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Mary Astell's Ironic Assault on John Locke's Theory of Thinking Matter

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 62, Number 3, July 2001
pp. 505-522 | 10.1353/jhi.2001.0030

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Journal of the History of Ideas 62.3 (2001) 505-522

Mary Astell (1666-1731), most famous today for her call for the establishment of Protestant nunneries in Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part I (1694) and for her acute Reflections Upon Marriage (1700), has lurked for years at the edges of that infinitely contentious category "feminism," but she is only now beginning to receive her rightful inheritance as a theological and philosophical thinker, probably the title she would most have preferred. This is not to say that Astell's Christian-Platonism has been ignored. In her 1986 biography Ruth Perry gave cogent expression to the centrality of Astell's idealist Christianity to all aspects of her thought and in the same year, Bridget Hill thoughtfully warned her readers against attempting to force Astell, a religious conservative, "into some preconceived idea of what late seventeenth and early eighteenth century feminism ought to have been." More recently, Patricia Springborg has written two significant essays that rely in part on Astell's more neglected theological-philosophical works, Letters concerning the Love of God (1695), a collection of Astell's correspondence with John Norris of Bemerton (1657-1711), and The Christian Religion, As Professed by a Daughter of the Church of England (1705; 3d edition 1730), far and away her most developed theological-philosophical statement. Despite these important forays, however, both Letters and Christian Religion continue to be largely ignored, as is suggested by the relative dearth of scholarly work on either text and the short shrift each receives in anthologies of Astell's works. Despite the great popularity of Letters throughout the eighteenth century and despite the fact that, as Springborg points out, Astell considered Christian Religion "her magnum opus," neither text has found new life in a modern edition.

This omission creates a rather vexing problem for would-be scholars of Astell's philosophical and theological ideas. The major primary texts themselves not being available, we have little choice but to rely on the limited accounts of other scholars for our information. Over a decade ago, for instance, The Journal of the History of Philosophy published a long note by Kathleen M. Squadrito on "Mary Astell's Critique of John Locke's View of Thinking Matter," and hers has since been the standard (if not quite only) account of this historically fascinating and important philosophical comment in Christian Religion. Squadrito wants, she writes, to "present a short account of [Astell's] work and her criticism of Locke's view of thinking matter." Unfortunately, Squadrito's account of Astell's "work" is significantly flawed, which leads her to serious mischaracterizations of Astell's "criticism" of Locke's hypothesis. Briefly put, Astell's "own philosophy" in Christian Religion does not, as Squadrito claims, emerge "as an attempted reconciliation of the views of Norris and Locke" ; because she supposes it does, however, Squadrito is able to present Astell's critique of Locke's theory of thinking matter as a respectful, even-handed philosophical analysis, a theoretical bridge, as it were, between the Platonism of Norris and the Empiricism of Locke. As we shall see, Astell's critique of Locke's hypothesis actually amounts to a bitterly ironic assault, wherein Astell does not so much build bridges as burn them. Just why Astell in Christian Religion decided not to strike a middling position between Locke and Norris, and how this decision invigorated her attack on Locke's materialist hypothesis, are the primary questions this essay seeks to answer. In order to arrive at such answers, however, it is necessary first to examine the text in which Astell does attempt to carve out a position between Locke and Norris, namely Astell and Norris's Letters.

The basic history of Letters is well enough understood. Mary Astell, a well-read young woman of significant perspicacity, first wrote in 1693 to the already famous Platonist (and disciple of Nicolas Malebranche [1638-1715]) John Norris with a question about Norris's thesis that God, as the efficient cause of all our good, should be the only object of our love; her letter initiated the correspondence later published in 1695. The text went through three editions (1695, 1705, 1730) and...

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