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  • The Well-Ordered Universe: The Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish by Deborah Boyle
  • Karen Detlefsen
BOYLE, Deborah. The Well-Ordered Universe: The Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. x + 273 pp. Cloth, $79

Recently, scholars have paid increasing attention to the intellectual innovations of the seventeenth-century thinker, Margaret Cavendish. This attention has come from scholars of philosophy, literature, history of science, and women's studies. A number of book-length studies focusing on her philosophy have been published in recent years. Deborah Boyle's masterly study, The Well-Ordered Universe: The Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish, is one among these books, and it effectively solidifies Cavendish's reputation as an intellectual force of the early modern period.

As the book's title suggests, Boyle argues that the idea of order is central to Cavendish's philosophical interests: "I argue in this book that focusing on these motifs [of peace, war, order and disorder, as well as the related themes of regularity and irregularity] is a fruitful approach for understanding multiple facets of Cavendish's philosophical thinking: her natural philosophy, her political theory, her views on gender, her views about the relation between humans and the natural world, and her medical theory." Boyle uses this focus to argue against one common approach to Cavendish, namely, that Cavendish's work lacks a systematicity and coherence, and that this lack of coherence is part of her intellectual project. By contrast, Boyle argues that by focusing on the theme of order, we are able to see the coherence at the heart of Cavendish's project. At the same time, Boyle argues that this coherence does not translate into an especially strong unity across the various domains of Cavendish's philosophy. Specifically, a number of commentators have recently argued that Cavendish maintains a nonhierarchical view of the natural world. Some among these commentators extend this nonhierarchal approach to Cavendish's philosophy about the human world, for example, by arguing that she believes in gender equality, and that she is not the inegalitarian, royalist political theorist that many believe she is. Boyle argues against extending the nonhierarchical reading of nature to the human world, arguing instead for an asymmetry in Cavendish's thought; according to Boyle, that is, Cavendish believes that men and women are not equal, and she is a royalist who advocates for political inegalitarianism. [End Page 355]

Boyle covers a wide range of topics in Cavendish's early, developing works, for example, her early endorsement of atomism, which soon gives way to her later vital materialism, according to which matter is an infinitely divisible plenum that is thoroughgoingly animate, rational, and sensitive (chapters 2–3); Cavendish's theory of the individuation of specific creatures (chapter 4); her theory of the nature of humans (chapter 5), including how humans do and should organize into societies (chapter 6), the relationship between genders (chapter 7), and human embeddedness in the broader natural world (chapter 8); and Cavendish's views on health and her medical theory (chapter 9).

Boyle's work is analytically careful. She helpfully clarifies the philosophical terrain so that a nuanced reading of Cavendish emerges. For example, early on Boyle makes clear that the idea of nature has three meanings in Cavendish—the infinite whole of creation that is Nature, the individual parts that are found within this whole, and the nature of matter itself as a completely blended mixture of animate rational, animate sensitive, and inanimate forms of matter—and that an accurate reading of Cavendish requires being clear on her meaning at any given time. As another example, Boyle is careful to distinguish and analyze various arguments found throughout Cavendish's work, for example, her various arguments for why matter must be eternal and infinite.

Boyle's work is also grounded in an attunement to the context in which Cavendish forged her philosophy. She draws on a wide range of philosophers of Cavendish's time to demonstrate how Cavendish was engaged with the ideas of Hobbes, Descartes, Bacon, More, and others as she developed her own original positions on a number of philosophical topics. One section of the book where Boyle's close attention to context is especially...


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pp. 355-357
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