Hypatia 17.1 (2002) 183-196
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Ideas in the Mind:
Gender and Knowledge in the Seventeenth Century
"Neither doth our Sex
delight or understand
(Margaret Cavendish, 1664)
It is well known that the seventeenth century was a great age of women writers. In many countries, from Europe to the Americas, women put pen to paper, producing a remarkable stream of poetry and prose in Latin as well as the many vernacular tongues of their native lands (Smith 1982; Lewalski 1993; Merrim 1999). A significant portion of these works found their way into print, in some instances in the lifetime of the author, and in other instances, as posthumous publications edited by the men who admired them. Such publications provide modern readers with fruitful traces of an active life of the mind on the part of early modern women philosophers that we have only just begun to understand. "[M]y Thoughts are so Busie in my Brain," declared the prolific Duchess of Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish, in her Sociable Letters (1664), "as they neither Regard, nor take Notice what Enters through the Ears" (Cavendish 1997, 162). For Cavendish, like many other learned women of her generation, it was the interaction between the mind and the hands that occupied a great deal of her life. Had she not seen so much of the world and conversed with so many people, she confessed, "I should never have writ of so many things" (Cavendish 1655, 47).
Despite the significant body of philosophical writing left behind by early modern women, very little of it has been available to modern readers. In 1930 Marjorie Hope Nicolson made available the remarkable correspondence of Anne Conway (1631-1679) with the Cambridge philosopher Henry More, and allied documents pertaining to her life and thought. Now re-edited in 1992 by Sarah Hutton, with an excellent introduction and the addition of twenty-three letters and the wills of Conway and More, The Conway Letters provide a rich [End Page 183] portrait of the life of an early modern woman philosopher as seen through her epistolary network that developed between approximately 1650 until her death in 1679 (Nicolson and Hutton 1992). Among its highlights is a detailed account of what Hutton aptly has called elsewhere "the first correspondence course in Cartesian philosophy" (Hutton 1997, 219)--a philosophical education conducted mostly between Cambridge and Ragley Hall, the Conway family estate in Warwickshire. One of the important emendations Hutton has made to the Conway correspondence is the inclusion of a series of letters written between Conway and More in 1651 that discuss in greater detail her reaction to reading Descartes' Principles of Philosophy (see Appendix B in Nicolson and Hutton, 1992).
More broadly, the letters chart Conway's intellectual and spiritual evolution. They offer us tantalizing glimpses of her responses to More's Cambridge Platonism and the fascination with Christian cabbala shared by More and Francis Mercury Van Helmont; they record Conway's criticisms of Descartes, Hobbes, and other modern philosophers that would be echoed more fully in her posthumous The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (1690) that has also been recently edited and translated by Alison Coudert and Taylor Corse (Conway 1996). They capture the fascinating mix of theology and philosophy that defined intellectual life in the mid-seventeenth century, including Conway's eventual decision to convert to Quakerism in the face of her husband's and More's disapproval. In short, this is a significant record of a significant mind--all the more interesting because Conway's precarious and highly publicized ill health created a philosophical circle around Conway that was as devoted to efforts to cure her body as they were to the engagement of her intellect.
Following the publication of the Conway letters in 1930, no significant writings by seventeenth-century women philosophers appeared in print until the 1990s. The past decade, in particular the last few years, has seen an unusual outpouring of modern editions of such works. Thanks to Margaret Atherton, we now have an anthology of early modern woman...