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The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish

Reason and Fancy during the Scientific Revolution

Lisa T. Sarasohn

Publication Year: 2010

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, led a remarkable—and controversial—life, writing poetry and prose and philosophizing on the natural world at a time when women were denied any means of a formal education. Lisa T. Sarasohn acutely examines the brilliant work of this untrained mind and explores the unorthodox development of her natural philosophy. Cavendish wrote copiously on such wide-ranging topics as gender, power, manners, scientific method, and animal rationality. The first woman to publish her own natural philosophy, Cavendish was not afraid to challenge the new science and even ridiculed the mission of the Royal Society. Her philosophy reflected popular culture and engaged with the most radical philosophies of her age. To understand Cavendish’s scientific thought, Sarasohn explains, is to understand the reception of new knowledge through both insider and outsider perspectives in early modern England. In close readings of Cavendish’s writings—poetry, treatises, stories, plays, romances, and letters—Sarasohn explores the fantastic and gendered elements of her natural philosophy. Cavendish saw knowledge as a continuum between reason and fancy, and her work integrated imaginative speculation and physical science. Because she was denied the university education available to her male counterparts, she embraced an epistemology that favored contemplation and intuition over logic and empiricism. The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish serves as a guide to the unusual and complex philosophy of one of the seventeenth century’s most intriguing minds. It not only celebrates Cavendish as a true figure of the scientific age but also contributes to a broader understanding of the contested nature of the scientific revolution.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science


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pp. vii-

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pp. ix-xi

This book began as a footnote to my study of Pierre Gassendi. Margaret Cavendish was almost unknown in 1984 when I published “A Science Turned Upside Down: Feminism and the Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle,"...

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Introduction: Gender, Nature, and Natural Philosophy

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pp. 1-14

The emblematic device of the Royal Society, the mark of its belief in experimentation as a way to understand nature, was the air-pump, used by Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke to mea sure the pressure of air and the viability of living creatures in a vacuum. But the air- pump generated a result the experimenters did not anticipate, at least for one imaginative commentator...

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One: A Wonderful Natural Philosopher

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pp. 15-33

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, was a stupor mundi, a wonder of the world, a spectacle amazing and puzzling— then and now. When she went to London to visit the Royal Society, Samuel Pepys described “100 boys and girls running looking upon her,” while at the same time he desperately attempted to view her himself. “There is as much expectation of her coming to Court, that so many people may come to see her,” he writes...

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Two: Cavendish’s Early Atomism

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pp. 34-53

It was no easy task to be a female natural philosopher or poet in seventeenth century England. A preface to Poems, and Fancies expresses both Margaret Cavendish’s self-doubt and her justification for writing: she wrote in verse, she explained, because “Errour might better passe there, then in Prose” and “Fiction is not given for Truth but Pastime.”...

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Three: The Life of Matter

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pp. 54-75

When Margaret Cavendish began to write natural philosophy, she joined what was becoming the most important intellectual activity of the day, an enterprise that had already produced the three major mechanical phi los o phers of the seventeenth century—Gassendi, Descartes, and Hobbes. But writing natural philosophy presented a unique set of challenges...

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Four: The Imaginative Universe of Natures Pictures

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pp. 76-99

In Philosophicall Fancies and Philosophical and Physical Opinions, Margaret Cavendish began her search for a new natural philosophy in earnest. The modification, transformation, and elaboration of the atomism of Poems, and Fancies occupied most of her attention and were to a certain extent motivated by her change of genre from poetry to prose. But her distancing from the atomic ontology of matter in motion, and the development of her vitalistic materialism, affected how Cavendish thought about the divine and the natural...

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Five: The Politics of Matter

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pp. 100-125

Between the publication of Philosophical and Physical Opinions in 1655 and its revision in 1663, another world opened for Margaret Cavendish. In 1660, Charles II was restored to the English throne, and his loyal followers returned to England. Newcastle set to work to restore his ruined estates, and the king rewarded his loyalty by making him a duke...

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Six: The Challenge of Immaterial Matter

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pp. 126-148

In the mid-1660s, Cavendish’s feelings of alienation from both the civil sphere and the republic of letters increased dramatically. Her early works had not received the response for which she had hoped. She thought she “should be highly applauded” because “self-conceit, which is natural to mankind, especially to our Sex, did flatter and secretly perswade me, that my Writings had Sense and Reason, Wit and Variety.”1...

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Seven: Cavendish against the Experimenters

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pp. 149-172

Experimental philosophy presented Margaret Cavendish with a problem. In Philosophicall Fancies, she had condemned alchemy but used some of its terminology to explicate her emerging natural philosophy. In Philosophical Letters, she attacked the Paracelsian notions of Van Helmont and equated the manipulation of nature with torture...

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Eight: Material Regenerations

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pp. 173-189

Never one to leave a fertile image or a speculative fancy undeveloped, Cavendish filled her last original works, the 1668 edition of Plays and Grounds of Natural Philosophy (1668), with elaborate themes and images from her earlier work. But the last two differ from the earlier treatises (and fancies) in tone. By this time in her career, having fully developed her own natural philosophy and delivered her scathing critiques of other philosophies...

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Conclusion: Does Cavendish Matter?

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pp. 190-197

The cultural historian Robert Darnton writes in the introduction to his classic study of early modern culture, “When we cannot get a proverb, or a joke, or a ritual or a poem, we know we are on to something. When picking at a document where it is most opaque, we may be able to unravel an alien form of meaning...


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pp. 199-234

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Essay on Sources

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pp. 235-241

Margaret Cavendish’s increasing prominence in studies of seventeenth- century literature and science has resulted in an explosion of works about her and her ideas, mostly written by students of English literature. This study aims to interpret Cavendish in the context of the scientific revolution (an increasingly problematic category), the history of gender, and the history of political thought...


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pp. 243-251

E-ISBN-13: 9780801898631
E-ISBN-10: 0801898633
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801894435
Print-ISBN-10: 0801894433

Page Count: 272
Illustrations: 1 halftone
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science
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OCLC Number: 659502664
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish

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Subject Headings

  • Science -- Philosophy -- History -- 17th century.
  • Feminism and science -- England -- History -- 17th century.
  • Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of, 1624?-1674 -- Knowledge -- Physics.
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