Lisa T. Sarasohn, The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish

Lisa T. Sarasohn, The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish: Reason and Fancy during the Scientific Revolution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 251 pp. £39 hb. ISBN 0-8018-9443-3.

Previously dismissed by historians of science, Margaret Cavendish’s philosophy has only recently begun to receive serious critical enquiry. Lisa Sarasohn’s book will encourage further study through its articulation of difficult philosophical concepts and by charting the progression of Cavendish’s thought as it changed over time. As such, the book appeals to scholars of various disciplines without alienating students – it is the most comprehensive and accessible introduction to Margaret Cavendish’s natural philosophy currently available. As the subtitle suggests, it also convincingly shows how Cavendish harnessed contemporary ideology on female imagination to create a material philosophy of the world that weaves reason with fancy.

The strongest chapters are two through eight, which move chronologically through Cavendish’s publications to demonstrate how her theories on matter evolved. Cavendish first introduced her material philosophy through fiction, explaining ‘Errour might better passe there, then in Prose’ (quoted on p. 34). Poems, and Fancies (1653) and Philosophicall Fancies (1653) offered a complicated Epicurean atomism that also embraced vitalism and integrated theological motifs. When read together, they argue that matter and motion are the two essential properties of the universe. She also used fairies as a metaphor for atoms: the dancing motion of these tiny beings provoked thought and feelings in living creatures. In an attempt to cultivate a more serious persona, Cavendish then moved to non-fiction; her treatises of 1653 and 1655 repudiated atomism in favour of a more vitalistic materialism. Here she argued for a living matter that was eternal, often referred to as innate matter. Because it used stronger motions, innate matter was superior to its counterpart, dull or inanimate matter. Innate matter was composed of two kinds of matter – rational and sensitive matter – thereby resulting in three kinds of matter (rational, sensitive, and dull). Her hierarchy of matter was politically fuelled – like Thomas Hobbes, Cavendish realised traditional material philosophy could act as a metaphor for political disorder. In Cavendish’s revised materialism, ‘innate matter rules just as a monarch governs the state’ (p. 71).

As Cavendish distanced herself from atomism and increasingly developed her vitalistic materialism, she had to revise her earlier views of nature and the role of God in the universe. In chapter three Sarasohn demonstrates how Natures Pictures (1656) combined a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction genres to produce a new cosmogony that attempted to answer some of the more difficult metaphysical questions in her evolving philosophy. In ‘The She-Anchoret’, for instance, disorder results from all matter striving for power. Sarasohn juxtaposes many of the eponymous character’s passages on predestination and free will with those of Hobbes, demonstrating how Cavendish incorporated Hobbesian theories of physical determination into her moral philosophy.

Cavendish’s life changed dramatically after Charles II was restored to the throne. Not only did she become a Duchess, but she and her husband could return to England. This allowed her more time to study the writings of other natural philosophers, and her political philosophy continued to influence her natural philosophy. Sarasohn is always careful to read each text in its cultural and intellectual context and against what is known of Cavendish’s biography, thereby substantiating her interpretations of Cavendish’s sarcasm, humour, or intentional omission of details. We learn that in Cavendish’s revised version of Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1663) she now aimed to explain how the hierarchy of matter could be rearranged to avoid disorder (much like people under the monarchy). Her politics led her to develop a holistic materialism that revised her earlier vitalistic materialism. While she still argued for a triumvirate of matter (rational, sensitive and inanimate), the key change is that the parts now unite to create a whole, allowing the political metaphor for unity of the state. She also became more aggressive in her interactions with other philosophers: Philosophical Letters (1664) attacked theories of matter and motion in the works of Rene Descartes, Henry More, and Joan Baptista Van Helmont. As she moved into male territory, Cavendish also adopted a more explicitly gendered critique, deploring men’s arrogance for thinking they could understand and control Nature. These ideas were further explored in Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666) – an attack on the new experimentalism in response to Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665) – and the utopian fiction Blazing World (1666); however, these later works are less polemical, as Cavendish then tried fashioning herself as an honourable intellectual opponent.

By the time Cavendish published her final works in 1668, Plays and Grounds of Natural Philosophy, Sarasohn argues that she was willing to explore some of the absurd implications of her vitalistic materialism. Some topics, like whether human beings could be regenerated by ‘restoring beds’, sound like modern science fiction. Like her Plays published the same year, Grounds is less serious than her preceding works, both of which recall some of the light-heartedness found in the poetry she’d written over ten years earlier.

Sarasohn also reinterprets Cavendish’s famous visit to the Royal Society, held on 30 May 1667. Couched in theories on early modern wonder, monstrosities and spectacle, Sarasohn argues that Cavendish’s deportment and dress established her as the main attraction, reducing Robert Boyle’s experiments to “sideshow stunts” (p. 32). Initially presented in chapter one, the argument is reintroduced at the end of chapter seven and made more convincing when considered after the thoughtful close-readings of Observations upon Experimental Philosophy and Blazing World, both of which were published in 1666, the year prior to Cavendish’s Gresham College visit. As Sarashon explains, Cavendish ‘was translating into the actual world what her doppelganger had already accomplished in the imaginary world’ (p. 172).

This meticulous tracing of Cavendish’s evolving philosophy allows the reader to gain greater insight into Cavendish as a person and a better understanding of the confusing, and often contradictory, elements of her philosophy. However, readers of this interdisciplinary website may be disappointed to learn that this is quite a disciplinary reading of Cavendish, firmly rooted in the history of natural philosophy. Sarasohn is correct that the majority of studies on Cavendish have come from literary scholars (p. 235), and a study positioning Cavendish within the history of science is refreshing and welcome. However, a more interdisciplinary assessment of gender and publication politics could have prevented Sarasohn from occasionally overstating her claims. For example, there are some bold statements about how difficult it was to be an early modern woman writer, but her sources often date from 1980s feminist scholarship that has been helpfully complicated or revised by more recent work on women’s writing. Another underlying current – how Cavendish self-fashioned herself as a female natural philosopher – could have been further developed through comparison with other early modern female intellectuals who did not face the same ridicule, such as Anne Conway or Lucy Hutchinson (primarily discussed in literary circles). But just as there are several literary studies of Cavendish already available, perhaps a historical study is needed before a substantiated interdisciplinary analysis can be posited.

Sarasohn handles the great variety and complexity of Cavendish’s works very well, and her expertise in the history of science and philosophy allows her to tackle difficult passages often avoided by scholars. This convincing analysis makes a strong argument for historians to read these works as serious philosophical treatises, and it will certainly provide the foundation for interdisciplinary analyses that draw more from the field of early modern women’s writing.

Michelle DiMeo, Georgia Institute of Technology