Tuesday, 7 September 2010

McShane interacting with the SYBPh class

Phil McShane came to my first class (Philosophy of Knowing) this morning and had an informal interaction with the students.

Someone asked him how he came to Lonergan. He said he had been given the text of Insight to read even before it was published. Later, Lonergan had come over to Dublin to give 5 lectures, and Phil had been in charge of seeing to his room and so on. That was when he first met Lonergan. He remembered that Lonergan had a book open on his desk: it was an Agatha Christie detective novel!

Lonergan, he said, loved jokes, and Phil and he would exchange a joke whenever they met. Phil told us the one about the Irish wake. After a little whisky, one of the mourners decided to go in and pray at the coffin. He went in, but the whisky had been strong, and he went quite past the coffin and landed at the harmonium (there was, it seems, usually a harmonium in the 'priests' room' which was also used to lay the body). Well, the man knelt down, prayed at the harmonium, and then went back to his friends. "What a lovely set of teeth the dead man had," he said. Lonergan loved to repeat this Irish joke later on.

Another student asked about the new book Phil was planning to write, on Physics, Economics and History. That gave Phil a chance to speak about how he came to Lonergan's economics.

He had his background in mathematics (Dublin) and philosophy (Oxford). At Heythrop he was able to meet Fr Louis Watts, the priest who had introduced Lonergan to economics during his Heythrop days. In 1968, Phil received a postcard from Lonergan: "Find me an economist who can read my manuscript." A day later he received another postcard saying much the same thing. Lonergan had written the essay in 1944. He had spent 10 years reflecting on the matter. He had given it to Eric Kierans, later minister for finance in the Trudeau cabinet in Canada; Kierans did not get round to reading it. Phil said he himself had spent 20 years trying to read the manuscript; finally it had begun making sense. But he was still on the lookout for an economist; he was hoping that the Nashik conference would inspire someone to either find one or become the one.

Economics today is in the position of Ptolemaic astronomy with its epicycles: they could make certain predictions with that kind of thing, but it would be impossible to send someone to the moon on that basis. But humankind changes very slowly. Ptolemaic astronomy reigned for a thousand years. Economics has been around for 200 years. Perhaps it will begin changing now. Lonergan's aim was to transform economics into a proper science.

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