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Cockburn, Catherine Trotter (1679–1749)

Cockburn, Catherine Trotter (1679–1749)

English playwright, essayist, poet, and philosopher. Born on August 16, 1679; died on May 11, 1749, inLong Horsley, Northumberland; daughter of Scottish parents, her father a naval commander; mostly self-taught at home; converted from the Church of England to the Roman Catholic Church, then back to the Church of England in 1707; married Patrick Cockburn (a cleric), in 1708.

Selected works:

Agnes de Castro (1695); Fatal Friendship (1698); Love at a Loss (1700); The Unhappy Penitent (1701); Revolutions of Sweden; A Defense of the Essay of Human Understanding (1702); A Discourse Concerning a Guide in Controversies, in Two Letters: Written to one of the Church of Rome, by a Person Lately Converted from the Communion (1707); Olinda's Adventures (1718); two papers in defense of Locke, against Dr. Holdsworth (1726, 1727); "Remarks upon Some Writers in the Controversy Concerning the Foundations of Moral Duty" in History of the Works of the Learned (1743); Remarks upon the Principles and Reasonings of Dr. Rutherford's Essay on the Nature and Obligations of Virtue, in Vindication of the Contrary Principles and Reasonings Inforced in the Writings of the Late Dr. Samuel Clarke (1747).

Catherine Trotter Cockburn's early life was not easy, though she was recognized as a child prodigy. While she was very young, her father, a Scottish naval commander, went down with his ship and the family's fortune. Catherine taught herself French, Latin, Greek and logic and supplemented her mother's earnings with her own, to support the Trotter family. She wrote five plays, becoming a popular playwright while still under 20 years of age. Even her last play, on an unusually dry subject, Revolutions of Sweden, met with great success.

Cockburn lived passionately. Published in 1718, her fictionalized autobiography, Olinda's Adventures, depicts the young life of an intelligent, confident, impassioned, and gregarious woman. Her dramatic works generally concern intense relationships, and her personal friendships and romances were known for a similar intensity. Her first play, Agnes de Castro (based on the life of Inez de Castro from a novel by Aphra Behn ), was produced when she was only 17 at the Drury Lane Theatre in London. The play concerns love and friendship, as does Fatal Friendship, a play that appeared to enthusiastic reception three years later, in 1698. Other plays include a tragedy, The Unhappy Penitent, and a comedy, Love at a Loss.

Abandoning her dramatic writing, Cockburn became a follower of John Locke's epistemology (theory of knowledge), as set forth in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Locke argues that at birth the mind is empty and absorbs information onto a blank surface, a tabula rasa. Many intellectuals of the time considered this position to be incompatible with a religious understanding of morality. A Defense of the Essay of Human Understanding was published anonymously by Catherine Cockburn in 1702 and argues that Locke provides a sound epistemology on which to base morality and religion.

Although her Defense was published anonymously, Locke discovered her authorship through his correspondent, George Burnet of Kemnay, Scotland, who was also a friend of hers. She had chosen to publish anonymously to avoid the inevitable attacks against a woman writing a scholarly work, and because she was humble about Locke's potential reception: "I am more afraid of appearing before him I defend than of public censure." But her fears were unfounded. Locke sent her a letter of thanks, some books and money.

George Burnet had also been at court at Hanover with G.W. Leibniz, and he kept Cockburn up to date with the philosophical issues of the day. In particular, he showed her the letters of Damaris Cudworth Masham , who defended Locke. Where Burnet was critical of Masham, Cockburn defended her ideas and chided him for his imputation that Masham might not have originated the ideas put forth in her letters: "I pray," she wrote to Burnet, "be more equitable to her sex." Masham and Trotter soon began a direct correspondence.

It seems, however, that Cockburn could not reconcile Locke's epistemology with all Christian religion. She had converted to Roman Catholicism from the Church of England in 1707 but found her recent epistemological awareness incompatible with her new faith. Her 1707 publication, A Discourse Concerning a Guide in Controversies, sought to explain why she felt compelled philosophically to return to the Church of England. Both the 1707 and 1728 editions included a preface written anonymously by her friend, Gilbert Burnet, the bishop of Salisbury.

Catherine Cockburn became well known for her artistic and analytic abilities. Her collected works became a popular item among intellectuals. Fame, however, came at price, and she did not escape criticism; she was parodied as the main character in a farcical play. In 1708, she married Patrick Cockburn, a poor but educated Scottish cleric, and they went to the vicarage at Long Horsley, Northumberland. The demands on her time from a large family and a small income kept her away from intellectual work, and her public career was put aside for many years.

Cockburn resumed philosophical writing in her later years; she also corresponded with a niece, for whom she served as a mentor, on a variety of intellectual subjects. She continued to publish, including additional work in defense of Locke, throughout a painful illness that ended in her death, at age 71, on May 11, 1749.


Atherton, Margaret. Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994.

Kersey, Ethel M. Women Philosophers: a Bio-critical Source Book. NY: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Stenton, Doris May. The English Woman in History. NY: Macmillan, 1957.

Waithe, Mary Ellen, ed. A History of Women Philosophers, vol. 3. Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987.

Catherine Hundleby , M.A. Philosophy, University of Guelph

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