Today we continue with section 37 of the Observations on Experimental Philosophy.

Section 37 consists of questions/objections one might have about Cavendish’s positions, coupled with extensive replies to these questions.  As is often the case, it is very useful to see how someone responds to objections to their views, because it can greatly increase our understanding of what they took the view to be in the first place.

Our focus today is a series of questions about the nature of knowledge and perception on Cavendish’s view, including her patterning theory of perception.  This is something we’ve talked about a great deal in the weeks leading up to today, so I am looking forward to discussing some of the details and intricacies of Cavendish’s account.

Remember that Cavendish is a panpsychist, and so, one aspect of her theory of knowledge and perception is that it will have to, in some sense, extend to all material bodies whatsoever.  Cavendish makes some allowances for variations in how animals perceive as compared to tables or rocks, but is sensitive to the fact that on her view, there must be some form of perception occurring in every parcel of matter.

For next time, we will be reading through Part II, section 3 (ending on page 200). We will not be meeting next week, so our next meeting will be March 17th.

(Poems by Margaret Cavendish, Poems and Fancies, 1653, spelling modernized by me)

The Circle of the Brain Cannot be Squared

A Circle Round divided in four Parts

Hath been a Study amongst Men of Arts;

Ere since Archimedes, or Euclid’s time,

Hath ever Brain been stretched upon a Line.

And every Thought hath been a Figure set,

Doubts Cyphers are, Hopes as Triangulars meet.

There is Division, and Subtraction made,

And Lines drawn out, and Points exactly laid.

But yet None can demonstrate it plain,

Of Circles round, a just Four Square remain.

Thus while the Brain is round, no Squares will be,

While Thoughts are in Divisions, no Figures will agree.

Another to the Same Purpose

And thus upon the same account,

Doubling the Cube must mount;

And the Triangular must be cut so small,

Till into Equal Atoms it must fall.

For such is Mans Curiosity, and mind,

To seek for that, which hardest is to find.

This week we continued our discussion from last time of sections 35 and 36, as well as the first 6 questions from section 37.  For next time, we will be reading up through question 14 of section 37 (page 183).

Many of the issues we focused on were similar to those we discussed in the past:  What is the relationship between the whole of nature and its parts, and between the thoughts of the parts and the thoughts (if any) of the whole?  Are the constitutive parts of nature parts in anything like our understanding of parthood, or is the terminology misleading?  Lots of discussion of infinite divisibility and anti-atomism.

One question we talked about was, “How different is Cavendish’s view from Middle Leibniz?” and this is something I am not sure we settled.

This week, we read sections 35 and 36 of Cavendish’s Observations on Experimental Philosophy.

The discussion covered about four pages of that material, as it is a very dense four pages laying out Cavendish’s views on the relationship of finite parcels of matter to the infinite whole of nature, the relationship between self-motion, knowledge and action, the liberty of nature, the nature of perception, and the panpsychist commitment of Cavendish’s that every parcel of matter is a thinking being.  We also tried to figure out the ontological status(es) of nature as a whole, which is a single body, and a substance, but not necessarily an individual (or at least, there was interpretive debate about that point.

Since we didn’t get all the way through that reading, we only added about 10 more pages, so the reading for next time is to revisit the material we didn’t cover from this week, and then push forward through question six of section 37.

This week’s selection covered salt water, a lot (and I mean a lot) of discussion of hot, cold, and the varieties of each, freezing, thawing, dilating, contracting, atoms (or rather, the lack thereof), the composition of the sun, and telescopes.

The organization of this text is not what I would describe as methodical, though there is a certain naturalness to the transitions in her discussions.

Some themes I expect we will discuss include:

  • Cavendish’s charge that many physical theories are prompted by confusing the methods of artifice and the methods of nature.
  • Infinite variations in nature as the cause of our errors (a common theme)
  • Non-continuous changes in physical quantities
  • Atoms (and why we shouldn’t believe in them)
  • The views on motion that relate to her discussions of dilation and contraction.

Again, this is a pre-post, so I may be totally wrong about what we wind up discussing.

FOR NEXT TIME: Sections 35 and 36

This week’s selection went from Part 1 section 13—”Of Snails and Leeches: And whether all Animals Have Blood”—to section 23—”Of the nature of Water”—sections which included discussion of whether plants really propagate by seeds and spores, views on motion (including discussion of the Cartesian view), and a section putatively about whether ideas are colored (her answer: yes), but which also touches a great deal on how finite material minds relate to the whole of nature and to thoughts of God.

I am switching from writing these posts after the meeting to writing them up and posting them before the meeting, so that there is a place for people to post comments and thoughts right away.  As a result, I can’t yet tell you what we wound up focusing on in our discussion, but I anticipate we will spend some time talking through her views on biology and reproduction of plants, on the nature of motion (and how her views on these topics relate to Aristotelian and Mechanist frameworks), and on her discussion of how finite material minds can think of/relate to the infinite whole of nature or to God, among other things.

EDITED TO ADD: The readings for next time are Sections 24 through 34.

For this week’s meeting, we read Sections 1-12 of part 1 of the OEP, and continued discussing the Argumental Discourse.

Sorry for getting this post up late.

Here is a brief summary of some of the topics we covered:

  • Cavendish’s “former thoughts” reply to an objection that her views on interior self-knowledge of all matter and the perceptual knowledge that comes from being self-moving matter requires a sort of double-counting of knowledge or lives.  We attempted to puzzle out the objection.
  • We talked a bit more about the relationship between body, figure, and motion, for Cavendish
  • Cavendish is insistent on some sort of isolation of the sense modalities, in terms of the knowledge they can attain, but also regards them all as sources of knowledge.
  • Cavendish takes a fairly strong stand in favor of “rational perception” as the grounds of our knowledge, rather than sense perception.
  • Our principle errors come from being finite perceivers attempting to perceive an object (nature) that is infinite.
  • Cavendish extensively criticizes microscopy, arguing that valuable science would be seeking advances in agriculture, animal breeding, architecture (for improving shelter), economics, and the science of improving schools and courts of law, as well as unifying churches.  In my favorite quote from the selection, Cavendish gives this analogy for the work being done by microscopers:

“But, as boys that play with watery bubbles or fling dust into each other’s eyes, or make a hobbyhorse of snow, are worthy of reproof rather than praise, for wasting their time with useless sports; so those that addict themselves to unprofitable arts, spend more time than they reap benefit thereby.”

  • We also discussed some of Cavendish’s views on how figure grounds properties like weight.
  • We discussed the possibility of reading some of Cavendish’s philosophical poetry as part of our readings.


The reading for next time is sections 13-23.


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