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  • Producing Petty Gods: Margaret Cavendish’s Critique of Experimental Science
  • Eve Keller

The fathers of early modern science did not wait for their descendants to write their myth of origins: from Bacon’s proclamation in 1620 “to commence a total reconstruction of . . . all human knowledge” to Thomas Sprat’s boast nearly half a century later that the members of the Royal Society had, for the first time, rendered “the knowledge of nature . . . an Instrument whereby Mankind may obtain a Dominion over Things and not onely over one anothers Judgements,” the men involved in advertising the mechanical philosophy and the new mode of experiment advertised as well the revolutionary promise of their endeavors. 1 They were the prophets of a new age, and the golden world they were striving to build would be dedicated, as Bacon said, to “the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.” 2

During the past thirty years, this story has been subject to critical revaluation: revisionist histories from sociological and feminist perspectives tell other stories, stories that focus on social and political relationships and on ideological desires more than on the progress of reason and the discovery of truth. Assessing the now familiar metaphors of violence against women employed routinely during the seventeenth century to describe the relationship between the powerful force of the male scientist’s mind and the resistent but ultimately submissive body of female nature, Sandra Harding suggests only half-jokingly the substitution of the phrase “Newton’s Rape Manual” for the more common, but equally metaphoric tag, “Newton’s mechanics.” 3

Such critical substitutions are slowly becoming commonplace, as feminist historians and literary scholars turn their attention to the foundational texts of early modern science. But it is perhaps less widely recognized that critical valuation of the stories the “fathers” wanted to tell about themselves—valuation, that is, of the stories as stories—was available even as they were being told. One such voice of opposition belonged to Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, [End Page 447] who set out, with no formal credentials other than her impressive social title, to critique the newly chartered institution of mechanist and experimental science, the Royal Society. In two intriguingly joined texts, Observations on Experimental Philosophy (1666), a response to Robert Hooke’s Micrographia published the previous year, and The Description of a New Blazing World, a utopian science fiction fantasy, Cavendish boldly interrogates the epistemological assumptions and the social agenda that underlie the mechanical philosophy and the experimental method, and, in the process, offers a critique of the new science that is remarkably sensitive to its social and gendered construction.

Although she carried on a correspondence with both Joseph Glanvill and Constantin Huygens, Cavendish’s efforts in natural philosophy were by and large either ignored or derided in her own day. While in exile from the Commonwealth government in the 1640s, she had the opportunity to meet Gassendi, Mersenne and Hobbes, along with some of the other important proponents of the newly emerging mechanical philosophy, and, after her return to England at the Restoration, she was granted admission for one day to the Royal Society to watch selected experiments performed for her amusement and, presumably, her admiration. 4 But these opportunities were made available to her only because of her social status: connected with the royal court and married to William Cavendish, one of King Charles’s leading military commanders, Margaret had aristocratic standing long before she became a duchess. Knowing that her sex alone disqualified her from any serious consideration among her contemporaries as a natural philosopher, Cavendish sent copies of her philosophical works to both Oxford and Cambridge, hoping that, although ignored in her own lifetime, her work would be kept and discovered in aftertimes, among a more congenial audience. 5 The universities magnanimously complied, though again probably because, given her social status, it would have been an outrageous insult not to have done so. 6 But others were not so silent: Dorothy Osborne, reflecting on Cavendish’s ostentatious publication of her writings, considered that “there are many soberer people in Bedlam”; Pepys reported in his diary on the Duchess’s visit to the Royal Society that he did...

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