Academic journal article Parergon

Familiar Epistolary Philosophy: Margaret Cavendish's Philosophical Letters (1664)

Academic journal article Parergon

Familiar Epistolary Philosophy: Margaret Cavendish's Philosophical Letters (1664)

Article excerpt

Margaret Cavendish had few friends in the philosophical community of her time. The sneering tone in which Cambridge Platonist Henry More reported her new book, Philosophical Letters to his friend and fellow philosopher, Anne Conway, is typical of the reception Cavendish was given by her contemporaries:

   I am also inform'd that the Marchionesse of Newcastle has in a
   large book confuted Mr Hobbs, Des Cartes, and myself, and
   (which will make your Ladiship at least smile at the conceit
   of it) Van Helmont also to boot. (1)

Although Thomas Hobbes was attached to her household through the patronage of her husband William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, he too kept his distance from her, thanking her guardedly when she sent him her Playes (1662), noting that 'tokens of this kind are not ordinarily sent but to such as pretend to the title as well as to the mind of Friends'. (2) Margaret Cavendish's outsider status in the philosophical community seems ironic given that: she met a number of prominent philosophers in England and on the Continent; she sent copies of her numerous books to contemporary philosophers of note including More and Hobbes; she dedicated her philosophical works to the universities; she tried to establish friendship with philosophers through her published writing and personal letters; and she wrote about friendship and philosophy in Philosophical Letters.

In the 'Preface to the Reader', Cavendish emphasizes her ignorance of Latin and her ineptitude for 'School-learning', asserting: 'I do not repent that I spent not my time in Learning, for I consider, it is better to write wittily then Learnedly; nevertheless, I love and esteem Learning, although I am not capable of it'. She attributes this to her sex, explaining that 'being a Woman, and not bred up to Scholarship, [she] did want names and terms of Art'. (3) As Catherine Gallagher observes, Cavendish is a 'troublesome ancestress' for feminists due to what Hilda Smith describes as 'the radical and often unseemly things she uttered'. (4) It has been suggested that Margaret Cavendish wrote Philosophical Letters to renovate her reputation as a philosopher and thereby establish her membership of the philosophical community. Sarah Hutton argues that in Philosophical Letters Cavendish attempted to defend herself against the accusation that she poached ideas from her male contemporaries. (5) Lisa Sarasohn holds that Cavendish used the genre of the philosophic letter to 'force an acknowledgment of her own parity with other investigators of nature'. (6) Although Cavendish was well read in philosophy she was not well trained in its modes of argumentation and proof. (7) This may have made the more fragmentary mode of analysis afforded by epistolary form seem an attractive alternative to writing a sustained philosophical treatise. (8) No doubt there are personal motivations behind Philosophical Letters but it is important not to focus on them at the expense of giving due attention to the overall implications of the work as a contribution to intellectual history.

In the 1980s Sarasohn and Carolyn Merchant explained the contradiction of Cavendish by positioning her in female tradition opposed to the philosophical mainstream represented by Hobbes and Descartes. (9) As Hutton argues, this obscures what Cavendish shared with her contemporaries, even those she openly criticized, such as Hobbes. (10) It is important to contextualize Cavendish in the intellectual ferment that was reshaping the intellectual milieu she shared with Hobbes, More, and others. (11) Although questions remain concerning the state of her philosophical learning, she was certainly well versed in the rhetorical tradition, as her use of epistolary form demonstrates. Her declared ignorance of learning is symptomatic of the prevailing ambivalence towards ars rhetorica and eloquence, and preference for wit, nature, or innate reason. She argues that superior wisdom derives not from books or experience but 'Natural Ingenuity' or the rare ability 'to conceive Rationally, to judge Solidly' which makes 'Natural Philosophers and Poets . …

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