Ciarán Benson

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Ciarán Benson
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Born1950 (age 73–74)
Dun Laoghaire
Alma materUniversity College Dublin
  • Psychologist
  • Educator
  • Advocate

Ciarán Benson (born 1950) is an Irish psychologist, educator, and advocate for the arts. Benson's contributions span the fields of psychology, philosophy, cultural policy, and art criticism.

Early life and education

Born into a family of lighthouse-keepers, railway-men, and grocers, Benson's academic journey began at Christian Brothers College and culminated with his chairing of the Department of Psychology at University College Dublin (UCD). Beyond academia, his advocacy for the arts has resonated in Ireland's cultural and educational landscapes. His tenure as the Chair of An Chomhairle Ealaíon/The Arts Council of Ireland saw the creation of foundational cultural policies that reshaped the nation's artistic endeavours.

Ciarán Benson was born in 1950 in Dun Laoghaire. His family there were lighthouse-keepers, railway-men and grocers.

He was educated at the Christian Brothers College, Monkstown Park and, in 1968, was among the first beneficiaries of the novel university grant scheme. He studied for a BA in psychology and philosophy in University College Dublin. Following two years as a research assistant to John Raven in the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin (1971-73), he completed an MA in social psychology with Hans Furth in Sussex University.


After returning to Ireland, he gained experience in a variety of applied and research roles before joining the Education Department in University College Dublin in 1979 as a lecturer in psychology. He then completed a PhD in the philosophical psychology of art for the National University of Ireland. In 1992 he assumed the Chair and Headship of the Department of Psychology in University College Dublin, where he remained until his early retirement in 2009.

In 2007 he was the holder of the Royden B. Davis Professorship of Interdisciplinary Studies at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. He has been a Fulbright Fellow (Georgetown University), a Fellow of the Salzburg Seminar, a Fellow of the Stone Theory Institute (School of the Art Institute of Chicago), a Royal Irish Academy–British Academy Exchange Fellow to Linacre College (with Rom Harré), a Fellow of the Psychological Society of Ireland, and an Honorary Life Member of The Irish Film Institute.

Contributions to psychology

Benson’s work has always been inter-disciplinary and, wherever possible, angled towards the practicalities of social policy and social analysis. Among other contributions to psychology he refuted the claims of Hans Eysenck, and his former colleague from the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin, Richard Lynn, that the ‘Irish IQ’ was significantly lower than that of the British..[1] [2] Benson has been particularly interested in John Dewey’s aesthetics, notably his arguments against dualism and his idea of ‘aesthetic absorption’.[3] He drew on the work of the American artist James Turrell to suggest the existence of what he called the ‘no-point-of-view phenomenon’.[4][5]

Much of his work has focussed on analyses of selfhood using the work, amongst others of Edward Casey, Rom Harré and Jerome Bruner.[6] He has contributed significantly to the idea of self as fundamentally ‘locative’. In his Irish Times review of ‘The Cultural Psychology of Self: Place, Morality and Art in Human Worlds’ (Saturday, February 17, 2001), Fintan O’Toole said that it was 'One of the most ambitious and impressive philosophical works to come out of Ireland in recent years'.[7] And for his analyses of what he called ‘The unthinkable boundaries of self’ he recruited the ideas of the American philosopher, Harry Frankfurt.[8] Benson actively contributed to the paradigm of discursive psychology – itself shaped by the later Wittgenstein and John Austin, specifically ‘positioning theory’ within social psychology, as developed by Rom Harré and Fathali Moghaddam.[9] [10][11] Richard Wollheim’s work on memory and identity fed into Benson’s analysis of kinds of ‘self-uncertainty’ which he anticipates will become a more prevalent phenomenon in the twenty-first century with the advance of technologies of virtual reality.[12] He has also drawn on the philosophical concept of the ‘act’, as elaborated by various philiosophers, when thinking about psychological aesthetics.[13] Benson has drawn on the work of poets when developing his ideas on ‘secular spirituality’[14], and when outlining his suggestion that ‘place-time’ is a more appropriate framework than ‘space-time’ when considering the trajectory of human lives.[15] With colleagues, he has also addressed such issues as distress in migrants’ experience, psychological consequences of spinal injury, and issues in the expanding field of cyberpsychology. Questions of ‘memory’ and ‘collective imagination’, as they apply to demands for commemoration and world heritage sites, have more recently attracted Benson’s attention.[16][17]

