Posts Tagged ‘cavendish’

(It’s been rather quiet around here for a long time, but perhaps some people still have this site in their RSS readers.)

Thanks to a very helpful email from Jonathan Shaheen, I just updated The Letters in the Philosophical Letters, my page that tries to say what each of the many letters is about. PL 4.23 refers, I learn, to Constantijn Huygens. As the page now says:

Number: 4.23
Topic: On assorted further questions
Reference: Includes a reference to a Mr V.Z. and his questions “concerning those glasses, one of which being held close in ones hand, and a little piece being broke of its tail, makes as great a noise as the discharging of a Gun”. Mr V.Z. here is Constantijn Huygens. One of the two letters from him to Cavendish that were published in Cavendish (1676) is on this topic (Cavendish 1676, 119-20). As published, that letter is signed “Huygens de Zulichem”; “V.Z.” would be “van Zuilichem”. Constantijn Huygens had bought the lordship of Zuilichem, and thus became the heer van Zuilichem. (Thanks to Jonathan Shaheen, who figured this reference out.)

Speaking of the Philosophical Letters, I see that Hackett are going to publish an abridged edition, edited by Deborah Boyle, in August 2021. And examination copies are free (rather than merely cheap) if you order them in April.

[Post is updated from the original—see the comments.]

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I have storified this year’s Scientiae conference on emergent Early Modern knowledge practices, held in Toronto, May 27-29. The full report can be found here.

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Given that Cavendish has been getting a lot of love around here (and rightly so!), I thought readers of this blog might like to know that there will be a teaching edition of Margaret Cavendish’s Observations upon Experimental Philosophy published by Hackett (and edited by me).

I alluded to this in an earlier post asking what early modern texts are most in need of teaching editions. And I’m glad to see that I don’t need to make the case for the value of such an edition, which would make it easier to include her in early modern survey courses. Unfortunately, though, it likely won’t be available until 2016.

And if you are unfamiliar with Hackett’s series of teaching editions of key early modern texts, I’d recommend taking a look!

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A few of the Philosophical Letters

After putting together a small set of extracts from Margaret Cavendish’s Philosophical Letters for a class, I figured that others might find it interesting or useful, so I posted it online: Some of the Philosophical Letters.

That page presents five of the letters in part 1 of Cavendish’s book: letter 1 (which is introductory), letter 4 (the first letter on Hobbes, on the views about perception in ch.1 of Leviathan), letter 30 (the first letter on Descartes, on body and motion), letter 35 (on the alleged real distinction between mind and body), and letter 36 (on reason and non-human animals, discussing Descartes’s arguments in Discourse part 5). Together, they give examples of Cavendish’s criticisms of Descartes and Hobbes, while also introducing important aspects of her own views.

Some more textual details below (as well as on the page itself):


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I want to say a little bit about the way Margaret Cavendish thinks about causation.[1] A key aspect of that is an inversion, or set of inversions, of what other modern philosophers were up to. One prominent trend in modern philosophy was what is called mechanism. The central mechanist idea is that many natural phenomena are to be explained as the results of mechanical interactions. The shapes, sizes, and motions of the small parts of things explain, the mechanists argued, more than one might otherwise think. The mechanism of a clock provided a useful example: its apparently non-mechanical ability to tell the time is explained by the shapes, sizes, and motions of the parts inside. The mechanist project, so to speak, was to explain more and more of nature in this sort of way. Descartes provides an obvious example of someone taking this sort of approach. Hobbes provides an even better one, thinking that this sort of mechanical explanation applies to human cognition too.

That Hobbes and Descartes were wrong about things in this general area is one of the themes of the first part of Cavendish’s Philosophical Letters [PL].


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Lewis thought that it would be great to do some posts on philosophers outside the canon with some tips on how to integrate them into courses, and some information on their views and texts. So, here is a brief introduction to some of Margaret Cavendish’s views and some suggestions for integrating her into your courses, followed by a plea.

