Posts Tagged ‘Teaching Early Modern Philosophy’

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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