a Library publication

Library Catalog No. DTB1990
(reissued 21 August 2012)

An Early Challenge to the Precepts and Practice of Modern Science: The Fusion of Fact, Fiction, and Feminism in the Works of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623–1673). PhD diss. University of California, San Diego, 1990. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1990. 9023994.
(Item 7 of 12: Chapter 4)
by Deborah Bazeley
e-Copyright © 2004–2016 < >
see also Part 1: Editor’s Introduction for Library Cat. No. DTB1990


Chapter 4

A (Re)Feminized New Science Project: Cavendish’s Philosophical and Physical Opinions

4.1   A Question of Metaphors

As discussed in appendix B, institutionalized New Science denied metaphor any part in the search for and declaration of truths (see B.4). Although, at the beginning of the century, Bacon argued an Aristotelian role for metaphor in the New Science — novel ideas arrived at through a presentation of underlying similarities — by century end, Locke (and others before him) had reinvigorated Platonic binarisms separating philosophy (cognitive discourse, literal language) from poetry (emotive discourse, figurative language). These forced oppositions were then further exaggerated by successor empiricist and positivist projects that for centuries dominated Western intellectual traditions.

Today, the cognitive role of metaphor in science is once again the subject of vigorous scholarly debate.<1> As a result, “it is no longer a foregone conclusion that metaphor is dispensable” to the production of scientific knowledge (Johnson 49). Increasing numbers of scholars contend that analogic and metaphoric reasoning form the basis of all cognition. With this discovery, accustomed definitions of metaphor — like those of “objectivity” and “truth” (see A.3.6) — have been revised. Metaphor as simply “the application of language to something it does not literally denote” is no longer accepted as an adequate description. New definitions of metaphor introduce “the extra-sentential and even extra-linguistic context of an utterance” (Johnson 51). Thus, “it is not linguistic expressions themselves that are metaphors, but particular uses of them.” The focus of study has shifted from the “meaning” of linguistic constructions (which scholars argue doesn’t exist as a fixed thing) to what the comprehender attributes as meaning and the process by which she/he does so (Hoffman and Honeck 7).

To those who would argue that the heavily gendered metaphors of the New Science are of no real consequence in the history of Western science, feminist scholars point to the crucial, albeit still little understood, cognitive role of metaphor.<2> Sandra Harding, while acknowledging that such gender-related paradigms have aided the growth of scientific knowledge in the past, queries “at what social cost?”:

We can still ask, for whom was the information useful that science produced through knowledge-seeking guided by gender metaphors?... Have women, as women, benefited from the “penetration” into virtually all aspects of contemporary social life of forms of scientific rationality that serve to consolidate and maintain bourgeois, Western, masculine identity at the expense of women’s abilities to direct their own destinies?
(The Science Question 239)

Margaret Cavendish asked much the same set of questions some 300-plus years ago.

4.1.1 New Science Gender-Related Imagery

The gendered metaphors of prominent New Scientists have been the subject of considerable feminist scrutiny.<3> The New Science gendering of nature as feminine, science as masculine, and truth as the byproduct of a forceful “masculine” interrogation of nature, are discussed separately in appendix A (see A.1, A.3.5, A.3.6). One of the more benign expressions of this occurs in Sprat’s History of the Royal Society where nature is presented as “a Mistress, that soonest yields to the forward, and the Bold.” For Sprat, bold courtship on the part of the New Science meant that “The Beautiful Bosom of Nature will be Expos’d to our view”; “we shall enter into its Garden, and tast of its Fruits, and satisfy our selves with its plenty” (124, 327). Brian Easlea pointedly contrasts Sprat’s image of “return to the maternal breast after successful masculine possession of the mistress” with Bacon’s more commonplace conceit “of the conqueror’s enslavement of the defeated and raped adversary” (Sexual Oppression 85).

In sum, the body of New Science imagery depicted nature as a feminine Other, in an adversarial relation of opposition to the male scientist. In more optimistic moments, nature was “slave” to the New Science, rendered a passive, “dull” or lifeless clump of matter. More often, however, she was “very coy and sullen,”<4> willful and inconstant, a capricious changeling. The male scientist perceived himself fairly consistently as nature’s would-be “master” (often, “rapist”), seeking ultimately to appropriate nature’s power and render “her” duly subservient to God and man.<5> Not surprisingly given this intent, the New Scientist’s preferred investigative method was controlling and dominating, also portrayed as exacting and (re)masculating. “True knowledge” was consonant with order, hierarchy, and a linear understanding of being and nature that would “follow all the links of” the Great Chain of Being

... till all their secrets are open to our minds; and their works advanc’d, or imitated by our hands. This is truly to command the world; to rank all the varieties, and degrees of things, so orderly one upon another; that standing on the top of them, we may perfectly behold all that are below, and make them all serviceable to the quiet, and peace, and plenty of Man’s life. And to this happiness, there can be nothing else added: but that we make a second advantage of this rising ground, thereby to look the nearer into heaven....
(Sprat, History 111)

4.1.2 Cavendish’s Recourse to Alternate Gender-Related

An entirely different set of metaphors underlay Cavendish’s alternate New Science theory and practice. In her cosmology, nature was still very much gendered as feminine: “thou art a she, dame Nature thou art” (1662 Playes 140). But there was an affinity — a relation of identity — between nature and Margaret Cavendish, nature being “of the Female kind herself” (1662 Playes 145). Nature was not Other, but same. Hence, Cavendish emphasized shared sympathies: “I am tender natured, for it troubles my conscience to kill a fly, and the groans of a dying beast strike my soul” (A True Relation 313).<6>

Cavendish also conceived nature as powerful, uninhibited and unconfined. “All Creatures, and so Matter, desire liberty,” she wrote (Philosophical Letters 465). She cast nature as the mother organism, the cosmic life force, delightfully various and dynamic. The “wild Inconstancy” that so threatened other New Scientists was celebrated by Cavendish as part of the cycle of life-death-renewal. In “The Tale of the Four Seasons of the Year,” nature is lyrically pictured as a woman evolving through the changes of life, with the seasonal passage of spring to summer to autumn to winter and back to spring described in strangely evocative terms of changing fashions, moods, and actions. It is a moving portrait of Cavendish’s love of nature as she found it (Natures Pictures 101–6).

Reminding us that “making facts is a social enterprise,” Ruth Hubbard identifies the household as a “place of discovery and fact-making” (16, 20). In order to most properly “Express my Meaning,” Cavendish early drew on the seemingly — because not popularly deemed fitting to “so Grave a Subject” — “Extravagant and Fantastical” comparisons intrinsic to domestic experience (1663 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 447).<7> Her most frequent characterization was of nature as “a good Huswife” with her “Brewing, Baking, Churning, Spinning, Sowing, &c. as also ... Preserving ... and ... Distilling” (Observations 102). Cavendish portrayed nature as “a grave, wise, methodical Matron, ordering her Infinite family, without needless troubles and difficulties.” Also, “she is very industrious, and hates to be idle ... she has numerous employments; and being infinitely self-moving, never wants work” (Philosophical Letters 302, Observations 102). With this as her starting point, Cavendish drew freely on domestic images for her understanding of the natural world. In particular, she favored metaphors associated with spinning, weaving, and dress-making.<8> One of Cavendish’s most important themes (nothing in nature is new — all is just endlessly recycled; see 4.7 below) is cast in these terms: “Whatsoever [nature] works,” we are told, “are but Patterns from her old Samples” (Worlds Olio 175). Elsewhere we learn how the human brain is like a screen or fan; how air is like cloth; that light resembles threads of silver; darkness, a snarled skein of silk (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 110, 76–7, 79–80). Other favored metaphors invoke women’s fashion, domestic management, cooking, and family relations. Household metaphors everywhere inform Cavendish’s New Science project.

Modeling her New Scientist on a “feminine” principle, Cavendish imaged the (still male) scientist as nature’s “Platonick Lover.”<9> Her ideal scientist sought not to dominate, but “to be acquainted with nature, and to observe the course of her works, yet in a humble and respectful manner” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions a2r). In this, Cavendish’s favored method of investigation resembled that of the modern-day ecologist — passive observation of the world as it is, rather than experimental simulations of it. Her New Scientist “peeps” gently, traces, contemplates, respects.<10> Nature is not the subject, but “the tutress to man”: “she, like as a fond parent, leads and directs man to discoveryes, and as it were, points and markes out their wayes, and ... explaines and expounds her selfe by her works.” Sometimes, “Nature behaves her selfe like a Huntress, and makes Mankind as her Hounds, to hunt out the hidden effects of unknown causes, leading Mankind ... by the string of observation, the string of conception, and the string of experience”; “sometimes Nature is as a Paintress, and the mind of man is as the Copy of Nature, drawn by her selfe” (1662 Playes 138). Following this model, natural inquiry was not so much exacting as liberating. For Cavendish, “true knowledge” was consonant with freedom, spontaneity, and the variousness of natural processes. Natural philosophy indulged man’s senses and emotions, giving ample

... room for the untired appetites of man, to walk or run in, for so spatious it is, that it is beyond the compasse of time; besides, it gives pleasure in varieties, for infinite wayes are [strewed] with infinite varieties, neither doth it binde up man to those strickt rules as other Sciences do, it gives them an honest liberty....
(1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions a1v)

4.2   An Early Ecofeminist Critique of the New Science<11>

Because of gender identification, Cavendish observed a direct relation between her society’s domination of women and what she justly delineated as the New Science attempt to dominate nature. She saw both nature and woman as locked in an ongoing power struggle with patriarchal practices and ideology. This early conviction was further bolstered by continued study and her own interaction with the world of learning. Cavendish argued that both women (in reality) and nature (in New Science theory) were denied free will, “self-motion,” and self-governance. Her theories (and the metaphors on which she drew) promoting nature as infinite, self-moving, all-powerful creator — supreme over man — stemmed in large part from her need as a woman to resist patriarchal oppression and controls.<12>

Cavendish’s ecofeminist analysis focused derisively on man’s “presumptions and arrogancy” in making himself “the chief over all Nature, and to believe Nature was onely made for his sake; when as he is but a small finite part of Infinite Nature, and almost Nothing in comparison to it” (Philosophical Letters 278–9). Cavendish clearly relished this opportunity to prick at the bubble of divinity surrounding the patriarch. Man merely deludes himself, she wrote, in thinking “we set the rules” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 29). Furthermore, his own “Interest” rather than any commitment to truth-seeking compels him to “extoll [his] own Kind above all the rest, or above Nature her self” (Observations 114). Thus, “out of self-love, and conceited pride, because he thinks himself the chief of all Creatures, and that all the World is made for his sake,” man “doth also imagine that all other Creatures are ignorant, dull, stupid, senseless and irrational; and he onely wise, knowing and understanding” (Observations 297–8; see also Philosophical Letters 309). Her scorn for such self-delusion masquerading as “fact” was unbounded.

Cavendish thus rejected New Science hierarchical images of nature as “the great chain of being” with man at the apex of creation.<13> She argued forcefully that man is not, in Henry More’s phrasing, “The flower and chief of all the products of nature upon this Globe of the earth” (Philosophical Letters 147). Rather, “if we observe well, we shall find that the Elemental Creatures are as excellent as Man ... and so the rest of all Creatures; so that I cannot perceive more abilities in Man then in the rest of natural Creatures” (Philosophical Letters 147). Similarly, she disapproved of New Science hierarchies that privileged one part of the human body over all other parts. She would not concede to learned opinion that the life force resides in a single part of the body — either mind, soul, stomach, heart, blood, fourth ventricle of the brain, or elsewhere — and she rebuffed all favored patriarchal metaphors that explained the human body along the lines of a monarchical model (Philosophical Letters 189). Hence, van Helmont is roundly criticized by Cavendish for his claim that “the Vital Spirit sits in the Throne of the Outward man as Vice Roy of the Soul, and acts by Commission of the Soul”: “it is impossible,” Cavendish answers, “that one single part should be King of the whole Creature” (Philosophical Letters 337). Her own theories drew instead on the image of a cooperative body politic.

Given man’s colossal arrogance, Cavendish argued, it was hardly surprising that the New Scientist “has a great spleen against self-moving corporeal Nature ... and the reason is his Ambition; for he would fain be supreme, and ... more towards a Divine Nature: he would be a God, if Arguments could make him such” (Observations 280). This, she asserted, explained why many of the learned “are so much afraid of self-motion, as they will rather maintain absurdities and errors, than allow any other self-motion in Nature, but what is in themselves: for, they would fain be above Nature, and petty Gods, if they could but make themselves Infinite” (Observations 114). Cavendish was especially angered by New Scientists who posited an “Immaterial or Incorporeal substance to move, rule, guide and govern” nature rather than allowing that “she is able enough to do it all her self” (Philosophical Letters 194).<14> Nature, Cavendish mocked, is not a female living under patriarchal rule:

Nature is not a Babe, or Child, to need such a Spiritual Nurse to teach her to go, or to move; neither is she so young a Lady as to have need of a Governess, for surely she can govern her self; she needs not a Guardian for fear she should run away with a younger Brother, or one that cannot make her a Jointure.
(Philosophical Letters 149–50)

If but a puny man has “the power and a free will of moving himself, why should not ... Nature?” she asked (Philosophical Letters 95). Cavendish posited this as by far the more reasonable assumption.

