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Cavendish contra contextualism

Date:09 February 2018
Author:Laura Georgescu
Cavendish, Reason and the thoughts (poem)
Cavendish, Reason and the thoughts (poem)

 "Wherefore I beseech my readers to be so charitable, and just, as not to bury my work in the monuments of other writers, but if they will bury them, let it be in their own dust, or oblivion, for I had rather be forgotten, then scrape acquaintance, or insinuate myself into others company […] Besides, I have heard that learning spoils the natural wit, and the fancies of others, drive the fancies out of our own braines, as enemies to the nature, or at least troublesome guests that fill up all the rooms of the house. […] I found a natural inclination, or motion in my own brain to fancies, and truly I am as all the world is, partial, although perchance, or at least I hope not so much as many are, yet enough to desire that my own fancies, and opinions might live in the world, rather then the fancies and opinions of other mens in my brain."

This is Margaret Cavendish in the Epilogue to her Philosophical Opinions. And I want to suggest that what she’s doing here is not (a) a rhetorical move to justify her lack of institutional education, nor is it (b) an apology for that lack, nor (c) an instantiation of the early modern trope of claiming the novelty of a philosophical system* – though admittedly Cavendish has her moments of appealing to the trope. I want to go further and suggest a bold, somewhat risky, and perhaps (or hopefully?) unexpected interpretation (perhaps the reader is reminded of Cavendish’s own arrogant tone, which I suspect she uses to reflect the affect of her educatedmale readers!): what if Cavendish’s words are – purely and simply – the implications or (more appropriately) the effects of her conjectures about matter, mind and motion?

Describing Cavendish’s materialist and naturalistic philosophical system as a “conjecture” isn't an accident – she is, after all, “as all the world is, partial”. Cavendish isn’t talking about bias here – her philosophy allows for criteria to distinguish between true and false opinions, and she very much strives for truth. The partiality she’s referring to is metaphysically grounded. On her account, knowledge is necessarily partial (that is, incomplete), because no part of matter can exhaustively know the whole of matter, and a knowledge claim (e.g., a sentence, an idea, a system of ideas) is just a particular “figuration” of matter.

Cavendish takes her materialism very seriously. Just as a mind is a part of matter, thoughts, conceptions are themselves parts of matter. Given this, what does Cavendish do with the activities we associate with minds? Specifically, for our purposes here, what does she take learning to be? Like digestion, throwing, sleeping, etc., learning ultimately is specific motions of the self-moving and perceptive matter. Now, motion is, though central, a tricky concept in Cavendish and I won't go into all the complications here ( see here, or here, or here). What's relevant is that perceptive parts of matter perceive other parts of matter, and tend to imitate  (or pattern out) the parts they perceive. So, if such imitation is a general kind of process in matter, then it doesn’t seem like much of a leap to suggest that learning probably also works by imitation. Imitation of what? Well, copies of the figurative parts of matter we encounter. In other words, when we learn (and Cavendish seems to be mostly concerned with institutionalised education when she talks about learning here), we don’t necessarily produce (new) thoughts, but copy existing ones. The risk of this – which I take Cavendish to be drawing our attention to – is that “the fancies and opinions of other mens” end up living in our minds, and then we take what’s not ours to be our own. This kind of learning, she’s saying, ought not to be the goal or method of natural philosophy. Instead, the aim should be to bring to life new “fancies and opinions” which “will live in the world”.

Here, again, Cavendish really means this literally and materially: the goal is to create new “figurated” parts of matter (new opinions or conceptions) which, once brought into existence, once “figurated” in their own specific “figure”, will “live” because they will become a part of the whole. Now, maybe all of this sounds kind of abstract, but Cavendish doesn’t allow much room for abstract ideas in her world. If, say, the activity by which, by typing on this keyboard, I produce words on a screen, and eventually on paper, is part of the material world, then so are the specific figurations in my brain which correspond to these signs.

Okay, so thoughts are material, and are literal parts of the world, and their figures can be replicated such that another brain harbours a copy, but we haven't yet looked at how a new thought is brought into the world to live its own life. Cavendish tells us that the voluntary action of the “rational” parts of matter “make figures of their own accord, without any imitation, patterns, or copies of foreign parts, or actions” (Observations: 170). This seems to be how new conjectures are brought to life – this seems to be what she means by “the natural wit”. And I take Cavendish to believe that her conjectures about the self-moving, self-knowing perceptive matter to be the products of her rational parts figuring anew. They aren’t copies or mutations of similar already existing thoughts as they are not the product of “learning”: they are properly the “fancies” of Cavendish’s own natural wit.

All of this finally brings me back to the title of the post: is Cavendish an anti-contextualist? Well, yes, but not purely. Contextualising is not per se pernicious. Her Philosophical Letters, for instance, clearly works with and within contexts. But the (rather obvious) risk that Cavendish is worried about is that her own conception, her own conjecture (that is, those parts of matter that her natural wit figured) will be buried if what’s at stake for the reader is to look for influence and to identify relations with other thinkers – to go digging for who she had read, who she had not, who influenced her, why and to what extent…

And this risk is not just the normal anxiety about being marginalised or fading into obscurity. This is a metaphysical risk for Cavendish. It is real because such a contextualist is looking for the parts of Cavendish’s conjectures that are copied or learnt, and thereby misses what comes from her natural wit. Worse, though, the contextualist treats the conjectures as compositional, as wholly built out of “figurated” parts – but, for Cavendish, the whole is distinct and not reducible to its parts, and its identity doesn’t reside in them, since each part of a whole is, qua part, somewhat knowing but also necessarily ignorant of the whole. On Cavendish’s understanding, then, a contextualist reading will necessarily miss the forest for the trees.

Notice that Cavendish says she’d rather her work be forgotten entirely (“oblivion”) or, presumably, dismissed on its own terms (“in their own dust”) than be remembered in relation to others. That’s a really strong claim: better oblivion than contextualism! And it’s rather poignant, given how historical women philosophers tend to be treated, even in our well-meaning attempts to reclaim them from the oblivion the canon had cast them into (why is Cavendish relevant? Because of the Royal Society! Because of Descartes! Why is du Châtelet relevant? Because of Newton! Because of Leibniz!). Perhaps, then, if we are to remain “charitable and just” readers of Cavendish’s own philosophy and philosophical commitments, we should take her seriously, at her word, and attempt to canonise her work less by showing how it fits, or doesn’t, with our existing canon (which Alison Peterman very nicely argues against here), and more by actively looking for the proper Cavendishian thoughts. We shouldn’t be burying her work in the monuments of others; we should be making sure her “fancies” and opinions truly live in the world.

* A trope which we, today, have made into an evaluative norm – but more about this at a later time.


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