studies in the history of science and culture

© April 2004
revised 6 December 2009

What’s in a name?

In the age of scientific revolution, c.1550–1700, what we now would call “science” was generally known as “natural philosophy.” Even the great Isaac Newton thought of what he did, and what he published in his Principia (1687) and Opticks (1704), as natural philosophy.

Today there is a trend among scientists such as Stephen Hawking to recover science as “natural philosophy.” I, too, would like to see the 17th-century physicist-philosopher identity refashioned for a 21st-century world. A reintegration of philosophy and science — or moral and natural philosophy — is a most worthy goal.

In the process, however, we must not forget about some other cleavages to be undone, such as the naming of natural philosophy as a male activity, and the she-philosopher, an aberration.

The canonical Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives an array of definitions for the proper feminine pronoun of the third person, nominative case, “she.” Number 10 defines “she-” as

Female. Applied to persons (now somewhat contemptuous).

with six usage categories:

a. Prefixed to ns. which are otherwise “common,” as in she-being, -cousin, dancer, thief, etc.; she-friend, a female friend, often in bad sense, a mistress; she-saint, a female saint; also transf. and fig.

b. Prefixed to ns. which naturally or usually denote a male person.

c. Prefixed to masculine nouns in place of the (frequently later) feminine noun in -ess. rare.

d. Prefixed, with the sense ‘that is a woman’, to ns. used fig. (chiefly in disparaging use). Also with intensive force, as she-woman. Now somewhat rare.

e. with names of plants. Cf. HE 8b. See also SHE-OAK.

f. with names of things = FEMALE a. 11.

Among those “subjects which naturally or usually denote a male person” (definition 10.b.) is the genus, human being. This particular conceit has biblical origins, and spawned the legal concept of the femme covert (the woman as covert in the man) in common law. Writing sometime before 1613, Sir Thomas Overbury noted:

At first both sexes were in Man combinde, Man, She-Man did with his body breed.
(from A wife now the widdow of Sir T. Overbury.
A poem of the choice of a wife. Whereunto are added
many witty characters
, edition of 1638, p. 45;
see complete OED definition, cites for no. 10.b.)

This notion of an originary hermaphroditic human being — to which many natural philosophers aspired (such as the alchemists, who held that the androgyne symbolized a divine sort of perfection attained by way of the creative union of opposites) — was always troubling for women, since it was often used to justify their subordinate status (known in the 17th century as “the female slavery”) and developmental neglect.

Enfolded in the simple nominal, she-philosopher, are actually several stories: one concerns the erasure of women practitioners — real-life historical actors — from the philosophical (both natural and moral) tradition; one has to do with the ongoing effort, across the centuries, to remasculinize science; and one has to do with the newly-constructed gender inequalities that each age throws up.

The “she-philosopher” — aka “Philosophress” (the term preferred by Margaret Cavendish), “philosopheress,” “philosophresse,” “philosophess,” “female vertuoso’s,” “Lady Science,” and “philosophical lady” (“... our Philosophical Ladies,” as Walter Charleton addressed them in the Preface to his The Ephesian and Cimmerian Matrons, pub. 1665 and 1668) — really came into her own in the late 17th century, and was largely the creation of print culture. The emerging market of “knowing Readers, particularly the Female Sex, that desire to become Philosophers, and acquainted in the World they live in,” as the 1687 translator of Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes put it, was becoming increasingly visible. In response, the she-philosopher would be stereotyped and become a stock character for that age’s version of the stand-up comedian — the hack writers, poets and dramatists who produced the stage satires that were among the most popular of entertainment genres.

Women had, of course, “become Philosophers, and acquainted in the World they live in” since antiquity, and it was widely held that the continuing personification of the various sciences as female figures had originated with real-life “women which were deified for invention, and heroic actions” (to quote Margaret Cavendish).

In his 1594 translation of the Spanish psychological study Huarte’s Examination of Men’s Wits (Examen de Ingenios para las Sciencias, by Juan de Dios Huarte, first pub. 1578), Richard Carew wrote:

There haue been ... many she Greeks ... specially seen in the Sciences.
(see complete OED definition, cites for no. 10.a.)