Her own natural philosophy was founded on the twin premises that man is both part (of nature; therefore, not omniscient) and partial (necessarily biased in his limited vision, seeing and explaining everything from his own perspective and fixations). She complained that the majority of New Scientists would not admit these two starting conditions, and thus, condoned an unacknowledged androcentrism in their work. Numerous New Scientists were plagued by their limited imaginations, she contended, thinking “all impossible that is unknown unto them” and conceiving natural phenomena only according to their own “dull humane capacities” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 53, Philosophical Letters 474). Such natural philosophers, “in their opinions do conceive Nature according to the measure of themselves, as that Nature can, nor could not do more, then they think” (Philosophical Letters 165). Defending her own philosophy from charges of “New Castles in the air,”<15> Cavendish acknowledged that “what our senses are not capable to know, our reason is apt to deny” (Philosophical Letters 517). But, she argued, in the search for “truth” it is necessary to fight against the partialities brought on by limited experiences. After all, she points out, Columbus “discovered” the West Indies “in his brain before he had travelled on the navigable sea” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 52–3).

Cavendish charged that New Science conceptions of knowing and being were steeped in androcentrism. She held that “nature hath infinite more ways to express knowledg then man can imagine” (Philosophical Letters 151). And she accused Hobbes, More, Descartes, and others of privileging mathematics, formal logic (reason formulated by way of “Aphorismes and Theoremes”), and language as the only paths to truth because of species favoritism (Philosophical Letters 40–1, 114, 151). But, Cavendish continued, “the want of humane Knowledg doth [not] prove the want of Reason” (Philosophical Letters 114). Indeed, “by reason other Creatures cannot speak or discourse with each other as men ... should we conclude, they have neither knowledge, sense, reason, or intelligence? Certainly, this is a very weak argument...” (Philosophical Letters 113). One could assume instead that “their perceptions and observations be as wise as Men’s, and they may have as much intelligence and commerce betwixt each other, after their own manner and way, as men have after theirs” (Philosophical Letters 114, 59).<16> From here, Cavendish proceeded to puncture man’s claims to “supremacy of knowledge.” “[N]one can be said to have most, or least” knowledge of nature, she writes — just different knowledge:

... different wayes in knowledge makes not knowledge more or lesse, no more then different paths inlarge one compasse of ground; nor no more than several words for one and the same thing, for the thing is the same, onely the words differ; so if a man hath different knowledge from a fish, yet the fish may be as knowing as man....
(1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 42)

Here and in regard to other subjects, Cavendish inveighed against New Science tendencies to collapse difference, claiming that the man who measures all men or things “by himself ... will be very much mistaken” (Philosophical Letters 41).

Cavendish also posited New Science anthropomorphism in the various strains of “impact physics” popular at the time. She dissented from New Science inclinations to displace the human recourse to force and violence onto nature:

Man thinks Nature’s wise, subtil and lively actions, are as his own gross actions, conceiving them to be constrained and turbulent, not free and easie, as well as wise and knowing; Whereas Nature’s Creating, Generating and Producing actions are by an easie connexion of parts to parts, without Counterbuffs, Joggs and Jolts....
(Philosophical Letters 152)

In so arguing, Cavendish notes, she does not “deny but there is many times Force and Power used between particular Parts of Nature, so that some do overpower others.” She contends only that “they are not the universal or principal actions of Nature’s Body, as it is the Opinion of some Philosophers, who think there is no other motion in Nature, but by pressure of parts upon parts” (Observations g4r, d2v). In particular, Cavendish here referred to the teachings of Hobbes and Descartes.<17> But she also criticized man’s tendency “to make more difficulties and enforcements in nature then nature ever knew” wherever she encountered it (Philosophical Letters 65).<18> Thus, “an author” who concludes “That Snow is nothing else but Ice broken or ground into small pieces” is accosted by Cavendish with an alternate logic: it is, she wrote, “more easie for Nature to make Snow by some sorts of cold contractions, then to force Air and Wind to beat, grinde, or pound Ice into Snow.... The truth is, it would rather cause a War in Nature, then a natural production, alteration, or transformation” (Philosophical Letters 474).

Cavendish pointed to yet other areas where the unacknowledged partialities of New Scientists yielded inaccurate explanations of the physical world. On numerous occasions, Cavendish — “in the behalf of our Sex” — targeted New Science applications of male-biased metaphors and the faulty logic engendered by their use (Philosophical Letters 244). For instance, van Helmont’s “Metaphorical expression” of “the Vertues and Properties that stick fast in the bosom of Nature” is lighted on by Cavendish and judged “obscure” rather than revelatory of nature’s truths (Philosophical Letters 279).<19> New Science explanations of women that countenanced misogyny were also vigorously disputed. Van Helmont’s too-ready equation of “Bewitching or Inchanting Ideas” with women, and women with witchcraft, was in the end ridiculed by Cavendish: “By this it appears, that your Author has never been in Love, or else he would have found, that Men have as well bewitching Ideas as Women; for to mention no other example, some ... their Writings and strange Opinions in Philosophy do sufficiently witness it” (Philosophical Letters 244; also 277). Indeed, Cavendish would not countenance any New Science teachings about women, nor the underlying attitudes that assumed a lack of complexity in the female, rendering woman an entity easily explained and dismissed. When some male relatives, in the course of debating New Science theories, informed Cavendish that they would shift their attention to women as a topic of discussion that was more “conceivable” than the origins of the universe, she replied tartly that they would find “Women were as Difficult to be Known and Understood as the Universe” (Sociable Letters 225).

Not only New Science theories, but also New Science experiment and technological “arts” were prey to Cavendish’s ecofeminist analysis. She posited that New Science experiment functioned for men as a surrogate source of (generative) power whereby they strove to become creators, “the God of Nature, and not the Work of Nature.”<20> Thus, man’s “Presumptuous Self-love” and “Credulity of Powerfull Art” was such “that he thinks not onely to learn Natures Waies, but to know her Means and Abilities, and become Lord of Nature, as to rule her, and bring her under his Subjection” (Worlds Olio 177). In reality, Cavendish countered, it was but self-delusion to believe that nature’s causes and effects could “be over-powered by Man so, as if Man was a degree above Nature” (Observations 6). New Science “arts” were, and would always be, but “a handmaid to Nature, and not her Mistress” (Philosophical Letters 362).<21>

Furthermore, Cavendish alleged that New Science methods were unnecessarily abusive, a violation of nature consonant with man’s need to assert an authority that, in the end, always eluded him. Natural philosophers, Cavendish believed, make nature “outragious with the cruel Extractions, Substractions, and Dissections,” while “Chymists torture Nature worst of all” (Natures Pictures 686, Philosophical Letters 491). Cavendish’s critique of man’s “cruel, and unsatiable” technologies was unsparing:

... he melts metalls, distills and dissolves plants, dissects animals, subtracts and extracts Elements, he digs up the bowels of the Earth, cuts through the Ocean of the Sea, gathers the winds into Sails, fresh water into Mills, and imprisons the thinner Ayre; he Hunts, he Fowls, he Fishes for sport, with Gunns, Nets, and Hooks; he cruelly causeth one Creature to destroy another, the whilst he looks on with delight; he kills not only for to live, but lives for to kill, and takes pleasure in torturing the life of other Creatures, in prolonging their pains, and lengthning their Deaths....
(1662 Playes 503)

This litany of complaints existed in poignant contrast to Isaac Barrow’s characterization of vivisection as “a most innocent cruelty, and easily excusable ferocity.”<22>

4.3   Cavendish’s Ecofeminist Alternative

Cavendish’s own natural philosophy depicted nature as a unified ecosystem — a complex web of energies and interconnections that encompassed humankind. She was adamant that

... no Creature or part of Nature can subsist singly and divided from all the rest, but that all parts must live together; and since no part can subsist and live without the other, no part can also be called prime or principal....
(Observations 41)

This attitude led to Cavendish’s spirited advocacy of animal rights and her contention that power relations between humankind and nature’s creatures were in urgent need of reconceptualization. Cavendish maintained that “as Man makes use of other Creatures, so other Creatures make use of Man, as far as he is good for any thing” (Philosophical Letters 147).<23> Thus, man does not live in isolation from, but on an equivalent level and in an evolving relationship with, the natural world, its elements and creatures. “[E]very Creature,” and not just man or the planets, “hath some Influence to each other” (Sociable Letters 287–8). Cavendish informed her readers that man has an apparent “power to make all obey” only because his shape gives him the capability to make tools and create “Arts,” and not because of any inherent mental or spiritual superiority (Poems and Fancies 74). Hence, to seek glory and status in man’s technological prowess was absurd. More important, Cavendish emphasized, was for man to learn how to wield his power responsibly.

For instance, Boyle’s vision of the natural world as “the empire of man over the inferior creatures” (qtd. Thomas, Natural World 22) implied a right of ownership that Cavendish vigorously disputed. She deplored man’s “tyranny” of the earth’s resources, arguing that it was unjust that one species appropriate “Natures Stock, and Treasure” for itself (Poems and Fancies 113, 73). The earth and its bounty belonged to all nature’s creatures alike.<24> Yet Cavendish worried that the press of increasing population threatened only to intensify man’s “vicious” conduct in grappling for the largest share (1662 Playes 207). Cavendish pointed angrily to the travesty of encroaching deforestation, alleging that the new hunger for profits had resulted in land-use policies that threatened the nation and the environment (Orations 271–2). Such poor land-management practices, detrimental to man and beast, must not continue unchecked, she argued.<25>

She argued too that man should cease his careless tampering with nature. In trying to dominate and “improve” on nature, man irrevocably upset the balance of things. “Nature’s wisdom orders her particulars to the best of the whole,” Cavendish lectured her readers (Observations 130). Man, unable to see the whole picture, tinkers but with parts of the system, unaware of the deleterious effects on the whole. Thus, our science and technology “disorders” nature, and is then unable to restore natural order and balance: “We can Disturb great Nature’s work at will; / But to Restore and Make, is past our skill.”<26> Cavendish advocated that the New Science redirect its energies, away from improver projects seeking to “make a new world by the Architecture of Art” (to Cavendish’s mind, a “monstrous” prospect), and towards life-affirming/life-sustaining projects instead (Observations 271; see 4.9.2 below).

4.4   God the Father Versus Mother Nature

Cavendish’s ecofeminist doctrine was predicated on the careful removal of God from the realm of inquisitive speculation (i.e., natural philosophy). Her reliance on the teachings of “the Orthodox Church” rather than “the opinions of particular persons” (herself included) for the “true Interpretation” of God’s word resulted from the usual political imperatives (see 3.5.4). Too many opinions, Cavendish felt, “being so different and various,” would leave the people “puzled which to adhere to” (Philosophical Letters 210). As a result, structures of authority in social and political matters would be undermined. Cavendish was certain that the recent Civil War had been the horrific result of following too “many pathes” in theology (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions a1v). Because of the “dangerous” political repercussions of religious dissent, and her dread of contributing to it, Cavendish was deathly “afraid to meddle with Divinity in the least thing” (Philosophical Letters 316). Indeed, she wrote, “if I knew that my Opinions should give any offence to the Church, I should be ready every minute to alter them” (Philosophical Letters 17).

Cavendish’s fear of “the byas of man’s fancy” in matters of religion (Philosophical Letters 316) meant that reason, imagination, emotion, experience, and other conventional means of knowing were all excluded by her as acceptable approaches for understanding God. Blind faith and our inherent love for Him were all that Cavendish allowed. In keeping with her levelling of man-animal-vegetable-mineral hierarchies, Cavendish posited that “all Parts of Nature” were imbued with “an interior, fixt, and innate knowledg of the Existency of God, as, That he is to be adored and worshipped,” each “after its own manner” (Observations h3v; also d1v and Philosophical Letters 519). This somewhat surprising tenet meant that Cavendish would brook no “atheistical” matter in her universe. But that was as far as she would explicitly speculate on the subject. In her world, faith in God was simply a given; Cavendish refused to be troubled by questions of what, how, or why.

Thus, despite the requisite paeans to God the Father in her works, the supreme deity did not fire Cavendish’s imagination in quite the same way that nature did. The pietistic fervor so evident in the majority of texts by women during this period was blatantly absent from Cavendish’s writings. Instead, Cavendish’s God was a remote “prime cause and principle” of the universe. She peppered her texts with passing tributes to the “Omnipotency of God” in this role (Philosophical Letters 164). Thus, God is “the Fountain from whence all things do flow, and which is the supream Cause, Author, Ruler and Governor of all” (Philosophical Letters 199). “All” included nature. Cavendish was at pains to point out that no matter how powerful and liberated nature was, nature was still not “coequal with God.” Nature “is onely a servant to God, and so are all her parts or creatures ... for her existence and resolution, or total destruction, depends upon Gods Will and Decree, whom she fears, adores, admires, praises and prayes unto, as being her God and Master” (Philosophical Letters 145). More specifically, “all Natures free power of moving and wisdom is a gift of God, and proceeds from him” (Philosophical Letters 164). Furthermore, God was the giver of law and order. Without her “diatical center,” nature “would run into an infinite confusion, with which there would be an infinite, horrid and eternal war in nature” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 172).

