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Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle

see seventeenth- century philosophy

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle: Observations upon Experimental Philosophy by Margaret Cavendish, edited by Eileen O'Neill (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy: Cambridge University Press) The Margaret Cavendish Society is a convenient place to get information about this important Enlightenment philosopher. One of the main projects that seventeenth‑century European philosophers undertook was that of providing a metaphysical framework for the new mechanical science‑ a scientific picture of nature that eventually replaced the Aristotelian world‑view. In their attempt to achieve this end, they turned to the writings of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, which the Renaissance humanists had rediscovered and published. Thus, Pierre Gassendi (1592­-1655) rehabilitated the philosophical doctrines of the ancient atomist Epicurus. Figures as diverse as Rene Descartes (1596‑i65o), Anne Conway (1631‑79), Henry More (1614‑87), and Mary Astell (1666‑1731) drew on Platonic doctrines in the formation of their metaphysics.

But not all philosophers were willing to overthrow Aristotelianism. Kenelm Digby (1603‑65) attempted to conserve many of the Aristotelian doctrines, and to make aspects of the mechanical science compatible with these doctrines. And there were many camps of anti‑Aristotelian naturalists who rejected the picture of nature as a grand machine, and who endorsed various "vitalist" views of corporeal nature as self‑moving, living, and knowing. Among these thinkers were the physicians and chemists, for example, Johannes Baptista Van Helmont (1579‑1644), who followed in the tradition of the vitalist naturalist Paracelsus (1493-1541); while others included practitioners of natural magic, for example, Robert Fludd (1574‑1637), who were part of the hermetic and occult traditions. Finally, Joseph Glanvill (1636-­80), who despaired of producing the true system of nature, and who fully endorsed neither Aristotle nor the mechanists, rehabilitated arguments from the ancient sceptics.

These were the complex crosscurrents of philosophical and scientific thought in reaction to which Margaret Cavendish constructed her system of nature. Just as the mechanists had, she would reject the Aristotelianism of the schools; and as Van Helmont and other vitalists had, she would reject the view that mechanism provides the fundamental explanations of natural phenomena. Cavendish would draw on the doctrines of the ancient Stoics, and among her main philosophical contributions would be her Stoic‑inspired attacks against the limitations of seventeenth‑century mechanical philosophy.

While, as we have seen, the writing of natural philosophy was far from unusual in this period, the writing of it by a woman was. We now know that in the seventeenth century numerous women published philosophy, had translations of their work appear in print, and were discussed in the scholarly journals.' A few of these women were prolific writers of texts with philosophical content, for example, Antoinette Bourignon (1616‑80), Madeleine de Scudery (1607-­1701), and Mary Astell. But very few published entire books on natural philosophy. There is Anne Conway's The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (Latin, 1690; English, 1692) and Jeanne Dumae's Entretien sur l'opinion de Copernic touchant la mobilite de la terre [A Discussion of the opinion of Copernicus concerning the mobility of the earth] (n.d.; ms. c. 1680). Cavendish, on the other hand, is singular in having published some half dozen books in this area.

Nor was this all she wrote. Cavendish also published poetry, plays, orations, letters, fiction, an autobiographical sketch, and a biography of her husband. Of the almost six hundred and fifty books in English published between 1640 and 1700 by women, over a dozen were original works by Cavendish, subsequent editions of which raised her total number of publications to twenty‑one. Hers was an extraordinary writing career, but it was eyed with suspicion by her contemporaries. For one thing, in an era in which anonymous authorship for women was standard, Cavendish`adamantly published under her own name. In her autobiographical sketch she admitted that she was "very ambitious," not for wealth or power, but for fame. In her first publication she writes that man "hath a transcending desire to live in the world's memory, as long as the world lasts; that he might not die like a beast, and be forgotten; but that his works may beget another soul . . . which is fame" (Poems, p. 52).

