Journeys of Janus: Explorations in Irish Philosophy

Assembling five philosophers under the rubric, “Irish,” as this book does, implies that the five share the property of Irishness. But what is Irishness? Specifically, what is Irishness in philosophy? What is an Irish philosopher? A geographical answer arises naturally: “An Irish philosopher is a person born in Ireland, who becomes a philosopher, and who then philosophizes, possibly while living in Ireland.” This answer says little. We seek, after all, the Irish philosophical temperament. Whatever comprises the Irish temperament will transcend geography. That temperament could be retained after emigrating from Ireland; it could be acquired after immigrating to Ireland. Indeed, it could be acquired before immigrating to Ireland, for it could be nurtured as readily by intimacy with Irish philosophical literature as by physical residence in the country. The Irish temperament has little to do with Irish birth, other than as birth may prefigure some probabilities of outlook. A significant answer, thus, must illuminate the outlook itself, the Irish temperament.

Temperament resists quick characterization. Some even doubt that there is an Irish philosophical temperament. Thomas Duddy explains this challenge in his a superb synopsis of the Irish intellectual tradition, which includes the philosophical tradition.1 He recounts that, during the writing of his book, acquaintances would object, albeit sympathetically, to the very presupposition of the project itself: There cannot be, they said, an Irish intellectual tradition. Ireland lacks the requisite historical constancy. She has been colonized without colonizing. Her culture has ridden the tides of other cultures. Her intellectuals—if they may even been called ‘hers’—have sought exile abroad; or, having been born abroad, have immigrated to Ireland; or have been born in Ireland, true enough, but of foreign blood. “… [T]here really is no such thing as Irish thought, at least not in the sense in which there is English, French, or German thought.”2

“The clue to the serious error in the objector’s position,” Duddy responds, “lies in the phrase, ‘at least not in the sense in which there is English, French, or German thought.’”3 The Irish tradition is a different kind of tradition. The Irish tradition arises within the non-imperial rather than within the imperial, among the colonized rather than among the colonizers. Permeable, fluid, it bespeaks a character formed by invasions, assimilations, and historical accidents.

The history of Irish thought has its own peculiarity and uniqueness that must not be analysed in terms of blood and race, or even in terms of native genius, but in terms of the contingencies of history and of the fruitful interactions of accidental individuals with those contingencies. Such a history will be characterized most of all by its inclusiveness—a degree of inclusiveness that may indeed trouble those who are committed to narrowly exclusive senses of ethnic or national identity.4

Those “troubled” may have a bit of a point: Normally, to characterize one tradition involves showing how that tradition differs from others; how, in other words, it excludes what they include. ‘Tradition’ and ‘exclusion’, semantically, go hand in hand, it seems. Perhaps, then, it may help occasionally to speak thus: While imperial traditions differentiate themselves from other traditions by excluding the others, the Irish intellectual tradition differentiates itself by excluding exclusiveness? Of course, logically, to exclude exclusiveness just is to include (something or other). Nevertheless, I think that the paradoxical ring of ‘excluding exclusiveness’ will serve well at times.

It will serve well because of a paradoxical—indeed, a contra-logical—quality that Richard Kearney identifies in the Irish mind. To begin, if I read Duddy correctly, he is not saying that the Irish intellectual tradition, in its inclusiveness, merely summarizes the larger Western tradition, that the Irish tradition is but a microcosm of the West. Rather, I presume that he is saying that, in the Irish tradition of inclusion, an intellectual uniqueness is born. Richard Kearney finds part of this uniqueness in a detachment from Western logical truisms. “Toland’s complex Irishness … defies a narrow logic of identity; it epitomizes the defiance of an excluded middle.”5 Further,

Perhaps one of the reasons why Toland presented himself as a contradiction … was because the Irish mind was a cleft-mind? Not uniform but pluriform. Not homogeneous but diverse. Anglo and Gaelic. Catholic and Protestant. Native and planted. Regional and cosmopolitan.6

In writing thus, of this man whom David Berman designates the father of Irish philosophy, Kearney alludes to the three traditional “laws of thought:” “identity,” “excluded middle,” and “non-contradiction.” The principle of identity posits that A is A. In other words, everything is what it is. (Yet it is not the case that Toland is Toland, for the dauntingly complex Toland cannot be identified.) The principle of excluded middle posits that anything is either A or not A. In other words, a thing is either one sort of thing or another sort of thing. (Yet it is not the case that Toland is either Anglo or Gaelic.) A third principle, sometimes called the principle of “contradiction,” often the principle of “non-contradiction,” states that it cannot be the case that both A and not-A. (Yet Toland embodies contradictions.)