Despite eternal servitude to lord and master, Cavendish’s nature (like God) was imbued with infinite wisdom and power. In order that “a Natural Infinite, and the Infinite God, may well stand together, without any opposition or hinderance, or without any detracting or derogating from the Omnipotency and Glory of God,” Cavendish carefully distinguished natural from supernatural, material from immaterial (Philosophical Letters 9). She stressed that “God is a Spirit, and not a bodily substance ... that Nature is a Body, and not a Spirit, and therefore none of these Infinites can obstruct or hinder each other, as being different in their kinds” (Philosophical Letters 8). Thus, Cavendish could depict nature as “not a circumscribed and limited, but an unlimited power, no ways bound or confined, but absolutely or every way Infinite, and there is not any thing that has such an absolute power but God alone” (Philosophical Letters 155).

With God safely removed to a distant and obscure “Deitical Centre” (Philosophical Letters 199), Cavendish empowered nature as the supreme generative force with which humankind daily interacts. In essence, Cavendish wrested control of the life-giving function away from a male god and bestowed it on a female nature. “’Tis true,” Cavendish confirmed, that

God is the first Author of Motion, as well as he is of Nature; but I cannot believe that God should be the Prime actual Move[r] of all natural Creatures, and put all things into local motion, like as one Wheel in a Clock turns all the rest: for, God’s Power is sufficient enough to rule and govern all things by an absolute Will and Command, or by a Let it be done; and to impart self-motion to Nature, to move according to his Order and Decree, although in a natural way.
(Observations 285–6)

Thus, “nature is neither absolutely necessitated, nor has an absolute free-will: for, she is so much necessitated, that she depends upon the All-powerful God, and cannot work beyond her self, or beyond her own nature; and yet hath so much liberty, that in her particulars she works as she pleaseth” (Observations 109). Accordingly, “nature is infinit matter, motion and figure creating all things out of its self” with “infinite natural Wisdom.” Nature is the “one onely chief and prime cause from which all effects and varieties proceed.”<27>

As the lone creator of our immediate, lived reality, nature became the primary subject of Cavendish’s investigation and celebration of the material world. Cavendish reveled in nature’s generative processes, such as in the astonishing creation myth that opens the 1653 Poems and Fancies, where nature creates man in her own image: “Man we must like to our selves create,” mortal “in Body, like a God in minde” (4). Notably, Cavendish disavowed any intent to “ascribe any worship to Nature, or make her a Deity.” She readily denounced “the Heathen Religion” wherein we “become worshippers of Groves and shadows, Beans and Onions, as our Forefathers” (Philosophical Letters 145).<28> But unlike Boyle and other prominent New Scientists, Cavendish reserved for a conspicuously female nature her own inquisitiveness and rapture at physical reality. Where Robert Boyle could discern God’s fingerprints in every detail of physical existence, Cavendish delighted in what she saw for its own sake and not as evidence of God’s supreme purpose and power. For Cavendish, nature was not God’s text; “Natuer” was an author in her own right. This attitude was, of course, fundamental to Cavendish’s scientific method, with its focus on nature’s varied effects (grounded in careful observation of the surface phenomena of daily life) rather than first causes (see 4.9.3).

Cavendish’s extreme care and disimpassioned silence in matters of divinity were in some part responsible for the frequent cries of atheism that were directed at her work. Her religious sentiment seemed more rote than heartfelt. Certainly, such comments as the following were inflammatory to a predominantly religious reading public: “It is better, to be an Atheist, then a superstitious man; for in Atheisme there is humanitie, and civility, towards man to man; but superstition regards no humanity, but begets cruelty to all things, even to themselves” (Worlds Olio 46). And without question, Cavendish’s natural philosophy did have atheistic overtones. In her first publications, Cavendish espoused an insufficiently Christianized version of atomism, and in so doing, was deemed guilty of atheism by easy association with the Greek atomists. Not only was her atomic doctrine obviously similar to theirs, Cavendish herself openly asserted what Boyle with horror and loathing styled “the possibility of universal creation by the causal dance of atoms” (qtd. Kargon 97). Cavendish’s later doctrine of matter and motion crystallized around three starting premises also readily equated with atheism: (1) motion is inherent in matter; (2) there are no immaterial substances in nature; and (3) spirits and the human soul are corporeal. Ultimately underlying all variants of her natural philosophy was Cavendish’s conception of a nature brimming with power and purpose. Her organicist views of nature flattened established Church hierarchies between man and beast, body and soul, and shared certain atheistical themes with radical political dogmas of the period and heretical folk beliefs. In arguing that nature (matter) was itself both cause and effect, Cavendish sanctioned a world created according to natural rather than divine plan. Readers who sensed an uneasy seesaw in her works between conservative religious orthodoxy on the one hand and radical variants of skepticism on the other were most certainly correct.

4.5   Theory of Human Generation

Cavendish’s conflict with, for example, Henry More concerning nature’s ability to create the entire universe in and by “herself” (by way of self-moving matter) played out in much the same manner on a number of other New Science topics, particularly human reproduction. A variety of theorists have argued that the reproduction of human beings in women’s bodies has long provoked deep-seated feelings of envy and fear in men, contributing to the social construction of gender dichotomies and patriarchal systems of oppression.<29> It is not purely coincidental then that seventeenth-century biology and medicine, in the tradition of Aristotle, devalued woman’s role in reproduction while aggressively promoting man’s role.<30>

Classical science produced two traditions of thought on the subject of generation. One tradition, argued in varying forms by Hippocrates, Empedocles, Democritus, Alcmaeon, and even Galen, posited that in human reproduction, both male and female contributed gametes equally. The other tradition, articulated by Anaxagoras, Diogenes of Apollonia, Aeschylus in the Eumenides, and Aristotle, posited a “flower pot” theory of pregnancy whereby the woman “supplies the container and the earth which nourishes the seed but the seed is solely the man’s” (Whitbeck 55). Some of the learned espoused Galen’s thinking on this subject. For example, the Catholic Church maintained that seminal fluid was discharged by the woman (Easlea, Sexual Oppression 79). And Paracelsus, whose medical theories and practices were widely subscribed to during the revolutionary decades of the seventeenth century, “assigned equality to the male and female principles in sexual generation” (Merchant 18). However, by the sixteenth century, Aristotelian theory which made man the parent and woman the incubator was dominant in learned science circles.

During the seventeenth century, “gossip and popular opinion held the male seed to be the chief agent in generation” (Merchant 157). Seventeenth-century scientists repeated rather than challenged Aristotelian dicta concerning “the Active part being the propriety of the Male, and the Passive of the Female” (Walter Charleton, Ephesian Matron 54). For example, William Harvey’s “pioneering” researches on the subject originated with Aristotle, and despite some differences, continued to downplay the role of the female in human generation.<31> Later in the seventeenth century, institutionalized science promoted a new derivative formulation of Aristotle’s “flower-pot” theory: preformationist emboîtement, whereby all creative power was transferred to God the Father who at the time of the creation placed an infinite number of pre-formed little persons (homunculi), nested like Chinese boxes, within the woman’s womb (ovist version) or man’s semen (animalculist version). In both versions of the emboîtement theory, it is the male sperm that triggers human life; the woman is merely a passive participant in the reproductive process (Easlea, Witch-Hunting 143–53). With their theories of generation (human and otherwise), New Science philosophers of the “mechanical” sort removed human beings (female as well as male) from “any sense of intimate, sensuous contact with the earth” and its life cycles (Easlea, Sexual Oppression 76). In a triumph for abstraction, nature was shorn of the life-giving function, which was then freely bestowed on God and man.

At the same time that scientists denied women any active role in the giving of life, they blamed women for all impurities and imperfections associated with the new lifeform. Malebranche expressed typical concerns of the age when he argued in a scientific treatise that “the Animal Spirits of the Mother produce in the Brain of their Children, many Tracks and footsteps of their disorderly Motions.” Women were thus responsible for the fact that all children “bring into the World with them, a Mind some way or other preposterously fram’d, and are born slaves to some domineering Passion” (Malebranche 60). Paracelsus had earlier asserted that woman’s imagination was able to “produce impression and influence” on a fetus, and many in the New Science movement made a special point of investigating and compiling proofs for any such tales in their natural histories.<32>

Despite continual derogations of woman’s reproductive role, the New Science was, as Cavendish observed, obsessed by attempts to control, if not appropriate, it. In the laboratory alchemical researchers toiled to create homunculi using the surrogate arts of fire in place of women, hoping “to beget descendants without what Sir Thomas Browne called ‘this trivial and vulgar way of coition’” (Thomas, Decline 188). While disgusted by “bestial” sexual drives that degraded man’s divine-like spirit, Walter Charleton also observed that the sex act “makes us immortal in spite of Death, and brings us to some resemblance of the Divine original of all things” (The Ephesian Matron 39). This was the supreme irony of man’s existence and the driving force behind New Science incursions on the female reproductive role. The ideology of male supremacy that justified seventeenth-century patriarchy ordained that man resent all forms of power-sharing with woman. Cavendish dramatized this as the eternal male lament under patriarchy: “I must marry, or bury succession in my Grave ... O Nature, Nature, hadst thou no other way to Create a man, unless thou mad’st a woman!” (1662 Playes 278).

As we have seen, Cavendish was critical of all New Science attempts to wrest divine-like powers from nature. This included theories that diminished woman’s reproductive role. Although she occasionally appears to yield the animating principle (life force) solely to the male, this usually occurs whenever Cavendish has recourse to conventional metaphors and literary protocols in her unabated quest for public legitimation. When Cavendish is blazing new ground in keeping with an a priori assumption of nature/self-moving matter as sole creator (with God removed to an immaterial, albeit “superior,” world of his own), her theories recapture for the female an equal role as creator and giver of life. Thus, Cavendish disputed conventional wisdom concerning the dependence of earth on sun, whereby all generative power resides in the (male) sun. She argued instead that the

... Sun doth not make Heat in the Earth, but ... the Earth hath Heat of her own ... So that Gold, other Metals, and whatsoever else lyes deep within her, are not beholding to the Sun for their Maturities, as Fruits and Plants are: And we see those things cast forth are sickly and fading, and those she keeps in are lasting and durable; which would make one think, the Earth hath a more powerfull Heat than the Sun, because her Efects are greater than the Suns ... the Earth is the Mother of all Vegetables, Animals, and Minerals, and could produce a sufficiency of her self, without the Heat of the Sun....
(Worlds Olio 263–4)

She openly chastised New Scientists who “confine all Productions to one principal Agent, and make the Sun the common Generator of all or most living Insects,” denying the earth any active role in the production of “Animal Creatures” (Observations 38). And in an interesting twist on conventional reproductive imagery, Cavendish had a sea-goddess nourish the sun:

I feed the Sun ...
Moist vapour from my brest I give,
Which he sucks forth, and makes him live,
Or else his Fire would soon go out,
Grow dark, or burn the World throughout.
(1668 Plays, The Convent of Pleasure 42)

Cavendish’s alternate vision of a cooperative male-female partnership in procreative matters applied also to humans, and she so claimed despite the fact that “some (though foolishly) believe, it is not fit for Women to argue upon so subtil a Mystery” (Philosophical Letters 415). Cavendish clearly stated her case in the Philosophical Letters: “both Parents do contribute alike to the Production of the Child” (330).

4.6   “Extravagant Atomes”

Cavendish’s doctrine of atomic theory was limited to two early texts: Poems and Fancies and Philosophicall Fancies. As her husband stated in a preface to the 1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions, Margaret’s atomism was “an old opinion ... witnesse Democrates and many others” (A2v). William then added: “’Tis very true they have talkt of atomes, but did they ever dispose of them” in quite the same manner as his wife? His question was, of course, rhetorical. Margaret’s “extravagant atomes,” which so engaged Huygens’ imagination that he was kept from sleep one evening, exceeded all bounds of learned tradition.<33> Indeed, Robert Kargon comments that Cavendish’s atomic doctrine was “so extreme and so fanciful that she shocked the enemies of atomism and embarrassed its friends” (73).

