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Cavendish, Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle


(b. Colchester, England, 1623 [?];

d. Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire, 15 December 1673), atomism, materialism, vitalism, women in science.

Cavendish was the first woman to write about science in English. She developed a unique natural philosophy, as well as publishing poetry, romances, plays, and essays. Her importance as a thinker has been recognized by the inclusion of the second edition of her most important treatise, the 1668 Observations upon Natural Philosophy, in the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy series. Cavendish’s natural philosophy is the first example of the reception and reconstitution of the ideas of New Science by a woman. Her significance lies in her priority and in her originality: She felt her sex ultimately enabled rather than hindered her ability to be a natural philosopher and to be the peer of masculine interpreters of nature.

Family Connections . Gender shaped both the articulation and content of her philosophy. Cavendish was poorly educated, although she was a member of a prominent gentry family, the Lucases of Colchester in Essex who had risen to preeminence during the Tudor period. Her widowed mother, Elizabeth Lucas, preferred her daughters to be schooled in virtue rather than learning and the tutors she employed “were rather for formality then benefit” (Margaret Cavendish, A True Relation of my Birth, Breeding and Life [1656], in Bowerbank and Mendelson, Paper Bodies, 43). Cavendish embraced an epistemology that

privileged introspection and imagination over logic and experimentation. She was skeptical that perception based only on the senses could do anything but delude the observer. Her most developed natural philosophy was a kind of vitalistic materialism that she composed as a response to and repudiation of mechanistic materialism. Cavendish was not a brilliant natural philosopher. Her style was abstruse and some of her theories are strange, even in the context of her own time. But her idiosyncrasies reveal how gender and culture functioned in the seventeenth century, a period when women were increasingly excluded from all intellectual activities.

Cavendish was first exposed to new scientific ideas by her brother, John Lucas; her husband, William Cavendish, the Duke of Newcastle; and her brother-in-law, Sir Charles Cavendish. William was a patron of the arts and letters. Sir Charles was an amateur mathematician. After Margaret Cavendish joined the royal court in exile in 1644, she met and married Newcastle. He entertained Pierre Gassendi, Marin Mersenne, and René Descartes, and had a long association with Thomas Hobbes. Cavendish’s direct contact with these thinkers was limited, but her husband and brother-in-law discussed their ideas with her and encouraged her to write her own philosophic musings.

Early Atomism and Materialism . Her first work, the 1653 Poems and Fancies, contains a verse rendition of atomism. Most scholars have characterized her atomism as an extreme form of mechanistic materialism; four differently shaped atoms—square, round, long, and sharp— constitute earth, water, air and fire. But even Cavendish’s earliest philosophy contained vitalistic elements. The universe she described was seething with active principles and their conflicts. Atoms were reified as the functional equivalent of fairies: their motion causes thought and feeling. Like fairies, atoms were sentient and vital. In a companion work, the 1653 Philosophic Fancies, Cavendish explored how vital matter can produce an abundance of possible beings living on alternative worlds. Her early works self-consciously merged philosophy and fancy in materialistic speculations.

By 1655, Cavendish began to devote herself systematically to natural philosophy. The 1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions began with a rejection of mechanical atomism. Her revised natural philosophy was materialistic and vitalistic. Matter came in three forms: rational matter, sensitive matter (which together composed something Cavendish calls innated matter), and inanimate matter, which was inert. All three were integrated in physical objects and vary only in their level of perception and self-movement. This doctrine of matter would continue to be the basis for all of Cavendish’s subsequent scientific thought. She immediately faced the religious and moral difficulties associated with a philosophy of living matter in a companion work to Opinions, the 1656 Natures Pictures. The multiplicity of genres, including romances, comic tales, fantasies, and poetry in this work allowed Cavendish to give free rein to speculations about nature and God, and the role of gender in natural philosophy. In Natures Pictures, Cavendish justified her right to write natural philosophy and argued for a special kind of female knowledge.

Cavendish and New Science . After Cavendish’s return to England with the Restoration, she developed her ideas in the 1664 Philosophical Letters by critiquing the work of Hobbes, Descartes, Van Helmont, and Henry More. She argued that particulate matter, as described by the mechanical philosophers, could never achieve order and harmony. Instead, Cavendish envisioned a material wholeness where parts, composed of the three forms of matter inextricably commingled, self-moving and self-conscious, were differentiated only by their own motions. She rejected the Hobbesian principles of force and determinism and instead argued that harmony rather than war is the natural state of the universe. Whereas Hobbes distinguished man from beasts by crediting man alone with speech and ratiocination, Cavendish contended that all beings, including beasts, possess reason and intelligence, at least of their own kind. There is a continuity of animate matter from stones to humans, which included those creatures usually regarded as irrational—animals, children, and, by implication, women.