If you use the Atherton collection (see bibliography) in your early modern classes, it might be nice to supplement the selections with Cavendish’s statements of her views in Observations on Experimental Philosophy (CUP, 2001) or The Grounds of Natural Philosophy (available through the database Early English Books Online). I have taught Cavendish in an upper-division course where we were focused on issues concerning the nature of philosophical discourse and methodology. There, we read selections from OEP and then her science fiction work The Blazing World. Cavendish published The Blazing World in her 1666 and 1668 editions of OEP, so we were interested to see what connections could be made between these two very different types of discourse.

I also think that Cavendish fits nicely into survey of modern courses. Obviously, there are a number of issues that one can focus on in such courses. Margaret Atherton’s collection contains selections from Cavendish’s Philosophical Letters. The selection mainly focuses on Cavendish’s criticisms of Descartes. If you are interested in including more letters, you can visit Stewart Duncan’s excellent site: http://stewartduncan.org/letters-philosophical-letters/. Here, he has given a brief overview of the contents of all of PL. It is a large work, and it is also available through EEBO. In addition, I believe that those who like to focus on issues pertaining to materialism, perception, causation, and monism, could find ways to bring Cavendish into their courses. Below, I have summarized some of Cavendish’s views on these topics. I think that for more information on Cavendish’s philosophy, David Cunning’s SEP article and Eileen O’Neill’s “Introduction” to OEP are excellent sources.

This leads me to the plea. There is renewed interest in studying the views of early modern women philosophers, and this is great. But, we still have a challenge in getting critical editions of their work published. For instance, Cambridge University Press, who published OEP and Anne Conway’s Principles in their Texts in the History of Philosophy series, has said that although Conway has sold fairly well, the Cavendish volume has not. CUP has said they are only interested in publishing further volumes that will sell for classroom use. So, here’s the plea. If your library doesn’t have these volumes, or you do not have these volumes, it would be great if got them. The only way we can get presses to publish the works we need is to show that they sell!

Materialism: Cavendish is committed to the claim that everything that exists in the world is material. Although Cavendish sometimes seems as though she is also committed to the existence of an immaterial God, it is safe to say that for her, such a God would not be part of nature, or the world, so I will set God aside. Matter, according to Cavendish comes in three “sorts,” or “degrees,” or is “composed” of three “types.” These types are inanimate, sensitive animate, and rational animate. Inanimate matter is not self-moving and is not perceptive. Sensitive animate matter is self-moving and perceptive and moves inanimate matter. Rational animate matter is self-moving and perceptive and provides direction for sensitive matter. Cavendish tells us that these three sorts of matter are the constitutive parts of nature. Moreover, inanimate matter cannot become sensitive or rational, nor the sensitive rational or inanimate, nor the rational inanimate or sensitive. That is, each constitutive part has the features it does essentially.

Complete Blending: Cavendish holds that all three types of matter are completely blended throughout nature, so that even the smallest particle of matter (if there were such a thing) would contain all three. She writes, “no particle in nature can be conceived or imagined, which is not composed of animate matter as well of inanimate” (OEP 158). And again, in Chapter I of the appendix to the Grounds, she answers the question, “Whether it is possible there could be worlds consisting only of the rational parts, and others only of the sensitive parts,” by claiming “that is not possible.” (Here, I should note that Cavendish uses “worlds” to mean “planets,” so the modal claim is not as clear as it might be.) In these places, Cavendish seems to be making a claim about what is conceivable and, thus, possible. It is not even conceptually possible that the three degrees exist apart. This indicates that although the three degrees of matter have different essential properties, each degree is dependent upon the other two for its existence. Her reason for thinking that it is not possible that the three “parts” or “degrees” be separated is that “the Three Degrees being but as one united Body, they could not so divide, as not to be joyned to the other Degrees: for, it was impossible for a Body to divide it self from it self” (Grounds, App. Ch. 1).

