Margaret Cavendish and her philosophy of nature

Magerate Lucas Cavendish was a 17th-century English poetess, philosopher, scientist, science fiction writer and playwright, and the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society in London. In her time, she was known for her fanciful costumes, idiosyncrasies and eccentric remarks, and was nicknamed “Mad Madge”. She published 23 books during her lifetime. At a time when women’s writing was rare and even when it was often published anonymously, Margaret signed each of her works with her real name. Of these works, six were original philosophical works. It is worth noting, however, that Margaret herself was not systematically educated, and that her intellectual sources and development of ideas were largely informed by libraries and friends and family, especially the Cavendish circle formed by her husband, William Cavendish, and the cultural elite they absorbed.

In her memoirs, Margaret confessed that she wrote in order to seek lasting fame, to win the admiration of others, and to achieve personal perfection. However, her philosophical ideas seemed to be deviant at the time. Her materialist materialism was at odds with mainstream mechanistic philosophy and even met with sarcastic ridicule from intellectual circles. since the second half of the 20th century, as the philosophy of mind continued to evolve, Margaret Cavendish’s ideas were gradually taken seriously, and her naturalistic view of mind was echoed by contemporary physicalism; her discourse on gender was also met with feminist attention. 2018 International Margaret Cavendish Society was formally established and a full collection of her writings is in the pipeline. All of this signals that she will not only be recognized by future generations, but also studied in depth – a belated fulfillment of sorts for Margaret.

The Life of Margaret Cavendish
Margaret Cavendish, originally Magerate Lucas, was born in 1623 in Essex, England, to a wealthy royalist aristocratic family. She lost her father at an early age, and as the youngest daughter in her family, Magerate was shy and very frightened of life. Her aristocratic home education consisted mainly of reading and writing, as well as dancing and music. At that time, it was not appropriate for aristocratic women to be out in the open, and it was even more impossible for them to go out to study. Fortunately, she was able to make good use of the library to absorb knowledge and often discussed scholarship with her older brother John. Notably, John was an excellent scholar, studying law, philosophy and natural sciences, and was fluent in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. He later became a founding member of the Royal Society of England.

Margaret enjoyed writing from an early age and often resorted to writing what she thought. In analyzing this tendency, researcher Irene O’Neill points out that there was something paradoxical in Margaret’s nature. On the one hand, she is extremely shy and finds it difficult to get in touch with strangers outside her family; on the other hand, she is contemplative, has unique ideas, and is eager to communicate with and be recognized by the outside world. Writing was the best way for her to resolve this contradiction.

In 1643, at the age of 20, in her quest for independence and her desire for contact with the outside world, Marguerite chose to apply for a position as courtesan to Queen Maria. But it was not long before Marguerite found that her shyness and shyness prevented her from taking up the position and therefore asked her mother to let her go home. However, her mother did not grant permission because of the adverse effects the matter might have on the family and herself. The royalists and the parliamentary parties in England were in fierce conflict and the civil war was intensifying, and a year later she had to go into exile with the queen in France.

In Paris, she met the Marquis William Cavendish, who was 30 years older than her. He had lost the English Civil War as a member of the royalist party and was exiled to France as a result. He was later ennobled as Duke of Newcastle after the restoration of the dynasty. After a period of correspondence, she married the Marquis de Cavendish in 1645, becoming the second wife of the Marquis de Cavendish. William Cavendish was a patron of the arts and humanities, and in his early years was tutored by the philosopher Hobbes, along with his brother Charles Cavendish. He wrote poetry and plays, also owned telescopes and alchemical equipment, and was interested in the philosophical debates of his day, and was considered an amateur scholar. He and his brother Charles encouraged Marguerite’s philosophical interests and helped to advance her philosophical education; between 1645 and 1648, they held salons in Paris, bringing together a group of philosophers who met regularly, including the English philosophers Hobbes, Digby, and Charredon, who espoused natural philosophy, and the French philosophers Descartes and Gassendi, who held mechanistic ideas at the time. The philosophers’ enthusiasm for topics such as atoms and particles clearly appealed to Margaret and prompted her to try her hand at philosophical writing. With the help of her husband William, she published her first work, Poetry and Fantasy, in 1653. In the same year, she published another work, The Philosophical Imagination, and first proposed the doctrine of organicism to replace the philosophical mechanistic view of the time. Two years later, she published Philosophy and Physical Concepts, a more systematic exposition of her organicist materialist position.

