Cavendish, Margaret (1623?–1673)

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Margaret Cavendish was born into the Lucasses, a family of English gentry. She does not seem to have had an education that was in any way remarkable for a young woman of her time. Indeed, she reports that while she had the usual tutors, her mother "cared not so much for our dancing and fidling, singing and prating of several languages" (Cavendish 1667), deeming honesty and civility more important. One consequence is that Cavendish was never able to speak or read any language but her native English. In 1643, when she was about twenty, she became a maid of honor to Charles I's wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, and the next year she followed the queen into exile in Paris.

While at the court in exile, she met and subsequently married William Cavendish, who eventually became the Duke of Newcastle and who was a widower some twenty years her senior. The marriage seems to have been a happy one, and indeed, it is Margaret, a second and childless wife, who lies buried next to William in Westminster Abbey. Margaret Cavendish found a husband who supported her ably in her intellectual endeavors. In marrying into the Cavendish family, she became a member of a family that had been in the forefront of the intellectual life of the time. Newcastle's cousins, the Devonshires, were patrons of Thomas Hobbes, and Newcastle and his brother, Sir Charles Cavendish, had as part of their circle a number of leading thinkers, including Marin Mersenne, Pierre Gassendi, and René Descartes. It is not clear to what extent this wider circle was available to Cavendish, but both her husband and her brother-in-law were prepared to encourage and to instruct her as she developed her intellectual interests. Cavendish published copiously, in a wide variety of genres, throughout her life, both while she and her husband lived in exile in Holland and after they returned to England in 1660, after the restoration of Charles II. The Newcastles lived on their return at the family estate, Welbeck, in Nottinghamshire, but made visits to London. During one of these visits, Cavendish made a ceremonial visit to the Royal Society, unusual in that they did not otherwise admit women to its meetings. Cavendish died in 1673, at the relatively young age of fifty, some three years before her husband.

Cavendish published over a dozen works, including poetry, plays, epistolary treatises, a life of her husband and a shorter one of herself, a novel, and some six works in natural philosophy. Cavendish reworked her ideas about natural philosophy throughout her life, improving them as she enlarged her reading and altered her vocabulary and her grasp on the issues about which she was writing. Among her works in natural philosophy, probably the best and most interesting are her last, Grounds of Natural Philosophy (1668/1996), where she lays out her material in its most organized form, and two slightly earlier works, Philosophical Letters (1664/1994) and Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666/2001). These last two are especially interesting because, in them, Cavendish situates her own views against a commentary on several leading thinkers of her day.

From Grounds of Natural Philosophy one learns the basic premises of Cavendish's approach to natural philosophy. She tells the reader there can be no substance but body, which exists in degrees of purity. While the less pure parts of matter are inert, the purer parts are self-moving and are endowed with self-knowledge. These come in two sorts, again distinguishable by their degree of purity: a sensitive part, which is living, and a rational part, which understands. Natural phenomena are to be explained in terms of the doings of matter, under the guidance of reason and as carried out by sense. Thus, Cavendish's account of nature is one of a number of accounts that try to explain natural phenomena in terms of the motions that lead to the division and composition of otherwise undifferentiated matter. Cavendish has absorbed and is working within one of the dominant explanatory paradigms of her day.

As Philosophical Letters and Observations upon Experimental Philosophy make clear, Cavendish developed her own version of this paradigm. Philosophical Letters consists of a series of letters to a fictional female correspondent discussing passages of Hobbes, Descartes, Henry More, and Francis Mercury van Helmont, with a final, less focused part answering a number of different questions and mentioning a number of different authors, including Galileo Galilei, Walter Charleton, and Robert Boyle. Unlike Hobbes and Descartes, Cavendish rejects the idea that there can be purely mechanical explanations for such human functions as sensation, insisting on the self-moving, knowledgeable nature of sensation, which she says "patterns out" or imitates objects sensed. She rejects a mechanical or "transfer" theory of motion as unintelligible and provides an alternative, under which all motion is self-generated action on the basis of self-knowledge, rather than a passive reaction to impact. Thus, while a materialist, Cavendish is not a mechanist, but a vitalist. She energetically distinguishes herself, however, from other contemporary vitalists, like More, on the grounds that More's immaterial plastic spirit of nature, as immaterial, is impotent to move matter. Cavendish's vitalism is materialist and not dualist. Cavendish's position can be seen as developing in conversation with a number of related theorists, with whom she shares a number of views, while carving out her own position.

