Title: The mechanist-vitalist soul of Margaret Cavendish.
Subject(s): CAVENDISH, Margaret -- Criticism & interpretation; CRITICISM
Author(s): Stevenson, Jay
Source: Studies in English Literature (Rice), Summer96, Vol. 36 Issue 3, p527, 17p
Abstract: Attempts to historicize philosopher Margaret Cavendish's self-destabilization by recovering some of the overlooked content of her philosophy. Challenge posed by Cavendish's acentric writing to historicists interested in tracing connections between subjectivity and hegemony; Cavendish's career history; Cavendish's atomic determinism.
AN: 9609043142
ISSN: 0039-3657
* * *

             As Incorporeall Spirits this Fancy faines,
             Yet Fancy cannot be without some Braines.

In a period notable for obsession with order and dread of chaos, Margaret Carendish stands out as an anomalous champion of randomness.[1] Scholars have only recently begun to assess her singular body of work in appreciative terms, taking a poststructuralist delight in her paradoxical, regressive, reflexive, and self-contradictory literary creations. Cavendish dramatizes the act of writing, foregrounding the unreliability of authority and interpretation to the extent that her texts deny their own content; they present themselves as mere markers of a desire to write that reflects no stable point of view. Her writing mirrors a subjectivity which, in Catherine Gallagher's words, "unsettles the very identity it was intended to anchor."[2]

Though Cavendish's acentric writing rewards deconstructive interpretation, it remains a challenge to historicists interested in tracing connections between subjectivity and hegemony. What hegemonic forces induced Cavendish to relinquish subjective stability while pursuing a public literary career that spanned twenty years and resulted in fourteen published books? Recent scholarship offers two explanations: one regards Cavendish as a defiant protofeminist, resisting phallocentric discourse by refusing to conform to its logic.[3] This view makes sense of Cavendish's astonishing literary ambition and her apparent contempt of method, but fails to explain her self-criticism and evident desire to be appreciated, especially by her male readers. According to the other view, Cavendish was rendered incapable of coherent self-expression by patriarchal proscriptions of feminine discourse.[4] This approach explains Cavendish's self-contradictions, but only as failed attempts to communicate. It neglects to specify Cavendish's writings as meaningful efforts to negotiate strictures that may have been imposed on her discourse. Instead, it faults male power with generating, through Cavendish, an absence of meaning.

These perspectives need to be developed in light of Cavendish's intense engagement with the revolution in psychology that took place in the seventeenth century. Frequently dismissed as vacuous, if bold, intellectual posturing, or else appropriated by a poststructuralist hermeneutic that makes little distinction between her ideas and the deconstructive principles they are shown to illustrate, Cavendish's philosophy has yet to be fully decoded in the context of other seventeenth-century psychological theories.

This paper attempts to historicize Cavendish's self-destabilization by recovering some of the overlooked content of her philosophy. I argue that her philosophy, when abstracted from the contradictory and fanciful manner in which it is concealed, represents a coherent response to contemporaneous philosophical ideas concerning matter and spirit in the mind, or soul. Philosophers were particularly concerned with the soul at mid-seventeenth century, not only as a potential point of contact between God and humanity, but also as the seat of intel-lection where discourse is produced. Cavendish, like other philosophers, generated self-reflexive discourse to exemplify and to explain the workings of the soul. Her position regarding the corporeal nature of the soul is so unorthodox as to necessitate and facilitate its disguise within her seemingly irrational writings.

As a woman, Cavendish was especially likely to be thought vain and impertinent in writing and publishing books on philosophy. Contemporaries found her "mad, conceited, ridiculous," "extravagant," and "distracted."[5] Despite unceasing anxiety about the success of her literary efforts, Cavendish actually cultivated her reputation as an extravagant female by ostentatiously displaying foibles most closely associated with a "femininely" lax mentality. Psychological traits associated with women's lesser capacity for reason provide Cavendish with a discursive stance from which to expose some of the intellectual pretensions of her fellow philosophers. Moreover, in presenting herself as an extravagant, ambitious, untutored female, Cavendish obscures what in her time was a much graver moral impropriety, her atheism. She is, like Hobbes, a materialist psychologist, rejecting the idea of the incorporeal soul and the spiritual justifications of political order that this idea makes possible.[6]

In a pioneering study on the impact of politics on philosophical discourse, Leo Strauss identifies a number of characteristics exhibited by philosophical writing that seeks to evade political suppression: "obscurity of the plan, contradictions within one work or between two or more works of the same author, [and] omission of important links of the argument."[7] These literary problems, which Strauss suggests may be strategies for veiling the subversive nature of certain ideas, are in abundant evidence in Cavendish's writing. While such problems may be designed to pass for careless blunders in the writings of an educated male philosopher, similar characteristicsin Cavendish have suggested to her readers not merely carelessness, but lack of training and even ineptitude. Carendish plays on popular assumptions regarding the limitations of female thinking to suggest her ideas are not really philosophical, but simply the fanciful products of her corporeal psyche. Furthermore, this disguise illustrates her psychological views, since she believes all thoughts are physical, independent, self-moving beings engaged in a struggle, not for the truth, but for representational preeminence within the kingdom or commonwealth of the brain.