In 1660, when the Stuart dynasty was restored, Margaret and her husband returned to England from France at the age of 37. She began to spend a great deal of time studying the ideas of philosophers of the period such as Hobbes, Descartes, and Thomas More. She also followed the treatises of scientists such as Galileo, Harvey, and Boyle. In her Philosophical Letters, published in 1664, she argues against these philosophers by pointing out the originality of her organicist materialism in contrast to Hobbes’s mechanical materialism and Descartes’s dualism. However, Margaret receives little of the theoretical response she expects from the male philosophers. To further refute these philosophers and explain her own philosophical ideas, she published a scholarly review, Observations on Experimental Philosophy, in 1666, and a book, The Foundations of Natural Philosophy, in 1668, as the final version of her philosophical views.

Because women writing was extremely rare at the time, Marguerite was surrounded by rumors for a time. They accused her of writing works that were not her own. Margaret had to fight these rumors, while her husband William stepped in to prove and defend her authorship. Margaret later wrote a biography of her husband, declaring that her union with William Cavendish was never for his title, wealth, or power, but that she was attracted to his excellence, integrity, gratitude, sense of duty, and loyalty.

In 1667, her philosophical work was finally rewarded in some way: she became the first female philosopher to be invited by her male peers to attend a meeting of the Royal Society. This was certainly an honor for her, even though she might have been treated as a mere spectacle outside of science or philosophy. To most philosophers of the time, Margaret’s philosophical views were very eccentric. Samuel Pepys, a member of the Royal Society, after reading her autobiography, considered her a crazy, conceited and absurdly ridiculous person. Another member of the Society, Boyle, referred to the experiments presented to Margaret by the Royal Society at the time and thought they were all cockamamie. This also shows that the Royal Society did not take her arrival seriously. In the eyes of these people, Margaret was not Margaret the natural philosopher, but the Duchess of Newcastle, a mere noblewoman. It is curious to note that of all her works, the one most praised was her biography of her husband, which was described as “a treasure that no expensive box could ever match”.

Margaret died in 1673 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. She was a childless woman, with no property or dowry of her own, and her greatest joy in life was to write and think. In defending women’s right to write, Margaret pointed out that women do not lack the talents that men possess, but often lack the educational opportunities that men have; if women would take the time to read and write, they would avoid more misbehavior and save themselves from the spread of gossip. She compares her book to a child, calling it/he naive and young, shy and sensitive, and implores readers to blame her, the author, rather than the book itself if they are dissatisfied with it. Unfortunately, Marguerite’s “child” was not taken seriously by her contemporaries. If she gained some fame at the time, it came mainly from her status and character, not from her ideas – the image of Margaret Cavendish that stuck in most people’s minds was that of a woman who drove a carriage, wore a knight’s costume, spoke absurdly but was proud and arrogant.

Margaret Cavendish’s Philosophy of Nature
In terms of philosophical constructs, Margaret attempted to propose a theory of natural systems that differed from mechanistic theories. According to Hobbes’ mechanistic position, both nature and man are like machines, nature is a material movement made of chains of cause and effect, and human life is only a movement of the limbs, with an “automatic mechanical structure” that runs like a clock with clockwork and gears, and the state and art are only extensions of this mechanical structure. The material thing is the only thing that exists, and its essence is extension, while the human senses are merely physical objects that exert pressure on the sense organs and reach the brain and heart through the human nerves and meridians, thus causing a resistance, a tendency to counter-pressure. Margaret rejects this mechanistic interpretation, and although she believes that everything in the world is matter, she asserts that matter is not inert and inanimate, but something that can move itself and has life, sensation, and cognition. This is because throughout the material world there is a natural spirit or principle of matter that pervades it, and these spirits are formed by subtle movements that are varied and endless.

