Desmond O’Neill: A bloomsday brush with brilliance

Desmond O'NeillOne of the challenges of teaching medical ethics is the need to continually connect with the wellsprings of philosophy and (whisper it) theology. Without these elements there is danger of a retreat to the pragmatic and utilitarian, or worse still to legalism (an undue dependence on the law rather than ethics), particularly in courses where medical ethics and law are combined. My own happy experiences directing an ethics module with interested clinicians on philosophy/theology (1) whetted my appetite for philosophy, so the opportunity to hear Jürgen Habermas, one of the greatest living philosophers, was irresistible.

Fittingly, the lecture was prompted by the awarding to Habermas of the Ulysses medal by University College Dublin, the alma mater of James Joyce, on Bloomsday 2010 (few imaginary occasions have spawned so many worldwide anniversary celebrations as Leopold Bloom’s odyssey of 16 June 1904). The admiration of Habermas for Joyce’s Ulysses is clear: he speaks of “a highly self-reflective, aesthetically uncompromising modern novel . . . with an unmistakable, though by no means uncritical, attachment to the all-pervasive ethos of his Irish native country.”

In turn, there is an extraordinary, almost Joycean, degree of breadth and engagement in Habermas’s work. While his theory of communicative action is a building block of modernism, his range of critical interests is wide, including linguistics, social theory, and politics. A frequent contributor to public debate, from the student movement in 1968 to the European Union, he is a model for the engaged intellectual. A trawl through Medline shows his impact on health as well: in particular, his writings on genetic engineering have important moral and intellectual weight, even if received with a certain froideur by utilitarian philosophers in the UK.

Habermas, a “methodological atheist,” has also provided a helpful bridge between the secular state and the positive contributions of religious thought and tradition in a pluralist society. Such discussions, qua Dawkins and Hitchens, are often eristic and confrontational: citizens and ethicists alike may feel that elements of true dialogue are missing and will find helpful articulacy and insights in Habermas’s An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Postsecular Age (2010).

The Dublin lecture, a truly rewarding experience, was given to an overflowing hall with steps crammed and a videolink to a crowded atrium. Even more remarkable was the question and answer session afterwards. As a geriatrician, I had a certain professional interest in the visible manifestation of the late-life dividend in the wisdom, intellectual agility, and humanity of the almost 81 year-old philosopher: a rephrasing of Dürer’s description of Bellini –”the master is old, but in painting still the best.” As an aspiring ethicist, it was a model of clarity, articulacy, and academic humility entirely bereft of false modesty.

The angst of some questioners over whether there were still major public intellectuals, and of a perceived diminution of the status of philosophy, was fielded with a recognition of thinkers in other fields, including economists such as Stiglitz, and Habermas, made a distinction between the intellectual and the expert. He stated that in their public role intellectuals “don’t know better and are not infallible,” even though as experts in their fields they can command respect – “and that’s enough” – which drew a warm response from the audience.

Equally impressive was his managing of questions on faith, reason, and modernity. In an Ireland which has swung dramatically from a state dominated by an overweening institutional church to a mood of often rancorous rejection, particularly in academic circles, he showed a nimbleness, charity, and reflectiveness which allowed for difference without discord.

There was a buzz at the post-lecture reception that matched the energy that I felt leaving the theatre. The written word and documented thoughts should be enough to advance ideas and concepts, but in truth nothing can replace witnessing the interaction of a great and humane intellect with an inquiring and informed audience. For a Bloomsday lecture, perhaps Joyce’s lines to Ibsen best sum up the impact of the occasion: “how your battles inspired me — not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead.”

(1) Russell C, O’Neill D. Ethicists and clinicans: the case for collaboration in the teaching of medical ethics. Ir Med J. 2006 Jan;99(1):25-7.

Prof Des O’Neill is a consultant physician in geriatric and stroke medicine at Trinity College Dublin and the Adelaide and Meath Hospital Dublin, Ireland. His interests centre on neurosciences and ageing, with a strong interest in the medical humanities. He is Director of the Centre for Ageing, Neurosciences and the Humanities, and currently President of the European Union Geriatric Medicine Society.