Cavendish began her literary career in exile, writing, she says, to keep herself occupied. Much of her earliest work, later published as The World's Olio (1655), has an arbitrary, often frankly illogical, character that juxtaposes two sides of a question without coordinating obvious discrepancies. Such discourse ruminates rather than communicates, reiterating facts, ideas, and opinions acquired from various sources. Part commonplace book written by a scholar without a library,[8] part essay collection by a humanist with little experience of worldly affairs, The World's Olio includes much that may have been written as mere mechanical exercise.

Rather than framing her exercises with an authorial point of view, Cavendish presents them as the free play of independent "thoughts":

This is to let you know, that I know, my Book is neither wise, witty, nor methodical, but various and extravagant, such as by Thoughts entertained themselves withal; rather making it my Recreation, not having much Imployment, than my Trouble, for I have not tyed myself to any one Opinion, for sometimes one opinion crosses another; and in so doing, I do as most several Writers do; onely they contradict one and another, and I contradict, or rather please my self, with the varieties of Opinions whatsoever, since it is said there is nothing truly known, but Measuring and Reckoning, the which I will leave to Arithmeticians and Geometricians, who have a Rule and Number, which my Brain can neither level at, nor comprehend, but humble and plain opinions, raised by the Opinions of others, I here present.[9]

Cavendish distances herself from her own ideas while her thoughts begin to emerge as active, independent agents in conflict with one another. Her dangling participles distribute authority between herself and them, either or both of which could be thought responsible for producing her book. The practice of ascribing intellectual qualities to text becomes more than a discursive convenience here, and is oddly literal. In addition to documenting thought, her book is thinking and entertaining itself. In presenting her thoughts as self-authorizing, she makes no claims for their validity, but merely acknowledges in a detached manner their origin in her brain and their presence in her book.

Much of The World's Olio is self-reflexive, attempting to explain not only the logical inconsistencies, but also the conceptual range of its mental content. The work represents Cavendish's early experiments in combining fanciful and philosophical discourse, such as likening "thoughts" to animals, plants, rocks, wind, stars, smoke, oil paints, drugs, food ("Pancakes"), travelers, citizens, and college students. The World's Olio was the first book Cavendish wrote, though she did not publish it until after her second book, Poems and Fancies (1653), in which she continues to conceal philosophical content in fanciful guise.

Even as she continued to let her thoughts entertain and contradict themselves in this second book, Cavendish develops a theory of cognition in which thoughts are independent, physical entities. This theory is evident in the book's opening poetry sequence about "Atomes," including the poem, "Of Loose Atomes," which describes psychic experience:

In every Braine loose Atomes there do lye
Those which are Sharpe, from them do Fancies fiye.
Those that are long, and Aiery, nimble be,
But Atomes Round, and Square, are dull and sleepie.[10]

The importance that Cavendish places on the rational capability of atoms is unusual, though not unique, among atomistic philosophies. Although Kenelm Digby suggests that atoms are intelligent, his atoms, unlike Cavendish's atoms, are not prone to disagree or to mislead one another. Instead, they help assure that the mind's thoughts and perceptions are empirically accurate, directly informing the soul of the true nature of things.[11] in contrast, Cavendish's atoms are not informed with any external truths, but only manifest their independent natures while conglomerating into provisionally ordered, temporary, and sometimes discordant systems.

Yet even while emphasizing the perspectival limitations of atomistic intelligence, Cavendish repeatedly suggests that there is nothing transcending it. This view is clear in the daring poem, "All things are govern'd by Atomes":

Thus Life and Death, and young and old,
Are, as the several Atomes hold.
So Wit, and Understanding in the Braine,
Are as the several Atomes reigne:
And Dispositions good, or ill,
Are as the several Atomes still.
And every Passion which doth rise
Is as the several Atomes lies.
Thus Sicknesse, Health, and Peace, and War,
Are alwaies as the several Atomes are.[12]

Cavendish's atomic determinism was a threat to other seventeenth-century conceptions of order that rely heavily on the mind, or soul, as evidence and expression of immanent order. Mid-century philosophers equated psychic materialism with atheism, since without a spiritual soul there would be no afterlife and no reliable understanding of God.[13] Unlike Cavendish and Hobbes, all of England's "new" (empirical) philosophers subscribed to the belief that spirit resides in the soul.

