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Early Modern: Margaret Cavendish, Part 1

In the first of two videos, Adela Deanova introduces Margaret Cavendish, an early modern English philosopher, and discusses the background to her critique of experimental philosophy. This video is a part of a series of videos coming from Project Vox (Duke), a project recovering the lost voices of women philosophers.

Speaker: Adela Deanova, Duke University

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Video transcript

(intro music) This is Adela Deanova in the philosophy department at Duke University, where we are leading Project Vox. This is part one of Margaret Cavendish, an English philosopher who worked in the middle of the seventeenth century. Cavendish was a very popular writer, famous in her day for her witty plays, poetry, letters, orations, fiction, and, last but not least, her husband's biography, which was so popular that it was republished several times after her death. As a wealthy aristocrat, Cavendish could afford to lead a very lavish lifestyle, which she actively and successfully used to promote her public image as a writer. In fact, she became so notorious for her eccentric manners and her unashamed seeking of fame that she became known affectionately as "The Mad Madge." As a result, scholars in her own time, and for many generations thereafter, saw her primarily as an entertaining literary writer, rather than as a serious philosopher. Cavendish, however, was also an astute natural philosopher in her own right. Despite her lack of any formal education in philosophy or academic languages, she was determined to learn about the latest scientific developments and to engage in philosophical debates. In her works, Cavendish discusses Cartesian dualism, the materialism of Thomas Hobbes, and mechanist views of nature and causation. Cavendish's interest in natural philosophy was probably fostered early in her life by her brother John, a scholar and one of the founding fathers of the Royal Society. It blossomed, however, with the loving and unwavering support her husband, William Cavendish, who later became the Duke of Newcastle and one of the richest men in England. also famous for his work on training horses. Margaret met William in France, where she accompanied the Queen Henrietta Maria into exile as Lady-in-Waiting. In 1642, a destructive civil war had erupted in England, and so the royal court, as well as many aristocrats and scholars loyal to the Crown, escaped to France and the Netherlands, where they lived until the royal restoration in 1660. Cavendish's marriage match proved to be intellectually, as well as socially, important for her. Her well-established and influential husband William, thirty years her senior, was an amateur scholar, much interested in philosophy. The famous philosopher Thomas Hobbes was in fact his personal tutor. William introduced Margaret to an intellectual circle of both French scholars and English scholars in exile, which soon became known as the Newcastle, or the Cavendish, circle. The circle included the "who is who" of philosophy of the day. English philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, Kenelm Digby, and Walter Charlton, and French philosophers such as Rene Descartes, Pierre Gassendi, and Marin Mersene. The new mechanical philosophy discussed by these philosophers left a deep impression upon Cavendish, inspiring her to pursue natural philosophy. By the time she returned with her husband to England in 1660, she already wrote five works in natural philosophy. In the next video, we will look at Cavendish's development as a natural philosopher in restoration England in the 1660s. Subtitles by the Amara.org community