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Perspectives on Science 9.3 (2001) 341-365

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The Legacy of Margaret Cavendish 1 - [PDF]

Eric Lewis
Virginia Tech

By all accounts Margaret Cavendish occupies a unique but difficult to define position as a critic of early modern experimental philosophy. As a woman of prominence by both birth and marriage, she obtained a certain degree of access to the leading intellects of her day; and consequently, she has been often portrayed as an intellectual insider. She is said to have dined with Gassendi, Descartes, and Hobbes, the latter for whom her husband was patron. Yet her works, as audacious as they sometimes are, depict their author as defensive, isolated, and struggling to overcome barriers of education, language, and gender. At times she is compelled to squelch rumors of plagiarism and defend her works as her own. Even her friendly critics tend to be glib about the fruits of her pen. Despite her literary and philosophical works being widely ignored and more often rejected as incoherent than relevant when reviewed by her contemporaries, the past three decades have witnessed a revival of interest in her scholarship and the birth of new narratives concerning her intellectual importance.

Until recently Cavendish's work generated little attention by historians of philosophy and literature. Perhaps ironically, the Duchess's literary reputation [End Page 341] survived mostly because she authored the biography of her husband The Life of the Thrice Noble High and Puissant Prince William Cavendishe, Duke, Marquess, and Earl of Newcastle (1667), a source typically scoured for information about the political fortunes and liabilities of the Duke. 2 William Perry, however, helped lift Margaret Cavendish from her relative obscurity in his book, The First Duchess of Newcastle and Her Husband (1918). Despite the title, Perry devotes the first part and major portion of his work to discussing the Duke. His commentary on the Newcastles centers around their literary contributions, and he marginalizes Lady Cavendish by calling her "most famous and important single work" her 'historical' biography, referring to the biography of her late husband. 3 He claims that the author "emerges from the text a fallible mortal like the rest of us, only a trifle more warped and lopsided than modern psychology tells us that we all are" (p. 4). Further, Perry claims "all her work looks insignificant next to the Life of Newcastle" (p. 315). This critique of Lady Cavendish's literary talents epitomizes how she is remembered by historians of literature and science for half a century: She deserves recognition in spite of the substance of her labors because she enters an intellectual world monopolized by men.

Lady Cavendish's scientific exploits fare little better at the hands of later historians. If her scientific methodology is not suspect or considered severely hampered by circumstance, it is written off as outside her interest. Samuuel Mintz (1952) comments that Cavendish, unlike many of her more famous contemporaries, could not rise above the stature of a virtuoso and that she "would never submit to the discipline of scientific procedure, because she saw no value in it" (p. 168). Worse still, he claims that she had no interest in scientific methodology at all. Yet given her explicit critique of Hooke's microscopic work and her critical emphasis on observation and technology as employed by the Royal Society, we could instead read Mintz as saying that her methods were not those of science. 4 Perhaps slightly [End Page 342] more sympathetic to Cavendish's philosophical exploits, Douglas Grant (1957) could not help but conclude: "her fancy was irrepressible." Consequently, in her most explicitly scholastic work in natural philosophy (Grounds of Natural Philosophy, 1668), her fancy "revolted as irresponsibly against the discipline she had tried to impose upon it as it had done in the Blazing World" (p. 211). This earlier work is a utopian fantasy novel published jointly with her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy in 1666. But Grant is willing to contribute at least some of Cavendish's fanciful ways to circumstance. He muses: "as she was unable to check her conjectures by experiment, she could never proceed to firmer conclusions...


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