"Atomes" differs from other cosmologies of Cavendish's time in the way it combines vitalism with mechanism in order to undermine the ways other vitalists and mechanists impose order on the mind and the universe. Like other mechanists, most notably Hobbes, she believes the universe comprises divisible, independent parts. Unlike other mechanism, Cavendish believes these parts are animated, or "self-moving," and that therefore they cannot be studied empirically to yield consistent, objectively reliable principles. Like other vitalists, such as Spinoza and Ann Conway, Cavendish believes that matter is informed with rational and sensitive power. Unlike other vitalists, she believes this power does not inhere in a single hierarchical order, but is fragmented and often oppositional. Consequently, order for Cavendish is not absolute, or even rational in a Hobbesian sense, but contingent on the interplay of autonomous, independent forces.[14]

Cavendish suggests that her brain is one such provisionally ordered system. Her writing documents that system's working, registering opposed political and epistemological positions as internal conflict--as atoms clashing in her brain. In the process, however, her writing exposes not only personal uncertainty, but also widely shared doubts about the authority of discourse. Carendish wrote during a period of epistemological crisis in which scientific and imaginative discourses were subject to attack for different political reasons: both the lack of rational control in fanciful writing and the presumption of rational mastery in scientific and other forms of didactic writing could be assailed as threats to a highly combustible political order.[15] Although some critics have viewed Cavendish as incapable of understanding the conventions governing either fancy or atomistic philosophy in her fusion of the two, she actually uses each to palliate the danger posed by the other. Her fancy makes her scientific writing seem less presumptuously assertive while her interest in scientific issues ostensibly circumscribes her imagination by keeping it focused on itself.

While Cavendish distinguishes herself among philosophers of the later seventeenth century with a writing style that calls into question the very authority of her discourse, her strategy, of merging logically opposed discursive assumptions is shared by much Restoration drama, written decades after Cavendish began writing. Rose Zimbardo notes that "perspectival ambivalence or disjunctive unity" characterizes much Restoration drama of the 1670s.[16] By juxtaposing materialist and idealist points of view in a moral and social dimension, such drama enacts the epistemological uncertainty of the age without the playwright's necessarily endorsing either perspective. Cavendish's philosophy frequently presents a similarly disjunctive unity, but in a way that suggests a continued materialist bias.

Disjunctive unity accounts for the kinetic energy of "Atomes," which supplies a single theory of nature, mind, and society that both describes and partakes of organic decay, political conflict, and psychic uncertainty. "Atomes" presents itself as a philosophical system and an imaginative contrivance, a theoretical structure that exposes the deceptive pretenses of methodical thought as well as a fiction that traces and reflects its author's fancies. Both theory and theater, it is symptomatic of the conditional, opportunistic mental and physical processes it describes.

The poems about "atomes" take up the theme of Poems and Fancies's now famous prefatory poems by pondering the motives of creation in a series of self-contradictory creative acts. Creation is presented as a voicing of different points of view; a fiat that engenders by wondering how to proceed:

When Nature first this World she did create,
She called a Council how the same might make. [17]

Creation is deliberation, the staging of indecision. Marilyn Williamson has shown that many "virtuous" women writers of the period deliberated with themselves about their literary creations, employing what she calls "undoing to excuse their assertion in writing and publishing."[18] This hesitance in Cavendish is not only a decorous way for a woman to proceed, but is also a function of the contingent nature of all things and indicates that there is no correct procedure that will satisfy everyone.

In Cavendish's creation story, success is contingent and perspectival. Nature's councilors, Life, Matter, Motion, and Figure, recommend abandoning the project, saying Death will only ruin it.

'Tis best to let alone this work, I think.
Saies Matter, Death corrupts, and makes me stinke.[19]

Nature, however, is "of another mind," arguing that they should "divert" death from attacking them and "make some work, for to imply his force." In later writing, as we will see, Cavendish regards death as a psychological justification for producing fanciful discourse about the soul's immortality.

