Cathy Barry: 5 philosophers who influenced me

In my first ever guest blog I’m delighted to introduce you all to Cathy Barry who runs the excellent irishphilosophy blog. I asked Cathy to write a short piece on the 5 philosophers who inspired her most.  Here’s her post.  Enjoy.

1. David Hume

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Last May, Jules Evans asked on Twitter for books that had helped people. I answered “Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” As Jules replied, it’s an “interesting choice”; it’s not an obviously helpful book in dark times.

I encountered Hume in my first year studying philosophy. A Scottish philosopher of the 18th century, Hume worked on philosophy of religion, ethics and metaphysics, among other areas. In Section IV of the “Enquiry” Hume argues that we do not know about cause and effect before experience. If we see a billiard ball rolling towards another and have never seen anything like that before, we cannot know what will happen when they hit (both stop? Both roll in different directions? The same direction?) That suggests we learn about cause and effect by experience – we see many collisions and work out will happen in a future collision. Hume goes further: what is it in our experience that leads us to work out what will happen in a future collision?  His answer: merely habit. We see, says Hume, no cause and effect. We just see things happening and then other things happening.

For me, this was liberating. I had an unexamined belief that there was a right way to live and that I should be able to determine in a straightforward way what that was. Because of that, I felt I should not be pulled in various different directions as I in fact was. This was exploded by Hume, since he demonstrated that even cause-and-effect was not something we could be certain about. Others have answered Hume since, but the idea that the answers are straightforward was gone.

I read later about the Sceptics, such as Pyrrho, who sought a state of ataraxia (tranquillity), free from distress and worry. The Pyrrhonists sought this state by suspending dogmatic beliefs on the basis that neither the senses nor reason, nor a combination of them could allow you to know the truth. It was something of this that I found in reading Hume.

2. Charles Taylor

Not the warlord covered in Episode 10!

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In my final year studying philosophy, I read Charles Taylor’s book, “Hegel”. Charles Taylor is a Canadian philosopher, born in 1931. He works on political philosophy and the history of philosophy.

The first chapter of his book describes the project Hegel was involved in: an attempt to reconcile the divisions the Enlightenment had introduced in understanding humanity. The person was divided into body and soul, the mind into reason and feeling, meaning was something humans added to the world rather than discovered in it.

…meaning was something humans added to the world rather than discovered in it.

In his conclusion, Taylor describes freedom and the contradictions inherent in the idea. Are we free if we are not constrained by anyone? If so, does that mean a drug addict is free, as he or she gives up everything for another dose of the drug? But if we say no, that leads us down the path of seeking absolute freedom, free of all constraints whether of society, family, loyalty, duty or even biology. If this could be attained, however, what would we do? We would have no desires to motivate us. We might seek meaning in choosing a cause, but if we are choosing randomly, is that really free? Taylor points at Nietzsche’s critique of liberalism, and the nihilism it seemed to lead to. The 19th century Romantics argued the aim of humans is to find wholeness in self-fulfillment, but what does this actually mean, especially in a society that is (in yet another division) privately Romantic and publicly instrumentalist.

This clarified questions about freedom for me: was it possible to be free? How should different demands be reconciled? Because of reading Taylor, I decided to write my dissertation on the question of freedom in Hegel and Nietzsche. The book also sparked an interest for me in the Early Enlightenment. Where had these ideas about freedom, and the various divisions (body/soul, reason/emotions, public/private) come from? Were these divisions essential to the Enlightenment project or just accidental? Could these divisions be reconciled? This is a project I continue to work on.

3 & 4: David Berman and Thomas Duddy

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In 2013, in the week before St Patricks Day, I was sick in bed. I was blogging occasionally on philosophy and had a copy of David Berman’s “Berkeley and Irish Philosophy”. David Berman is a Fellow Emeritus (Philosophy) in TCD and has written extensively on 18th century philosophy, particularly on George Berkeley. I decided to dip in and see if there was any material for a blog post. That decision resulted in the blog.

What caught me was the story Berman told of the Golden Age of Irish Philosophy, running from 1697 to 1757. After the Williamite wars there was some philosophical discussion going on and there was a Philosophical Society in Dublin where new Enlightenment philosophers were being read. Into this quiet environment John Toland (born in Donegal) exploded like a bomb. His “Christianity Not Mysterious” argued that we should only believe what we could clearly understand. This undermined the established Anglican Church by calling certain core beliefs (such as the Trinity) into question and led to the production of many responses to Toland’s book. (The book was burned in 1697 and Toland left Dublin, never to return to Ireland.)

This flurry of philosophical activity led to innovation. Berman argues that one of Ireland’s most famous philosophers, George Berkeley, was responding to Irish debates when developing his idealism. Swift drew on the political work of the early Molyneaux. Philosophers little known now were involved with debates with Leibnitz and Bayle. The philosophical output covered religion, metaphysics, morality, politics, economics, aesthetics and natural philosophy, with the last great work being Edmund Burke’s “A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful”.

After reading Berman I bought and read Thomas Duddy’s “A History of Irish Thought”, an accessible book for those wanting to know more about Irish thought from the 6th century to the 20th. Thomas Duddy, who died in 2012, was a professor in UCG, and wrote widely on Irish intellectual history. Thomas Duddy was also the editor for the “Dictionary of Irish Philosophers”, a book that I reference at least once a week. Both Berman and Duddy inspired me in the quixotic task of trying to get this history of thinkers and innovators better known. Many seem to think philosophy is about religion, and Irish philosophy (saints and scholars) particularly so, but that’s not the case.

I wrote a number of blogposts for that first St. Patricks Day and have been writing about Irish Philosophy ever since.

5. Francis Hutcheson

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One of the Irish thinkers that most fascinates me is Francis Hutcheson. Born in 1697 in Saintfield, Co Down, he wrote the works that made his name in Dublin before becoming a professor in Glasgow. He visited Dublin often, and died here in 1746. He influenced David Hume, Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham. He has been linked to the United Irishmen, the American Revolution and the anti-slavery movement.

It’s not very surprising I would be interested in him. He is an Irish philosopher who was active during the time period I am most interested in. He combined ideas from natural law theory, Enlightenment philosophers such as Shaftesbury and Locke, and the Stoics (via Cicero). His major work was on morality, arguing for feeling as the motivating force, but with reason playing a supporting role. He also posited a moral sense, which lets us know whether an action is good or not, an idea that has surfaced again in work on moral psychology.

But more than that, I find his thought intriguing – arguing against those who thought humanity was naturally drawn to evil, those who thought seeking more than basic survival were committing sin and those who argued only an elite could know right and wrong. He looks both forward and back, defined by scholasticism, natural law and theories of virtue on the one hand and individualism, democracy and assessing the morality of acts on the other.

Interest has been growing in Hutcheson over the past few years. Though he is not especially influential as yet, I suspect he will be.

You can follow Cathy on twitter @cathyby or check out her irish philosophy blog here.


It's good to talk

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