Margaret’s atomic doctrine (like that of the Greeks) focussed on shape. All atomic particles were “of one matter, onely their severall Figures do give them severall Proprieties ... according to their Formes they put themselves into, by their severall Motions” (Poems and Fancies 31). She argued that nature is comprised of four atomic “figures” (“Sharpe, Long, Round, Square”) which each “make the foure Elements” as follows:

Round atoms   —>  Water
Flat (or square) atoms   —>  Earth
Long atoms   —>  Air
Sharp (or pointed) atoms   —>  Fire

Some things in nature were pure of figure; others were a composite of two or more atomic figures: for example, “In Animals none singly lye alone, / But the foure Atomes meet, and joyne as one” (Poems and Fancies 31). Atoms of various shapes and properties were thus ingeniously fitted together in the manner of a mosaic to explain a diversity of natural phenomena, ranging the gamut from gravity to flatulence. Thus, “a flame is composed of corpuscles compounded of one air atom and one fire atom, joined together” (Kargon 74). A prime example of Cavendish’s method follows:

QUESTION: What makes the sea roar?
ANSWER: Watery atoms are spherical and hollow; as they are stirred by the tides or the winds, they clash together like cymbals.
(Grant 117)

Noticeably, in Cavendish’s cosmology, matter in its atomic form is hardly the dead, dull, or passive matter of New Science mechanists. Indeed, Cavendish’s favorite descriptor for matter-in-motion is “dancing,” as in the following lines from one of the creation poems in Poems and Fancies entitled “A World Made by Atomes”:

Small Atomes of themselves a World may make,
As being subtle, and of every shape:
And as they dance about, fit place finde,
Such Formes as best agree, make every kinde. (5)

Cavendish’s commitment to Epicurean atomism was fleeting. She soon reasoned that atoms, traditionally conceived as “an indivisible Body in Nature” could not really exist: “whatsoever has Body, or is material, has quantity; and what has quantity, is divisible” (Observations 138). To Cavendish, it was incomprehensible that atoms could “move regularly and wisely by chance”; thus, atoms were of necessity “self-moving, living and knowing Bodies” (Observations 144). But the anarchic image of nature that followed from this theoretical construct was most unacceptable to her:

Nature would be like a Beggar’s coat full of lice: Neither would she be able to rule those wandering and stragling Atoms, because they are not parts of her Body, but each is a single Body by it self, having no dependence upon each other. Wherefore, if there should be a composition of Atoms, it would not be a Body made of Parts, but of so many whole and intire single Bodies, meeting together as a swarm of Bees. The truth is, every Atom being single, must be an absolute Body by it self, and have an absolute power and knowledg, by which it would become a kind of Deity; and the concourse of them would rather cause a confusion, than a conformity in Nature; because, all Atoms being absolute, they would all be Governors, but none would be governed.
(Observations 145; also 213)

It was to counter these conceptual difficulties that Cavendish finally declared “the opinion of Atoms, is fitter for a Poetical Fancy, than for serious Philosophy; and this is the reason that I have waved it in my Philosophical Works” (Observations 144). Nonetheless, Cavendish’s early interest in atomic theory was the needed springboard for her more sophisticated theory of materialism that replaced it.

4.7   Doctrine of Matter and Motion

Cavendish’s unique version of materialism was anti-mechanistic at core, and fused elements of dialectical thinking with strains of organicism. Her materialism was uncompromising: “Nature is nothing but meer Matter,” she opined, “Therefore Motions, Forms, Thoughts, Ideas, Conceptions, Sympathies, Antipathies, Accidents, Qualities, as also Natural Life, and Soul, are all Material” (Philosophical Letters 532, 12). But matter in Cavendish’s universe was still far from the isolated, inert corpuscles infused to action by a male potency, as found in the majority of competing materialist models.<34> Instead,

... when I speak of the parts of Nature, I do not understand, that those parts are like grains of Corn or Sand in one heap, all of one figure or magnitude, and separable from each other: but, I conceive Nature to be an infinite Body, bulk or magnitude, which by its own self-motion, is divided into infinite parts; not single or indivisible parts, but parts of one continued Body, onely discernable from each other by their proper figures, caused by the changes of particular motions....
(Observations 138)

Self-moving matter was the cornerstone of Cavendish’s materialist philosophy, which portrayed nature as in a constant state of activity and permutation. To Cavendish, “Nature is free, and all her parts self-moving” (Observations 341). Nonetheless, the freedoms of self-motion were not absolute. Cavendish qualified her position carefully, allowing that “not every part is free to move as it pleases, by reason some parts overpower others, either through number, strength, slight, shape, opportunity, or the like advantages” (Observations 341). Cavendish regarded self-motion as “prime or principal” because it was “the producer of all the Varieties Nature has within her self” (Observations 50). But Cavendish stressed that “Nature has infinite ways of Motions.” Six “fundamental motions” (also “ground-motions” and “principal motions”) were identified for particular discussion: contraction, attraction, retention, dilation, digestion and expulsion (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 33ff.).

Her opinions concerning self-moving matter led Cavendish to speculate that there “can be no rest in Nature” (Observations 143). What others called “rest” was to Cavendish “nothing else but retentive motions.” Thus, gold is not really at rest, she argued, but in motion:

A World of Gold is as active interiously, as a world of Air is exteriously; I mean, it is as much subject to changes and alterations, as Air; for, Gold though its motions are not perceptible by our exteriour Senses, yet it has no less motion then the activest Body of Nature; onely its motions are of another kind then the motions of Air, or of some other Bodies; for, Retentive motions are as much motions, as dispersing, or some other sorts of motions, although not so visible to our Perception as these; and therefore we cannot say, That Gold is more at rest than other Creatures of Nature; for there is no such thing as Rest in Nature; although there be degrees of Motion.
(Observations d2v)


Although a piece of Wood or Metal has no exterior progressive motion, such as is found in Animals; nevertheless, it is not without Motion, for it is subject to Generation and Dissolution, which certainly are natural corporeal motions, besides many others: The truth is, the harder, denser, and firmer bodies are, the stronger are their motions; for it requires more strength to keep and hold parts together, than to dissolve and separate them.
(Observations 148–9)

Given matter’s protean quality in Cavendish’s universe, it also followed that “there is no annhiliation or perishing in Nature” (Philosophical Letters 53). Matter in Cavendish’s universe is infinitely recycled, “altered from one figure into another” (Philosophical Letters 71). What mankind labels “perishing or dying in Nature,” wrote Cavendish, is in fact “onely alteration of Figure” (Philosophical Letters 149). While “the particular Prints, or severall shapes that Motion makes of Matter” continually change, “the Matter, remaines that was the Cause of those Motions and Figures” (Philosophicall Fancies 14–5). Thus, matter “can change its figure,” but it can never “change or alter from being matter, or a part of Infinite Nature” (Philosophical Letters 538). This incessant evolution of form/figure had clear dialectical overtones: the “Motion in every Figure strives to maintaine what they have created: for when some Figures destroy others, it is for the maintenance or security of themselves ...” (Philosophicall Fancies 14).

A dialectical perspective surfaces also in Cavendish’s doctrine concerning the conflict and unity of opposites. The vast spectrum of difference in nature which so intrigued Cavendish was, she decided, “made by an opposition or strife betwixt parts,” for “if all the parts did unanimously conspire and agree in their motions, and move all but one way, there would be but one act or kind of motion in Nature” (Observations 127). Nonetheless, Cavendish would not concur with the Hobbesian vision of nature as violent and warring. She was at great pains to point out that “cross and opposite actions make no confusion, but onely a variety” in nature (Philosophical Letters 538). What Cavendish characterized as the “Harmonious Variety that is found in Nature’s Parts” resulted from the “poising or ballancing Extreams with proper and fit oppositions” (Observations g3v, h1r; see also c2r, 99). We are informed that “contrary and opposite actions are not always at warr” (Observations g4r). Although “particulars do oppose each other, yet all opposition tends to the conservation of a general peace and unity in the whole” (Observations 130–1). If we look at nature in terms of the big picture, we find that the “opposition of some parts” is equally matched by the “mutual agreement of others” (Observations 127). The “Infinite parts of Infinite Matter” are “equal in assistance as well as in resistance,” thus producing “a conformity in the whole nature of Infinite Matter” (Philosophical Letters 446).

The theme of a transcendental “Union of Nature” (Observations 127) presiding over multiplicity and faction undergirds Cavendish’s natural philosophy. In her cosmology, difference is pervasive, and yet nature is not chaotic: “Nature is steady and fixt in Her self, although her Parts be in a perpetual Motion” (Observations 127). This premise relies on a clear differentiation between the body of “Infinite Matter” (or nature) and the “parts of Nature.” Thus Cavendish informs us that while the whole of matter is “of a simple kind, and knows no contraries in it self, but lives in Peace,” its parts are continually “opposing and crossing each other ... striving against each other, as being various and different” (Philosophical Letters 280). Yet because “all the parts are of one matter, and belong to one body,” they “being united into one Infinite body, cannot break Natures general Peace” (Philosophical Letters 538, 146).

Cavendish’s pluralist view of matter was clearly an outgrowth of her atomic theory. But where her earlier atomism did not permit a vision of nature as intrinsically purposeful, her later materialist theory did. We are repeatedly told that nature, in her infinite wisdom, administers the cosmos according to “but One Law ... viz. to keep Infinite matter in order, and to keep so much Peace, as not to disturb the Foundation of her Government” (Philosophical Letters 146).<35> With this we encounter an interesting matriarchal model of the Hobbesian body politic, where the sovereign procures unity in the face of the competing interests of diverse individuals. Closely echoing her own royalist credo that portrayed the state as a multiplicity of factions unified (and reduced to order) by a strong monarch, Cavendish’s nature “is a Monarchess over all her Creatures,” each of which is described as its own “Republick” (Philosophical Letters 337). The unity of disparates that Cavendish projects is thus partly grounded in her own conservative politics and her obsession with the breakdown of social order, as experienced during the years of civil war. But the imagery that Cavendish deploys also draws heavily on her metaphoric representation of nature-as-housewife — “a grave, wise, methodical Matron, ordering her Infinite family, without needless troubles and difficulties” (Philosophical Letters 302).

4.8   The “Triumvirate of Nature”

In Cavendish’s scheme of things matter is tripartite, comprising: inanimate matter, rational matter, and sensitive matter — with the latter two combining to form animate matter. Cavendish educed her three “degrees” of infinite matter from Nature’s “effects or actions.” Obviously there must be an “animate” degree, she argued, otherwise “there would be no Motion, and so no action nor variety of Figures” in nature (Observations e2v). Cavendish next posited the existence of inanimate matter in order to account for the various “degrees of natural figures and actions” in nature (Observations e2v). She has, she tells us, explored the possibility that “all Matter is Animate or Self-moving; onely there are degrees of Motion, that some Parts move slower, and some quicker” (Observations e3v). But this idea she has rejected. Her arguments proving the existence of inanimate as well as animate matter are predicated on the important premise that “Nature is ballanced by opposites” (Observations f1r). Were there nothing but animate matter in the world, “the parts of Nature would be too active and quick in their several productions, alterations, and dissolutions; and all things would be as soon made, as Thoughts” (Observations g3r). This followed from Cavendish’s starting assumption that “the Rational Parts are the purest, and consequently, the most active parts of Nature, and have the quickest actions: wherefore, to ballance them, there must be a dull part of Matter, which is the Inanimate, or else a World would be made in an instant, and everything would be produced, altered, and dissolved on a sudden” (Observations h1r–h1v).

Cavendish characterized animate matter (rational plus sensitive matter) as “the Life and Soul of Nature.” Because of its capacity for self-motion, animate matter has interior, innate self-knowledge plus exterior perceptive knowledge of the outside world. Cavendish characterized inanimate matter as “the body of nature.” Although she relied on the concept of “inanimate” and even described such matter as “dull and passive,” Cavendish by no means conceived of it in Cartesian or corpuscular terms. Inanimate matter was for her sentient; it had both life and self-knowledge; it lacked only self-motion (and therefore, perception). Cavendish allowed inanimate matter “Life and Knowledge” because these

... no ways depend upon Self-motion: for, had Nature no motion at all, yet might she have Life and Knowledg; so that Self-motion is not the cause of Life and Knowledg, but onely of Perception, and all the various actions of Nature ... By which you may see, That a fixt and interior Self-knowledg, may very well be without exterior perception....
(Observations H4v)

Despite differentiation, the three degrees of matter are for Cavendish “so inseparably commixt in the body of Nature, that none could be without the other in any part or Creature of Nature, could it be divided to an Atom” (Observations e3r). Here we have yet another variant on Cavendish’s favorite theme: the unity of disparates. Animate and inanimate matter are “so intermixed and composed, as no separation can be made of one from the other, but do all constitute one Infinite and self-moving Body of Nature, and are found even in the smallest particles thereof” (Observations 275; also 233, 234).

