Is the Irish media devoid of intellectual depth?
‘We need to see that there are different ways of looking at the world to that served to us by the mass media, which is necessarily pretty banal,’ argues Desmond Fennell
‘Irish philosophers – Richard Kearney [above], Philip Pettit, William Desmond – are never noticed in the public scene’
There was a time when people across Ireland turned on the television on a Friday night to watch a Dominican priest with arthritis talk about philosophy. I’m thinking of Fr Fergal O’Connor, who was a regular panellist on The Late Late Show and also introduced generations of UCD undergraduates – myself included – to Plato’s Cave.
Check out this evening’s schedule and you might find it hard not to conclude that television has dumbed down. But there is a broader malaise in the mass media, newspapers included. As outlets compete for a fragmented audience, the scope for collective debate on serious, fundamental issues diminishes.
Is the media doing enough to facilitate an intellectual life in Ireland?
To author and critic Desmond Fennell, the answer is obvious. His latest book Third Stroke Did It: The Staggered End of European Civilisation is the culmination of 50 years of philosophising. In that time he has championed many political causes. Today, he says, he’s no longer a reformer; rather, he simply tries to describe the world as it is. Thus, he provides today’s idea: Thinking is not regarded as an important component of Irish society.
You’re often described as an intellectual. Is that a compliment?
Desmond Fennell: “Not necessarily. For the general public, an intellectual is someone who has read a lot of books and has a lot of ideas and consorts with other similar people, and is of no relevance to the practical affairs of the country.”
Does Ireland have an anti-intellectual culture then? “I would call
it more an anti-philosophy mindset. People in general regard philosophy as being a bit airy-fairy, and about abstract things which, again, have nothing to do with the practical life of people.
“Has it always been like that? The fact is during the last few centuries most philosophers in Ireland have been Anglo-Irish. They felt they had the right to think freely about the world. They felt themselves part of the European scene, and the Catholics thought that the people who had the right to think freely about the world were Anglo-Irish and priests.
“Since then, we have in universities quite a number of Catholic or post-Catholic philosophers, and they are simply ignored by the culture at large. If you look at the work of Irish philosophers – Richard Kearney, Philip Pettit, William Desmond – they are never noticed in the Irish public scene, never reviewed, never discussed. So in that sense, Irish criticism is a very poor thing; it is confined to the unreal world, namely fiction.”
Why should that matter?
“Philosophers contribute something different to the standard view of man in the world presented by the rulers and the doctrinal establishment, the people who through the media give a standard view of things.
“Philosophers have no vested interest. They are only interested in the truth. They take note of the wisdom of the ages. They differ from each other, they debate with one another; that is a valuable contribution. Not that we need to agree with any of them, but we need to see that there are diversities of view, and different ways of looking at the world to that served to us by the mass media, which on the whole is necessarily pretty banal.”