- The Philosophy of Mary Astell by Jacqueline Broad
The study of female philosophers of the past has come a long way in the last two decades. Until relatively recently, special pleading was required in order to make the case that there were any women philosophers and that they deserved to be taken seriously. Since then the picture has changed radically. Not only are the philosophical credentials of women philosophers better known, but many more women have been recognized as philosophers. It is increasingly taken for granted that philosophers today should pay attention to women’s contributions to their discipline. Many other developments in both feminist philosophy and the history of philosophy have helped change the picture, among them a positive reappraisal of women’s use of reason, recognition of the importance of Cartesianism for early modern women philosophers, as well as work on neglected philosophers with whom they actually [End Page 504] engaged (in Astell’s case, John Norris, Henry More, and Nicolas Malebranche). Nevertheless there are many unresolved questions, in particular, whether there is an identifiably female tradition in philosophy, and how we integrate neglected women philosophers into the teaching canon.
Ruth Perry’s admirable biography (The Celebrated Mary Astell, 1986) was instrumental in calling attention to Mary Astell’s significance as a writer and feminist. But re-establishing her as a philosopher has had its own particular challenges, largely because her manifest piety and Tory political views have served to deter feminists and philosophers alike. Jacqueline Broad’s The Philosophy of Mary Astell is set to change all that. The first monograph on Astell as a philosopher, it represents the culmination of the author’s work on early modern women philosophers, which began with her ground-breaking Women Philosophers (2003). More recently, she has edited Astell’s major philosophical text, The Christian Religion as professed by a Daughter of the Church (2014). In both she adopted a contextualized approach to Astell’s thought, attentive to the text, mapping out Astell’s sources and influence. This work has located Astell on the philosophical map, as a post-Cartesian, indebted to both Cartesianism and the philosophy of Henry More, and engaged with the thought of John Locke.
Building on this earlier work in her monograph, Broad discusses Astell on her own terms, examining her philosophy in the light of her own questions and concerns, rather than ours, especially her concern with the “art of living well.” Hence the central focus of the book is Astell’s moral philosophy, and its epistemological and metaphysical underpinnings. Without apology either for Astell’s claims to being considered a philosopher, or for her manifest piety, Broad shows how Astell’s religious values inform her philosophical analysis, and underpin both her ethics and her feminism. For Astell, the norms of conduct issue from a primary recognition both of God’s existence and of God’s perfection as a benevolent originator; this gives authority to everything she argues on behalf of women as human beings deserving of the same treatment in life and society as men. The chapter divisions trace the trajectory of her philosophy from first principles toward areas of particular relevance to women: Knowledge, God, Soul and Body, Virtue and the Passions, Love, Marriage, Moderation. Particular attention is given to Astell’s method of judgment, her concept of the self, her thinking on the passions, her ideas of generosity and friendship, and her critique of marriage and despotism. She shows how, for Astell, the freedom to philosophize was integrally connected to the exercise of virtue in the real world, cultivation of the mind being a prerequisite for our capacity to make informed judgments and autonomous choices. What emerges is a coherent philosophy that places high value on women’s self-esteem, and where the emotions, love, and the supportive value of friendship have central place. Broad argues that Astell represents a distinctive female voice in ethics, since her ethical concerns are specific to women and are not represented in men’s ethical writings. Instead of spending time trying to explain Astell’s...