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.

Leibniz sometimes describes thought as an internal action (see this earlier Modsquad discussion). Moreover, in a couple of places he says that we can know this by experience. Indeed, he suggests we can know enough in this area by experience to establish some substantive philosophical truths about the mind.

Thus, in “On Nature Itself” (1698):

Indeed, if this view [occasionalism] were extended so far as to eliminate even the immanent actions of substances … then it would be as distant as it could possibly be from reason. For who would call into doubt that the mind thinks and wills, that we elicit in ourselves many thoughts and volitions, and that there is a spontaneity that belongs to us? If this were called into doubt, then not only would human liberty be denied and the cause of evil things be thrust into God, but it would also fly in the face of the testimony of our innermost experience and consciousness, testimony by which we ourselves sense that the things my opponents have transferred to God, without even a pretense of reason, are ours (ONI 10).

And later in a 1704 letter to Masham:

In this [pre-established harmony] I am doing no more than attributing to souls and bodies always and everywhere what we experience in them whenever the experience is distinct, that is to say, mechanical laws to bodies, and internal actions to souls (WFNS 206).

As well as using different terminology, these arguments have different purposes. The first is directed against a particular version of occasionalism, which denies all causal power to the human mind. To oppose this, Leibniz appeals to experience that he takes to show that we do have such power: “we elicit in ourselves many thoughts and volitions”. The comment to Masham suggests, however, the possibility of something stronger: of an argument from experience for the pre-established harmony.

That argument, if it is such would begin from a premise about our experience: when our experience is distinct, we see our souls working by internal action (rather than mechanical laws or external action). How it would proceed from there is less clear. Leibniz appeals to distinct experience. Perhaps too he is relying on a principle of uniformity according to which our minds always work in the way we see they sometimes – those distinctly experienced times? – work. This appeal to uniformity fits well with the general themes of Leibniz’s letter.

It would be intriguing if Leibniz really was suggesting an argument from experience for the pre-established harmony here. And such a thing would not be entirely unprecedented for him. Recall the way he appeals to the evidence of “Swammerdam, Malpighi, and Leeuwenhoek, the best observers of our time” in the “New System”. But perhaps this is straining the text of the letter to Masham too much, and all Leibniz aims to do is indicate that his system, in which souls only ever cause changes in themselves, is not opposed to all experience. We know at least, he might just be saying, that our souls sometimes cause changes in themselves. So however strange my view might seem, it does not go against all experience. This more modest reading would also tie back in to the comment in “On Nature Itself” – for the occasionalist there has gone against the very thing that experience tells us and Leibniz’s system upholds.

A lack of supporting texts making the bolder argument inclines me to the more modest reading – watch me talk myself out of the more exciting bit of the post even while I’m still writing it – but the bolder reading is not completely ungrounded. Any thoughts out there?

Today was the first meeting of the spatially discontinuous Margaret Cavendish reading group.  As foretold in a recent blog post, I will be posting here, alongside the progress of the reading group, so that people who aren’t in the group itself, but want to work through Cavendish’s text, can participate.

The reading for today’s meeting was Cavendish’s “Argumental Discourse”, whose full title is:

An Argumental Discourse

Concerning some principal subjects in natural philosophy; necessary for the better understanding, not only of this, but all other philosophical works, hitherto written by the authoress.

The discourse is written as a quasi-dialogue between Cavendish’s “former thoughts” and her “latter thoughts”.  In essence this portion of the text involves Cavendish subjecting her prior commitments to a critical interrogation.

The sorts of questions concerned in the discourse tend to revolve around Cavendish’s commitment to materialism, and the particular details of her materialist system.  Here are some examples of the questions discussed (please do not take these formulations as canonical):

  • How can there be “several degrees” of matter: animate, inanimate; sensitive, rational?
  • How do the various degrees of matter relate with respect to producing/transferring motion?
  • Does matter have infinite parts?
  • How do the modes of matter relate to matter itself?
  • How can inanimate matter be living and possess knowledge?

The section ends with Cavendish herself suggesting that she is inclined towards her “former thoughts”, though officially leaving the adjudication of the dispute up to the impartial reader.

We spent a good portion of the time trying to get clear on several different notions of parthood that seemed to be in play, as well as in trying to understand Cavendish’s commitment to complete blending of sensitive, rational, and inanimate matter.

The plan for next time is to continue discussing the Argumental Discourse, but also to push forward into the main text, with the plan to read through Part 1, Section XII on whether humans could be made to fly as birds do.

I want to get this post up as soon as possible, so people can post to it, but I may post some more of the notes that I took in the comments when I get a chance later today.


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