A Philosophical Giant; ANSWERS TO CORRESPONDENTS

Daily Mail (London), July 5, 2016 | Go to article overview

A Philosophical Giant; ANSWERS TO CORRESPONDENTS


Byline: Compiled by Charles Legge

QUESTION Who is Ireland's most famous philosopher, past or present?

IRELAND has had a long tradition of producing philosophers with highly creative original thought; of them all, the 18th-Century philosopher George Berkeley is reckoned to have been the greatest.

The earliest major Irish philosopher was John Scotus Eriugena, who lived in the 9th Century. He was born and educated in Ireland but spent 30 years of his life in France, where he wrote his major works, exploring the major philosophical themes of his day.

But most philosophers today consider that George Berkeley was the greatest of his kind. He was born in Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny, in 1685 and was brought up in the family castle. He went on to graduate from Trinity College, Dublin. After graduation, he stayed on at Trinity as a lecturer in Greek.

In 1721, he took Holy Orders in the Church of Ireland and remained a committed Christian all his life.

In the 1730s, he lived outside Ireland, first in America, then in London, before returning to Ireland and becoming the Anglican Bishop of Cloyne in Cork.

But all the while, he was producing his philosophical writings, making major contributions to the understanding of such subjects as language, mathematics, metaphysics and theology. Berkeley's most famous theory was called 'immaterialism', in which he denied the existence of material substances.

He said that familiar, solid objects, like tables and chairs, were only ideas in the minds of the people who perceived them. As a result, they cannot exist without being perceived. He also believed that God was the immediate cause of all our experiences.

Berkeley's philosophical studies paved the way for such 20th-Century scientific philosophers as Einstein. Yet ironically, in his lifetime, the book that sold far more copies than of his other works, was the one in which he advocated the use of pine tar as a cure for many diseases.

He was Bishop of Cloyne until 1752, when he retired and went to live in Oxford with his son. His stay in Oxford was very short-lived, as he died there in January 1753, and is buried there. Comparatively uninfluential in his lifetime, the modern interest in Berkeley's work began in the 1870s and continues to this day. Such is his influence that the University of California at Berkeley is named after him and he continues to be honoured by his alma mater, Trinity College.

The man considered the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century, the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein, also had a close connection with Ireland. He became very friendly with a man usually called Maurice O'Connor ('Con') Drury, who was a psychiatrist at St Patrick's Hospital, Dublin. Con Drury was also the father of the late Paul Drury, a former editor of the Irish Daily Mail.

This friendship led to Wittgenstein making his first visit to Ireland in 1934. Then between 1948 and 1949, he lived in what is now the Aisling Hotel on Parkgate Street, Dublin. He was very much influenced by his Irish visits and loved places in Dublin such as Bewley's and the Botanic Gardens. Wittgenstein died in Cambridge in 1951, having made huge developments to the understanding of logic, language mathematics and the philosophy of the mind.

More contemporary Irish philosophers have included the late John O'Donohue, whose book, Anam Cara, from the old Irish for 'soul friend', was a huge hit when published in 1997.

Damian Barry, Dublin 8.

QUESTION After directing That Hamilton Woman in 1941, Alexander Korda was subpoenaed to appear before a US Senate committee on suspicion of being a British agent. What was the outcome?

THAT Hamilton Woman is remembered as a melodrama about Admiral Nelson (Laurence Olivier) and his mistress Emma Hamilton (Vivien Leigh).

It was a powerful message to encourage isolationist Americans to join the war. …

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