In Observations upon Experimental Philosophy Cavendish takes on the experimenters of the Royal Society, in particular Robert Hooke. She criticizes Hooke for supposing that microscopes provide a unique view into the heart of things, on the grounds that adding a dubious instrument to a dubious sense organ does not improve matters. Her overall approach is to urge the claims of reason to give understanding over the deliverances of the senses. Although arguing for the special virtues of reason, Cavendish does not suppose that reason is a source of certainty in natural philosophy. Instead, her approach is probabilistic. Toward the end of Philosophical Letters she writes that

the undoubted truth in Natural Philosophy is, in my opinion, like the Philosophers Stone in Chymistry, which has been sought by many learned and ingenuous Persons and which will be sought as long as the Art of Chymistry doth last; but although they cannot find the Philosophers Stone, yet by the help of this Art they have found out many rare things, both for use and knowledg. (1664/1994, p. 508)

While one cannot attain undoubted truth, to refuse to be guided by it would be like refusing to take medicine on the grounds that one will die eventually.

See also Boyle, Robert; Descartes, René; Galileo Galilei; Gassendi, Pierre; Hobbes, Thomas; Materialism; Mersenne, Marin; More, Henry; Vitalism; Women in the History of Philosophy.


works by cavendish

Philosophical Fancies. London: N.p., 1653

Philosophical and Physical Opinions. London: Printed for J. Martin and J. Allestrye, 1655.

"Philosophical Letters: or, Modest Reflections upon some Opinions in Natural Philosophy" (1664). In Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period, edited by Margaret Atherton. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1994.

Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666). Edited by Eileen O'Neill. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

A True Relation of My Birth, Breeding and Life, as printed in The Life of William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle. London: 1667, 157158.

Grounds of Natural Philosophy (1668). Introduction by Colette V. Michael. West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Press, 1996.

"The Blazing World." In The Description of a New World, called the Blazing World and Other Writings, edited by Kate Lilley. New York: New York University Press, 1992.

Political Writings. Edited by Susan James. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

works about cavendish

Bowerbank, Sylvia, and Sara Mendelson, eds. Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press, 2000.

Broad, Jacqueline. "Margaret Cavendish." In Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 3564. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Hutton, Sarah. "Anne Conway, Margaret Cavendish, and Seventeenth-Century Scientific Thought." In Women, Science, and Medicine, 15001700: Mothers and Sisters of the Royal Society, edited by Lynette Hunter and Sarah Hutton, 218234. Stroud, U.K.: Sutton Publishing, 1997.

Hutton, Sarah. "In Dialogue with Thomas Hobbes: Margaret Cavendish's Natural Philosophy." Women's Writing 4 (3) (1997): 421432.

Hutton, Sarah. "Margaret Cavendish and Henry More." In A Princely Brave Woman: Essays on Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, edited by Stephen Clucas, 185198. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2003.

Hutton, Sarah. "Science and Satire: The Lucianic Voice of Margaret Cavendish's Description of a New World called the Blazing World." In Authorial Conquests: Essays on Genre in the Writings of Margaret Cavendish, edited by Line Lottegnies and Nancy Weitz, 161178. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickenson University Press, 2003.

James, Susan. "The Innovations of Margaret Cavendish." British Journal for the History of Philosophy 7 (2) (1999): 219244.

Margaret Atherton (2005)

Margaret Lucas Cavendish

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Margaret Lucas Cavendish

Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) was one of the first prolific female science writers. As the author of approximately 14 scientific or quasi-scientific books, she helped to popularize some of the most important ideas of the scientific revolution, including the competing vitalistic and mechanistic natural philosophies and atomism. A flamboyant and eccentric woman, Cavendish was the most visible of the "scientific ladies" of the seventeenth century.

Margaret Lucas was born into a life of luxury near Colchester, England, in 1623, the youngest of eight children of Sir Thomas Lucas. She was educated informally at home. At the age of eighteen, she left her sheltered life to become Maid of Honor to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, accompanying the queen into exile in France following the defeat of the royalists in the civil war. There she fell in love with and married William Cavendish, the Duke of Newcastle, a 52 year-old widower, who had been commander of the royalist forces in the north of England. Joining other exiled royalists in Antwerp, the couple rented the mansion of the artist Rubens. Margaret Cavendish was first exposed to science in their informal salon society, "The Newcastle Circle," which included the philosophers Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, and Pierre Gassendi. She visited England in 1651-52 to try to collect revenues from the Newcastle estate to satisfy their foreign creditors. It was at this time that Cavendish first gained her reputation for extravagant dress and manners, as well as for her beauty and her bizarre poetry.

