11 May 2016

A curious link between good coffee
and George Berkeley’s philosophy

Sitting beneath George Berkeley’s portrait in Trinity College Dublin this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I find that two positive factors enhance my capacity to endure committee meetings: the quality of the coffee available, and the number of windows allowing natural light to pour into the room.

I spent much of this afternoon at an academic meeting in the newly-fitted West Theatre Board Room in Trinity College Dublin.

The coffee was good, and the four large windows allowed plenty of natural light to stream into the room from Front Square, despite the rain outside.

Of course, committee meetings are an essential part of the academic working life, and as I sat beneath a newly-restored portrait of Bishop George Berkeley (1658-1753), I was reminded of how he once said “there can be no such thing as a happy life without labour.”

Having bought a collection of Philip Larkin’s poetry earlier this week, I also recalled how in a sequel to the poem ‘Toads Revisited,’ Larkin acknowledged in middle age that he rather liked the “old toad” of work.

As a philosopher, Berkeley’s primary achievement was the advancement of a theory he called “immaterialism” and which was later referred to as “subjective idealism.” This theory denies the existence of material substance and instead contends that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas in the minds of perceivers, and as a result cannot exist without being perceived. Berkeley is also known for his critique of abstraction, an important premise in his argument for immaterialism.

Berkeley was born at Dysart Castle, near Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, and was educated at Kilkenny College and Trinity College Dublin, where he earned his BA in 1704 and his MA in 1707, when he was elected a Fellow of TCD. He was recently described by The Irish Times as “probably the university’s most celebrated alumnus.”

He stayed on at TCD as a tutor and lecturer in Greek, and in 1709 published his first major work, An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision, in which he discussed the limitations of human vision and advanced the theory that the proper objects of sight are not material objects, but light and colour. This foreshadowed his chief philosophical work, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710). After its poor reception, he rewrote this in dialogue form and published it under the title Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713).

The Chapel and Front Square in Trinity College Dublin this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

He was ordained in the Church of Ireland in 1721, completed his Doctorate in Divinity (DD), and remained a little longer at TCD, lecturing in theology and Hebrew. In 1722 he was appointed Dean of Dromore, and in 1724 he became Dean of Derry.

In 1732, he published Alciphron, a Christian apologetic against free-thinkers, and in 1734 he published The Analyst, a critique of the foundations of calculus.

In 1733, he was appointed Bishop of Cloyne, a position he was to hold until his death. His last major philosophical work was Siris (1744).

There was a renewed interest in Berkeley’s work after World War II because he tackled many of the issues of paramount interest to philosophy in the 20th century, such as the problems of perception, the difference between primary and secondary qualities, and the importance of language.

George Berkeley was one of the three most famous empiricists from these islands, alongside John Locke and David Hume. Hume famously described Berkeley’s philosophy as neither admitting the slightest refutation, nor inspiring the slightest conviction.

Samuel Johnson, according to his biographer James Boswell, disagreed:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it – ‘I refute it thus.’

It is not recorded whether Berkeley considered himself refuted by this futile exercise.

On the other hand, the philosopher Professor David Berman, who has spent almost nearly 40 years teaching philosophy at TCD, says: “Berkeley is an empiricist, and suspicious of the way language can influence our thinking and fashion. He believes that through direct experience we can make contact with what really exists.”

And that’s where the good coffee at this afternoon’s meeting makes a connection with that portrait of George Berkeley. For David Berman has turned his attention to coffee – not just for pleasure but as part of an intellectual quest.

For him, coffee is a window to understanding our tastes: How do you know what you like? How do you describe experiences or sensations? Are your tastes better than other people’s tastes?

David Berman has put in a lot of work to reach these heights of analysis – “I can’t tell you the number of coffees I’ve had” – and concludes that there are essentially two coffee types: sour and bitter. (For sour, think of the acidic taste of grapefruit or vinegar; for bitter think the sharp, acrid taste of citrus peels or olives.)

He describes these as the two “true tastes” of coffee. The sour, produced by lighter roasting, is more complex, delicate and subtle. The bitter, produced by darker roasting, is simpler, more uniform and easier to get right.