Irish philosophy resists these logical presumptions, according to Kearney; therein lives its genius. If the five philosophers that this book discusses should, indeed, exemplify Kearney’s proposal, we should not expect the exemplification to be neat, repetitive, or homogeneous: Not if, as Kearney has said, “… [T]he Irish mind is at its best when differentiated into diverse minds. Its greatest resource is the preference for complexity over uniformity.”7 I believe that, in their respective but divergent ways, we find that the five challenge the laws of thought; at the least, we will find them to be in outlook heterogeneous, “pluriform,” their philosophies resistant to any but the most complex interpretations of “identity.”

Eriugena seeks to defy standard theological categories, and, in effect, seeks to defy non-contradiction. His crucial categories are immanence and transcendence. Generally, theologians try to reconcile these seemingly competing categories through some sort of measured balancing—if the former is maximized, the later must be minimized or at least reduced; and vice versa. Eriugena maximizes both. Transcendence is maximized by its emanating throughout humankind—surprisingly, people themselves thereby become transcendent and partially unknowable even to God. Immanence is maximized through the universality of the theophanous—everything signifies God, so God, Who is partially unknowable even to God-self, to human beings becomes partially knowable.

On the standard presumption, any immanence attributed to God constrains, at least to a degree, the transcendence that may be attributed to God. The two categories bear a tense relationship to one another. Generally, theologians must struggle with the following principle: Assuming that non-contradiction obtains, it cannot be the case that God is fully transcendent and fully immanent, because it cannot be the case that God is fully transcendent and immanent at all. But, according to Eriugena, God is fully transcendent and fully immanent. The 9th century Irishman rebuffs non-contradiction.8

I interpret Thomas Duddy as suggesting, in effect, that the Irish tradition excludes exclusiveness. This tradition differs from the imperial traditions by a capacity to “embrace all that the alien has brought.”9 John Toland illustrates the point, for much of his thought is quintessentially rationalist. Christianity Not Mysterious was penned by a brash son of the Enlightenment, a Lockean who, in stridency, outperforms his English counterpart. For the early Toland, there are no miracles in the sense that the priests maintain, no divine commands contrary to the commands of human reason, no doctrines that are at once Christian and irrational. In this book, Toland invokes rather than challenges the principle of non-contradiction.

Yet as he develops beyond his best-known work, we see, maturing, as much a son of Donegal as a graduate of Glasgow. In the 5th century BCE, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus had claimed that if change is real, the principle of non-contradiction must be false; and, Heraclitus emphasized, change is real—one cannot step into the same river twice. The more mature Toland writes as Heraclitean. His many contemporaries in the 17th century, the “corpuscularians,” maintain that matter consists of atoms or corpuscles that remain inert, unchanging, until moved by a mind that exists externally to them. Permanence, they say, characterizes matter at its most fundamental level. By contrast, Toland comes to claim that motion is intrinsic to matter, not imparted to it, as intrinsic as extension and solidity. Moreover, Toland will assert, surprisingly, that all of matter is alive. Is the Irish-speaking émigré to London now drawing from a primordial tradition? A tradition pre-Enlightenment, even pre-Christian? Further parting with the atomists, he announces, pantheistically, “[N]othing is more certain that that every material Thing is all Things, and that all Things are but one.”10 Toland is an intellect of the Enlightenment—and much more. He is Irish, as Kearney says, because he is “Anglo and Gaelic.”11

Toland’s contemporary George Berkeley also reflects duality. On the one hand, the progress in 18th century astronomy, chemistry, and physics impresses Berkeley. On the other hand, he deplores the corpuscularian philosophy of science that the intellectuals of the period presuppose. Somewhat as Toland believes that atomism drains from reality motion and life, Berkeley fears that it will drain Mind. It will reduce to atheism.

