Margaret Cavendish: Essential Writings

August 30, 2019
book cover
David Cunning

David Cunning is Professor of Philosophy and Collegiate Scholar in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.


Margaret Cavendish, a seventeenth-century philosopher, scientist, poet, playwright, and novelist, went to battle with the great thinkers of her time, and in many cases arguably got the better of them, but she did not have the platform that she would have had in the twenty-first century. She took a creative and systematic stand on the major questions of philosophy of mind, epistemology, metaphysics, and political philosophy. She defends a number of theses across her corpus: for example, that human beings and all other members of the created universe are wholly material; that matter is eternal; that the universe is a plenum of contiguous bodies; that matter is generally speaking knowledgeable and perceptive and that non-human creatures like spiders, plants, and cells exhibit wisdom and skill; that motion is never transferred from one body to another, but bodies always move by motions that are internal to them; that sensory perception is not via impressions or stamping; that we can have no ideas of immaterials; and that creatures depend for their properties and features on the behavior of the beings that surround them. Cavendish uses her fictional work to further illustrate these views, and in particular to illustrate the view that creatures depend on their surroundings for their social and political properties. For example, she crafts alternative worlds in which women are not seen as unfit for roles such as philosopher, scientist, and military general, and in which they flourish. This volume of Cavendish’s writings provides a cross-section of her interconnected writings, views, and arguments.