Professor David Berman writes a blog on his explorations in coffee-tasting at coffeetastingandphilosophy.wordpress.com.

Looking out onto Front Square in Trinity College Dublin this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

‘On a rainy night in Bray
The wind was whistling all its charms’

Vespa for Vespers … a Vespa on a rainy evening in Bray (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Someone I know has an interesting combination of interests that includes Anglican liturgy and small Italian scooters.

He is the ideal person to show a humorous interest in organising a cathedral event for enthusiasts that will be billed “Vespas at Vespers.”

I mused about this creative concept as I went for dinner in Bray yesterday [10 May 2016] and in the late evening rain spotted a neat little yellow and black and Vespa parked outside Platform Pizza on the seafront in Bray.

The original Vespa patent was for a “motorcycle of a rational complexity of organs and elements combined with a frame with mudguards and a casing covering the whole mechanical part.” The name Vespa means “wasp” in Italian. For the past 70 years, the Vespa has remained a style icon.

Meanwhile, the promised heatwave had not only failed to arrive last night, but heavy rain continued to pour down all evening, like the rainstorms that brought floods to many parts of Ireland only a few months ago.

As we left Platform Pizza, the rain was too heavy to even think about a walk on the promenade my mior on the beach. And on that rainy night in Bray, my mind was brought back to the lyrics of ‘Rainy Night in Georgia,’ a hit in the 1960s and again in the early 1970s.

‘Rainy Night in Georgia’ was written by Tony Joe White in 1962 and was a hit in 1970 for the R&B vocalist Brook Benton.

Brook Benton recorded this melancholy song in November 1969 and it became an instant hit, topping the charts by Spring 1970.

Since then it has been covered by many singers and musicians, including Ray Charles, Randy Crawford, Hank Williams, Tony Joe White and Rod Stewart.

Rainy Night In Georgia

Hoverin’ by my suitcase, tryin’ to find a warm place to spend the night
Heavy rain fallin’, seems I hear your voice callin’ ‘It’s all right.’
A rainy night in Georgia, a rainy night in Georgia
It seems like it’s rainin’ all over the world
I feel like it’s rainin’ all over the world.

How many times I wondered
It still comes out the same
No matter how you look at it or think of it
It’s life and you just got to play the game

[Instrumental Interlude]

I find me a place in a box car, so I take my guitar to pass some time
Late at night when it’s hard to rest I hold your picture to my chest and I feel fine

[Minor Scat]

But it’s a rainy night in Georgia, baby, it’s a rainy night in Georgia
I feel it’s rainin’ all over the world, kinda’ lonely now
And it’s rainin’ all over the world
Oh, have you ever been lonely, people?
And you feel that it was rainin’ all over this man’s world
You’re talking ’bout rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’,
Rainin’, rainin’ rainin’, rainin’, rainin’
[etc. to end]

Heavy rain in Knocklyon last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

And by the time we had arrived back in Knocklyon last night, it was still raining, raining, raining …

But while I was in the restaurant last night, I had posted a 30-second video clip on Facebook of a flickering candle on the table, with the caption: “30 seconds of candlelight in Bray this evening. Keep the flame of light and love alive in your heart.”

And in the rain in Knocklyon, thinking of love in the rain, the lyrics of another song came to mind: ‘Rainy Night in Soho’ by the Pogues.

Rainy Night in Soho, The Pogues (by Shane Magowan)

I’ve been loving you a long time
Down all the years, down all the days
And I’ve cried for all your troubles
Smiled at your funny little ways

We watched our friends grow up together
And we saw them as they fell
Some of them fell into Heaven
Some of them fell into Hell

I took shelter from a shower
And I stepped into your arms
On a rainy night in Soho
The wind was whistling all its charms

I sang you all my sorrows
You told me all your joys
Whatever happened to that old song
To all those little girls and boys?

Sometimes I’d wake up in the morning
The ginger lady by my bed
Covered in a cloak of silence
I’d hear you talking in my head

I’m not singing for the future
I’m not dreaming of the past
I’m not talking of the first times
I never think about the last

Now, this song is nearly over
We may never find out what it means
But there’s a light I hold before me
And you’re the measure of my dreams, the measure of my dreams

In Platform Pizza in Bray last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)