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The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish

, 272 pages

1 halftone

April 2010



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The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish

Reason and Fancy during the Scientific Revolution

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, led a remarkable—and controversial—life, writing poetry and prose and philosophizing on the natural world at a time when women were denied any means of a formal education. Lisa T. Sarasohn acutely examines the brilliant work of this untrained mind and explores the unorthodox development of her natural philosophy.

Cavendish wrote copiously on such wide-ranging topics as gender, power, manners, scientific method, and animal rationality. The first woman to publish her own natural philosophy, Cavendish was not afraid to challenge the new science and even ridiculed the mission of the Royal Society. Her philosophy reflected popular culture and engaged with the most radical philosophies of her age. To understand Cavendish’s scientific thought, Sarasohn explains, is to understand the reception of new knowledge through both insider and outsider perspectives in early modern England.

In close readings of Cavendish’s writings—poetry, treatises, stories, plays, romances, and letters—Sarasohn explores the fantastic and gendered elements of her natural philosophy. Cavendish saw knowledge as a continuum between reason and fancy, and her work integrated imaginative speculation and physical science. Because she was denied the university education available to her male counterparts, she embraced an epistemology that favored contemplation and intuition over logic and empiricism.

The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish serves as a guide to the unusual and complex philosophy of one of the seventeenth century’s most intriguing minds. It not only celebrates Cavendish as a true figure of the scientific age but also contributes to a broader understanding of the contested nature of the scientific revolution.

Lisa T. Sarasohn is a professor of history at Oregon State University, editor of The Scientific Revolution, and author of Gassendi’s Ethics: Freedom in a Mechanistic Universe.

"A useful addition to the canon of critical work on the scientific revolution."

"The most thorough and convincing analysis of Cavendish’s natural philosophy to date."

"A welcome addition to early modern philosophy courses, in which women are often entirely absent or subordinated. Using Cavendish and Sarasohn's book will lead to very interesting discussions about the role of women in science and society in the early modern period."

"This volume is essential for its sustained and sophisticated analysis of an important thinker's natural philosophy."

"Insightful analysis... With Sarasohn as our guide, we can begin to glimpse the rich rewards that will accrue to those readers who give Cavendish's fascinating oeuvre their close attention."

"This meticulous tracing of Cavendish's evolving philosophy allows the reader to gain greater insight into Cavendish as a person and a better understanding of the confusing, and often contradictory, elements of her philosophy... Sarasohn handles the great variety and complexity of Cavendish's works very well, and her expertise in the history of science and philosophy allows her to tackle difficult passages often avoided by scholars. This convincing analysis makes a strong argument for historians to read these works as serious philosophical treatises, and it will certainly provide the foundation for interdisciplinary analyses that draw more from the field of early modern women's writing."

"Sarasohn provides by far the fullest and most detailed account of Margaret Cavendish's natural philosophy to date, making thsi book indispensable reading for all scholars not only of Cavendish, but of early modern scientific culture. The real strength of the book, however, comes from its blend of empirical research with literary methods... Sarasohn's own dry, witty writing style renders her arguments not only clear but also engaging."

"An important contribution to Cavendish scholarship; anyone with a serious interest in Cavendish will find it well worth reading."

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