Journeys of Janus: Prologue

Journeys of Janus: Explorations in Irish Philosophy

Journeys of Janus: Explorations in Irish Philosophy

This book examines the thought of five Irish philosophers. The first philosopher, Eriugena (c. 810- c. 877), weaves an elegant cosmology. He integrates the supernatural and the natural, the divine otherness and the human hereness, categories that theologians call, “transcendence” and “immanence.” For Eriugena, God’s act of creation entails that human beings themselves bear the divine image, and bear it to a degree few other Christian philosophers have supposed. Seldom in the history of Christian thought have transcendence and immanence been integrated so thoroughly. Eriugena comprises the mid member of triune genius—between Augustine in the 5th century and Aquinas in the 13th—but until recently, few aside from specialists have examined Eriugena’s unique metaphysical optimism.

History has received John Toland (1670-1722) even more coolly. Young a notorious skeptic, old a reclusive mystic, Toland seems buried in disrepute accumulating from various sources: his criticisms of the priesthood, his failed political maneuvers, his poorly timed publications, and his financial misadventures. Misfortunes notwithstanding, the omission of Toland from histories of thought sits uneasily with the prominent role he played in the philosophical controversies of his time, and with the radical changes of his own philosophical views as he matured. In a sense that will emerge, this book’s title, Journeys of Janus, celebrates John Toland.

If history accords Toland silence, it dutifully rehearses George Berkeley (1685-1753). Everyone acknowledges—often with bemused incredulity—that Berkeley edits reality with crafty conciseness: He posits only minds, their ideas, and the divine Mind that thinks all other minds and ideas into existence. The impressive implausibility of this immaterialism only deepens as we discover that it contains a philosophy of science that construes nature as semantic: The universe constitutes a text that God has written for our edification. We explicate by experimentation. Commonly, conversations about Berkeley reiterate his imaginativeness: “Who but an Irishman would conjure that matter does not exist?” Well, Berkeley is imaginative; moreover, he is distinctively Irish. We will see, however, that his Irishness consists not merely in imaginativeness per se, but in an imaginative duality.

Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) explains human acts of decency as motivated by genuine altruism, and he explains our attributions of benevolence or malevolence to others as functions of perceptions through our moral sense. ‘Moral sense’, for Hutcheson, is literal: We have, he maintains, more than five senses. Among these are moral and aesthetic senses. Hutcheson is thus optimistic about human moral potential. Though less marginalized than Toland, neither has Hutcheson attracted very wide discussion, beyond ethicists and philosophers of art. Many people suppose that human beings are self-interested only. Hutcheson’s arguments for altruism could challenge and chasten this supposition.

Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) pursued dual careers; to this point, her fiction has touched more readers than has her philosophy. Immersed in both European existentialism and British analytic philosophy, she rejects both schools as morally inadequate. She offers a third alternative. Murdoch argues that the “attentive, loving gaze” provides a way for gradually nurturing the virtues. Somewhat like Hutcheson, she believes that altruism is possible, but she emphasizes that altruism requires practice. As I interpret Murdoch, that practice would require critical detachment from technology’s seductions, for technology fragments and abbreviates attention. Murdoch believes that we can teach ourselves to see; from enhanced vision more virtuous living follows, follows naturally.

I believe that each of these figures deserves more attention—to invoke Murdoch’s metaphor—than he or she has received. The same could be said of other Irish philosophers, as well. This edition identifies only five, with apologies to the larger Irish tradition.

The very concept of the Irish tradition raises a question: Is there such a thing as Irishphilosophy? Is there an Irish philosophical tradition? Both Thomas Duddy and Richard Kearney address this problem. In the Epilogue, I borrow gratefully from their insights in summary of these five philosophers.


The Maricopa County Community College District of Arizona provided a sabbatical year, 2003-4, for which I am deeply appreciative. Without that year, the reading and writing from which this (working) edition descends would have been impossible. Dilip Kumar, Department Chair of Social Sciences at Scottsdale Community College and Professor of Economics, guided me through sabbatical procedures generously and expertly, and has encouraged me during all phases of the project.

Professor Jerome Stone emeritus professor of Harper Community College offered astute philosophical and editorial counsel. Psychotherapist Evan Morgenstern and librarian Sheila Schneider of the Palomino Library in Scottsdale kindly gave bibliographical assistance. My student, Jacob Leveton, urged greater clarity in the chapter on Eriugena; this apt counsel I have sought to take.

Most important, I thank my wife, Dr. Barbara Bagan. She has discussed with me the ideas, text, and format of the book at every stage of its development. Moreover, Barbara is a psychotherapist specializing in art therapy, and a professor of art therapy at Ottawa University (Phoenix, Arizona). Irish philosophy arguably finds its genius in its resemblance to art. As the Epilogue will explain, I began to gather this idea while reading Richard Kearney. My many conversations with Barbara about art, about therapy, and about art therapy, have contributed to any insight that I may have brought to the elaboration of Professor Kearney’s provocative suggestions.