Contributions to Irish education

Benson has a long commitment to Irish education. He worked on the Economic and Social research Institute’s national surveys on aims and objectives in Irish education conducted by John Raven et al., in the early 1970s.[18][19] He wrote “The Place of the Arts in Irish Education’, a novel national plan for the arts in education, which was published by The Arts Council in 1979. On the influence of this report on later policymaking, Ireland’s first real Minister of the Arts, later President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, said: “When I became Minister for the Arts, in 1993, I had all that debate behind me. And I readily acknowledge the influence the Benson report has had on the policies I sought to implement between 1993 and 1997. Indeed, as a Minister who also had responsibility for broadcasting, I had, for example, to consider where I stood on the choice of constituting my fellow citizens as market segments, or as citizens with rights within a communicative order. The choice was one between active citizenship within the cultural space or passive consumption of cultural products”.[20]

With Patrick Clancy he co-authored Higher Education in Dublin: A Study of Some Emerging Needs for The Higher Education Authority in 1979.[21] He chaired ‘Deaf Ears’, a report on music education in Ireland in 1985.[22] With Martin Drury, he was a member of the National Curriculum and Examinations Board Working Party on the Arts (1984-85). From 1985 to 1989 he chaired the Irish Arts Council–Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation experimental project on funding in the areas of Art, Community and Education (The ACE Project).[23] In 2019, to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the so-called ‘Benson Report’, Benson delivered a public lecture in Dublin City University, followed by responses from colleagues, including President Michael D. Higgins, over the years. This was published by The Arts Council.[24]

Contributions to the development of the arts and cultural policy in Ireland

In keeping with a wish to see good ideas translate into practical action, Benson has actively chaired many organisations for over forty years. He was the first chair of the Irish Film Institute, the first chair of the City Arts Centre in Dublin, Chair of An Chomhairle Ealaíon/The Arts Council (1993-98) by government appointment, chair of The Irish Museums Trust, the Grangegorman Public Art Working Group, Poetry Ireland, the Expert Advisory Group on children for Creative Ireland, and the Independent Chair of the Inter-Departmental Public Art Group on The Per Cent for Art Scheme (2021-2024). He has served on the boards of The Gate Theatre, Wexford Festival Opera, The Dr Lewis Glucksman Gallery in University College Cork, and the European Cultural Foundation.

As Chairperson of An Chomhairle Ealaíon/The Arts Council of Ireland (with responsibility for funding all contemporary arts in Ireland) Benson’s Council favoured an evidence-based, cultural democratic approach to arts policy-making.[25] It researched, formulated and published the first national Arts Plan1995-1997, (February 1995) which was accepted by the Irish Government, resulting in increasing Irish Governmental grant-aid to the Arts Council from £11 million in 1994 to £26 million in 1998. That Arts Council Initiated and designed The Theatre Review as a basis for national policy on theatre. It oversaw re-organization of The Arts Council itself as the premier arts funding agency in Ireland. It commissioned research reports on the arts and society including Joe Durkan’s The Economics of the Arts In Ireland (1994), Paula Clancy et al.’s the Public and the Arts: A Survey of Behaviour and Attitudes in Ireland (1994), a major review of theatre (Views of Theatre in Ireland, 1995), Poverty: Access and Participation in the Arts (1997) funded jointly with CombatPoverty, as well as reports on dance, film, art & disability, and the role of local authorities in arts funding. With Sir Donnell Deeny, and Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, Benson helped envisage and establish The Ireland Chair of Poetry. In his extensive history of cultural policymaking in Ireland, Pat cooke wrote that, “Benson shared Little’s authentically democratising impulses and his vision of the arts’ potential to enrich the everyday lives of citizens was rooted in moral - philosophical principles“ (p. 613), and that “judging by the minutes for his years as chairman , the Arts Council got through an enormous amount of practical detailed work across all art forms” (p. 616).[26]

