Hi Folks! Lewis saw my posts on Facebook that I have been sending about what it’s like to incorporate the women in the history of 17th and 18th century into a single course: Modern Philosophy.
So…I’m updating as I go along. In many cases I am reading only a few weeks ahead of my students. I don’t claim to get these thinker right. I’m just reporting on how well it is going to teach a course that includes these neglected thinkers that I’m beginning to think are neglected for reasons that are not all together good for anyone
Here are my first two dispatches.
First Dispatch of Reading Women Philosophers from the Modern Period: My students in Modern read Cavendish after four intense weeks of reading Descartes. We read the “letters” (in scare-quotes because Cavendish wrote them to a fictional letter-sender and to an audience who wouldn’t listen, unlike the letters of the Republic of Letters of the day) and we read selections from her Observations on Experimental Philosophy (whole chapters).
First note: students had a hard time switching from the metaphysical world-view (regarding motion, place, principal attributes, substance, accident) of Descartes to the metaphysical world-view of Cavendish.
Second note: that switch usefully highlighted something I try to teach in all my courses wrt metaphysics, usually using Chalmers‘ “The Matrix as Metaphysics,” which is that 1) how students understand the fundamental nature of things is a product of a story they have inherited, and 2) there are potential competing theories about the fundamental nature of reality that are explanatorily robust but seem alien because they are (culturally, historically) alien.
Third note: there are many respects in which Cavendish’s metaphysics are more in line with common sense and folk understandings of physics, etc., that make her more current than Descartes. She is is thoroughgoing materialist. She is also a panpsychist. She is also a vitalist and I think in an important way (wrt perception) an Armstrong-Lewis functionalist.
Fourth note: this is all going to set us up splendidly for Spinoza and Leibniz and Locke. And…I think…not accidentally.
Fifth note: there are philosophers who are neglected who deserve to be neglected. I love me some 18th century Scottish philosophy, but Dugald Stewart is just not a very good philosopher (in my opinion). There are neglected philosophers who are neglected for not good reasons, but you can kind of understand it, like Henry More. HIs world-view is so entrenched in a picture that analytic philosophers do not get, and the languages are out of reach (sadly), that there is an explanation (not an excuse) for why More is neglected. But Cavendish. I’ve satisfied myself, at least, that all the possible explanations for her neglect have been exhausted except for one: she was a woman. That excuses the toads of her time. It doesn’t excuse the toads (including myself) of this time.
Second Dispatch on Reading Women Philosophers from the Modern Period: We read Conway. We covered her for only one day. We used excerpts from the Cambridge edition of The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (chapters 4, 6, 8 and 9).
I used these even though they are covered by Atherton’s Women Philosophers of the Modern Period because I want to present Conway and the other authors in the same medium as the other philosophers I am covering. I could do this as well with the Cavendish, because there is a Cambridge edition of her Observations on Experimental Philosophy. Atherton’s volume has been and continues to be tremendously important. But I wanted to avoid as much as possible for my students that they were reading the “women” philosophers of the period. We are still in a place where Atheron’s volume is indispensable (where do you think I got my ideas about who to teach?) but we are also in a period where we can deliver those texts in a format that doesn’t signal the very thing that we are trying to overcome: that these are lesser thinkers who have been neglected for good reason.
So! How did it go? Good. Not at as good as Cavendish, but that may be because we spent two days on Cavendish and because I was (and am) a little more excited by Cavendish’s ideas than I am by Conway’s. Also, my students tend to be very God-skeptical and fairly uneducated wrt the variety of ways that folks were working out their theological commitments in those days (i.e., my students tend to think of “belief in God” to be a monolithic thing that admits of no variety). Conway talks a lot about God and about Christ, etc. She’s doing metaphysics, but it is much more embedded in views that my students find alien. I’ve asked them to use the term “alien” instead of “loopy” and “nutty” which they were given to use, but I suspect they wouldn’t have used wrt to Spinoza or Leibniz, though who knows….
Here’s what was useful in teaching Conway: it allowed me to talk about what medicine was like then (you used plants that looked organs that you had a problem with to treat the organ, because spirit was made manifest in form). It allowed me to talk about Platonism and how it was new at the time and what that meant in terms of wholly up-ending how folks thought about themselves and the universe. It allowed me to talk about the texts that Neo-Platonists thought were ancient, and therefore pure, but weren’t (at least not old) and how this is sort of the first expression of fundamentalism, which is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. It allowed me to explain why philosophers think of this period as the modern period – because it is the birth of modernity (rather than just saying that different disciplines use the term ‘modern’ different ways).
Conway is the perfect figure to reflect all this. She’s influenced (if not a part of) the Cambridge Platonists, she is enthused by the Lurianic Kabbalah, she converts to Quakerism at the end of her life, under the influence of von Helmont, much to the dismay of More.
Here’s the thing my students were excited about: they were very excited that she posited that species could transform into other species. They were excited that this pre-dated Darwin and excited that the very idea didn’t just arise de novo.