer tuition and maths grinds.