According to Sara Mendelson, Cavendish’s doctrine of matter and motion reduces to a “system of hierarchical spiritual and material forces” (Mental World 42). Certainly, Cavendish’s theory of tripartite matter relies heavily on building metaphors that emphasize the division of labor (mental versus manual) inherent in a class society.<36> Also, Cavendish’s tripartite principle required that inanimate matter “had no Self-motion, but was carried along in all the actions of the animate degree, and so was not moving, but moved” (Observations e3r). Versus Descartes and others, Cavendish was quick to point out that her use of animate matter as an “exterior Agent” did not actually impart motion to inanimate matter, which

... receives no motion ... but moves by the motion of the animate parts, and not by an infused motion into them; for the animate parts in carrying the inanimate along with them, lose nothing of their own motion, nor impart no motion to the inanimate; no more than a man who carried a stick in his hand, imparts motion to the stick, and loses so much as he imparts; but they bear the inanimate parts along with them, by vertue of their own Self-motion; and remain Self-moving parts, as well as the inanimate remain without motion.
(Observations d3r)

This permitted Cavendish to cleave to such class-biased fancies as “the Matter of the Mind is much purer and subtiller then the Matter of the Body” (Philosophical Letters 149). At the same time, Cavendish refused to explicitly privilege one kind of matter over another. Complaining against hierarchies of mind-body-soul as found, for example, in van Helmont’s work, Cavendish contended that “Rational and Sensitive Matter is divided into so many parts, which have equal power and force of action in their turns and severall imployments” such that “no part ... has a sole supreme Power over the rest” (Philosophical Letters 337). Furthermore, she openly rejected conventional mind-body-soul gradations. She contended repeatedly against those like Descartes<37> who propose

... that the sensitive organs should have no knowledg in themselves, but serve onely like peeping-holes for the mind, or barn-dores to receive bundles of pressures, like sheaves of Corn; For there being a thorow mixture of animate, rational and sensitive, and inanimate matter, we canot assign a certain seat of place to the rational, another to the sensitive, and another to the inanimate, but they are diffused and intermixt throughout all the body; And this is the reason, that sense and knowledg cannot be bound onely to the head or brain: But although they are mixt together, nevertheless they do not lose their interior natures by this mixture, nor their purity and subtilty, nor their proper motions or actions, but each moves according to its nature and substance, without confusion....
(Philosophical Letters 111–12)

Cavendish’s tripartite principle of matter in fact led to her radical postulate that sense and reason are equally in all things. It was inconceivable to Cavendish “that Nature is ignorant and dead in all her other parts besides Animals” (Philosophical Letters 59). This was an implicit assumption of her natural philosophy. Cavendish thus proposed that all parts of nature “not onely Animals, but also Vegetables, Minerals and Elements, and what more is in Nature, are endued with ... Life and Soul, Sense and Reason” (Philosophical Letters b2v). As parts of infinite matter, each partakes of the life force of the whole; hence, all things inherently contain particles of the wisdom and “soul of Nature.” That “there is a soul and intelligence in the Loadstone, is as true, as that there is a soul in Man” (Observations 19). Cavendish justified this highly unorthodox claim as follows. Because of her particular brand of feminism, she intuitively rejected oppositions that make man “a Monopoler of all Reason, or Animals of all Sense” as against the dictates of observation and experience (Philosophical Letters 43). Further, she felt that sense-reason polarities were irrational. She evidenced our observations of motion, order, and harmony throughout nature in support of this viewpoint:

... that every part has not onely sensitive, but also rational Matter, is evident, not only by the bare motion in every part of Nature, which cannot be without sense, for wheresoever is motion, there’s sense; but also by the regular, harmonious, and well ordered actions of Nature ... for there can be no order, method or harmony ... without there be reason to cause that order and harmony. And thus Motion argues Sense, and the well-ordered Motion argues Reason in Nature, and in every part and particle thereof, without which Nature could not subsist, but would be as a dull, indigested and unformed heap and Chaos.
(Observations 277–8)

And her postulate of tripartite matter offered, she believed, further substantiation:

... though some Philosophers think that nothing is animate, or has life in Nature, but Animals and Vegetables; yet it is probable, that since Nature consists of a commixture of animate and inanimate Matter, and is Self-moving, there can be no part or particle of this composed body of Nature, were it an Atom, that may be call’d Inanimate, by reason there is none that has not its share of animate, as well as inanimate Matter, and the commixture of these degrees being so close, it is impossible one should be without the other....
(Observations c4v)

Because the “commixture” of matter varied from part to part (correlated with changing “corporeal figurative motions”), it followed that the “manner” of sense and reason should likewise vary, according “to the actions, forms, figures and proprieties of all Creatures” (Observations 227; Philosophical Letters 192, 44). “Animal or Human sense and reason” was thus not the normative, but merely one variant of being and knowing (Observations 302). A stone, for example, has not an animal but a “mineral life and knowledge” of the material world with which it interacts. Hence, “it is not necessary for Corn to have Ears to hear the whistling or chirping of Birds, nor for Stones to have such a touch of feeling as animals have, and to suffer pain, as they do, when Carts go over them” (Philosophical Letters 192). This theory supported Cavendish in promulgating an environmentalist doctrine of “separate but equal” for all things in nature.

4.9   A Different New Science Methodology

Beginning with Joseph Glanvill, critics have been quick to accuse Cavendish of free-wheeling speculation completely severed from any real effort at empirical validation, and at times, even from material reality itself. Writes Ogilvie (from information mostly gathered secondhand): “Untrammeled, undisciplined speculation characterized Cavendish’s scientific pronouncements” (54).

Cavendish’s unique brand of “rational conjecture” has clear ties to French rather than British intellectual traditions. In this, she was not alone. Like many other displaced British subjects, Cavendish spent many of her formative intellectual years on the continent. As part of Henrietta Maria’s court and a member of what Kargon has dubbed “the Newcastle Circle,” Cavendish was early on indoctrinated in French traditions of rationalism. Nonetheless, while men during the Restoration years tended to the much-touted empiricism of British science,<38> women (of the upper classes) seem to have favored variant forms of rationalism associated with Cartesian methodology. The many attractions of Cartesian methods for seventeenth-century women have already been noted (see Kinnaird 61). I would add that as a form of natural inquiry, Cartesian rationalism was more open to women than British empiricism during the Restoration years. As described in appendix A, women were traditionally excluded from all forms of organized intellectual production. However, Cartesian rationalism with “its insistence on the thinking I as the touchstone of all knowledge and even of existence” (Kinnaird 61) was accessible to individual subjectivities — female or male — regardless of affiliation in formal and informal scholarly networks. In contrast, British-style empiricism after the Restoration was closely tied to institutionalized science and steeped in a masculating symbolism accompanied by an aggressive display of force in the laboratory. Women, as argued in appendix A, were banned from the institution and dissuaded by the symbolism. Their alternate empirical traditions were discounted as “domestic” or “craft.” In such manner, institutionalized science cemented women’s continuing entrapment in a forced division of labor at the same time that it anchored itself in the collapsing of intellectual versus manual polarities.<39>

That said, it is important to recognize that the rationalist versus empiricist argument usually deployed against Cavendish actually masks, more than it illuminates, her methodology. Despite conventional wisdom on the subject, I believe that Cavendish’s form of natural inquiry was indeed grounded in empirical study and warrants more careful attention.

4.9.1 Cavendish’s Preference for “Speculative Philosophy”
     over the “Hermaphroditical” Arts of Experimental

Writing in England in 1666, Cavendish declared that “our age being more for deluding Experiments then rational arguments, which some call a tedious babble, doth prefer Sense before Reason.” Recent New Science discourses, she observed, “condemn Contemplative Philosophy” and “prefer the Experimental part before her.”<40> Well aware that her own practices crossed “the Mode-Philosophy” of British New Science, Cavendish pointedly defended her decision to leave “deluding Art” to “our Moderns” and “addict my self to the study of Contemplative Philosophy,” whereby “Reason shall be my Guide” (Observations 92). To those who deplored her inability to “demonstrate” her theory by way of experiment, Cavendish countered with a litany of complaints concerning accepted methods of demonstration. She was also quick to point to double standards in peer evaluation: e.g., “my opinion of self-corporeal motion and perception, may be as demonstrable as that of Immaterial Natural Spirits, which, in my mind, is not demonstrable at all, by reason it is not corporeal or material” (Philosophical Letters 177). In addition to complaining that it was driven by a need for dominance and construed as an aggressive display of virility (see 4.2 above), Cavendish leveled the following criticisms against the favored experimental philosophy.

First, she argued that the experimental philosophy incorrectly exalted sense over reason. In this, Cavendish evinced legitimate concerns about placing too great an emphasis on experiment at the expense of reason.<41> Conceptions precede and determine experiments, she argued:

For all that Artists [i.e., experimenters] have, they are beholden for it to the conceptions of the ingenious Student, except some few Arts which ascribe their original to chance; and therefore speculation must needs go before practise; for how shall a man practise, if he does not know what or which way to practise? Reason must direct first how sense ought to work....
(Observations 259; see also Philosophical Letters 501–2)

In lieu of the New Science call for exclusivity of method, Cavendish advocated a working partnership of sense and reason. The rationalist/empiricist separation of the logical from the sensory was counterproductive, she maintained. To presume that only “Sense and Art” can lead “to the knowledg of truth” was wrongheaded (Observations 92). Cavendish parried such New Science claims with her observations that,

The truth is, our exterior Senses can go no further than the exterior figures of Creatures, and their exterior Actions: but our Reason may pierce deeper, and consider their inherent natures, and interior actions. And although it do sometimes err ... yet it may also probably guess at them, and may chance to hit the truth.
(Observations 94)

On the other hand, it was equally wrongheaded, she thought, to claim that reason alone was an adequate means for truth-seeking (1655 Opinions 67). “The Experimental Philosophy is not to be rejected,” she flatly stated (Observations 338). Instead of forced oppositions, Cavendish preferred a fusion of sensory and logical: “as Knowledg and Understanding is more clear, where both the Rational and Sensitive Perception do join; so Experimental and Speculative Philosophy do give the surest informations, when they are joined or united together” (Observations 338, also 92). For example, she believed that the best physicians “joyne together” Galenist and Paracelsian traditions (Philosophical Letters 377). Pushing her concept of an integrated methodology far beyond the bounds of contemporary scientific practice, Cavendish posited an ideal that was not entirely fanciful. Her Orations includes an essay that argues on behalf of full engagement of both mind and body, sense and reason, as the ultimate means of knowing. Cavendish models this superior cognitive style on “the drowsy world of dreams,” contending that “if the senses were as sensible in contemplation as in dreams, it would be the best life of all” (Orations 297). Nonetheless, the symbiotic relationship of sense and reason that Cavendish favored was far from an arrangement of equals. Drawing on a feudal political model and the patriarchal family structure for her images, Cavendish’s fusion of methods still preserved cherished distinctions between mental and manual labor. Familiar images of social hierarchies resurface in her writings on the speculative versus experimental philosophies: reason is portrayed as architect, designer, surveyor, master, husband; sense is the laborer, apprentice, and wife.<42> Cavendish’s sensibilities would not permit her to accept the premise of experimental philosophy that “Reason must stoop to Sense, and the Conceptor to the Artist [i.e., experimenter]” (Observations 260). Instead, she would have it that “so much as the Rational knowledg is more noble than the Sensitive, so much is the Speculative part of Philosophy more noble then the Mechanical” (Observations 259–60). In this reverse positioning of mental and manual labors, the needs of class and gender comfortably coalesced.

Second, Cavendish held that New Science experiments more often falsified than revealed the material world. She observed that the experimenter’s “Art makes of natural Creatures artificial Monsters.”<43> Further, even with the best of tools, experiments “doth oftner obscure and disturb Natures ordinary actions, then prove any Truth in Nature” (Philosophical Letters 281). This criticism pertained most especially to chemical experiments, which Cavendish regarded as the ultimate in artifice. Such contrivedly artificial demonstrations, she complained, “make men to have erroneous opinions of the actions of Nature, judging them all according to the rule and measure of Art” (Philosophical Letters 364). Thus, the experimental philosophy focused more on man’s powers in the laboratory than on the natural world (Philosophical Letters 285). Chemists (who took the brunt of Cavendish’s ire) “are so in Love with Art, that they Despise or at least Neglect Nature” (1663 Philosophical and Physical Opinions d2v). Even Robert Boyle is accused of this, despite Cavendish’s earlier accolades to his “industrious and ingenious person” and his “Gentleman’s style” (Philosophical Letters 496).

Third, Cavendish assessed the cost-to-benefit ratios of an experimental approach and judged them at times unsatisfactory. For example, she concedes that “there may be some excellent Medicines found out and made” by way of iatrochemistry, but she then questioned whether “the expence and labour is more then the benefit” (Philosophical Letters 284). She was intolerant of the contemporary craze for “tryals and experiments” on the grounds that they most often proved “fruitless” (also “useless”). Obsessive study of “Salt, Sulphur, and Mercury” by the “sons of art” relieved idleness, boredom, and riches far more than it “profited” society, she observed (Philosophical Letters 286, 284). Further, she felt that artificial drugs seldom proved more effective than natural, herbal remedies: “natural drugs and simples are as wise in their several operations, as Chymists in their artificial distillations, extractions, sublimations, and the like” (Philosophical Letters 378). Indeed, chemical medicines are not all “sure and certain, nor in all diseases safe; neither can this art produce so many medicines as there are several diseases in Nature” (Philosophical Letters 284). Likewise, “Telescopical, Microscopical, and the like inspections” engaged experimenters “more with other Worlds, than with this they live in” (Observations a3v). She did not dispute that the microscopist’s art enhances our ability to see, but, she pointed out, it does so only at the expense of the larger context. Under the microscope, a louse can be enlarged so as to resemble a crab. But what advantage, asked Cavendish, is this “to the Beggar? for it doth neither instruct him how to avoid breeding them, or how to catch them, or to hinder them from biting” (Observations 11; see also b3r and Blazing World 31–2).

Fourth, Cavendish argued that the experimental philosophy accorded a privileged truth status to experiment that suppressed critical rationality. Because of this heightened status, “the bare authority of an Experimental Philosopher is sufficient to them to decide all Controversies, and to pronounce the Truth without any appeal to Reason; as if they onely had the Infallible Truth of Nature, and ingrossed all knowledg to themselves” (Observations 260).<44> Noting that “Art oft deludes men under the cover of truth, and makes them many times believe falshood for truth,” Cavendish argued that experiment alone was insufficient proof of a thing (Philosophical Letters 365). In sum, she pointed out that “an artificial trial cannot be an infallible natural demonstration, the actions of Art, and the actions of Nature being for the most part very different, especially in productions and transmutations of natural things” (Philosophical Letters 255–6). Then too, she argued, certain natural phenomena are ill-suited to microscopical investigation or to “Chymical speculation” (Observations 33, Philosophical Letters 282). Not all of nature is knowable by way of experiment. Here Cavendish criticized the experimental philosophy for claims that ran to hyperbole. Frequently, she noted, the many “praises and commendations” of the experimental philosophy, in particular chemistry, “exceed truth, and express more then the Art of Fire can perform” (Philosophical Letters 282). There was always the issue of the experimenter’s seldom-acknowledged limitations. If we consider, Cavendish wrote, “that Nature is an Infinite cause, and has Infinite effects; and if you knew all the Infinite effects in nature, then perhaps you might come to some knowledg of the cause; but to know nature by one single effect, as art [experiment] is, is impossible” (Philosophical Letters 283).