Work as a curator and art critic

He chaired the programming committee for ‘Island: Arts from Ireland: A Kennedy Center Festival,’ Washington DC, USA, May 13th -28th, 2000 (1998-2000). He curated ‘In the Time of Shaking’, (with Bill Shipsey and Emily Mark), a show in support of Amnesty International at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in 2004.[27] With Brian Lynch he curated ‘Tony O’Malley Self-Portraits: A Centenary Show’ (with Brian Lynch) in the Butler Ormond Gallery, Kilkenny, 2013.[28] He has conducted many public conversations, including with John Banville, John Montague, Robert Ballagh, and has written essays on Irish artists such as Brian O’Doherty, Tony O’Malley, Katherine Boucher-Beug, Abigail O’Brien, Anita Groener, Vivienne Roche, Bernadette Kiely, James McCreary and Dorothy Smith.

Personal life

In 1987 he incurred a serious spinal injury which resulted in the rather rare Brown-Séquard syndrome, which necessitated a prolonged period of relearning how to walk, swim and cycle. His first wife was the artist Carmel Benson. He is now married to the artist Vivienne Roche.


  1. Benson, C. (1987) "Ireland's Low I.Q.: A Critique of the Myth", The Irish Journal of Psychology, VIII, 1, 61-70.
  2. Benson, C. (1995) "Ireland's 'Low' IQ: A Critique" in Jacoby, Russell and Glauberman, Naomi. (eds), The Bell Curve: History, Documents, Opinions (New York, Times Books/Random House), 222-233.
  3. Benson, C. (1993) The Absorbed Self: Pragmatism, Psychology and Aesthetic Experience. (London, Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf), pp. 210.
  4. Benson, C. (2001) “Points of View and The Visual Arts: James Turrell, Antonio Damasio and the No-Point-ofView Phenomenon” in J.R. Morss, N. Stephenson & H.Van Rappard (eds.), Theoretical Issues In Psychology, (Dordrecht, Kluwer), 119-130.
  5. Pellegrino, Michele; Glicksohn, Joseph; Marson, Fabio; Ferraiuolo, Francesco; Ben-Soussan, Tal Dotan (2023-01-01), Ben-Soussan, Tal Dotan; Glicksohn, Joseph; Srinivasan, Narayanan (eds.), "Chapter 5 - The cloud of unknowing: Cognitive dedifferentiation in whole-body perceptual deprivation", Progress in Brain Research, Neurophysiology of Silence Part A: Empirical Studies, Elsevier, vol. 277, pp. 109–140, doi:10.1016/bs.pbr.2022.12.004, retrieved 2023-09-10
  6. Benson, C., (2001) The Cultural Psychology of Self: Place, Morality and Art in Human Worlds. (London/New York, Routledge), pp. 263.
  8. Benson, C. (2003) “Speculations on the ‘Unthinkable’ Boundaries of Identity and on Their EmotionalDynamics” in N. Stephenson, H.L. Radtke, R. J. Jorna and H.J. Stam (eds.), Theoretical Psychology: Critical Contributions. (Concord Ontario, Captus Press). 144-153.
  9. Benson, C. (2003) “The Unthinkable Boundaries of Self: The Role of Negative Emotional Boundaries in the Formation, Maintenance and Transformation of Identities” in R. Harré & F. M. Moghaddam (eds. ) The Self and Others: Positioning Individuals and Groups in Personal, Political and Cultural Contexts, (Westport CT, Praeger), 61-84.
  10. Benson, C. (2010) “From Dr No to Dr Yes! Positioning Theory and Dr Ian Paisley’s Endgame” in Moghaddam, F.M. and Harré, R. (Eds.). Words of Conflict, Words of War, (Santa Barbara, Praeger), 139-154.
  11. Benson, C. (2013) “One's Self as Friend and Enemy? The Strange Case of Richard Wollheim's Identity” in Harré, R., & Moghaddam, F. M. (Eds.). The psychology of friendship and enmity: Relationships in love, work, politics, and war. Vol.1: Intrapersonal and interpersonal processes. Praeger: Santa Barbara, CA, 45-60.