Against a background of death, Cavendish stages a drama of self-assertion, yet this self seems hopelessly fragmented, amorphous, and self-reflexive. In keeping with Cavendish's self-reflexive understanding of her mind and thoughts, Nature excuses her creation by appealing to her own nature: "Besides, it is my nature things to make." When Nature and her friends agree to get started, creation creates itself: matter materializes, motion moves, life lives:

First Matter she brought the Materials in
And Motion cut, and carved out everything
And Figure, she did draw the Forms and Plots,
And Life divided all out into Lots.[20]

Although nature presumably supervises, there seems to be no rule of order to which the creation is to conform.

Cavendish sees not only her own, but other people's ideas as physical, self-reflexive objects. Thus "Dioptrics," or science that makes use of magnifying lenses; is a "brittle art," and the arcane theory that the world was formed from circular motions of air is a "giddy and Dissie opinion."[21] Yet, in "Atomes," Nature identifies only partially with her fragmentary creation. Creator and creation become confused and divided when the text's narrative voice is succeeded by a descriptive voice, replacing mythic past with philosophical present and setting forth an entirely different version of creation:

Small Atomes of themselves a World may make
As being subtle, and of every shape.[22]

Nature/Cavendish proceeds to articulate her atomistic theory, switching between didactic poems and fanciful narrative poems while continuing to present her work both as fiction and as theoretical argument.

Nature is and is not Cavendish in much the same sense that atoms are and are not nature. In Cavendish's physiological theory/creation story, chance and intention are so embedded in one another that the subversive potential of each is disguised. Most mid-century philosophers were threatened by the idea that the world might have been formed by chance rather than according to a transcendent order. The idea of a female philosopher was threatening for different reasons, figuring a challenge to a social order that privileged male thought. Cavendish deploys each threat against the other. The universe is not mindlessly random to the extent that Cavendish/Nature has designed it to be the way it is. Cavendish is not impertinently ambitious in writing and publishing her philosophical poetry to the extent that her thoughts, like random atoms, are self-authorizing and her writing, like the world formed by atoms, is a disinterested mechanical process.

Ambiguities between intended and haphazard creation, as well as between fancy and fact, illustrate Cavendish's ability to keep her universe in balance, to remain detached while counterpoising conflicting points of view: "Atomes" both explains and stages conflict in a remarkably neutral manner. This neutrality sometimes seems to misrepresent Cavendish's political sympathies. Cavendish demonstrates her impartiality, for example, in :'A Wart with Atomes."

Some factious Atomes will agree, combine,
They strive some form'd Body to unjoyne.
The Round beate out the Sharpe: the Long
The Flat do fight withall, thus all go wrong.
Those which make Motion General in their war,
By his direction they much stronger are.[23]

The Round (one thinks of roundhead) atomes with their charismatic General Motion supplant the dashing Sharpe atomes in intestine struggle. Cavendish uses atoms to explain, rather than to criticize, such political problems as war and revolution without taking sides as she would had she incorporated moral values into her cosmology. Instead, she understands and appreciates the desirability both of political autonomy and a peaceful society, even while recognizing that these values are often in conflict.

Yet rather than emphasizing the explanatory force of her theory, its ability to make sense of death, revolution, and epistemological crisis, she presents her work as merely psychologically satisfying to her. In the poem immediately following the "Atomes" sequence, she says of her thoughts:

I doe feare they're not so Good to please,
But now they're out, my Braine is more at ease.[24]

This observation both reinforces and qualifies the psychological theory she has advanced. If writing simply eases her mind, there is no reason to look for philosophical validity in her work. By qualifying the philosophical status of her ideas, Cavendish detoxifies her materialism, making her work more palatable to antimaterialist readers. Yet the idea that the motions of her thoughts affect the condition of her brain agrees with what she has been saying about the corporeality of intellectual particles.


Cavendish did not present all her philosophical ideas as merely the self-moving, fanciful motions of her brain. Her Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1663) is unabashedly philosophical and didactic in tone even though, as the title suggests, Cavendish continues to espouse the belief that even philosophical thought is produced by physical movement in the mind. She also continues to disguise her philosophy, claiming disingenuously to have revised her old views:

As for Atomes, after I had Reasoned with myself, I conceived that it was not probable that the Universe and all the Creatures therein could be Created and Disposed by the Dancing and Wandering and Dusty motions of Atomes . . . if Every and Each Atome were of a Living Substance, and had Equal Power, Life, and Knowledge, and Consequently a Free-will and Liberty, and so Each and Every one were as Absolute as an other, they would hardly Agree in one Government.[25]

Her retraction should not be taken at face value because the problem of hardly agreeing is precisely what Cavendish's atom-istic philosophy explains so well. In spite of her promise to theorize a more stable cosmic order, the treatise that follows is, like "Atomes," at bottom a godless account of a vitalist mecha-nist cosmos. Cavendish changes her terminology rather than her conception of order, substituting infinitely divisible "rational and sensitive matter" for the wandering and dusty atoms. The essential features of her philosophy--the physicality, autonomy, and reflexivity of thinking things, aptly called "physical opinions"-are preserved.