Indeed, in his Historia Mulierum Philosopharum (Amsterdam, 1692), Menagius counted them and recorded that 65 women philosophers were mentioned in the writings of the ancients. And there were many more ancient she-philosophers who went unnamed, like some of the women Pythagoreans, c.540–520 BCE, who wrote under the name of Pythagoras, as did all members of the mystical Pythagorean Order, a scientific community which included men and women on equal terms. (Plus, it was Pythagoras who coined the word, “philosopher.”)

In the 17th century, the stories of ancient she-philosophers were still being retold by men of science, such as John Aubrey, who took his own narrative of Aspasia (printed in his 1696 Miscellanies upon the Following Subjects) from Thomas Stanley’s four-volume History of Philosophy (1655–1662) — an important sourcebook for Margaret Cavendish, as well.

Aspasia (not to be confused with the much earlier Aspasia of Miletus, an Athenian she-philosopher who taught Socrates, among other celebrated he-philosophers) was a second-century Phoenician woman doctor of legendary beauty, and the mistress of Cyrus the Younger and Artaxerxes (kings of Persia). Aspasia’s medical writings on obstetrics, gynecology and surgery were (along with Cleopatra’s, a Roman medical writer of the 2nd century) the canonical texts on the subject until those of Trotula appeared in the 11th century. For example, Aetios of Amida, court physician to a 6th-century Byzantine emperor, quoted Aspasia extensively in his medical encyclopaedia. (Alic, Hypatia’s Heritage, p. 33)

Aubrey’s interest in Aspasia had to do with her “knowledge as is commonly called the second-sight,” which “relates only to things future, which will shortly come to pass.” Aubrey admits that some say that the faculty of second-sight comes “by compact with the Devil; some say by converse with those daemons we call fairies,” but Aubrey knew it to be teachable, as with certain Persian mystical sects: “The Wisdom of the Persian Magi was (besides other things proper to them) conversant in prediction: they foretold [many things] ... In which they erred not.”

Aubrey, who described himself as having certain “feminine” traits, like a susceptibility to “fascination” —

... My idea very cleer; phansie like a mirrour, pure chrystal water which the least wind doth disorder and unsmooth--so noise or etc. would [“disorder my phansy”] ...

— chose to emphasize Aspasia’s “Additaments of Second-Sight,” long a defining characteristic of prudence and wisdom. According to Aubrey, Aspasia’s intuitive foreknowledge and ability to predict the outcome of a particular course of action gave her unusual skill at social and political forecasting. And her well-developed women’s intuition proved useful not only to Persian kings, but in managing a relationship of near “equality” with her first exalted husband.

But Aubrey’s kind of historical memory, which was as interested in the stories of women as much as men, competed with a kind of gendered forgetfulness, a tradition of history that deliberately erased the she-philosopher and her distinctive voice.

In the most blatant type of historical rewriting (which will be encountered again with Trotula during the Middle Ages), “Aspasia” is said to have been a man — “Aspasios” — or the title of a lost text on women’s diseases written by a man.
(Alic, p. 194n22)

This sort of thing happened to another ancient she-philosopher, Diotima — priestess of Mantinea, erstwhile teacher of Socrates, and “probably a Pythagorean” (Alic, p. 26). Diotima, whose name means “godliness” and whose teachings were described in Plato’s Symposium (composed c.385–75 BCE), developed an “integrative view of love as ‘begetting on a beautiful thing by means of both the body and the soul’”:

Embodied in Diotima’s name and developed in her teaching are compound questions concerning the nature of Love, the extent to which it is a divinity, and how it is to be honored. Many of her points hearken back to pre-Olympian teachings concerning the phusis or nature of the soul, of eros, and of logos as forever intertwined and intertwining, of discourse as love, and of lovers of discourse.
(C. Jan Swearingen, “A Lover’s Discourse,” p. 39)

But at the end of the 15th century, the influential Florentine neoplatonist, Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) determined that Diotima had never existed outside of Plato’s imagination (even though this would make her Plato’s only fictitious character). It was inconceivable, opined Ficino in his 1485 Oratio Septima II, that such an exalted philosopher could have been a woman. Comments Mary Ellen Waithe:

For nearly nineteen centuries Diotima was, as the archeological evidence supports, considered a historical person. Ficino’s remark on the absurdity of thinking a woman a philosopher achieved and retained the status of received doctrine for the next 500 years. Indeed, had some artisan not created what classical archeologists and numismats agree is a realistic portrayal of Diotima on the 4th century, B.C. equivalent of a book-jacket, Diotima might still be considered a fictitious creation of Plato. Although the archeological evidence does not prove that Diotima really existed, it shows why the burden of proof should rest on those who, almost two milennia later, and on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, assumed that she did not.
(Mary Ellen Waithe, “Diotima of Mantinea” p. 106)

The 4th-century BCE “equivalent of a book-jacket” to which Waithe refers is a small bronze relief (at one time in the collection of the Museo Nazionale di Napoli) which was an overlay for the wooden cover of the cassette (or container) that originally housed the ancient roll of Plato’s Symposium (one of the oldest roll papyri surviving, and in 1987, part of the Oxford University Collection). The bronze relief has been interpreted by the noted classical numismat, Otto Jahn, as depicting Socrates and Diotima engrossed in “holy meditation,” a reading which was seconded by the classical archeologist, Paolino Mingazzini: “... for those who have read the Symposium, [Diotima] is undoubtedly a real person, resembling that portrayed in the bas-relief.”

While the artist’s vision of Diotiman dialogue may or may not have drawn on real-life sources, Ficino’s “unsubstantiated assumptions and inconclusive interpretations of Plato’s text” are especially troubling in light of his own constructions of the original androgynous Adam — for the Florentine neoplatonists, a symbol not just of moral virtue, but of reintegration and union in the One beyond Being.

The neoplatonic modeling of the ideal hermaphrodite, with its reintegration of universal feminine principles, and blatant disregard of female persons, enabled what Kathleen Welch and others have named “woman erasure.”

In our own haste to forge new identities that somehow get beyond the simplistic reductions of bipolar gender, we must be careful that we don’t do the same.

The Third Sex

(two early-modern visions)

portrait of
Francis I
king of France
from 1515–1547

Edgar Wind reads this as an allegorical portrait with a conventional neoplatonic theme (the divine viewed as polymorphic, with particular gods such as Mars and Venus, or earthly kings, such as Francis, “animated by a law of self-contrariety, which is also a law of self-transcendence”). Here, “the bearded warrior” displays “the anatomy of a virago” but the shock of the picture’s hermaphroditism “is lessened by the emblematic style of the painting which reduces the portrait to a hieroglyphic design, a mystical cipher of divine perfection,” with Francis (the “grand roi qui surpasse Nature”) linked two lines later to “Minerve, Mars, Diane, Amour, Mercure.” Comments Wind: “In their extravagance these courtly compliments revert to a primitive way of picturing the numinous: they conceive of the supernatural as composite.” (Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, p. 214)

Carità united with fortezza recalls “the divine identity of wrath and love which is the secret of the Bible.” (Wind, p. 95) But the yoking of Love and War has another ancient pedigree, traceable to the Greeks. Both traditions were refashioned in the Renaissance code of chivalry, which combined a martial spirit with amiability, representing the “double life” of the average courtier (as warrior and lover).

or “a newly
animal not
known in
Buffon’s time”

Although pictured as of an equally “commixt” (a popular 17th-century term) nature, the figure’s male half, with his surgical tools in hand (he holds a lever), would come to dominate over the female half, with her herbal remedies and kitchen fire (she boils water). The new tools of the man-midwife’s trade are given pride of place in the picture: forceps, boring scissors, and a blunt hook (all labeled) hang on the wall behind the male half of the figure, while “This shelf for my own use” holds bottles labeled “Love Water,” “Cantharides” (the aphrodisiac popularly known as Spanish Fly), and “Cream of Violets.” The result is an inharmonious picture, with a well-balanced scene for the male half, and a great deal of vacant space defining the female half.

