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 3 of 12: Preface)
by Deborah Bazeley
e-Copyright © 2004–2016 < >
see also Part 1: Editor’s Introduction for Library Cat. No. DTB1990



I first stumbled across “that Mad Countess,” Margaret Cavendish, while researching the history and theory of scientific discourse during the seventeenth century. My work as a producer-teacher-user of technical writing prompts me to continuing research on this subject. I am forever seeking to better understand the process and product of technical communication — the expectations and demands of widely diverse audiences; the cognitive effects of different writing styles, formats, and designs; the preferred strategies for incorporating radically new structuring techniques and non-linear organizational patterns considered more representational of the scientific process and subject; and always, the political implications of our choices as technical communicators.

Carolyn Merchant piqued my interest with her sketch of Cavendish in The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution: “a feminist who between 1653 and 1671 wrote some fourteen scientific books about atoms, matter and motion, butterflies, fleas, magnifying glasses, distant worlds, and infinity.” Merchant repeated Robert Kargon’s contention that Cavendish played a role “in the formation of the mechanical philosophy.” And she concluded her brief mention of Cavendish by asserting (without a great deal of proof) that Cavendish authored “one of the earliest explicitly feminist perspectives on science” (270, 272). I was intrigued. A seventeenth-century woman who was both a feminist and unabashed materialist — a rare phenomenon indeed.

My own interests in feminism, materialist philosophy, and Western science and technology impelled me to investigate Margaret Cavendish firsthand. What I discovered was not the eccentric “Mad Duchess” of popular imagining, but a complex woman of unbounded interests and imagination. A woman torn by the contradictory impulses of her own sexuality. A woman of profound ambition. A woman unforgivably elitist, but also searching, skeptical, playful, accessible, angry. A brilliant writer and thinker. Above all, “a strikingly modern figure” (McGuire 204).

Margaret Cavendish wrote just prior to what Harding calls “the seventeenth-century moment of mythologizing,” during a period of vast intellectual fragmentation and experiment (The Science Question 217). Hers was the age of revolution when numerous intellectual and political factions competed for preeminence. At this time, modern science still lacked a universalizing perspective. There was, as yet, no “one true story” of the universe; just conflicting narrative segments that coexisted to varying degrees in what Sir Thomas Browne immortalized as the “Amphibium” temperament of the times.

An early dissenting voice within scientific and literary traditions, Margaret Cavendish articulated a perspective that lost out in the battles for hegemony waged between the many interest groups that perpetrated the scientific revolution. Yet she dealt in issues such as ecology, animal rights, and the “masculine” bias of science — issues that have recently been restored to prominence in Western culture. Indeed, Cavendish’s unusual narrative of reality parallels at critical junctures the protests and visions emanating from numerous late-twentieth-century social and political movements: from the women camping en masse at Greenham Common, to the indigenous peoples of the Brazilian rain forest fighting for their lives and environment, to theorists of French feminism who vigorously debate the finer points of semiotics. Ecofeminists, animal-welfare activists, environmentalists, technical writing reformers, “science for the people” activists, lesbians, feminist rhetoricians and literary critics and philosophers of science, plus the many others who seek a more balanced relationship between nature, human society, and Western science and technology — all will find that Cavendish speaks to relevant concerns.

I consider myself to some degree or another affiliated with most of the above groups, although I am neither an ecofeminist nor a lesbian. While I have no political allegiances to the former, I most certainly do to the latter. Although I remain an avid materialist and proponent of modern science, I nonetheless count myself among those who attempt an alternative, more comprehensive form of knowledge-seeking than that allowed within the framework of traditional science. I align myself with those who challenge popular belief in the possibility (and achievement) of “value-neutral” knowledge. With those who question the imperialism of “scientific” explanation and interpretation in our society. And with those who contest the increasing political powers of the “technocrat” in modern times. I advocate the democratization of Western science and technology (in the broadest possible sense, across lines of class, race, gender, and nation); an infusion of feminist skepticism; and open acknowledgement of behind-the-scenes Realpolitik.

In my work on Margaret Cavendish, I have been driven in large part by such preoccupations. Accordingly, I have foregrounded certain areas of study, and chosen to neglect others. Cavendish’s body of work is quite vast, both in scope and subject. She remains a rich source of study for those preferring psychoanalytic or French feminist approaches, neither of which I shall attempt here. Instead, I reach no further than a preliminary investigation of the following particulars:

  • Cavendish’s environmentalist doctrine (and early conception of nature as a self-sufficient, rejuvenating ecosystem) that subordinated man to nature, as a mere part of the whole. Cavendish openly challenged man’s quest for (and delusion of) supremacy over nature and other lifeforms. This extended to searing criticism of man’s domineering and unnecessarily brutal interrogation of nature and nature’s creatures in the service of “science” and “progress.”

  • Her critique of modern science as androcentric, steeped in patriarchal symbolism and forced (“artificial”) explanations of the natural world that perpetuated images of hierarchy, domination, and violence in nature.

  • Her fascinating, alternate vision of the natural world, grounded in an alliance with (rather than opposition to) and empathy for nature-as-female.

  • Her critique of reductionism in science, and her marked preference for an integrationist approach.

  • Her materialist doctrine that rejected mind-body dualisms, substituting instead a unique fusion of soul-body-brain in all matter and form.

  • Her refusal to concede “the pen and the sword” to “male prerogative,” and her public proclamation of her right (and by extension, everyone else’s) to interpret reality and explain the mysteries of the universe.

  • Her outrageous appropriation of the “masculine” registers of science and scholarship. In so doing, she ignored (and sometimes flaunted) accepted conventions of written discourse, substituting instead her own set of rules and sensibilities, while encouraging other women to do the same.

  • Her championship of a rhetorical model (“natural rational discourse”) that is at base heuristic rather than positivist. Her discourse is raw and unprocessed, exploratory, unfinished, with no clear beginning, middle, or end. It depicts a complex matrix of shifting perspectives and ways of knowing, employing a cumulative syntax, focused on plurality and juxtaposition, rather than the more conventional subordinate syntax, which pre-classifies information for the reader within circumscribed lines and hierarchies.

  • Her refusal to elide self, gender, sentiment, imagination, and wild speculation from technical discourse. She thus rejected many of the binary oppositions which today plague Western culture and modern science.

  • The free play given in her texts to alternate perceptions, to meaning as différance. Cavendish advocated a vision of “complementarity” long before the Dutch physicist Niels Bohr (and quantum theory in general) argued its necessity.

  • Her fantastic imaging of alternate physical and political realities, many with feminist overtones. She also produced some of the earliest published lesbian fantasies in English literature.

In sum, I wish to stress Cavendish’s production of what Cameron labels “radical discourse” — defined as a discourse that constantly questions the metalinguistic practices by which its obverse, “idle discourse,” is created and encouraged, and by which power relationships are reproduced (172–3). “Radical discourse” questions the stability of meaning, and asserts that we can change the meanings we live with through a conscious act of will.

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