Monism: The three sorts of matter constitute one united body. This body has constitutive parts and proper parts. The proper parts come into existence by composition within the one body and go out of existence by a process of division within the one body. These, Cavendish calls the “composed and mixed” bodies. If we take these claims seriously (the impossibility of the degrees of matter existing independently and the claim that all things are mere arrangements parts within the one body), then it seems to me that we can ascribe a sort of monism to Cavendish.

Harmony and Sympathy: For Cavendish, since the whole of nature is self-moving, perceptive, and self-knowing, all the parts are as well. Cavendish also holds that all of nature maintains a type of balance and harmony by having the three constitutive parts – nothing can be too swift or too heavy. She writes,

[F]or although the parts of nature are infinite, and have infinite actions, yet they cannot run into extremes, but are balanced by their opposites, so that all parts cannot be alike rare or dense, hard or soft, dilating or contracting, etc. but some are dense, some rare, some hard, some soft, some dilative, some contractive, etc. by which the actions of nature are kept in an equal balance from running into extremes. (OEP 26)

Cavendish’s nature, in order to maintain the structure and organization of the whole, prevents the parts from running to extremes. Moreover, all of nature generally exhibits sympathetic motion. Cavendish writes,

An influence is this; when as the corporeal figurative motions, in different kinds, and sorts of creatures, or in one and the same sorts, or kinds, move sympathetically: And though there be antipathetical (sic.) motions, as well as sympathetical; yet, all the infinite parts of matter, are agreeable in their nature, as being all material, and self-moving; and by reason there is no vacuum, there must of necessity be an influence amongst all the parts of nature (Grounds 15-6).

The sympathy between the parts of nature is due to the fact that each is part of one whole. This does not mean that the parts always work in agreement, for there is irregularity in nature due to the variety and free will of the parts.

Causation: Cavendish holds that matter is self-moving, perceptive, and rational. When an object, such a ball, is dropped in the sand. The sand will form, or pattern, the impression of the ball. However, the ball is not the primary cause of the indentation in the sand, although it is a cause of the indentation. The sand is the primary cause of the indentation and the ball is the occasional cause. The sand perceiving the ball, may choose to pattern itself in accord with the ball or it may not. Since all things are connected with one another and in a sort of sympathetic relation with one another, generally they choose to accommodate one another. However, it is possible for the sand to fail to accommodate the ball and in these cases discord ensues.  So, Cavendish’s solution to the problem of the transference of modes is simply to deny that there is any transfer at all. Each object freely chooses to accord with other objects or not.

Brief Bibliography of works and helpful secondary literature for learning a bit more about Cavendish:

Atherton, Margaret. Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1992

Broad, Jacqueline.  Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Cavendish, Margaret. Philosophical Letters: or, Modest Reflections Upon some Opinions in Natural Philosophy, maintained By several Famous and Learned Authors of this Age…. London, 1664.

_____. Grounds of Natural Philosophy: Divided into Thirteen Parts: With an Appendix containing Five Parts. London: A. Maxwell, 1668.

–––––. Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. Edited by Eileen O’Neill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

_____. The Blazing World and Other Writings. Edited by Kate Liley. London: Penguin Books, 2004.

Cunning, David. “Margaret Lucas Cavendish.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/margaret-cavendish/index.html

_____. “Cavendish on the Intelligibility of the Prospect of Thinking Matter.” History of Philosophy Quarterly 23: 2006, 117-136.

Detlefsen, Karen. “Atomism, Monism, and Causation in Margaret Cavendish’s Natural Philosophy.” Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy 3 (2005).

_____. “Reason and Freedom: Margaret Cavendish on the Order and Disorder of Nature.”Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 89 (2007): 157-81.

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My university’s library has a facsimile edition of Cavendish’s “Poems and Fancies”,which I checked out and am occasionally reading through a bit,

So I thought I’d periodically share some of her verse.  I have left her spelling as it is in the facsimile edition, but I updated the medial ‘s’ for greater legibility:

Motion is the Life of all Things

As darknesse a privation is of Light;

That’s when the Opticke Nerve is stopt from Light:

So Death is even a cessation in

Those Formes, and Bodies, wherein Motions spin.

