- Early Modern Women on Metaphysics by Emily Thomas
Early Modern Women on Metaphysics is a groundbreaking work—the first collection of essays devoted exclusively to the metaphysical views of women in the early modern period. Edited by Emily Thomas, this impressive volume contains thirteen original essays from established and up-and-coming historians of philosophy. The book is divided into five parts: Meta-metaphysics (one essay), Metaphysics of Science (three essays), Ontology (four essays), Metaphysics of Minds and Selves (three essays), and Metaphysics of Morality (two essays). The works of nine women philosophers are covered: Damaris Masham, Margaret Cavendish, Émilie Du Châtelet, Bathsua Makin, Anna Maria van Schurman, Anne Conway, Elisabeth of Bohemia, Mary Astell, and Catharine Trotter Cockburn. Most of the philosophers are discussed in a single essay, but those who wrote more on metaphysics are discussed in multiple essays. Cavendish gets the most attention with four essays, while two essays apiece are written on Conway and Du Châtelet.
There is not space to discuss all of the essays in this review, but let me briefly mention several of the stand-outs. In "Émilie Du Châtelet: Physics, Metaphysics, and the Case of Gravity," Andrew Janiak challenges the familiar reading of Du Châtelet's Institutions de physique as primarily an attempt to provide a Leibnizian metaphysical foundation for Newton's physics. He argues that Du Châtelet took Newton to have failed to provide a clear answer to the question of whether gravity is essential to matter. Without an answer to this question, it was not at all clear how to understand Newton's momentous assertion in proposition 7 of book 3 of the Principia that "Gravity is in all bodies universally." Du Châtelet, in contrast, provides a treatment of essences in the Institutions that allows her to provide a clearer characterization of the force of gravity and its relation to matter. While Du Châtelet did not use metaphysics as a foundation for physics in the ways that Descartes or Leibniz did, she did use the resources of metaphysics to provide a more philosophical and systematic physics than Newton was able to provide.
Karen Detlefsen's chapter provides an account of Cavendish's views on the laws of nature and the order of the natural world. She argues that Cavendish has an interesting middle position in the transition from premodern to modern ways of thinking about laws and order. She makes the case that Cavendish's views anticipate Evelyn Fox Keller's contemporary feminist account of natural order. The paper also includes illuminating remarks on metainterpretative issues such as the debate over [End Page 151] contextualist approaches to the history of philosophy and whether philosophers writing in the early modern period can be appropriately regarded as feminist philosophers.
Another strong paper on Cavendish is written by Deborah Boyle, who tackles the challenging topic of creation ex nihilo and the eternity of matter. While philosophers such as Bonaventure thought that the thesis that the material world is eternal is incompatible with the thesis that God created the world ex nihilo, Cavendish appears to have endorsed both theses. Some commentators have tried to argue that Cavendish didn't actually endorse both theses, or at least that she shouldn't have endorsed them both. Boyle, in contrast, provides a nuanced reading of Cavendish according to which she can consistently maintain that God created an eternally existing universe ex nihilo.
A few of the essays take particularly creative approaches to addressing metaphysical questions. Sara Uckelman, for example, looks at the educational treatises of Bathsua Makin and Anna Maria van Schurman to gain insight into the way that people conceived of the nature of women in the early modern period. Uckelman helpfully reconstructs the respective approaches, arguments, and presuppositions that these thinkers made in defending the thesis that women should be educated. She also contrasts Makin and van Schurman's approach with that of Samuel Torschel. While Torschel argued for essentially the same conclusion about the education of women, only Makin and van Schurman provide some...