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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Richard Kearney

A friend of mine has been taking some classes from Richard Kearney and has had nothing but positive things to say about him.

As a scholar, essayist, activist, poet, novelist, and television talk-show host, Kearney (pronounced like Carney) seemed ubiquitous in Ireland in the 1980s and through much of the 1990s. Working with Northern Ireland’s John Hume, who became the Nobel Peace laureate of 1998, and Mary Robinson, who would become president of the Republic of Ireland in 1990, he articulated a new and spacious sense of Irish identity, applicable in the North, in the Republic, and everywhere else (“the greatest Irish thinkers,” Kearney wrote, “flouted the confines of geographical and mental maps”), a contemporary redefinition that might allow men and women living in Northern Ireland to choose fairly for themselves either British or Irish citizenship.

Kearney does not draw unflattering distinctions among philosophers. What he describes is a difference between the “existential” philosophers—by which he means thinkers like Socrates, Kierkegaard, and Sartre, who threw themselves into the agora, or marketplace, of ideas—and the “speculative” philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, who systematized philosophical thought and created academies (and in latter days were endowed with chairs). “I’m between these two” traditions of philosophical engagement, Kearney tells me in an interview in his living room, sitting in a deep chair between a bookcase containing more than a few of his speculative works and a magazine rack that holds an anthology of Beatles songs (an acoustic guitar, his, stands in a corner). “If I had to choose, I’d be on the side of the existential thinkers, but”—he adds, as if to say he’s not letting go of his professorial chair—“it’s a dialectic.”

Kearney is often drawn dialogically to those who “can rightly pass” for atheists (as Derrida once said of himself), but he is no atheist and rightly passes for an Irish Catholic, as he describes himself in conversation. In his writings, however, notably in The God Who May Be, he is harder to place:

I would say that if I hail from a Catholic tradition, it is with this proviso: where Catholicism offends love and justice, I prefer to call myself a Judeo-Christian theist; and where this tradition so offends, I prefer to call myself religious in the sense of seeking God in a way that neither excludes other religions nor purports to possess the final truth. And where the religious so offends, I would call myself a seeker of love and justice tout court.

From Kearney's Choice - Boston College Magazine

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