As Light can only shine but in the Eye,

So Life doth only in a Motion lye.

Thus Life is out, when Motion leaves to bee,

Like to an Eye that’s shut, no Light can see.

Of Vacuum

Some thinke the World would fall, and not hang so,

If it had any empty place to go.

One cannot thinke that Vacuum is so vast,

That the great World might in that Gulfe be cast.

But Vacuum like is to the Porous Skyn,

Where Vapour goeth out and Aire takes in:

And though that Vapour fills those places small,

We cannot thinke, but first were empty all:

For were they all first full, they could not make

Roome for succession, their places for to take.

But as those Atomes passe, and repasse through,

Yet still in empty places must they go.

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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.


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One of Margaret Cavendish’s longer discussions of the supernatural soul comes towards the end of part 2 of the Philosophical Letters [PL], where she discusses the work of Henry More. Unlike More, who believes in natural, extended, incorporeal spirits, we ought — Cavendish thinks — to distinguish between natural and supernatural souls. Natural souls are indeed extended, but are corporeal. Supernatural souls are something else entirely. But what are they? At times, Cavendish appears inclined to say that we simply cannot say what the supernatural soul is, only that it is. Thus PL 2.29 begins “Touching the State or Condition of the Supernatural and Divine Soul, both in, and after this life, I must crave your excuse that I can give no account of it”. And the remainder of that letter is partly occupied with listing topics that we should not meddle with, some of which are “Poetical Fancy”. Elsewhere she offers reasons why we cannot, at least naturally, know anything about this soul. But Cavendish is nevertheless sometimes more forthcoming about what the supernatural soul is like.

Some seemingly relevant passages — the passages featuring immaterial spirits in the Blazing World — contain her own fancies. These passages are certainly related to philosophical discussion, but we cannot simply read statements about Cavendish’s views about immaterial beings out of that fictional work. They would contradict things she clearly states elsewhere, in her more directly philosophical writings. For example, the immaterial spirits in the Blazing World talk about the “corporeal vehicles” that they require, but in PL 2.29 Cavendish lists the vehicles of souls as among the things to be taken “rather for Poetical Fictions, then Rational Probabilities; containing more Fancy, then Truth and Reason, whether they concern the divine or natural Soul”.

Leaving the fiction and fancy aside, however, Cavendish did venture some claims about what the supernatural soul is like.


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Despite her materialism about nature, and her related view that the human mind is corporeal, Margaret Cavendish thought that human beings also have a divine and supernatural soul, which is not corporeal. There are plenty of questions one might ask about this, but for now I just want to ask when she thought this, and whether and why she changed her mind about the issue.

The view that there is such a soul is most prominent in two works of the 1660s in which Cavendish engages with the work of other philosophers, the Philosophical Letters (1664) and the Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666). The first engages with the work of Descartes, Hobbes, More, J.B. van Helmont, and others. The Observations engages with, among others, experimental philosophers such as Hooke and Power.

In the Letters we learn that the natural mind is material: “For the Natural Mind is not less material then the body, onely the Matter of the Mind is much purer and subtiller then the Matter of the Body. And thus there is nothing in Nature but what is material” (PL 2.6, 149). However, there is also another human soul: a “Divine Soul, which is not subject to natural imperfections, and corporeal errors, being not made by Nature, but a supernatural and divine gift of the Omnipotent God, who surely will not give any thing that is not perfect” (PL 2.26, 209-10). Similarly in the Observations: “The spiritual or divine soul in man is not natural, but supernatural, and has also a supernatural way of residing in man’s body; for place belongs only to bodies, and a spirit being bodiless, has no need of a bodily place (p. 79).

There are, as I said, plenty of questions about this. But for now I just want to notice that Cavendish seems not to always to have said this. To see this, one can look at another group of her works, a series of four books — or, we might say, four versions of the same book — in which she sets out her own views in natural philosophy.


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