We are pleased to announce that Professor Peter Anstey and Emeritus Professor Jocelyn Harris of our Early Modern Thought Research Theme have edited a new special issue of Intellectual History Review with Routledge:
Over the last two decades, a burgeoning interest in women intellectuals from the early modern period has resulted in outstanding surveys, anthologies and a robust secondary literature. The consequence is that we now have a clearer, richer understanding of the range and quality of many women authors, together with an enhanced appreciation of their philosophical depth.
This special issue is the fruit of a conference exploring the intersection of women, philosophy and literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, held in September 2009 at the University of Otago. Speakers both built on and extended recent scholarship in papers about women writers from Margaret Cavendish to Jane Austen, the representation of women by Nicolas Malebranche and mid-eighteenth-century playwrights, and the impact of a woman philosopher on Samuel Richardson. Their inter-connections highlight the thematic continuity of the whole.
This collection includes at least four common threads. First, the question of influence, or rather the extent to which contemporary philosophers influenced women thinkers and the extent to which they influenced one another. Second, the question of the gendered nature of mind, especially the epistemic status of women’s reason. That debate cannot be uncoupled from a third early modern preoccupation variously touched on in these essays, that is, the relation between humans and animals. And fourth, the decidedly Christian character of many of the writings under discussion.
Abstracts of the papers:
Jacqueline Broad, “Impressions in the Brain: Malebranche on Women, and Women on Malebranche”
In his De la recherche de la vérité (The Search after Truth) of 1674-75, Nicolas Malebranche makes a number of apparently contradictory remarks about women and their capacity for pure intellectual thought. On the one hand, he seems to espouse a negative biological determinism about women’s minds, and on the other, he suggests that women have the free capacity to attain truth and happiness, regardless of their physiology. In the early eighteenth-century, four English women thinkers – Anne Docwra (c. 1624-1710), Mary Astell (1666-1731), Damaris Masham (1659-1708), and Mary Chudleigh (1656-1710) – engaged with Malebranche’s ideas. Their writings reveal how we might dispel the apparent contradictions in Malebranche’s thinking about women, and reaffirm the liberating potential of Cartesian philosophy for women in the early modern period.
Jennifer Clement, “Elizabeth I, Patriotism, and the Imagined Nation in Three Eighteenth-Century Plays”
The cult of Elizabeth I shaped three eighteenth-century plays: James Ralph’s The Fall of the Earl of Essex in 1731; Henry Jones’s The Earl of Essex: A Tragedy, first performed in 1753; and Henry Brooke’s play, also called The Earl of Essex, first performed in London in the 1760-61 season. This article explores the specific historical circumstances of each play to show how they produce significantly different readings of Elizabeth. While Ralph depicts a queen unable to control her passions, Jones intensifies Elizabeth’s patriotism, and Brooke not only makes Elizabeth a full-fledged Patriot Queen but also portrays Essex as much to blame for his own tragic fate. Examining these plays together thus shows Elizabeth’s significance in the development of British patriot discourse. Moreover, in spite of their differences, all three plays emphasize the importance of a loving bond between sovereign and people, and suggest that only such a bond can resist faction and reach out beyond court corruption to unify the nation in its advance towards an imperial future.
Jocelyn Harris, “Philosophy and Sexual Politics in Mary Astell and Samuel Richardson”
When the novelist Samuel Richardson dramatised in his heroine Clarissa the character, life and sexual politics of the celebrated Mary Astell, neo-Platonic philosopher and advocate for women’s education, then appropriated her more satiric tone for her friend Anne Howe, he spread Astell’s arguments more widely than she ever could. Richardson printed for Astell in 1730, and his intellectual circle intersected with hers through Sarah Chapone, who tried to bring him together with Astell’s biographer George Ballard. Similarities between Richardson’s first and third editions and Ballard’s memoir suggest that he read it in manuscript. As Astell and Richardson both point out, Locke’s concept of freedom through the social contract does not apply to women. Astell’s submission to authority on political and religious grounds made heaven her only recourse. In Richardson’s masterpiece, too, Clarissa only finds freedom in death.
Charles Pigden, “A Sensible Knave? Hume, Jane Austen and Mr Elliot”
My paper deals with one woman’s literary response to a philosophical problem. The woman is Jane Austen, the problem is the rationality of Hume’s ‘sensible knave’, and Austen’s response is to deepen the problem. Despite his enthusiasm for virtue, Hume reluctantly concedes that injustice can be a rational strategy for ‘sensible knaves’, who feel no aversion towards thoughts of villainy or baseness. Austen agrees, but adds that absent considerations of a future state there are other vices besides injustice that can be rationally indulged with tolerable prospects of worldly happiness. Austen’s creation Mr Elliot is just such an agent – sensible and knavish but not technically ‘unjust’.
L. E. Semler, “Margaret Cavendish’s Early Engagement with Descartes and Hobbes: Philosophical Revisitation and Poetic Selection”
This essay explores Margaret Cavendish’s early engagement with the works and ideas of Thomas Hobbes and René Descartes. In the process it presents a chronology of her early works and the hypotheses of poetic selection and philosophical revisitation. The essay argues that Cavendish had extensive philosophical knowledge by the early 1650s, was interested in poetically exploring the philosophical ideas of her male contemporaries, and revisited in the 1660s philosophical ideas that she had already considered in the early period. It concludes that despite her covert use of sources and denials of extensive philosophical knowledge in the early period, her early works reveal her to be deeply and intelligently engaged in current trends of thought.
Jane Spencer, “The link which unites man with brutes’: Enlightenment Feminism, Woman and Animals”
This essay argues that eighteenth-century natural historians’ accounts of the relationship between animals and humanity had a complex influence on the development of Enlightenment feminism. On the basis of analogies between human and animal behaviour, human female subordination and feminine qualities such as modesty were naturalised. Focusing on Mary Wollstonecraft, the essay shows how her argument with William Smellie’s Philosophy of Natural History was instrumental in her development of a social constructivist position which she used to counter Edmund Burke’s conservatism on social and gender hierarchies. In developing this position, she reaffirmed a dualist understanding of a firm boundary between human (spiritual) and animal (physical) nature. While earlier feminist thinkers had considered human affinities to animals in a more positive light, Wollstonecraft, though advocating kindness to animals, was conservative on the human-animal hierarchy. For her, woman’s place in a rational humanity radically distinguished from animal life was the necessary foundation of feminist argument.
Sophie Tomlinson, “A Woman’s Reason: Aphra Behn Reads Lucretius”
Critics have conflicting views about Aphra Behn and libertinism, some seeing her as embracing it, others seeing her as ambivalent towards it, and others still feeling that she employs it strategically for marketing her literature. This essay explores all three approaches, arguing that Behn’s ‘libertinism’, like all libertinism, is more difficult to define than is sometimes thought. The essay shows that Behn dallied with alternative forms of libertinism depending on occasion; it explores Behn as a revising author, analyzing the changes that she made to some of her most crucial libertine texts. Behn’s libertinism is hard to pin down, because Behn herself defines it differently each time she revises her work.