According to Marguerite’s thesis, her philosophy of nature is usually summarized in three basic features: materialism, organicism, and panpsychism. First, Marguerite maintained a materialistic position. In her book Philosophical and Physical Concepts, published in 1655, she saw nature as an infinite material thing, which she called an “infinite material entity. This infinite material entity is made up of numerous material components that possess numerous different degrees of motion. The essence of these movements is the same, but they differ only in speed and direction. Thus, by its very nature, the world consists of only one material, which is matter or motion. In such a world, there is no place for immaterial entities or natures. In Observations on Experimental Philosophy, Marguerite further distinguishes between inanimate and animate matter, or between passive and energetic matter. This energetic matter is similar to the spirit or principle of nature that she referred to in her early years.

It is believed that Marguerite’s view is very similar to that of the ancient Greek Stoic school of pneuma (universal spirit). But Marguerite’s interpretation of energetic matter is much deeper and more specific, and its essence is not the same as that of Pneuma. According to her, energetic matter itself is composed of sense matter and rational matter. She likens the movement of sense matter to the workers of the human world, whose function is to produce, together with inanimate matter, the diversity of natural composition. Rational matter, on the other hand, acts like a designer of nature, acting within it and producing fantasy, thought, imagination, and conception.

Second, Marguerite’s description of the matter of nature is one of organicism or vitalism. Marguerite was dissatisfied with the mechanistic theories of Hobbes and Descartes, which interpreted the nature of the world as uniform substances that could only passively receive and transmit motion. If this were the case, Margaret argued, the universe of which they are composed would either be completely homogeneous or completely disordered. This philosophical view, she argues, cannot explain the diversity and orderliness of the natural world. Rather, motion is not an external transfer or collision of matter, but a spontaneous movement of matter within matter, which she likens to a “dance”. It is generated by matter according to its own unique internal principles. She later replaced the metaphor of “dance” with “imitation” and “understanding”. This inner principle of matter is ultimately what she calls energetic matter, and it is this sense or rational matter that creates a rich, diverse, and well-ordered material world.

Unlike Hobbes and Descartes, who used geometry as a model for natural philosophy, Marguerite tended to explain natural phenomena from a biological perspective. She argues that a part of the organism, like the whole organismic system, possesses the essence and movement that it has. Not only that, but it has the freedom to choose its own movement. This freedom has the potential to disrupt the harmony of the whole organismic system – this is where the disease or ill health of the organism comes from. Plants, animals and humans are all made of matter, but they all have different forms and degrees of movement.

Finally, Marguerite’s philosophy of nature also contains elements of pan-centrism. Marguerite sees the movement of matter as life and believes that life is spread throughout the natural world, and that life exists even in inanimate matter, i.e., in passive matter. It is only that they possess a lower degree of motion and therefore only a lower degree of life. She also believes that knowledge is as pervasive in nature as life, but that different substances enjoy different degrees of knowledge. Moreover, knowledge directs the movement of matter, which is an innate, intrinsic power. Without this force, movement cannot be regular. Moreover, Marguerite further points out that if matter lacks knowledge of its own motion, there can be no perception. For example, in her book Observations on Experimental Philosophy, she states that “self-knowledge is the fundamental cause of perception, and if there were no self-knowledge, there could be no perception.” What Margaret calls knowledge here is not the same as human perception, but more like a mirror image constructed by the movement of matter to shape or reflect its environment. For example, although rocks contain a great deal of inert matter, there is also sensory matter and even rational matter present in them, giving the rock some kind of self-knowledge and perception that determines the union or separation of its parts. This idea that everything has different degrees of knowledge and perception is fundamentally an “animistic” theory, or panpsychism.