Published Original Natural Philosophy

Cavendish prided herself on her originality and boasted that her ideas were the products of her own imagination, not derived from the writings of others. Cavendish's first anthology, Poems, and Fancies, included the earliest version of her natural philosophy. Although English atomic theory in the seventeenth century attempted to explain all natural phenomena as matter in motion, in Cavendish's philosophy all atoms contained the same amount of matter but differed in size and shape; thus, earth atoms were square, water particles were round, atoms of air were long, and fire atoms were sharp. This led to her humoral theory of disease, wherein illness was due to fighting between atoms or an overabundance of one atomic shape. However in her second volume, Philosophical Fancies, published later in the same year, Cavendish already had disavowed her own atomic theory. By 1663, when she published Philosophical and Physical Opinions, she had decided that if atoms were "Animated Matter," then they would have "Free-will and Liberty" and thus would always be at war with one another and unable to cooperate in the creation of complex organisms and minerals. Nevertheless, Cavendish continued to view all matter as composed of one material, animate and intelligent, in contrast to the Cartesian view of a mechanistic universe.

Challenged Other Scientists

Cavendish and her husband returned to England with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and, for the first time, she began to study the works of other scientists. Finding herself in disagreement with most of them, she wrote Philosophical Letters: or, Modest Reflections upon some Opinions in Natural Philosophy, maintained by several Famous and Learned Authors of this Age, Expressed by way of Letters in 1664. Cavendish sent copies of this work, along with Philosophical and Physical Opinions, by special messenger to the most famous scientists and celebrities of the day. In 1666 and again in 1668, she published Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, a response to Robert Hooke's Micrographia, in which she attacked the use of recently-developed microscopes and telescopes as leading to false observations and interpretations of the natural world. Included in the same volume with Observations was The Blazing World was a semi-scientific utopian romance, in which Cavendish declared herself "Margaret the First."

Invited to the Royal Society

More than anything else, Cavendish yearned for the recognition of the scientific community. She presented the universities of Oxford and Cambridge with each of her publications and she ordered a Latin index to accompany the writings she presented to the University of Leyden, hoping thereby that her work would be utilized by European scholars.

After much debate among the membership of the Royal Society of London, Cavendish became the first woman invited to visit the prestigious institution, although the controversy had more to due with her notoriety than with her sex. On May 30, 1667, Cavendish arrived with a large retinue of attendants and watched as Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke weighed air, dissolved mutton in sulfuric acid, and conducted various other experiments. It was a major advance for the scientific lady and a personal triumph for Cavendish.

Cavendish published the final revision of her Philosophical and Physical Opinions, entitled Grounds of Natural Philosophy, in 1668. Significantly more modest than her previous works, in this volume Cavendish presented her views somewhat tentatively and retracted some of her earlier, more extravagant claims. Cavendish acted as her own physician, and her self-inflicted prescriptions, purgings, and bleedings resulted in the rapid deterioration of her health. She died in 1673 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Although her writings remained well outside the mainstream of seventeenth-century science, Cavendish's efforts were of major significance. She helped to popularize many of the ideas of the scientific revolution and she was one of the first natural philosophers to argue that theology was outside the parameters of scientific inquiry. Furthermore, her work and her prominence as England's first recognized woman scientist argued strongly for the education of women and for their involvement in scientific pursuits. In addition to her scientific writings, Cavendish published a book of speeches, a volume of poetry, and a large number of plays. Several of the latter, particularly The Female Academy, included learned women and arguments in favor of female education. Her most enduring work, a biography of her husband, included as an appendix to her 24 page memoir, was first published in 1656 as a part of Nature's Pictures. This memoir is regarded as the first major secular autobiography written by a woman.


Alic, Margaret, Hypatia's Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century, Beacon Press, 1986.

Battigelli, Anna, Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind, University Press of Kentucky, 1998.

Grant, Douglas, Margaret the First: A Biography of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, 1623-1673, University of Toronto Press, 1957.

Kargon, Robert Hugh, Atomism in England from Hariot to Newton, Clarendon, 1966.

Meyer, Gerald Dennis, The Scientific Lady in England 1650-1760: An Account of her Rise, with emphasis on the Major Roles of the Telescope and Microscope, University of California Press, 1955.

Schiebinger, Londa, The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science, Harvard University Press, 1989.


Journal of English and Germanic Philology, April 1952. □

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Margaret Lucas Cavendish