4.9.2 Cavendish’s Empiricism

Cavendish’s mostly valid criticisms of the experimental philosophy did not, however, reduce to a sweeping anti-empiricism of the sort implied by her critics. Cavendish readily admitted that as a tender-natured woman, she was predisposed towards a science of reason over that of experiment (Philosophical Letters 286). Nonetheless, she did not reject experiment out of hand: “certainly experiments are very beneficial to man,” she commented, particularly those of the iatrochemists that “many times produce more powerful and sudden effects then the medicines of Galenists, and therefore I do not absolutely condemn the art of Fire” (Philosophical Letters 496, 285–6). Cavendish herself engaged in some experiment with the popular phenomenon known as “Prince Rupert’s drops,” although her experiments were performed at the behest of Huygens, and she was quick to defer to the authority of his experimental method when it conflicted with her own findings and theories (see Huygens 284–7). While her husband and others in the Newcastle Circle were avid experimenters, Margaret clearly did not share their enthusiasm for the laboratory. Her empicirism took a somewhat different turn.

Cavendish’s natural philosophy, like her discourse, was firmly anchored in “my Human Sense and Reason.” Her materialist creed held that sense data was the basis of all cognition. Even “Fancy” would not exist “without the materials of outward Objects, and Subjects” as imaged by the senses (1662 Playes 564; also A True Relation 309). Furthermore, she noted that “reason” was not to be conflated with “reasoning” (by which Cavendish meant logic). “There is a great different betwixt” the two, we are told: “some will say, we should never come to reason but by reasoning; but I say, reason comes by observation of consequences and accidents, and reasoning is vain in-bred imaginations, without the experience of the concurrence of outward things” (Worlds Olio 20).

Given her belief that “reason is bred with strickt observing” (Worlds Olio 20), it is not surprising that Cavendish’s natural philosophy was predicated on what she termed “Natural Observations.” It was her practice, she explains, to “walk two or three hours ... in a musing, considering, contemplating manner, reasoning with myself of everything my senses did present” (qtd. Mendelson, Mental World 15; see also Cavendish’s Worlds Olio H3r). Thus, “by my own Contemplation, and the Observations which I have made by my rational & sensitive perception upon Nature, and her works,” Cavendish sought to understand the many mysteries of the material world (Blazing World 47).

As such, her science writings abound with detailed observations concerning all natural phenomena that fell within the range of her experience. Her theories of the natural world were not simply the by-product of a fertile imagination, but were the culmination of tedious inquiry and observation, as in her patient study of a butterfly chrysalis while in Antwerp (recounted in Observations 26–8). While Cavendish never claimed that her own theoretical superstructures surpassed those of any other New Scientists of the period, she did hold that her method of “Natural Observations” was the preferred means for truth-seeking. A form of non-invasive natural inquiry, her “strickt observing” focused on the world as it is, rather than on experimental simulations of it. Thus, the best “natural Philosophers, shall by natural sense and reason, trace Natures ways, and observe her actions, more readily then Chymists can do by Fire and Furnaces” (Philosophical Letters 281; see also 1663 Philosophical and Physical Opinions d2v). Cavendish’s reintroduction of “Natural Observations” to the realm of truth-seeking, although an interesting forerunner of the methodology favored by today’s ecological sciences, was blatantly at odds with the Baconian cult of experiment in England.<45>

Cavendish’s own ideal scientific methodology extended beyond speculative versus experimental dualisms to natural investigations “grounded upon Reason, Practice, and Experience” (Philosophical Letters 377). Her favorite phrasing for introducing data into discussion was “we see by Experience and Observation that ...” (Sociable Letters 283). While acknowledging the limitations placed by her culture on the range of women’s experience, Cavendish nonetheless underscored that experience as a valid source of data and an equally valid means of interpreting data. To counter van Helmont’s findings on reproductive issues as “demonstrated” by chemical experiment, Cavendish contended that he “cannot say, that he hath demonstrated any thing, which could not be as much contradicted, and perhaps with more reason, then he hath brought proofs and demonstrations ...” (Philosophical Letters 246). Her rebuttal to van Helmont’s claims relied solely on her own personal observations:

And as for those Creatures whose producers are of two different sorts, as a Mule bred of an Asse and a Horse, and another Creature bred of a Cony and a Dormouse; all which your Author thinks do take more after their mother then their father, more after the breeder then the begetter; I will not as eagerly affirm the contrary, although it seems to me more probable: But this I can say, that I have observed by experience, that Faunes and Foales have taken more after the Male then after the Female ... both in shape and colour. And thus I express no more, but what I have observed my self; others may find out more examples; these are sufficient for me....
(Philosophical Letters 274)

Cavendish also proposed what was to her mind a more acceptable model of experiment, one that reintroduced utilitarian values.<46> Her new objective for the experimental philosophy was the development of “Arts useful and pleasant for the Life of Man” (Natures Pictures 408). She cautioned that utilitarian concerns should take precedence over any search for absolute truths: “it is enough if Artists can but produce such things as are for mans conveniencies and use” (Philosophical Letters 500). Like the Empress of her science fiction utopia, the Blazing World, Cavendish advised chemists to “busie your selves with such Experiments as may be beneficial to the publick” (48). Re-situating New Science experiment in a social context of women’s labor and potential, Cavendish emphasized life-affirming, life-sustaining technologies over conventional technologies geared to power-seeking and war-mongering: “if we could find out the art of healing, as well as the art of killing and destroying; and the art of uniting and composing, as well as the art of separating and dividing, it would be very beneficial to man” (Philosophical Letters 344; also see under 2.9.2). Cavendish quested after “insight to the knowledge of all Vegetables, Minerals, and Animals, their constitutions, their sympathies, and antipathies, their extractions, and applications which they apply, for health, and prolonging of life”; also, to be “acquainted with the course of the stars and planets, and the several tempers of the Climats, and the nature of the several Soyls, which is profitable in husbandry ... the art of Navigation, and Plantations, and many other things” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions a1v). In the main, Cavendish’s fantasies were not of mechanical contrivances for travel to the moon, but of restoring-beds and of a means to “press and squeeze” nature’s “healing Balsomes, and sovereign Juices, and restoring Simples into every sick wounded and decayed body, and every disquieted or distemper’d mind.”<47> With this focus on social life came a new-found focus on self. Always inquisitive concerning woman’s full potential, Cavendish eagerly proposed the self as an appropriate subject of natural inquiry: “every particular person must learn and know himself, not by comparative, as observing others, for every man is not alike; but by self study, reading our own Natures and Dispositions, marking our own Passions ... and Appetites” (1662 Playes 504). Cavendish believed that systematic study “of the Motions and Passions of the Heart” was every bit as integral to the new epistemological project as “studying of the Motions and Heat of the Sun” (Natures Pictures 317).

Cavendish’s alternate model of New Science experiment was rooted in women’s domestic labor and traditional areas of technological know-how. In one intriguing passage, she suggested that women are well-suited to experimental philosophy and reclaimed for women the rich heritage of their empiricist tradition:

... those that employ their time in Artificial Experiments, consider onely Natures sporting or playing-actions; but those that view her wise Government, in ordering all her parts, and consider her changes, alterations, and tempers in particulars, and their causes, spend their time more usefully and profitably ... But if any one would take delight in such things, my opinion is, That our Female-sex would be the fittest for it.
(Observations 103)

Drawing on her metaphorical representation of nature-as-housewife, Cavendish perceived similarities between women’s “making of Sweet-meats, Possets, several sorts of Pyes, Puddings, and the like” and nature’s generative forces in the material world. Hence, it could well be that women

... would prove good Experimental Philosophers, and inform the world how to make Artificial Snow, by their Creams, or Possets beaten into froth: and Ice, by their clear, candied, or crusted Quiddities, or Conserves of fruits: and Frost, by their candied herbs and flowers: and Hail, by their small Comfits made of water and sugar, with whites of Eggs: And many other the like figures, which resemble Beasts, Birds, Vegetables, Minerals, &c.
(Observations 103)

This unique vision yielded a new division of labor within the New Science enterprise. Cavendish determined that women “would labour ... with Fire and Furnace,” generating “good Cordials and Spirits” and other useful byproducts in their alternative course of natural inquiry, while men would cease from all heretofore “useless Experiments” and instead pursue “more profitable Studies” such as “the Causes of those Experiments” performed by women. Cavendish hastened to add that this unprecedented division of labor by gender followed naturally from the popular credo that “Woman was given to Man, not onely to delight, but to help and assist him” (Observations 103–4).

4.9.3 Anti-Reductionist Bias

Institutionalized New Science was from its inception predicated on the search for immutable, fixed, and universal laws. The majority of seventeenth-century New Scientists were determined to reconcile “the fleeting world of appearances perceived by human beings with their philosophical desire for a more permanent, real and, perhaps simpler, underlying order” (Brock 33). Assuming spurious divisions between primary and secondary qualities (a byproduct of accepted bifurcations between mind and matter, subject and object), materialists of the early modern period sought to reduce all the qualitatively diverse processes and phenomena of nature to mechanical laws of motion. Increasingly they focused on quantification and primary qualities, to the eventual exclusion of all else.

Cavendish was not opposed to the mathematical modeling of nature, but she was opposed to any New Science reductionism that alleged the primacy or universality of mathematical truth claims. To Cavendish, “the Mathematicks” is but “a Candle of Truth, whereby I may peep into the Works of Nature, to imitate her in little” (Natures Pictures 408). Indeed, Cavendish deplored all tendencies of the New Science towards reductionism. She argued that the unremitting quest for “primary and onely causes” at any level in nature was misdirected, whatever its form. Over and over in her works Cavendish belabored three points: (1) nothing in nature is the single “Cause or Principle of all the rest”; (2) “Nature is not tied to one way” in anything; and (3) “there are so many irregular motions in Nature ... ’tis but a folly to think that Art should be able to regulate them” (Observations 85, 26; Blazing World 59). As such, all forms of abstraction were to Cavendish suspect. In rebutting various New Science classifications, contrast schemes, and theories of “principal” kinds/causes/agents, Cavendish employed images of confinement and coercion. She would have agreed with Gouldner’s appraisal of the power and dangers of abstraction:

The abstract is the reduction of complexity to the “essential” via selection and simplification. Abstraction is thus a mode of decontextualization, removing or constructing a thing apart from the complexity which is its normal context in ordinary language and everyday life. Simplification, decontextualization, and abstraction permit greater concentration and control, symbolic or otherwise.
(Gouldner 40)

Cavendish’s own natural inquiry focused on what Keller has aptly called nature’s “mercilessly recalcitrant diversity” (“The Gender/Science System” 49). It was Cavendish’s goal “to render difference understandable, articulable on its own terms” (Heldke 133). In place of the stability of mathematical laws and identities, Cavendish sought a scientific method that could fully acknowledge (and begin to account for) the abundant “variety” of the ephemeral world of human experience. No yearnings for permanence seduced her study; she happily immersed herself in the world of secondary qualities.<48>

This overriding interest in “the Miraculous variety in Nature” led Cavendish to reaffirm the primacy of organic process (Observations 127). Her stated focus of research was matter made “various by interchanging motions” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 41). Her governing obsession was “the variety of Natures actions” which, she informs us, “few do consider or observe sufficiently” (Philosophical Letters 380; see also Observations 91). Thus, she writes in the Philosophical Letters, “whosoever will study Nature, must consider the Figures of every Creature, as well as their Motions, and must not make abstractions of Motion and Figure from Matter, nor of Matter from Motion and Figure, for they are inseparable” (65). Research (both conjectural and experimental) must extend to “the several and different motions in ... parts, how they change in one and the same part, and how the different alterations in bodies are caused by the different motions of their parts” (Philosophical Letters 496). Cavendish’s eccentric theories at times approximated a materialist dialectics.

A process-oriented approach was clearly required in order to properly comprehend Margaret’s cosmos, where everything existed within a dynamic relationship of part to part, and part to whole (see 4.3). “[N]o part of Nature can subsist single, and without reference and assistance of each other,” she wrote, “for all parts are to be considered, not onely as parts of the whole, but as parts of other parts, all parts being joyned in Infinite Nature, and tied by an inseparable tie one way or other, although we do not altogether perceive it” (Philosophical Letters 431, 243). Hence it was only proper that natural inquiry address each part within its natural context, seeking to understand the full complement of cause-effect relations that affect it. Cavendish held that individual parts should always be studied in interaction with other parts and with the whole. This relational perspective encouraged a broader view of truth than that favored by reductionist thinking. Cavendish included both context and circumstance as part of “a declaring of truth” (1668 Plays, The Sociable Companions 63).

Cavendish’s fixation with nature’s diversity of motions and effects was generally considered a feeble springboard for truth-seeking. This was in keeping with a philosophical tradition that for millenia has regarded “the certain and stable ... as ontologically superior and epistemologically more valuable” (Heldke 130–1). Max Born — physicist and Nobel laureate — complained this century of the still unfortunate inclination of modern science toward “final, categorical statements” (qtd. Cole 216). The New Science project, from the beginning reluctant to advance truth claims only before they were demonstrably absolute, was conceived by Bacon in this mode. Most New Scientists who labored for the Baconian project believed fervidly in the final attainment of absolute truth at some later point in time. The “idea that there is one consistent, integrated or coherent, true theoretical treatment of all natural phenomena” and that the New Science project would eventually produce it has guided modern science from its inception (Longino 57).