She says, for example, "no perfect division can be made in infinite matter," as if to suggest that all things are united in a single, stable order. "Not any Part," she goes on, "can be absolute . . . but it must have some Reference to the infinite matter."[26] Yet it turns out that the "reference" of parts to the whole is only a haphazard relationship among various parts:

Infinite lie, infinity] and Onely matter is always at strife for Absolute Power, for Matter would have Power over Infinite, and Infinite would have Power over Matter, and Eternity would have Power over both. Thus Infinite and Eternal matter, joyned all as to one, is always at strife in itself.

Just as "Sympathies" cause "Community, Associations, Commerces and Government , . . . Antipathy causes Divisions, Wars, and Destruction."[27] Order is by no means absolute, or even necessary.

Similarly, in the same work, Cavendish at first suggests that matter is arranged hierarchically into degrees: rational, sensitive, and inanimate, thereby approximating Aristotelian thought in which rational substance controls grosset substances which are not rational. This hierarchy, however, is only a gesture toward increased cosmic stability, because she later says that the degrees of matter "liveth in" one another "so that all degrees of Only and Infinite matter are Intermixed."[28] Thus the distinction Cavendish makes between rational and non-rational matter is only a theoretical distinguishing of aspects all matter shares, not an assertion that some kinds of matter are more rational than others. Cavendish's revised philosophy puts forth the same theory of destabilizable order and authority, simply offering new terminology to suggest her philosophy is more orthodox than it is. It offers little reassurance to those who wish to believe in a stable and permanent cosmic order.

Yet Cavendish may have continued to encounter resistance to her ideas since she offered once more to revise her thinking. In an epistle prefacing another new edition of Cavendish's philosophy, Grounds of Natural Philosophy (1668), she apologizes for her lack of literary training,

Which having caused in the first edition, (which was published under the name of Philosophical and Physical Opinions) many imperfections; I have endeavored in this Second, by many Alterations and Additions, (which have forc'd me to give it another Name) to correct them; whereby, I fear, my faults are rather changed and encreased, than ammended.[29]

The "imperfections" that Cavendish changes here are really the defining features of her philosophy, her vitalist mechanist beliefs. Cavendish uses her lack of education to disguise the radical nature of her ideas. In saying her faults were "rather changed and encreased than ammended" by her revision, she subtly suggests she has had to compromise her original views in attempting to please her more educated readers.

In Ground, of Natural Philosophy, Cavendish changes, increases, and amends her faults by riddling her discussion with contradictions. Many of the mechanist vitalist ideas from her previous writings remain intact, but they are intermixed with an increased number of contradictory assertions of an immanently ordered universe. However, Cavendish's apparent capitulation to orthodoxy is only partial and temporary. She realizes her self-contradictory text, in which different conceptions of order struggle for predominance, actually enacts the kind of internal conflict that is a cosmic principle for Cavendish. While internal conflict illustrates the nature of independent, corporeal thoughts, those thoughts that advocate spirituality do so less for moral than for psychological reasons. Cavendish clarifies these points in the Appendix to Grounds, which stages the deliberations of her "thoughts" as they debate the principles of cosmic and psychic order.

The Appendix begins by voicing the insight that although schemes of absolute order are improbable, their psychological function is to comfort those who fear their own physical dissolution:

[M]ost Human Creatures are so troubled with the Thoughts of Dissolving, and Dis-uniting, that they turn Fancies and Imaginations, into Spirits, or Spiritual Substances; as if all the other Parts of their Bodies, should become Rational Parts; that is, that all their Parts should turn into such Parts as Thoughts, which I name, the Rational Parts. But that Opinion is impossible.[30]

Cavendish recognizes in other thinkers a desire to ally their thoughts with a permanent cosmic order so as to evade the threat of death, much as she plays along with the idea of permanent order to evade criticism. She is clearly sympathetic to the need for psychological reassurance and proceeds ostentatiously to invent yet more impossible worlds of thought in order to placate her own fears of death. In inventing these fanciful worlds, which resemble popular notions of heaven and hell, Cavendish stages beliefs from which she dissents.