So Berkeley recasts all of reality according to a mind-idea paradigm: Reality, as experienced by people, just consists of conjugations of ideas; thus, reality, as objective and independent of individual observers, consists of ideas as conjugated by God. Not all of objective reality is thereby brought to life, as it is in the later Toland, for only minds, not their ideas, are active; but the supremely active author, God, speaks to all minds—including scientists’ minds—through the nature whose semantics God determines. As Anglican, Berkeley seeks to defend the Christian tradition; but the defense, wherein the Word becomes nature, resonates with an older Celtic Christian tradition in which God is believed everywhere present, in which transcendence seldom trumps immanence. In his unique, immaterialist way, the bishop is Anglo and Gaelic, a cleft-mind in which minds and ideas supplant matter without compromising objective reality; and in which the objective reality that the Enlightenment properly pursues consists of a text that God enunciates and scientists explicate.

Duality may mark Francis Hutcheson less than it does Toland or Berkeley, but is present nonetheless. On one side, Hutcheson adopts Locke’s epistemology. On the other side, he adapts it freely; for Hutcheson, the adaptation supports a sensationalist aesthetics and a sensationalist ethics. Although Hutcheson does not espouse, as does Berkeley, a mind-idea immaterialism, his positing of aesthetic and moral senses suggests an idealism of his own, an idealism in which mind acts to attribute moral and aesthetic qualities to the objects of perception. Hutcheson’s critique of psychological egoism, his espousal of psychological altruism, bespeak an optimism about human nature that separates Hutcheson from those figures in Christianity who focus on original sin. The Scots-Irishman’s readiness to include among the saved all individuals who seek to further human good, irrespective of their confessional commitments to Christianity, recalls an earlier Celtic Christianity, which was far more ecumenical than the Calvinistic Christianity that Hutcheson rejects. “A mind not uniform but pluriform” assumes particular form in this universalism.

Iris Murdoch advances the paradoxical theme, excluding the exclusive. In her thought, the exclusive is the self or ego, which everyday draws us inward. The exclusion of the exclusive is achieved through vision whereby the ego, turning outward, is unselfed. Vision—seeing, not merely looking—draws the self toward the manifold details of the ultimately inscrutable other. Seeing the other nurtures the virtues. Through this practice, in particular cases, as more details are seen, Janus-like changes in perspective become possible. Truth is in the details, morality in the details embraced. The process of embracing more and more will not end; for, much as Eriugena had said in the 9th century, even God cannot fathom the mystery of the person.

Thus do five philosophers exhibit, in differing ways, the distinctively Irish proclivity for the pluriform, the inclusive, the contra-logical. As that temperament develops in the 21st century, the Janus stone remains its symbol: One mind formed of cleft perspectives.

“The world is my country.”
—Janus Junius
(John Toland)


  1. (Back to text) Thomas Duddy, A History of Irish Thought (Routledge, 2002).
  2. (Back to text) Ibid., xii.
  3. (Back to text) Ibid.
  4. (Back to text) Ibid., xiv.
  5. (Back to text) Richard Kearney, “John Toland: An Irish Philosopher?”, published in John Toland’s Christianity not Mysterious, edited by Philip McGuinness, Alan Harrison, Richard Kearney (Lilliput Press, 1997), 213.
  6. (Back to text) Ibid.
  7. (Back to text) Ibid., 220.
  8. (Back to text) He also rebuffs the Scholastic—and common-sense—view of causation. The 13th century Thomas Aquinas expresses the conventional wisdom, that a thing cannot cause itself. According to Eriugena, by contrast, God in one dimension is no-thing; in emanating as all of nature, God creates God.
  9. (Back to text) Louis MacNeice, “Dublin.”
  10. (Back to text) Toland, Letters to Serena 92.
  11. (Back to text) Richard Kearney, “John Toland: An Irish Philosopher?”, published in John Toland’s Christianity not Mysterious, edited by Philip McGuinness, Alan Harrison, Richard Kearney (Lilliput Press, 1997), 213.