To Cavendish, absolute certainties simply did not exist in nature; there was only the infinite play of difference. She argued that even if absolutes did exist, humankind could never know them as such. Because nature was infinite, man “cannot give a finall description” of it (Philosophicall Fancies 40). Nothing in nature could transcend from part to whole; therefore “there is no single Creature in Nature, that is able to know the perfectest Truth” (Philosophical Letters 244–5). “Absolute knowledge” of any kind was impossible (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 41). But Cavendish was no relativist either. “Infallible truths” were “impossible ... yet it doth not follow, that nothing can be known” (Philosophical Letters 246, Worlds Olio Y2r). Cavendish argued forcefully that “probable” knowledge of nature’s particulars was always possible, even if complete knowledge of nature was not. Thus, although nature’s “ways cannot be traced or known thorowly and perfect[l]y,” they can be accurately known “by piecemeals” (Philosophical Letters 406). “[O]ur knowledge comes slow, and in parts, and pieces, so we know but parts and pieces of every particular thing” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 67).

Cavendish’s solitary affirmation of the transitory world of everyday existence is best understood as a function of her feminism. What Walter Charleton referred to as “the inherent Mutability and Levity of Womans Nature” was a commonplace of seventeenth-century culture (Ephesian Matron 35). Lynda Birke and Sandy Best have recently explored the customary associations of woman with changeableness and a temperamental womb/moon. In conclusion, they challenge the pejorative characterization of change in Western culture and our idealization of the sun-male-constancy triad. So too did Cavendish.

Margaret did not argue with her culture’s equation of women and changeableness. Women, like all of nature’s creatures, “live in a perpetual motion,” she observed (1662 Playes 259). That was the essence of life. Therefore, what was true of women was also true of men. Cavendish pointedly rejected male constancy as a myth throughout her works. Regardless of gender, “most Palates are greedy after Change,” she believed (Poems and Fancies A6v). But neither did Cavendish accept her culture’s negative imaging of change. The theme “Nature delights in variety” is constant in her work. As with nature, so with women (or vice versa). In The Unnatural Tragedie, one of the four Sociable Virgins (who is loath to settle her affections on one man in marriage) avers: “variety is the life and delight of Natures works, and Women being the only Daughters of Nature, and not the sons of Jove, as men are feigned to be, are more pleased with variety, than men are” (1662 Playes 331). As Cavendish was aware, there were ample grounds for this claim in seventeenth-century society. Under the seventeenth-century family mode of production, ceaseless adaptability was “the nature of women’s work and life” (Prior 99–100). Far from the spurious claims of the shrill invective leveled against women’s inconstant nature, the ability to accommodate the contingencies of family life and society at large was a positive attribute. Cavendish, while bemoaning the unfair distribution of the burdens of adaptability onto women, recognized its necessity and celebrated its social value. As Gouldner has pointed out, women’s domestic labor in patriarchal societies buffers men from the contingencies of life. It allows their retreat into rationality and abstraction (99). It masks the true tenuousness of man’s claims to property and to control. But such comforts are dearly purchased, as “the blessed rage for order” so ingrained in seventeenth-century Restoration culture and science early revealed (qtd. Mendelson, Women in Seventeenth-Century England 170).

4.9.4 Actual Practice Inadequate to Theory

Cavendish’s actual implementation of her theories suffered from limitations imposed by culture, personality, and in the end, our basic inability to transcend history. Despite her reveries of a new experimental method, historical conditions did not permit Cavendish to cross the breach between experimental and rationalist New Science. She was simply unable to match innovations in theory with needed innovations in the laboratory.

In a 1662 letter to Cavendish, Charles Cheyne remarks that the “Rules” of ancients and moderns do not apply to “Philosophating, your way, from the visible effects of Nature” (Collection 78–9). He phrased it as a compliment, but Cheyne clearly intended a subtle rebuke. Cavendish had earlier reasoned that “Astronomy ... by Observations of Effects hath found out the Reason of Eclipses, and can foretell their times, and many other things concerning all the Planets and fixed Stars” (Worlds Olio 175). In bygone days, augurs too had systematically used “Natural Observations of Natural Effects” to advantage; they could “foreknow Effects to come by past Effects, and present Effects ... and certainly did foretell many things truly well, and without the help of a Devil” (Worlds Olio 175). Why might not she do the same?<49> Accordingly, her practice was as follows: “my Reason Studies, and Observation Watches, to find out the Cause by the Effects, or to Foresee the Effects by the Causes” (Sociable Letters 140). Frequently, this technique led her in untenable directions, as in her many essays wherein “I guess by the forms, I mean the figures, or shapes, what the motion may be to produce them” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 26). Despite her concession that “it is impossible that the Exterior shape and structure of bodies can afford us sure and excellent Instructions to the knowledg of their Natures and Interior Motions,” Cavendish pushed this approach to its limits, and beyond (Observations 42). Reasoning from her study of surface effects, she relied on simile and imagination for her insights into the hidden nature of things. Thus, we are told that

Some say Memory is the folding of the Brain, like Leaves of a Book, or like Scales of Fishes, which by motion of Wind or Vapours, are caused by outward Objects, which heave up their Folds, wherein the Letters or Print of such things as have been represented to it; and those things that have been lost in the Memory, is either by the reason those Folds have never been opened after they were printed, or that the Prints have been worn out, as not being engraven deep enough. But I think it is as likely that the Brains should be full of little Substances no bigger than Atomes, set on fire by Motion, and so the Fire should go out and in, according as the Motion is slackned or increased, either by outward Objects, or inward Vapours; and when things are lost in the Memory, it is when the Fire of those Atomes is gone out, and never kindled again....
(Worlds Olio 138)

Cavendish’s guesses were usually no less accurate than those proffered by more credited scientists of her day. And she did caution her readers that although cause-effect interrelations were the proper subject of natural philosophy, they were also the most elusive. On the one hand, she acknowledged that “as the causes of nature are hid from us, so are most of the effects” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 67). On the other, what we perceive as effects “deceives, and often cozens us, by reason one effect may be produced from many several causes, and several effects proceeds from one cause” (1662 Playes 72).

4.9.5 Democratizing Impetus

Carolyn Merchant comments that the atomists were “traditionally associated with democratizing tendencies in cultural history” (162). Cavendish displayed similar tendencies, even though she herself rejected atomism largely because of democratic political imagery. Cavendish declared often that the key components of her scientific method — observation, imagination, reason, understanding — were all “gifts” of nature that “are general to mankinde” (Worlds Olio E2v). She also asserted that humankind “is all alike both in Body and Mind ... as also alike in their Rational Parts” (Orations 164). As such, Cavendish discounted any claims “that Nature has made any One Man to Transcend all other men in Wisdome” (Orations 308). A serving-maid was as capable as a scholar of New Science researches: “Fire, Air, Water, and Earth, Animals, Vegetables, and Minerals, are Volumes large enough to express Nature” and instruct those who were interested “to know about the course of her works, and to understand many effects produced therefrom” (1662 Playes 209–10).

Indeed, Cavendish advocated that scientific knowledge be broadly dispersed throughout society. In the secrecy debates waged among the “sons of art” (including Boyle, Newton, and other Royal Society potentates), Cavendish weighed in on the side of open communications: “a general good or benefit ought not to be concealed or kept in privy Councels, but to be divulged and publickly made known, that all sorts of People, of what condition, degree, or Nation soever, might partake of the general blessing and bounty of God” (Philosophical Letters 405). Her Orations (243–6) depicts an entire society integrating New Science thinking and methodology into their labors in a fascinating projection of utopian science reminiscent of the Hartlib Circle. In this visionary society, education — by way of “Publick and General Teachers” chosen for their “Experience by Practice, and Judgement by Observation” coupled with their “Learning and Conceptions of Natural Philosophy” — would be widely available to all who presently “Labour at Randome, without Judgement or Observation” (244). Her stated objective was a reintegration of mental and manual labor: “as Learning without Practice is of No Effect, so Practice without Knowledge is of Small Profit” (245).

Cavendish’s program of reintegration (mind and body, reason and sensibility, subject and object, identity and difference, feminine and masculine) was primarily a result of her feminism. She was driven by an insatiable need to define herself and nature qua female as a complete working whole, rather than as only one-half (and that half, negative) of the human equation. As part of her effort at reintegration, Cavendish was a tireless proponent of woman-centered issues, situating her discourse in women’s experiential base and introducing to mainstream publication a feminist perspective that had for too long been lost in silence.

Malebranche openly admitted in his definitive work on the human subject that “little credit is given to things by [women] advanc’d” (68). Cavendish offered a needed corrective for this way of thinking. She did not shrink from the stigma of gender, but openly asserted her right as a woman to speak and be heard: “why may not I think I am as Wise as an Other, and why may not an Other think himself as Wise as I, and yet be Both of Different Opinions? and though our Opinions be Different, yet our Degrees of Judgement may be Equal” (Orations 307–8). What she chose to popularize to her readers was not so much her theories as her act of theorizing, the excitement of intellectual discovery, and the satisfactions inherent in the power to create and the power to explain. This was heady stuff, indeed, to address to a large female readership. And it constituted an auspicious beginning for public dialogue conducted between women and the New Science. Unfortunately, the democratizing impulses of Cavendish’s discourse were largely ignored. The most influential texts addressed to a popular audience (women, in particular) would look back to other models than that first articulated by Margaret Cavendish, and would develop in a radically different direction — the formulation of the “she-philosopher.”<50>

Chapter 5 >>


1. The predominating arguments in contemporary ongoing debate are well summarized in Robert Hoffman, “Metaphor in Science”; Robert Hoffman and Richard Honeck, “A Peacock Looks at Its Legs: Cognitive Science and Figurative Language”; Mark Johnson, “A Philosophical Perspective on the Problems of Metaphor”; and Sandra Harding, The Science Question 233–9.

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2. For example, Evelyn Fox Keller looks at the DNA-as-master-molecule and cell-as-machine metaphors that have long dominated Western biology in her excellent study of Barbara McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism.

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3. See, for example, the work of Carolyn Merchant (Death of Nature), Brian Easlea, Evelyn Fox Keller (Reflections on Gender and Science), and Elizabeth Fee. A further instance of the cognitive role of gendered metaphor in New Science discoveries of “truth” is given in appendix B (see B.4).

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4. This wording occurs in a letter from the Master and Fellows of St. John’s College at Cambridge to Margaret Cavendish. The exact phrasing is as follows: “We men find Nature and Truth very coy and sullen, alas how we vex, persecute, and chase her, who yet still outruns us.” The writer then continues with all the gallantry he can muster: “But she willingly shews herself all bare and naked to your Grace” (A Collection of Letters and Poems 19).

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5. An especially apt example of this is found in Boyle’s A Free Inquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature (Works 5:158–254).

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6. Natures Pictures includes one of Cavendish’s most eloquent expressions of woman-nature identity. In “The Surprisal of Death,” a beautiful virgin is so enraptured by a field of flowers that she cannot pluck them from the earth, and delighting in their scent and beauty, she lays down amongst them, catches cold, and dies in their midst. The flowers “to her rescue bend, / And all their Med’cinable Virtues send: / But all in vain, their Power’s too weak” (97). The corpse of the beautiful young woman is then “dissolv’d in Dew” and each year an abundance of sweet-smelling flowers are reborn from that pocket of fertile soil. The story stresses particular ties that in Cavendish’s thinking bind woman and nature as one, locked in a complex network of interdependencies.

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7. For instance, she at this point claimed (and in so doing, issued a fairly sophisticated critique of contemporary medical practices) that “Diseases are like Parents and Children, as the Children may Resemble the Parents, or the Children of the same Parents may Resemble one another, and yet they are not all one.” Further tapping of this metaphor extended the scope of her investigation to the many subtleties of medical diagnosis introduced by consideration of half-brothers and -sisters, widows, and adulterers (1663 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 447).

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8. Of note, Hilary Rose has remarked on the popularity of such image systems in feminist discourse: “Metaphors of spinning and quilt-making are invoked as feminism speaks about its distinctive ways of thinking, feeling, and acting in the world” (“Beyond Masculinist Realities” 58).

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9. Cavendish writes: “he did not only Converse with the Body, but the Soul of Nature, indeed he was Nature’s Platonick Lover, and She rewarded him in Discovering to him her most Hidden and Obscure Secrets, by which be begot Great Wisdome and Everlasting Fame” (Orations 161).

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10. There are times when Cavendish portrays the relation between scientist and nature in terms of command and penetration; see, for example, Worlds Olio 63 and Sociable Letters 21–2. There are also times when nature-as-female is a malevolent force (e.g., 1662 Playes 138–9). Such imagery is not, however, predominant.

