Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century

Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century

Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century

Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century

Synopsis

Jacqueline Broad explores the writings of such women philosophers as Margaret Cavendish, Anne Conway, Mary Astell and Catherine Trotter Cockburn. Broad demonstrates their relevance to current feminist scholarship. Her book is an accessible study of thinkers whose importance to the history of philosophy is increasingly recognized.

Excerpt

There are few scholars outside of the history of philosophy who have heard of Elisabeth of Bohemia (1618–80), Margaret Cavendish (1623–73), Anne Conway (1631–79), Mary Astell (1666–1731), Damaris Masham (1659–1708), and Catharine Trotter Cockburn (1679–1749). These women philosophers are now mere footnotes to the standard historical-intellectual accounts of the early modern period. There is no history of scholarship on their works, and there are no long-standing disagreements or controversies about interpretations of their views. Although a number of their works have been reprinted, the bulk of their writings can be found only in rare-book rooms, and a few of their manuscripts still remain unpublished. Yet in the seventeenth century, these women were the friends and correspondents of famous philosophers of their time, such as René Descartes (1596–1650), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke (1632–1704), and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716). Some women discussed philosophy with these men, they raised philosophical questions in letters, and they wrote and published their own thoughts on metaphysics. Male colleagues dedicated books to them, and many of their contemporaries acknowledged their influence or praised their understanding.

Feminist philosopher Mary Astell is a notable case in point. In 1693, Astell took the bold step of writing to the English philosopherdivine, John Norris (1657–1711), to present her criticisms of his views. 'Sir', she writes,

Though some morose Gentlemen wou'd perhaps remit me to the Distaff or the Kitchin, or at least to the Glass and the Needle, the proper Employments as they fancy of a Womans Life; yet expecting better things from the more Equitable and ingenious Mr. Norris, who is not so narrow-Soul'd as to confine Learning . . .

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