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Some Thoughts on Teaching Early Modern Women

Date:18 December 2019
Author:Peter West
Anne Conway
Anne Conway

Just a couple of weeks ago I finished teaching a semester-long course called ‘Early Modern Women on Knowledge and Nature’ at University College Dublin. This is the first time I have run this course (though it won’t be the last) and I’ve come out the other side with some thoughts on what worked and what didn’t, what aspects of the course – and the women that we focused on – students were more engaged with, and what I would do next time around.

In designing the course, I chose to focus on ‘Knowledge and Nature’ for two reasons. Firstly, it’s where my own areas of interest and (dare I say it) expertise lie. I’m interested in the motivations for the various philosophical systems or ‘pictures of nature’ that came out of the Early Modern period. Metaphysics and epistemology are hard to pull apart in Early Modern writing, and this focus allowed me to explore the kinds of issues I am most familiar with as they were dealt with in the hands of Early Modern women. The second reason for focusing on ‘Knowledge and Nature’ is that many of the students taking this course had had very little, if any, exposure to Early Modern philosophy. What this meant is that this course couldn’t simply be a matter of looking at how some women philosophers responded to the familiar questions raised by the likes of Descartes, Locke, or Hume. As it turned out, this was an especially refreshing aspect of teaching this course. and I found that myself and students alike got a lot more out of the texts we looked at by approaching them as genuinely primary sources, and not just reactions to the ‘big names’. For example, we found ourselves having to work out who Anne Conway was responding to when she claimed that some philosophers maintain – absurdly, she thinks – that the soul is ‘alive’ while the body is ‘dead’.

I decided, initially, to structure the course around three philosophers with corresponding texts: Margaret Cavendish’s Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy, Conway’s Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, and Mary Shepherd’s Essays upon the Relation of Cause and Effect and Essays on the Perception of an External Universe. My reasons for picking these women were varied. Even before I knew much about Cavendish, I found her fascinating. For one thing, she has perhaps the most varied corpus in terms of the different styles of writing she employs (poetry, fiction, plays, straight-up philosophical treatises) of any of the Early Moderns. I chose Conway because I have always felt an itch to look into her picture of reality and, more specifically, just what she’s getting at when she suggests that the species of horse, if it acts well (i.e., in accordance with its nature), could transmute itself into a species higher-up on the chain of being. Finally, Shepherd’s writing struck me as a good way to cover some of the key debates in the eighteenth-century: especially the nature of causation and the ontological status of the external world.

For the most part I did focus on just these three thinkers/ texts, but I made two important (on reflection) additions. Firstly, I chose to include a session on Cavendish’s proto-sci-fi novella The Blazing World.* This turned out to be an effective way to get at some of Cavendish’s philosophical positions (e.g., her scepticism of microscopes/ telescopes, her materialism, and her thoughts on the place of women in society) from a different – and less overtly ‘philosophical’ – angle. What’s more, it was a nice way of showing that Early Modern thought isn’t all about dense philosophical treatises; that, in fact, there is a great deal of creativity on offer in the writing from the period. On a personal note, it also got me into a Twitter conversation with the author Philip Pullman, who promised me he would read The Blazing World as soon as possible.** The second inclusion was Princess Elisabeth’s correspondence with Descartes. It felt amiss not to include Princess Elisabeth when we turned to substance dualism and mind-body interaction. As it happened, Elisabeth’s concerns with mind-body dualism worked as a helpful entry point into Conway’s own arguments for her version of monism.***

Here are some more concrete take-aways from the course:

(1) I found that students were much more engaged with the biographical details of the women we were looking at than they tend to be in introduction to Early Modern philosophy courses that focus on ‘canonical’ figures such as Descartes, Locke, and Hume. This may be down to the fact that I began the course with Eileen O’Neill’s seminal paper ‘Disappearing Ink’.**** Perhaps this put students on ‘alert’ for telling biographical details. On the other hand, it could just be because the likes of Cavendish and Conway did lead interesting lives. For example, we looked at Samuel Pepys eye-witness account of the pomp that surrounded Cavendish’s attendance at a meeting of the Royal Society. We also considered the connection between Conway’s life-long chronic headaches and her concerns with the Cartesian separation of mind and body.*****

(2) I found that it very much is possible to cover the most prominent issues in Early Modern metaphysics and epistemology via women’s writing.****** Conway and Princess Elisabeth provide insightful critiques of mind-body dualism. Cavendish’s Observations (along with The Blazing World) provide a useful entry point to the growing tension between ‘Modern science’ and traditional philosophy. While Shepherd’s writings provide a comprehensive overview and commentary on the key issues of eighteenth-century thought – and, what’s more, an alternative to Kant’s attempt to synthesise rationalist and empiricist approaches to knowledge.

(3) On a more critical note, it became clear very quickly that it is really, really difficult to teach the Early Modern period by means of the traditional story of rationalism vs. empiricism if the thinkers that one focuses on are women. Now, admittedly, my evidence for this is anecdotal: I focused on just Cavendish, Princess Elisabeth, Conway, and Shepherd. But I’d be willing to put myself out there and suggest that a course focusing on Mary Astell, Anna Maria van Schurman, and Émilie du Châtelet (for example) would produce similar findings. I am by no means the first to say this (again, see O’Neill’s paper and lots of subsequent scholarship) and I won’t be the last, but if the criteria for inclusion in an introduction to Early Modern course is fitting into either the empiricist or the rationalist camp, then it is very hard to find a place for women philosophers. The story we tell and the narrative we choose to employ for teaching the period is thus extremely significant. In any case, for the purposes of this course, the terms ‘rationalist’ and ‘empiricist’ were largely redundant.

Finally, some thoughts on what I would do next time around. The main change I would make would be to focus the course on topics rather than texts – especially if, as was the case this time around, the course is tasked with introducing students to Early Modern philosophy. That would leave room for greater flexibility and the opportunity to incorporate one or two other figures into the course. Secondly, I would bear in mind that biographical details are important both in terms of understanding the philosophical positions being advocated and in terms of getting students to engage with the course material.

Undoubtably, the exclusion of women is the most problematic feature of the history of philosophy’s own history. But, as a silver lining, for those of us working in it today there is at least something to be gained – by both educators and students alike – from delving into philosophical works that, as becomes evident quite quickly, are erroneously understudied. Everyone knows what Descartes and Kant thought. Fewer people know what Cavendish, Conway, and Shepherd thought. But they should. Soon enough, hopefully, that will change. For now, I think this at least makes the writing of women philosophers a refreshing and exciting entry point into Early Modern philosophy.






***** This piece of biographical evidence seems to have helped students find a way into the dualism/ monism debate. Reading through student essays on Conway, I’ve found lots of instances of students bolstering her argument against dualism with creative counterexamples (hypnosis, psychotic disorders) to the suggestion that mind and body are distinct substances. 

****** I very much encouraged students to focus on the primary sources themselves (and not to get bogged down in secondary literature) – and it was nice to see students providing largely accurate exposition of these Early Modern texts in their essays.

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