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11. I believe that Cavendish’s feminist analysis of New Science aims and practices is similar enough to twentieth-century “ecofeminist” critiques of modern science to warrant categorization as such. Cf. Ynestra King’s statement of purpose: “Ecofeminists take the relationship between the domination of nature and the domination of women as the basis for a political movement linking feminism and ecology. We recognize that like men and the rest of the creatures of the earth, women enter a web of relationships and are embedded in nature. We have attempted to use the socially-constructed women = nature connection to provide an ecological viewpoint, rather than repudiating this construct, like socialist and liberal feminists have done.” Like other feminist theorists, King argues that the Western democratic tradition was “founded on the repudiation of the organic, the female, the tribal, and particular ties between people.... the original citizen in that tradition is male, propertied, and xenophobic. He has separated himself from the slime and ooze of the earth as a condition for political life.” The ecofeminist project thus shares with other feminist approaches a search to bridge (and honor both halves of) traditional dualisms: process and content, structure and sensibility, nature and culture, passion and reason, science and magic, science and poetry. My quotations here are all from King’s “Coming of Age with the Greens” (19).

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12. The link between Cavendish’s natural philosophy and her feminist impulse for liberation is quite explicit in the Philosophical Letters; e.g., 96, 189, 309, 314, 337, 465, 500. See also Natures Pictures 615.

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13. This was a Baconian tenet: “Man, if we look to final causes, may be regarded as the centre of the world ... insomuch that if man were taken away from the world, the rest would seem all astray, without aim or purpose” (Francis Bacon; qtd. Thomas, Natural World 18). This kind of thinking produced such New Science supposition as: horse’s excrement smells sweet because God knew at the time of their creation that horses would be often in the vicinity of man (from the reputable physician George Cheyne; qtd. Thomas, Natural World 19).

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14. Henry More was singled out by Cavendish for particular attack. His guiding metaphors were to her mind ridiculous: “I cannot imagine why God should make an Immaterial Spirit to be the Proxy or Vice-gerent of his Power, or the Quarter-master General of his Divine Providence, as your Author [i.e., Henry More] is pleased to style it” (Philosophical Letters 215; see also 198–9).

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15. This particular phrasing is from Edmund Waller’s satiric couplet written on the fly-leaf of his copy of Cavendish’s 1663 Philosophical and Physical Opinions: “New Castles in the air this Lady builds, / While nonsense with Philosophy she guilds.” Apocryphal accounts of John Wilkins’ public comments along similar lines abound. Clearly, the pun inherent in Margaret’s “Newcastle” name made such witticisms both popular and irresistible. She refers often in her works to being chided for “Imploying my time onely in Building Castles in the Air” (e.g., Sociable Letters 226).

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16. Cavendish here included all of nature, not just “beasts, birds, fish, worms”: “since man is not able to know perfectly all those proprieties which belong to animals, much less will he be able to know and judg of those that are in Vegetables, Minerals and Elements; and yet these Creatures, for any thing Man knows, may be as knowing, understanding, and wise as he; and each as knowing of its kind or sort, as man is of his” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 42, Philosophical Letters 162).

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17. See her repeated criticisms of Hobbesian and Cartesian physics in the Philosophical Letters 95, 107–8, 180, 182–3, 474, 489. Cavendish also objected to Hobbes’ violent characterization of sense perception as pressure exuded from the external object onto the sense organ, which in turn pressures back; see her Philosophical Letters 61, 107.

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18. In general: “Logicians ... make natural causes to produce natural effects with more difficulty and enforcement then Nature knows of; and as for Mathematicians, they endeavour to inchant Nature with Circles, and bind her with lines so hard, as if she were so mad, that she would do some mischief, when left at liberty. Geometricians weigh Nature to an Atome, and measure her so exactly, as less then a hairs breadth; besides, they do press and squeeze her so hard and close, as they almost stifle her. And Natural Philosophers do so stuff her with dull, dead, senceless minima’s, like as a sack with meal, or sand, by which they raise such a dust as quite blinds Nature and natural reason” (Philosophical Letters 490–1; also 489).

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19. Other New Science metaphorical conceptions of nature-qua-woman are condemned in the Philosophical Letters 278 and Observations 40.

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20. Worlds Olio 176. See also Philosophical Letters 500 and Observations 85.

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21. Van Helmont, among others, regarded chemistry as the “Mistress of Nature”; see Cavendish’s Philosophical Letters 282.

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22. Qtd. Thomas, Natural World 21. Isaac Barrow was a renowned mathematician and professor to Isaac Newton at Cambridge.

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23. For example: “Drugs, as Vegetables and Minerals, although they cannot slice, pound or infuse, as man can, yet they can work upon man more subtilly, wisely, and as sensibly either by purging, vomiting, spitting, or any other way, as man by mincing, pounding and infusing them, and Vegetables will as wisely nourish Men, as Men can nourish Vegetables; Also some Vegetables are as malicious and mischievous to Man, as Man is to one another, witness Hemlock, Nightshad, and many more; and a little Poppy will as soon, nay sooner cause a Man to sleep, though silently, then a Nurse a Child with singing and rocking” (Philosophical Letters 43).

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24. See the series of environmental poems in Poems and Fancies (58–9, 66–75, 95–6, 106, 110–16).

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25. Margaret’s complaint that “we for the Covetousness or Present Gain, Cut down this Excellent full-Grown Timber to be Burnt into Coals for Iron Forges” (Orations 272) is especially noteworthy in light of the fact that William himself did this, turning his own woodsland into a source of revenue. Lawrence Stone has commented that “after the Restoration he reckoned his gross profits from iron-works to be at least £1,000 a year.” Stone evidences William to prove his point that “for many years the peers themselves were the technical pacemakers and largest individual producers in the industry” (Crisis of the Aristocracy 351). Presumably, Margaret would have argued that William continued the model land-management practices of “our Ancestors” (e.g., cutting only what was necessary, cutting no tree before its time, and reforesting accordingly). Without question, William could better absorb the costs of environmental sentiment and planning than could most others during the seventeenth century. William’s attitudes towards the land and its proper management are revealed in his Advice to Charles II (see 43–5; also Margaret’s Life of William, 224 and 233). He was, at best, a pragmatic conservationist.

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26. Natures Pictures 76. See also Observations 272, Philosophical Letters 285, Worlds Olio 176–7. Cavendish’s evidence for this claim is, of course, now somewhat dated; e.g., the scientist can dismember and extract “the Essence of a Flower” but not “gather the dispersed Parts, as to make the first Principles, which none but the God of Nature can do” (Worlds Olio 177). Never in her wildest fancies would Cavendish have believed possible the achievements of recombinant DNA technologies. Nonetheless, the overall thrust of her anti-technology commentary remains valid in light of what we today know about the complexities of the ecosystem and our ability to irrevocably alter and destroy the world as we know it.

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27. 1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 172, Observations 109, Philosophical Letters 238. Cf. Isaac Newton’s tone and conceptualization of nature’s generative role: “the frame of nature may be nothing but ... various contextures of some certain aetherial spirits or vapours condensed as it were, by precipitation ... and after condensation wrought into various forms, at first by the immediate hand of the Creator, and ever since by the power of nature, who by virtue of the command, Increase and multiply, became a complete imitator of the copies set her by the Protoplast. Thus perhaps may all things be originated from aether, &c.” (letter to Henry Oldenburg; rpt. British Scientific Literature in the Seventeenth Century 60).

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28. See also Natures Three Daughters where we are told, in language approximating that of Robert Boyle, that God, “being infinite, he must of necessity be incomprehensible, and being incomprehensible, must of necessity be unknown, yet glimpses of his power is, or may be seen; yet not so, but that Man is forced to set up Candels of Faith, to light them, or direct them to that they cannot perfectly know, and for want of the clear light of knowledge, Man calls all Creations of this mighty power Nature” (1662 Playes 497). Cf. Boyle’s A Free Inquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature, Works 5:158–254.

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29. For example, see works by Elizabeth Janeway; Ruth Wallsgrove; Brian Easlea; Sandra Harding, The Science Question 130–1; and Arnold and Faulkner 23.

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30. The following summary of classical and New Science reproductive theory draws from a number of sources: Vern Bullough; Anne Dickason; Brian Easlea, Witch-Hunting 143–53; Lynda Lange; Caroyln Merchant 155–63; Marilyn Ogilvie; Hilda Smith, “Gynecology and Ideology”; and Caroline Whitbeck.

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31. Carolyn Merchant has extensively analyzed “the influence of cultural sexual biases” on Harvey’s theory of biological generation (see 155–63).

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32. Qtd. Merchant 161. See Cavendish’s challenge of van Helmont’s Paracelsian arguments in Philosophical Letters 277, 243–4.

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33. The phrasing “extravagant atomes” is Huygens’ (see his collected correspondence, 5:187).

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34. Indeed, Cavendish refused altogether to accept the Cartesian claim that motion can be transferred or imparted from one body to another. Arguing that motion is “Material and inseparable from Matter” and thus “cannot be imparted without Matter,” Cavendish concluded that “the Body that receives Motion would increase in bulk, and the other that loses Motion would decrease, by reason of the addition and diminution of the parts of Matter ... the contrary whereof is sufficiently known” (Observations 50).

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35. For example, in the Observations upon Experimental Philosophy Cavendish declares: “... though the actions of Nature were different and opposite to each other, yet they did cause no disturbance in Nature, but they were ruled and governed by Nature’s Wisdom; for Nature being peaceable in her self, would not suffer her actions to disturb her Government: Wherefore, although particulars were crossing and opposing each other, yet she did govern them with such wisdom and moderation, that they were necessitated to obey her, and move according as she would have them” (g3v–g4r).

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36. For example: rational matter, “being so pure, fine and subtil ... it gave onely directions to the Sensitive, and made Figures in its own degree, [and] left the working with and upon the Inanimate part, to the Sensitive degree of Matter, whose Office was to execute both the rational part’s design, and to work those various figures that are perceived in Nature ... for as in the Exstruction of a house there is first required an Architect or Surveigher, who orders and designs the building, and puts the Labourers to work; next the Labourers or Workmen themselves; and lastly the Materials of which the House is built: so the Rational part ... in the framing of Natural Effects, is, as it were, the Surveigher or Architect; the Sensitive, the labouring or working part; and the Inanimate, the Materials: and all these degrees are necessarily required in every composed action of Nature” (Observations e3r).

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37. Descartes’ concept of the human mind presiding over the body from its residence “in a little kernel or Glandula of the Brain, as an Ostrich-egge is hung up to the roof of a Chamber” (Philosophical Letters 189) elicited particular comment from Cavendish.

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38. A conversion from Cartesian to empiricist models of science was conventional amongst returning Englishmen on the heels of Restoration. Sir Kenelm Digby and Walter Charleton exemplify this shift in intellectual allegiances.

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39. Marilyn Ogilvie notes a recurring polarization between the theoretical and the empirical in the work of all early women scientists (see x, 2).

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40. Observations 260, 259. Note Cavendish’s always-significant assignation of gender here.

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41. Cf. Hooke’s and Boyle’s somewhat similar thinking on this subject, as recounted in appendix B (B.5).

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42. See, for example, Worlds Olio 41–2, Observations 92, Philosophical Letters 501–2.

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43. Margaret Alic, among others, offers support for Cavendish’s early reluctance to accept laboratory dogma. Microscopical experiments in particular relied on lenses that were often of very poor quality, yielding distorted images that prompted erroneous interpretations (Alic 87).

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44. Cf. my own comments on this in appendix B (B.6.3).

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45. Bacon’s contempt for “easy and slothful observances” of things in their natural environment is discussed in appendix A (see A.1).

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46. The deliberate sundering of New Science projects from utilitarian concerns associated with daily life is documented in appendix A.

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47. 1662 Playes 260. See above under 3.6.4 for discussion of Cavendish’s “restoring-bed” theories. For an unusual indulgence of technological marvels such as submarines and ships which generate their own wind and can interlock “as close as a Honey-comb” in “battel-aray”, etc. see Cavendish’s Blazing World. This text celebrates its heroine’s imaginative appropriation of New Science technology for militaristic purposes. Hidden skillfully under a mantle of magic and bejeweled splendor in dress and attire, fabulous technologies are deployed by one woman (with two women’s souls) to end civil war and conquer a divisive world. A new world order is established by the woman/women and the harmonious whole is then turned over to a grateful monarch who has already managed to lose control of one kingdom. This monarch’s fitness to administer the new empire, secured by technology, is never addressed.

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48. Cavendish’s attentiveness to the fleeting world of appearances is readily apparent throughout her works. For example, in the following passage Cavendish explores the nuances of qualitative change in the “serenest air,” which she describes as spun from threads of the thinnest matter, “where some is like cobweb-lawn, so sheer, or clear, as the smallest objects may be seen through, which is spread about the globe of the earth, as a thin vail over a face, or body[;] and from the sun rising, the motions that make light run in lines upon it, and so is like a garment laid all over with silver-twist, or rather like silver-wier[;] from the sun rising to high noon, it is at it were, setting, sewing, or imbroidering on this serene air[;] at mid-day it is quite finished, and by sun set it is quite reapt off again ...” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 77).

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49. Cavendish’s interest in “knowledg of the Causes” in order to better foretell and copy nature’s actions was nothing new. Bacon first exhorted philosophers to seek causal knowledge for “where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced” (qtd. Easlea, Sexual Oppression 82). Populist empirical traditions as well as alchemical and magical arts were all geared to obtaining varying degrees of influence over natural “effects.”

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50. The story of the “she-philosopher” is recounted separately in appendix A (see A.5).

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