The thoughts proceed to debate and fantasize about the possibility of resurrection with the help of "Restoring Beds," that can regenerate dead and decayed organisms or "societies." The debate is staged, we are told, for the sake of Cavendish's psychic equilibrium. "Comforting thoughts" dispute with "sad thoughts" and win, arguing that "Restoring Beds" can restore bodies to life and youth no matter how scattered their parts might be. The debate on "Restoring Beds" not only is restorative, but also shows that Cavendish is capable of sympathizing with ideas with which she disagrees, recognizing their value as psychologically reassuring notions.


The notion that spiritual ideas are psychologically beneficial rather than metaphysically valid is, I believe, not advanced by any other seventeenth-century English philosopher, although Sir Thomas Browne famously confuses the distinction. Instead, most "new" philosophers regarded psychic serenity as evidence of the spirit within them. Indeed, the appendix to Grounds parodies "physico-theological" demonstrations of the immortality of the human soul written by Walter Charleton, and later by Glanvill, Boyle, and others? These thinkers believe that through reflexive introspection they have discerned a spiritual presence in their own minds.

Descartes' famous "cogito" suggests how the notion of thought could be used to satisfy the desire to believe in self-presence, in a metaphysical affiliation of a coherent self and that self's discourse. He and other new philosophers argue that reason is the product of the immaterial aspect of the soul, and believe that material influences on cognition interfere with reason. They label as rational such discourse that is produced by souls they believe to be unencumbered by passions, and identify as especially pure those souls that produce discourse they believe to be rational. Glanvill displays this circular logic most unapologeti-cally in the process of demonstrating "the usefulness of [new] philosophy to religion," arguing against the atheistic belief that human cognition is entirely the result of physical processes. To support his position he refers to "the Noble Renatus Des-Cartes," whose "Metaphysics and Notions of Immaterial Beings, are removed to the greatest distance from all Corporeal Affections; which I mention not to declare, or signify my adherence to those Principles; but for an Instance, to show, that acquaintance with Matter and the knowledge of its Operations, removes the Mind far off from the belief of those high Effects which some ascribe to Corporeal Motions; and from all suppositions of the Soul's being bodily and material." [32] The purity and nobility of Descartes' mind, not his principles, supply proof of his belief that the soul is immaterial. According to this criterion, any who might believe otherwise lack the purity of soul required to discern the soul's spirituality. Psychic materialism could therefore be dismissed as the result of "Corporeal Affections."

Perhaps not surprisingly, most new philosophers embraced a version of the Cartesian notion of the immaterial soul. Those who did not could be thought demonic, as was Hobbes, or irrational, as was Cavendish. Moreover, many women writers used the notion of the immaterial soul to legitimize their work, arguing that if discourse is the product of an immaterial soul, sex ought not interfere with one's ability to write sensibly. In a limited way, then, Cartesian psychology suggests the equality of souls in spite of class and gender differences. Yet Cartesian psychology insidiously rearticulates these differences by identifying the influence of physical passions in discourse that threatens conventional belief.[33] In seeking to justify their discourse by appealing to their own immaterial souls, writers labored under the onus of having to produce discourse that conformed to prior expectations for rationality. For empirical philosophers this meant ascribing to themselves the spiritual purity required to discern spirituality in their own souls. For women writers it meant a dutiful submission to proscriptions against female desire. Nevertheless, Cavendish resists ideological pressure to present her work as the product of a virtuous, pure, immaterial soul, and denies that such a soul exists; she presents the notion of immateriality as itself a physical idea while acknowledging that this idea may confer psychological benefits.

Yet she qualifies her psychological latitudinarianism by playing her "comforting thoughts" off against thoughts that exhibit a paranoid, Hobbesian distrust of spirituality: in the book's conclusion, "some of the Dullest, and most Unbelieving, or rather, Strange Parts" of Cavendish's mind deliver a dissenting speech from the pulpit of her Glandula, denouncing the notion of the "Restoring Beds" as impossible and likely to cause mischief and "send men to sea": "Upon which Discourse, the rest of my Thoughts were very angry, and pull'd them out of their Pulpit, the Glandula; and not only so, but put them out of their Society, believing they were a Factious Party, which, in time, might cause the Society's Dissolution."[34] Cavendish's self-moving thoughts enact the very sort of persecution that she attempts to ward off by presenting her philosophy in a contradictory and fanciful manner. She thus emphasizes the political nature of objections to her thinking while suggesting that those objections serve a valid purpose in upholding a stable, if impermanent, social order analogous, in Cavendish, to a well-adjusted psyche.


