Early Modern Women on Metaphysics ed. by Emily Thomas
Insofar as historians of philosophy aim to get the story right, it is now widely recognized that they must reckon with works of early modern women philosophers—oft-neglected philosophers who read, and were read by, canonical luminaries such as Descartes and Leibniz. Thomas’s volume collects thirteen new contributions to the scholarship on the metaphysics of such authors: Mary Astell, Elisabeth of Bohemia, Margaret Cavendish, Catharine Trotter Cockburn, Émilie Du Châtelet, Bathsua Makin, Damaris Masham, and Anna Maria van Schurman. Cavendish, Conway, and Du Châtelet receive multiple chapters.
The quality of each chapter is excellent. Most could have been published as journal articles in their own right. Thus, though it advances no overarching historical narrative, the volume significantly advances our understanding of each figure discussed. Moreover, the contributors are careful to spell out the central claims of the extant literature; the volume serves as a clear snapshot of the scholarly conversation as it stands today. Given the space available in a brief review, I discuss some highlights, along with some more controversial entries, although all the entries pull their weight.
Frederique Jannsen-Lauret provides a new interpretation of Elisabeth of Bohemia’s philosophy of mind. On Lisa Shapiro’s influential interpretation, Elisabeth’s correspondence with Descartes reveals her to be a nonreductive materialist. Jannsen-Lauret provides persuasive reasons to think the text does not directly support this reading; in particular, Elisabeth’s suggestion that the soul might be both thinking and extended does not entail materialism. Instead, Jannsen-Lauret urges, we do best to read Elisabeth as a dualist keen to “purge [Cartesianism] of the remnants of scholasticism” (180). This persuasive chapter is not to be missed by those interested in the history of Cartesianism.
Both Katherine Brading and Andrew Janiak have chapters on Du Châtelet worth highlighting. Brading examines her account of the nature of bodies, while Janiak discusses [End Page 167] her metaphysics of gravitation and its relationship to the views of Newton and his followers. Brading’s chapter, in particular, gives us a detailed picture of Du Châtelet’s own views—Leibnizian metaphysical rationalism tempered by Newtonian distaste for hypotheses—using well-selected quotations that give a good sense of her voice. Both chapters whet the appetite for more Du Châtelet.
More controversially, Karen Detlefsen develops an interpretation of Margaret Cavendish’s account of natural laws. Cavendish aims to avoid appeals to the divine or supernatural in her explanation of natural order. How to do this? Detlefsen proposes that Cavendish’s panpsychism is a crucial ingredient in her explanation: bodies do not obey natural laws from blind necessity, but on the basis of rational and sensory knowledge. When two bodies interact, the resulting state of each body is the state it wills to enter given its knowledge of the “proper behaviour” prescribed by nature (78). In this way, the order of nature is grounded in bodies themselves. However, Detlefsen also holds that, for Cavendish, all bodies have “the radical freedom to act other than as they do actually act” (78–79). Detlefsen calls this claim “controversial,” but the situation seems worse than that—it undermines the explanation of natural order. If each body can freely elect not to obey nature’s prescribed order, it remains unexplained why bodies overwhelmingly do behave in lawful ways.
Another chapter sure to be controversial is Emily Thomas’s entry on Conway’s account of identity over time. The problem is an important one. Conway accepts a theory of metempsychosis, allowing for creatures to change dramatically during their existence. A horse may be reborn as a more perfect being—a human, perhaps, or (if my guess is right) a dog. What accounts for its identity over time? Thomas argues that, for Conway, “the identity of creatures consists in the sameness of the material of the soul over time” (141). One problem is that Conway holds that spirits are composite, changeable entities, so we also need an account of the identity of the soul. Thomas replies that, although the soul is composite, its composition is unchanging (143). However, a deeper problem remains. Mind-body causation occurs via emanation of parts from soul to body and vice versa (144). Yet if the soul’s composition always remains numerically identical, it cannot emanate any of its parts. In that case, the soul would have no means of interacting with the body after all. Thomas’s reading thus leaves Conway with something similar to the mind-body problem, which her metaphysics was supposed to overcome.
These critical points serve only to highlight that the volume considers a range of sophisticated and exciting metaphysical arguments worth our attention. Every chapter is a reminder of this fact, even those that will no doubt lead to further debate. Thomas’s volume is indispensable both for scholars already working on these figures and for those who want an entry point into this burgeoning literature.