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  • Margaret Cavendish's Nonfeminist Natural Philosophy
  • Deborah Boyle (bio)

I. Introduction

Until about twenty-five years ago, the standard assessment of Margaret Cavendish's philosophical work was typified by Virginia Woolf's remarks: "It was from the plain of complete ignorance, the untilled field of her own consciousness, that she proposed to erect a philosophic system that was to oust all others. The results were not altogether happy."1 Recent studies have been more sympathetic. The current consensus is that Cavendish's writings were, in fact, informed by the work of her contemporaries, and that she was critiquing the newly popular mechanistic philosophy of nature.2 [End Page 195]

Several recent papers and books have argued that Cavendish's work in natural philosophy foreshadows some twentieth-century feminist philosophers' critiques of epistemology and science.3 Such readings are not embraced by all Cavendish scholars, but they still have a substantial number of adherents. These readings fall into three groups: arguments that early atomistic poems present an alternative, female way of knowing; arguments that such an alternative epistemology occurs in Cavendish's Blazing World; and arguments that her ontology was driven by feminist concerns for the implications of atomism and mechanism. Such interpretations, however, are in need of reassessment.4 I believe there is in fact very little evidence for attributing such protofeminism to Cavendish. To show this, I begin with a chronological overview of her natural philosophy, and then return to the three groups of interpretations to discuss why they fail. Finally, I consider (and reject) the possibility that she saw [End Page 196] the fact that she was a woman writing philosophy as having feminist implications.

II. The Development of Cavendish's Natural Philosophy

Cavendish's first published work, Poems, and Fancies (1653), presents an atomistic theory in verse. In the poem "A World Made by Atomes," she writes that "Small Atomes of themselves a World may make, / As being Subtle, and of every Shape: / And as they dance about, fit places finde, / Such Formes as best agree, make every kinde."5 The next poem identifies four primary shapes of atoms,6 and subsequent poems offer atomistic explanations of such natural phenomena as heat and cold, life and death, sickness, tides, and frost. Cavendish admits vacuum both between and within atoms.7

Do the poems on atomism represent Cavendish's considered philosophical opinions? She herself remarks that her account should not be reckoned "authentick," for ideas expressed in verse are "fiction," and "Fiction is not given for Truth, but Pastime."8 Even concerning the very existence of atoms, she writes:

Nature gives no such Knowledge to Man-kind, But strong Desires to torment the Mind: And Senses, which like Hounds do run about, Yet never can the perfect Truth find out. O Nature! Nature! Cruell to Man-kind, Gives Knowledge none, but Misery to find.9

Indeed, she is skeptical whether human thinkers can ever know truths about causes in nature:

to know the Cause of any one thing of Natures workes, Nature never gave us a Capacity thereto. Shee hath given us Thoughts which run wildly about, and if by chance they light on Truth, they do not know it for a Truth.10

Given these expressions of skepticism and her description of the poems as "fiction," we cannot assume that Cavendish was presenting atomism as a true scientific theory. [End Page 197]

It should be noted that atomism and mechanism are distinct philosophical positions. Thus, Cavendish's early expression of atomism is not necessarily mechanistic, nor is her later rejection of atomism of a piece with her rejection of mechanism.11 Although there were many versions of mechanism in the seventeenth century, all attempted to explain natural phenomena by appeal merely to the motion and rest of bodies, where such motions could result only from collisions with other bodies. As various scholars have shown, there were also many versions of atomism in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries;12 indeed, given the range of views said by their proponents (or detractors) to be forms of atomism, it is difficult and perhaps even misguided to try to define atomism. For the most part, atomistic theories held that atoms...


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