Spotlight Series

Each month, we sit down with a member of our research team to learn more about their areas of expertise, what the turning points have been in their career, and what inspires them in their daily lives…

Paul O'Grady

Professor in Philosophy; Head of School of Social Science & Philosophy, TCD

Before coming to Trinity in 1997, Paul was a lecturer at St. Catherine's College, Oxford. He teaches epistemology and philosophy of religion and has published widely in these areas, including Relativism (2002) and, as editor, the Consolations of Philosophy: Reflections in an Economic Downturn (2011). He is a Fellow at Trinity College Dublin. 

What is your current area of research?

For the past few years I’ve been interested in the topic of wisdom. It seems to belong to epistemology, but few 20th century philosophers examined it. It brings together theoretical philosophical knowledge, the practical skill of living well and one’s emotional and cognitive states. I’ve been reading psychologists, contemporary virtue epistemologists and classic texts from history of philosophy to try figure it out. It also connects to questions about the relation of biography to philosophy and how the very way one does philosophy is impacted by context. 

What question or challenge were you setting out to address when you started this work?

It seemed to me that a certain self-conception of what philosophy is about, focusing narrowly on issues of consistency, validity and argumentative strength just didn’t fit my own experience and indeed with how I experienced other philosophers.

Other factors such as training, background, preferences, interests, temperament, capacities seem to play important roles on how one does philosophy and who one’s heroes and heroines are. So I wanted to explore this while still thinking that argumentative rigour, clarity and the pursuit of truth are important values.

Share a turning point or defining moment in your work as a philosophical researcher?

I once shared a stage with the great American philosopher W.V.Quine at the World Congress of Philosophy. He was elderly and I had to read his response to my work, as well as mediate the questions to both of us, ventriloquising his responses while he nodded.

It was one of the scariest professional events I participated in, as a very large crowd with many luminaries therein came to see Quine. But as I got immersed in the detail I jettisoned my nerves and just got into the discussion. Since then talks have seemed easier.

Briefly, what excites you about your research?

I think that doing philosophy is a passion, something you feel you just have to do. So when you’re engaged with a topic it just grips you, explicitly at the desk or in class, but also rattling around your head at odd times. Even when experiencing puzzlement, discouragement or exasperation, the drive to continue working away at it continues.

What do you like to do when you aren`t working?

I love music – listening and playing, all kinds. Bach is my go-to, but rock, funk, jazz, world music also feature a lot. I also like cooking and indeed shopping for groceries. I think having a limited task with a clearly defined outcome is so different to academic work that I get a great sense of satisfaction from it.

What are you currently reading?

I’m re-reading a biography of an IRA intellectual’s account of the War of Independence – Ernie O’Malley’s On Another Man’s Wound. I read it as a teenager and it’s fascinating seeing how much of it I remember, how influential I found it and how differently I look at parts of it now. Trinity doesn’t come well out of it.

Do you have a favourite movie?

Cohen brothers Big Lebowski or Wender’s Paris Texas, depending on the mood.

What would people be surprised to find out about you?

In a different possible world I might have been a bad jobbing musician. One night I accompanied on stage, on guitar, a man dressed in a rubber chicken suit singing an allegedly comic song. My chair unfortunately had one leg over the edge and I tumbled into the front row of the audience. Everyone applauded as they thought it was part of the act.  It wasn’t and I quit.  

November 2023