What emerges from this natural philosophy of Marguerite is a unique perspective on God, gender, and animals. According to Marguerite’s materialism, everything in nature, including the human mind, is matter. Therefore, Marguerite does not recognize the existence of anything immaterial. But again, she is not an atheist. She believed that God does exist, but only beyond the finite natural world, and is completely unconceivable to man, and therefore any consideration of God in terms of nature is a blasphemy against the divine. In this sense, Marguerite puts God squarely into the realm of faith. This understanding can be considered a precursor to the religious views of Hume and Kant in the 18th century. 17th century people’s imagination of nature was very often a feminine image. From the perspective of feminist philosophy, there has always been an inextricable link between the concept of nature and female identity. Unlike Hobbes, Boyle, and others who reduced nature to inert, passive matter, Margaret’s organicist reading of nature was in some ways a new understanding and elevation of feminine identity. Moreover, a perspective of the equality of all things exists in Marguerite’s pan-centric interpretation of the natural organism. In her philosophy of nature, humans, animals, plants, and even rocks all share different proportions of sensory and rational matter. Thus, in her treatment of animals, she rejects the superiority of humans. She also has great sympathy for those animals that are hunted by humans. This can be seen, in a way, as the germ of the animal rights theory.

Margaret’s contemporary influence
Marguerite’s philosophy of nature may have been childish and ridiculous in the eyes of her philosophical contemporaries. But Margaret believed that she was writing for posterity. Her purpose in writing her memoirs was also to give later generations a better understanding of who she was and how she lived. In this respect, Marguerite was undoubtedly somewhat forward-looking for her time. Three hundred years later, her philosophy has indeed been rediscovered, and her memoirs have indeed helped people understand her life better.

In contrast to 17th century scholars, contemporary scholars often bring a sympathetic understanding of Marguerite’s philosophical ideas. As early as the second half of the 20th century, the American environmental historian Carolyn Merchant bemoaned the fate of Marguerite’s philosophy, accusing historians of philosophy of completely ignoring the women who worked on it in the 17th and 18th centuries. Thanks to Merchant’s work and the efforts of a group of historians, Margaret’s philosophical system reappeared. At the turn of the century, a number of her writings were re-edited and republished. Dozens of books and essays on her philosophy have appeared in the last two decades. Recent research has not only focused on and discussed her philosophy of nature, but has also recognized her work in political philosophy, especially her discussions of religion and gender. Her view of “thinking matter” has also been linked to contemporary philosophy of mind. On the other hand, researchers have also tried to compare Marguerite’s philosophy with that of other philosophers in order to determine her place in the history of philosophy.

Some researchers have argued that Margaret’s philosophy occupies a unique place in early modern British philosophy. On the one hand, she was influenced by Hobbes’ philosophy and adhered to a materialistic position. At the same time, however, she rejected Hobbes’ mechanistic view that the mechanical movement of matter cannot produce an ordered world. She proposed a vitalist or organicist view that asserted that motion, perception, life, and reason are inherent in every part of nature. This distinguished her philosophy from the mechanical materialism of her time. On the other hand, general organicist philosophy usually attributes continuity between substances to some immaterial nature. But although Marguerite recognized organicism, what she called the spirit or principle of nature remained fundamentally material. In this sense, her organicism is different from other organicisms. Furthermore, the rejection of the immaterial spirit, mind or soul makes her philosophy distinctly different from all philosophical thought in the Platonist tradition, such as the Cartesians and the Leibnizians.

History is just. The originality of Marguerite’s philosophy once led her to be labeled as absurd and arrogant in her thinking. But it is also this originality that has brought it into contemporary philosophy, where it is appreciated and studied. Her maverick spirit of innovation has shone through the burial of history and has led contemporary feminists to revere it as a theoretical pioneer and a model of behavior.