Illustration from Man-midwifery dissected; or, the obstetric family-instructor, by S. W. Fores (London, 1793)


There are additional distinctions, which I do not yet understand, in the 19th-century differentiation of “she-being” from “she-man,” as we find in Gerald Manley Hopkins’ statement in his Sermons & Spiritual Writings (1881):

“The woman, that is she-being, not she-man, of the Apocalypse.”

Even so, the she- prefix signifies that human being in both cases is still equated with the male gender. (see complete OED definition, cites for no. 10.a.)


“A female philosopher; also, the wife of a philosopher.”
(Oxford English Dictionary)


From the 1728 edition of Chambers’ Cyclopædia:

“PHILO, a Term originally Greek, form’d of ..., amicus, Friend, Lover; used in Composition in several Words in our Language.”

e.g.: philomath (“a Lover of the Mathematicks”).

“PHILOSOPHER, a Person well vers’d in Philosophy; or who makes Profession of, or applies himself to the Study of Nature and Morality.... The Sects of Philosophers are very numerous; and their Dogmata, or Tenets very contradictory.”

Helmont and some of the Chymists denominate themselves Philosophers by Fire. See CHYMISTRY.”

“The Alchymists and Adepti are frequently denominated the Philosophers by way of Eminence.”

The ancient equation of natural and moral philosophy with love, or wisdom of the heart, has spiritual overtones that have been lost with time. Both the he-philosophers, Athanasius Kircher and Cornelis Drebbel, and the she-philosopher, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, were exemplar of this style of philosophical practice.

Today, we find a more secular model of this in a generalized “love of learning” — an intellectual habit that the 17th-century virtuosa and virtuoso of arts & sciences valued highly.


By 1500,

“... the neat gender distinction of brewster and brewer was fading away. In a trend common in English and other languages, the male brewer increasingly served for both sexes, but, rather surprisingly, brewster sometimes did the same, particularly in northern England.”
(Judith Bennett, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England, p. 3)

Between 1300 and 1600,

“... the brewing industry was transformed. In 1300, brewing was a small-scale, local industry pursued by women who worked from their homes. Compared to other industries (such as cloth working or gold-smithing or even the closely related baking), it was unorganized and underdeveloped. By 1600, brewing in many cities, towns, and villages was so large scale and so centralized that it was assuming a leading role — managerially, technically, and commercially — among other contemporary industries. It was also largely controlled by men. All of these changes occurred slowly and unevenly, but they were inexorable. In 1600, although small brewers could still be found, especially in the north and west, the large commercialized breweries of London represented the future of the trade.”
(Bennett, p. 9)

In 1661, John Evelyn attributed London’s choking air pollution — by which “one half of them who perish in London, dye of Phthisical and Pulmonic distempers” and “the Inhabitants are never free from Coughs” — to the breweries and a few other polluting industries (“Brewers, Diers, Lime-burners, Salt, and Sope-boylers, and some other private Trades”).


“‘Midwife’ meant ‘with-woman’, suggesting that the midwife was the woman who would be with the mother during the delivery.”
(Adrian Wilson, The Making of Man-Midwifery 26)

As happened during the late medieval period to the English beer trade, the introduction of new high-tech equipment within the field of midwifery was partly responsible for the changing nature of women’s work and status in the area of obstetrics and gynecology.

The 18th-century man-midwife is probably the best-known example of the ambiguously gendered professional.


an IN BRIEF topic on neoplatonic notions of an originary Third Sex
(aka the mystery of Janus, the Aristophanic Man, the androgynous Adam, the Hermaphrodite Rebis)

an IN BRIEF topic on The Five Sexes

a webessay on 17th-century women’s names

an IN BRIEF topic on Abraham Cowley’s he-philosophy

an IN BRIEF topic on Montaigne’s gay she-philosophy

a brief discussion of Stephen Hawking’s 21st-century philosopher-physicist model & an even briefer discussion of Huarte’s Examination of Men’s Wits, as translated by Richard Carew in 1594, in the LIBRARY monograph, Time, Soul, Memory

a somewhat dated, but still useful, paper on 17th–18th century popular science directed at women, also in the LIBRARY

a more recent paper on popular science during the age of scientific revolution

a contextualized discussion of the femme covert, part of the GALLERY exhibit on Margaret Cavendish’s melancholic persona

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