The conflicts Cavendish stages in her mind do not indicate a failure to understand philosophical issues, nor do they indicate her defiance of the gender biases encoded in scientific discourse. Instead, they disclose her recognition that political power deeply influences individual belief and that such influence yields the benefits of shared values for some, and imposes alienation and persecution on others. It is balance, finally, rather than conflict, that defines Cavendish's writing: the balance of her explicitly psychologized desire to convey her ideas and the need she perceives for social stability which, in the case of Restoration England, came to be predicated on beliefs that differ from hers. Her politics and her philosophy thus compromise in the production of her playful and suggestive work, which looks at, and through, many of the dominant assumptions of her time.

Cavendish presented her mind and her writing as a demonstration of the potential for disorder she saw in the social and natural universe. In the process, she frequently seems to undercut her political position as a royalist and, more importantly, as an advocate of women. These problems are closely associated with the way Cavendish undercuts her status as a philosopher. Her self-effacement is deliberate and serves her interest, not in expressing herself or her ideas, but in accommodating herself and her thinking to a society that could not readily accept a woman's mechanist vitalist philosophy. Consequently, her work is a less contentious form of philosophical discourse that internalizes the conflict it describes in order to avoid replicating it in her interactions with others. Thus, though many have found her a disappointing champion of women's abilities, her writing succeeds according to its own negotiable terms of judgment.


  1 The epigraph is from Margaret Cavendish, Poems and Fancies
    (London, 1653), p. 44.

  2 Catherine Gallagher, "Embracing the Absolute: The Politics of
    the Female Subject in Seventeenth-Century England," Genders
    1 (Spring 1988): 24-39, 32. The fullest deconstructive reading
    of Cavendish is Sandra Sherman's "Trembling Texts: Margaret
    Cavendish and the Dialectic of Authorship," ELR 24, 1 (Winter
    1994): 184-210.

  3 Some studies that see Cavendish as subversive of male power
    are Lisa Sara-sohn, "A Science Turned Upside Down: Feminism
    and the Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish," HLQ47, 4
    (Autumn 1984): 289-307; and Kate Lilley, "Blazing Worlds:
    Seventeenth-Century Women's Utopian Writing," in Women, Texts,
    and Histories, 1575-1760, ed. Clare Brant and Dianne Purkiss
    (London: Routledge, 1992).

  4 Hilda Smith observes, "the Duchess was simply not trained to
    do what she wanted to do most--write" (Reason's Disciples:
    Seventeenth-Century English Feminists [Urbana: Univ. of
    Illinois Press, 1982], p. 93). Marilyn Williamson says, "she
    lacked a discourse . . . lacked a consistent authoritative set
    of terms with which to describe her predicament" (Raising
    Their Voices: British Women Writers, 1650-1750 [Detroit: Wayne
    State Univ. Press, 1990], p. 38). Joanne Shattock in The
    Oxford Guide to British Women Writers (Oxford and New York:
    Oxford Univ. Press, 1993) gives official sanction to this view
    in its brief entry on Cavendish: "Her lack of knowledge of
    grammar and her total inability to revise were serious
    impediments in her writing which could be traced back to her
    imperfect schooling" (p. 312).

  5 Samuel Pepys, Diary, 16 March 1667/8, and Dorothy Osborne,
    Letters, 14 April 1653, both quoted in Douglas Grant, Margaret
    the First: A Biography of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of
    Newcastle, 1623-1673 (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1957),
    pp. 188, 126. Grant, echoing Osborne, calls the duchess
    "distracted" (p. 111).

  6 On antagonism against Hobbes, see Samuel Mintz, The Hunting
    of the Leviathan: Seventeenth-Century Reactions to the
    Materialism and Moral Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (Cambridge:
    Cambridge Univ. Press, 1962); and Steven Shapin and Simon
    Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the
    Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985),
    esp. pp. 293-8.

  7 Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Glencoe IL:
    Free Press, 1952), p. 31.

  8 James Fitzmaurice notices Cavendish's presentation of herself
    as a scholar without a library in "Fancy and the Family:
    Self-Characterizations of Margaret Cavendish," HLQ53, 3
    (Summer 1990): 199-209, 202.

  9 Margaret Cavendish, The World's Olio (London, 1655), p. 130.

 10 Cavendish, Poems and Fancies, p. 10.

 11 Digby explains memory as caused by "solide materiall bodies
    (exceeding litle ones)" that enter the brain where "they find
    some vacant cell, in which they keepe their rankes and files,
    in great quiet and order . . . until they be stirred up . .
    . by the will of the man in whom they are upon the occassions
    he meeteth with of searching into them" (Of Bodies [London,
    1669], pp. 284-5).