However, unlike most of her male philosophical counterparts ‑ and even a few women of the period, such as Anna Maria van Schurman (1607‑78) who had studied philosophy, theology and ancient languages at the University of Utrecht ‑Cavendish had received no formal training in philosophy. And unlike some of the royal women, such as Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia (1618‑8o) and Queen Christina of Sweden (1626­89), she had not been privately tutored in languages and the sciences. (Indeed, despite years spent on the Continent, it appears that Cavendish never acquired the ability to read philosophical texts in any language other than English.) Further, Cavendish did not have a philosophical mentor in the way that Michel de Montaigne (1533‑‑92) was a mentor to Marie le Jars de Gournay (1565‑1645), and Henry More to Anne Conway; nor did she have a famous philosopher as interlocutor, in the way that Elisabeth could exchange ideas with Descartes, or Damaris Masham (1658‑1711) with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646‑1716). These facts make her philosophical accomplishments all the more re­markable. In order to see how Cavendish gained access to the views of the ancient and modern philosophers, and what the influences on her own anti‑Aristotelian, anti‑mechanist natural philosophy were, we need to turn to some of the details of her life.

… Cavendish's books of natural philosophy may appropriately be viewed as published notebooks, in which the features of her system of nature unfold at the same time as she develops as a philosopher. But they are more than this. They are also a testament to her perseverance as a seventeenth‑century woman attempting to make original contributions to a cutting‑edge field of philosophical endeavor; natural philosophy in the age of scientific revolution. At a time when women largely wrote spiritual tracts, defenses of, and manuals for, the education of women, and discussions of the passions, Cavendish was experimenting with the genres in which to give voice to natural philosophy written by a woman. She continued to negotiate her relationship to the recognized ancient and modern natural philosophers in the hopes that her work would be seriously considered for a place within the tradition. Thus, the Caven­dish of 1655 who rightly feared that critics would question whether her views were original and whether the writing was her own, boasted of having read little philosophy. But by 1664, numerous publications later, Cavendish would now acknowledge that she was the serious student of Hobbes, Descartes, More, and Van Helmont. Despite the charges of being bold, conceited, extravagant, ridiculous, and mad, Cavendish kept doing natural philosophy: studying the work of others, and honing her own reasoning. The publication of Observations showcases her system of nature by setting it in relief against the doctrines of the major ancient philosophers, and a wide range of the modern speculative and experimental philosophers. No other woman in the seventeenth century, indeed, no woman until Laura Bassi and the marquise du Chatelet in the eighteenth century, would develop her own views in natural philosophy in a series of publications. Thus, Observations is an important document in the history of women's contributions to science and philosophy.

More broadly, Cavendish's system of nature, as articulated in Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, fills a unique position in the logical space of early modern philosophy. In opposition to Hobbes and the materialists, she maintains that there can be no mechanical transfer of motion ‑ nor need there be. Motion, perception, life, and reason are inherent within every part of nature. So for Cavendish, in contrast with the mechanical philosophers, matter is not inert, inanimate, and completely characterizable in terms of geometrical properties. She agrees with the mechanical atomists that nature is wholly material, but she opposes their particulate theory of matter in favor of the continuum theory of matter. Thus, her position is to be differentiated from any type of vitalistic atomism as well. In reply to those vitalists who hold that nature is a continuum insofar as all of its parts are links in the great chain of being, she responds that in her system none of the links are incorporeals. She is a thoroughgoing materialist, with respect to nature. For her, the ultimate explanations of natural phenomena make no reference to incorporeal substances or properties. In this way, her position is also distinct from that of the Platonists, Cartesians, vitalistic chemists and hermeticists, and Leibnizians.

In her first publication Cavendish wrote: "[I]f I am condemned, I shall be annihilated to nothing: but my ambition is such, as I would either be a world, or nothing" (Poems, "To Naturall Philosophers," unpaginated). The quotation demonstrates how closely she associated her desire for fame with the "world" or system of nature that she produced. Perhaps the most judicious appraisal was given by Cavendish's contemporary, Bathsua Makin: "The present Duchess of Newcastle, by her own genius, rather than any timely instruction, over‑tops many grave gownmen."

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