Masham, Damaris (1658–1708)

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Masham, Damaris (1658–1708)

English scholar . Name variations: Lady Masham; Damaris Cudworth; Philoclea. Born Damaris Cudworth in England on January 18, 1658; died on April 20, 1708; buried in Bath Abbey; daughter of Ralph Cudworth (1617–1688, a philosopher); educated at home; studied under her father and John Locke; married Sir Francis Masham, 3rd baronet, of Oates, Essex, in 1685; children: Francis Cudworth Masham (b. 1686).

Selected works:

wrote over 40 letters to the philosopher John Locke; corresponded with the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz; A Discourse Concerning the Love of God (1690); Occasional Thoughts in Reference to a Virtuous or Christian Life (1705); an essay on Locke for the Great Historical Dictionary ; a biography of Locke in La Bibliotheque Universelle (1704).

Damaris Masham was born in 1658 and brought up around Cambridge University. Her father Ralph Cudworth, a philosopher at Cambridge who specialized in Plato, had a hand in teaching her; otherwise little is known about her education, though she became very well known for her intellect. She learned French, but not Latin which was usually included in men's education of the day.

In 1682, at about the age of 23, Damaris met the philosopher John Locke (probably through their mutual friend, Edward Clarke). Their early correspondence was romantic, and they addressed each other as Philander and Philoclea. They would remain good friends and intellectual companions after the romance faded, corresponding regularly on personal matters mostly, but also on philosophy, while Locke was away in Holland. In 1685, she married Sir Francis Masham, a landowner who already had eight children from a previous marriage. Together they had a son, Francis Cudworth Masham.

Early on, Masham had befriended John Norris, another Cambridge Platonist and a follower of the philosophy of Nicholas de Malebranche. She corresponded with Norris for several years. As time wore on and her views began to differ from his, he became her intellectual adversary. She also corresponded, almost exclusively on the topic of philosophy, with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. She had sent him a copy of her father's book, The True Intellectual System of the Universe, and his letter in response sparked a dialogue between them. In later years, Leibniz would offer his sympathy on the death of Locke, and they would continue to write for a brief period, discussing Leibniz' and Locke's and her father's writings.

Masham's two philosophical treatises, which became very popular and went into second editions, were first published anonymously. As anonymous publication was usual for Locke, and he influenced her, the writings were at first attributed to him. Even when her authorship was made public, some still doubted it; for instance, Catherine Trotter Cockburn was forced to defend Masham's authorship.

The first work, A Discourse Concerning the Love of God, published in 1690, is Masham's philosophical examination of the correspondence between her adversary John Norris and Mary Astell , which they had published as Letters Concerning the Love of God. Also that year, Norris had published a treatise on love directed at Masham: Reflections upon the Conduct of Human Life with reference to the Study of Learning and Knowledge, in a letter to an excellent Lady, the Lady Masham. His writing shows that he believed her to have become blind; she had not, although her eyes did grow weak with age. A Discourse Concerning the Love of God is also directed also at this work, as well as at Astell's solo writing. Masham uses a Lockean theory of knowledge to argue that love of God is derived from sensory experience, disputing Norris' view that God can be the only source of any causation of love. Masham may have contributed at an earlier date to Norris' half of the correspondence, but by this time she was a confirmed Lockean, holding views directly in opposition to Norris'.

In Occasional Thoughts in Reference to a Virtuous or Christian Life, published in 1705, Masham argues that rationality should be the basis of moral conduct, and also that on this basis, women should be equally educated with men. She was concerned that lack of education made women unable to perform well their duties as wives and mothers. She argued that an educated woman would be more reasonable and a better educator of her children than one who lacked schooling.

Although Masham's views as represented in Occasional Thoughts are somewhat like Mary Astell's, they are written in response to Astell (in her 1705 work The Christian Religion), with an empiricist, rather than an idealist, background. Masham was greatly encouraged by Astell's representation of women as maligned in A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (published in 1694), but her own arguments for the equal education of women were based on pragmatism instead of Astell's ideals. As an idealist, Astell considered our experience of the world to be fundamentally dependent on our minds. Masham, following Locke, was an empiricist, believing that what we know depends on our concrete experience; therefore she focused more on practical matters.

When Locke returned from Holland in 1688, he and Masham were able to meet frequently, and so no longer corresponded. In 1691, Locke finally gave in to her requests that he stay (as a paying guest) with her family at Oates, their country estate in Essex, bringing with him his 5000-volume library. Intellectual visitors to the estate during this time included Isaac Newton and Francis Mercury van Helmont. Locke helped educate her son, and remained on the estate until his death in 1704. Damaris Masham died four years later, in 1708.


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

Ballard, George. Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain, Who Have Been Celebrated for Their Writings or Skill in the Learned Languages, Arts and Sciences. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1985.

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

Perry, Ruth. The Celebrated Mary Astell, an Early English Feminist. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

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

Waithe, Mary Ellen, ed. A History of Women Philosophers. Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publications, 1987–1995.

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