 12 Cavendish, Poems and Fancies, p. 16.

 13 Joseph Glanvill explains, "the Modern Sadduce [atheist]
    pretends, that all things we do, are performed by meet
    Matterand Motion; and consequently, that there is no such
    thing as an immaterial Being: so that when our Bodies are
    dissolved, the whole Man is destroyed and lost forever; which
    dismal conclusion is true and certain, if there be nothing in
    us but Matter, and the results of Motion" (Essays of the
    Usefulness of Real Philosophy to Religion, in Essays on
    Several Important Subjects in Philosophy and Religion [London,
    1676], p. 10).

 14 Sylvia Bowerbank, "The Spider's Delight: Margaret Cavendish
    and the 'Female' Imagination," ELR 14, 3 (Autumn 1984):
    392-408 emphasizes Cavendish's vitalism. Sophia Blaydes,
    "Nature Is a Woman: The Duchess of Newcastle and
    Seventeenth-Century Philosophy," Man, God, and Nature in the
    Enlightenment, ed. Donald C. Mell Jr., Theodore E. D. Braun,
    and Lucia M. Palmer (East Lansing MI: Colleagues Press, 1988);
    and Robert Kargon, Atom-ism in England from Harlot to Newton
    (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966) discuss her materialism,
    seeing it as essentially Hobbeslan. For different perspectives
    on the relationship between matter and intellect in
    seventeenth-century philosophy see Carolyn Merchant, The Death
    of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (San
    Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980); Lester King, The Philosophy
    of Medicine: The Early Eighteenth Century (Cambridge MA:
    Harvard Univ. Press, 1978); and John Yolton, Thinking Matter:
    Materialism in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Minneapolis: Univ.
    of Minnesota Press, 1983).

 15 Some well-known discussions of seventeenth-century
    epistemological crisis and discursive prose are Richard
    Popkin, The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Descartes
    (Assen, Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1960); and Stanley Fish,
    Self-Consuming Artifacts (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press,
    1972). A more nuanced examination that considers narrative is
    Michael McKeon, Origins of the English Novel, 1640-1760
    (Baltimore: johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987).

 16 Rose Zimbardo, A Mirror to Nature: Transformations in Drama
    and Aesthetics, 1660-1732 (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky,
    1986), p. 86.

 17 Cavendish, Poems and Fancies, p. 1.

 18 Williamson, pp. 21-2.

 19 Cavendish, Poems and Fancies, p. 2.

 20 Cavendish, Poems and Fancies, p. 3.

 21 Margaret Cavendish, Observations on Experimental Philosophy
    (London, 1666), epistle "To My Lord," n. p.; Margaret
    Cavendish, Philosophical and Physical Opinions (London, 1663),
    epistle "To the Reader," n. p.

 22 Cavendish, Poems and Fancies, p. 5.

 23 Cavendish, Poems and Fancies, p. 16.

 24 Cavendish, Poems and Fancies, p. 47.

 25 Cavendish, Philosophical and Physical Opinions, Preface, n.

 26 Cavendish, Philosophical and Physical Opinions, Preface, n.

 27 Cavendish, Philosophical and Physical Opinions, p. 112.

 28 Cavendish, Philosophical and Physical Opinions, p. 4.

 29 Margaret Cavendish, Grounds of Natural Philosophy (London,
    1668), Preface, n.p.

 30 Cavendish, Grounds of Natural Philosophy, p. 238.

 31 Walter Charleton, The Darkness of Atheism Dispelled by the
    Light of Nature a Physico-Theological Treatise (London, 1652);
    Joseph Glanvill, Essays of the Usefulness of Real Philosophy
    to Religion (London, 1676), and Robert Boyle, Some
    Physico-Theological Considerations about the Possibility of
    the Resurrecttion (London, 1675). For a discussion of new
    philosophical discourse as devotional practice, see Robert
    Markley, "Objectivity as Ideology: Boyle, Newton, and the
    Languages of Science," Genre 16, 4 (Winter 1983): 355-72.

 32 Joseph Glanvill, Essays on the Usefulness of Philosophy to
    Religion, p. 11.

 33 For different perspectives that lead to conclusions similar
    to mine, see Londa Schiebinger, The Mind Has No Sex?: Women
    and the Origins of Modern Science (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ.
    Press., 1989), pp. 174-5; and Genevieve Lloyd, The Man of
    Reason: "Male" and "Female" in Western Philosophy
    (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984), pp. 48-50.

 34 Cavendish, Grounds of Natural Philosophy, p. 311.



Jay Stevenson is a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University and is completing
his dissertation on psychology in Cavendish's writings.