- Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, and: Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher
Recent work on women philosophers has, in general, approached the topic from two vantage points: on the one hand, a number of anthologies have been published, wherein commentators present a small portion of the woman thinker's work, often without the background necessary for a fuller understanding. On the other hand, some few women philosophers have been the subject of full-length works, but these have tended, by and large, to be women thinkers of the twentieth century, with whose work we are already familiar. Two recent books, one by Jacqueline Broad and the other by Sarah Hutton, go a long way toward improving the situation.
Work by Eileen O'Neill, Sarah Hutton and Margaret Atherton, among others, has helped familiarize us with the notion that the seventeenth century—that era so commonly associated with Descartes and the rise of modern philosophy—was also a time of rich theorizing by women philosophers. Jacqueline Broad's book possesses many virtues: it has the finely-tuned style of the careful historian, while at the same time not failing to demonstrate acquaintance with a range of contemporary feminist commentary. Part of the problem in addressing women thinkers of the past is another version of what we are now tempted to call the essentialism problem: does it make sense to think that there is a style that might be demarcated as "feminine," or that might, in some way, pertain uniquely to women theorists? These are difficult issues, but a partial response to the question is to try to remember that it is not for no reason that women thinkers have, indeed, been left out of the canon. As Broad herself says, women philosophers "are now mere footnotes to the standard historical-intellectual accounts of the early modern period" (p. 1).
Broad does a superb job of navigating between the need to set out the plain tenets of the thinker's philosophy, and the desire to try to tie it into these larger questions. In six chapters, she addresses the work of Elizabeth of Bohemia, [End Page 200] Margaret Cavendish, Anne Conway, Mary Astell, Damaris Masham and Catharine Trotter Cockburn The chapters on Elizabeth, Margaret Cavendish and Mary Astell are particularly strong—here part of the difficulty is that we do have familiar commentaries addressing the work of these women, and it is hard to try to see them in a new light. We are accustomed, for example, to think of Elizabeth merely as Descartes's correspondent. As is the case with information that is currently coming to bear on the question of Harriet Taylor Mill's input into the work of John Stuart Mill, it is difficult for us to see Elizabeth as a thinker in her own right, or, indeed, to give her the credit that Descartes himself gave her; as Broad notes, he had described her as "the only person I have so far found who has completely understood all my previous works" (p. 13). Margaret Cavendish's reputation has suffered from the somewhat scattered approach of her writings, and Broad cites her "reputation for eccentricity" (p. 38). Nevertheless, the sheer volume of her work and its allusion to the problems addressed by the Cambridge Platonists (areas also worked on by Anne Conway) demands that she be taken far more seriously than she has in the past. Astell has become known largely for her more overtly feminist works, such as A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, but she was also the author of several other pieces addressing issues in metaphysics, and again the amount of her work and its citation during her own time would militate against the notion that it should not receive thorough examination.
Broad does a wonderful job of setting out the main philosophical questions found in these theorists' works, and she excels at pitting their views against those of the various male philosophers whose work—according to...