  12. Benson, C. (2013) “New Kinds of Subjective Uncertainty? Technologies of Art, ‘Self’ andConfusions of Memory in the Twenty-First Century” in Tafarodi, R. W. (Ed.) Subjectivity in the twenty-first century: Cultural, philosophical and political perspectives. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 140-166.
  13. Benson, C. (2013) “Acts not Tracts! Why a complete psychology of art and identity must be neuro-cultural” in Roald, T. and Lang, J. (Eds). Art and identity: Essays on the aesthetic creation of mind. Rodopi: Amsterdam & New York, 39- 65.
  14. Benson, C. (2012) “A Secular Spirituality? James, Dennett and Dawkins” in Fran O’Rourke.(Ed.) Human destinies: Philosophical essays in memory of Gerald Hanratty, University of Notre Dame Press: Indiana, 388-414.
  15. Benson, C. (2020). “The Metaphor of ‘Place-Time’ and Lawrence Durrell’s ‘HeraldicUniverse’ in Pine, R. & Konidari, V. (eds), Islands of the Mind: Psychology, Literature and Biodiversity. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, Cambridge Scholars Press, 244-258.
  16. Benson, C (2021). “The Past’ as a Concept & Ethical Remembrance: Brief Reflections”, Response to President Michael D. Higgins’ paper, "Of Centenaries and the Hospitality Necessary in Reflecting on Memory, History and Forgiveness,” In President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, Machamh 100: President of Ireland Centenary Reflections, Volume 1, Dublin: Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, 43-49. E-Book:
  17. Benson, Ciarán (May 2020). "Psychology and World Heritage? Reflections on Time, Memory, and Imagination for a Heritage Context". International Journal of Cultural Property. 27 (2): 259–276. doi:10.1017/S0940739120000168. ISSN 0940-7391.
  18. Raven, J., Handy, R., Benson, C., Hannon, J., & Henry, E., (1975) Teachers’ Perceptions of Educational Objectives and Examinations. (Dublin, The Irish Association of CurriculumDevelopment), pp. 136.
  19. Raven, J., Handy, R., Benson, C., Hannon, J., & Henry, E., (1975) Pupils’ Perceptions of Educational Objectives and Their Reactions to School. (Dublin: The Irish Association of Curriculum Development), pp. 322.
  20. Remarks by Michael D. Higgins on receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Arts, University College Dublin Arts Society, Thursday 28th November, 2013
  21. Clancy, P. & Benson, C. (1979) Higher Education in Dublin: A Study of Some Emerging Needs. (Dublin: The Higher Education Authority).
  22. Benson, C. (1985) "Introduction” in Don Herron, Deaf Ears: A Report on the Provision of Music Education in Irish Schools. (Dublin, The Arts Council).
  23. Benson, C. (1989) "Art and the Ordinary: Reflections on Art, Non-Artists and Policymaking in Ireland" in C. Benson, ed., Art and the Ordinary: The ACE Report. (Dublin, The Arts Council).
  24. Benson, C. (2021). Time, Vocabulary, & Art’s Thoughtful Uses of Feeling? Dublin: ETAI & The Arts Council.,_children,_and_education/Lecture%20Ciar%C3%A1n%20Benson%20Time%20Vocabulary%20Art%E2%80%99s%20Thoughtful%20Uses%20of%20Feeling.pdf
  25. Benson, C. (1992) "Towards a Cultural Democracy", Studies, 81, 321, March.
  26. For an extensive, critical review of this particular Arts Council see, Pat Cooke, (2021) The Politics and Polemics of Culture in Ireland, 1800–2010 (Routledge Studies in Cultural History), Routledge, 555-618.
  27. Benson, C. (ed.) (2004) In the Time of Shaking: Irish Artists for Amnesty International. (Dublin, Art for Amnesty).
  28. Benson, C & Lynch, B, (Eds) Tony O’Malley’s Self Portraits: A Centenary Show. Butler Gallery, Kilkenny.

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