Cavendish also denied the claims of the new experimental philosophers. She reacted with horror when the members of the Royal Society followed the Baconian vision of penetrating nature. The 1666 Observations upon Experimental Philosophy was a critique of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia. Cavendish believed it was impossible to reveal the interiority of nature; the attempt was presumptuous as well as useless. But Cavendish was not content to merely criticize the experimenters. She also felt the need to parody their behavior and to assert her own right to be a female natural philosopher. Published in the same volume with Observations was a parody of the Royal Society called The Blazing World. In this fantastical romance, a young lady becomes Empress of the Blazing World, whose inhabitants are beast-men. She organized them into scientific societies. These hermaphroditical creatures are both metamorphosed experimenters and the objects they study. In The Blazing World, Cavendish imagined a world where a female natural philosopher could not only exist, but rule.

The year after Cavendish published Observations and The Blazing World, she asked to be invited to visit the Royal Society. She became the first and only woman to visit the Society in the seventeenth century, and the members feared her notoriety and eccentricity would reflect on them. Indeed, her visit functioned as a tangible vindication of her own philosophy and status and a subversion of male pretensions in natural philosophy. Whereas most scholars accept the notion that Cavendish was overwhelmed by the experience, a more nuanced reading of the incident shows that Cavendish was ridiculing the Royal Society by treating their displays as a kind of circus side-show. Her last work, the 1668 Grounds of Natural Philosophy demeaned the Royal Society and once again stated her material philosophy. She was eulogized by the playwright Thomas Shad-well: “Philosophers must wander in the dark, All did depend on Her, but She on none, For her Philosophy was all her own” (Thomas Shadwell, in A Collection of Letters and Poems Written by Several Persons of Honour and Learning, Upon Divers Important Subjects, to the late Duke and Duchess of Newcastle (London, 1678), 166).



Philosophical Fancies. London, 1653.

Poems and Fancies. London, 1653.

Philosophical and Physical Opinions. London, 1655.

Natures Pictures. London, 1656.

Philosophical Letters. London, 1664.

Grounds of Natural Philosophy. London, 1668.

Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. To which is added, The Description of a New Blazing World. London, 1666; rev. London, 1668.

The Blazing World and Other Writings. Edited by Kate Lilley. London: Penguin, 1994.

Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader. Edited by Sylvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2000.

Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. Edited by Eileen O’Neill. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.


Battigelli, Anna. Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998. Argues Cavendish’s scientific thought arose from the experience of exile.

Campbell, Mary Baine. Wonder & Science: Imagining Worlds in Early Modern Europe. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999. Intriguing discussion of Cavendish and Thomas Hooke.

Clucas, Stephen, ed. A Princely Brave Woman: Essays on Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. Hampshire, U.K.: Ashgate Press, 2003. Collection of articles, several devoted to natural philosophy.

———. “The Atomism of the Cavendish Circle: A Reappraisal.” The Seventeenth Century 9 (1994): 247–273. Argues that Cavendish’s atomism developed from native English traditions.

Harris, Frances. “Living in the Neighborhood of Science. Mary Evelyn Margaret Cavendish and the Greshamites.” In Women, Science and Medicine: 1500–1700, edited by Lynette Hunter and Sarah Hutton: Stroud, U.K.: Sutton Publishing, 1997.

Hutton, Sarah. “Anne Conway, Margaret Cavendish and Seventeenth Century Scientific Thought.” In Women, Science and Medicine: 1500–1700, edited by Lynette Hunter and Sara Hutton, 218–234. Stroud, U.K.: Sutton Publishing, 1997.

———. “In Dialogue with Thomas Hobbes: Margaret Cavendish’s Natural Philosophy.” Women’s Writing 4 (1997): 421–432.

James, Susan. “The Innovations of Margaret Cavendish.” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 7 (1999): 219–244. Excellent introduction to Cavendish’s natural philosophy.

Keller, Eve. “Producing Petty Gods: Margaret Cavendish’s Critique of Experimental Science.” English Literary History 64 (1997): 447–472.

Mendelson, Sara Heller. The Mental World of Stuart Women. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Good short summary of Cavendish’s thought.

Mintz, S.I. “The Duchess of Newcastle’s Visit to the Royal Society.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 51 (1952): 168–176. Classic but now out-of-date discussion of Cavendish’s visit to the Royal Society.

Rees, Emma. Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Genre, Exile. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003.

Rogers, John. “Margaret Cavendish and the Gendering of the’ Vitalist Utopia.” In The Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996. Connects Cavendish’s natural philosophy and liberal political theory.

Sarasohn, Lisa. “A Science Turned Upside Down: Feminism and the Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish.” Huntington Library Quarterly 47 (1984): 299–307. Discusses the relationship of Cavendish’s materialism and feminism.

Spiller, Elizabeth. “Reading through Galileo’s Telescope: Margaret Cavendish and the Experience of Reading.” Renaissance Quarterly53 (2000): 192–221. Post-structuralist analysis of Cavendish’s use of experimental imagery.

Whitaker, Katie. Mad Madge: The Extraordinary Life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, the First Woman to Live by Her Pen. New York: Basic Books, 2002. Detailed biography of Cavendish’s life.

Lisa T. Sarasohn

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