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Cavendish and the Tapestry of Early Modern Philosophy

May 7, 2019

Prof. Bennett McNulty in front of a bookshelf

Prof. Bennett McNulty in front of a bookshelf
Photo by Jacob Van Blarcom, CLAgency student

The typical syllabus for a survey course in early modern philosophy might give the impression that the period’s philosophical output was exhausted by the works of just six European men, neatly divided between the competing camps of Rationalism and Empiricism. And though this is the story frequently told, philosophy professor Bennett McNulty insists that it is just that: a story. “Early modern philosophy isn’t so much a tent held up by the six figures commonly taught in early modern courses but rather a kind of tapestry,” he says, “stitched together by philosophers of diverse backgrounds whose interwoven thought isn’t as rigidly classifiable as it is often portrayed.” 

McNulty maintains that this simplistic account of the early modern period—conceived as a tent, rather than a tapestry—is not only historically inaccurate but potentially harmful: “I think historians of philosophy are just beginning to grapple with the negative consequences of the portrayal of philosophy so commonly promulgated,” he explains. McNulty argues that the standard presentation of the history of philosophy as predominately—if not exclusively—white, male, and European only reinforces the glaring problems of diversity facing contemporary academic philosophy. In confronting such problems, he emphasizes the importance of giving voice to figures in the history of philosophy who have been underappreciated and erased from the philosophical canon. In his research and teaching, McNulty has been trying to do just that, giving voice to a long overlooked thinker of the early modern period: the seventeenth-century philosopher Margaret Cavendish.

Materialism without Atoms

Though largely absent from the syllabi and anthologies by which most students become acquainted with early modern philosophy, Cavendish was not unknown among her seventeenth-century contemporaries. Actively, if controversially, engaged in the philosophical debates of her day, she broke with the dominant mechanistic paradigm of her philosophical peers, opting instead for a materialist metaphysical picture in which all things are alive. “She was very radical in an exciting sort of way,” McNulty remarks, “and actually anticipates Leibniz in many respects.” 

McNulty points to three distinctive features of Cavendish’s metaphysics: materialism, anti-atomism, and vitalism. Among very few others of her time, Cavendish was a materialist, holding that everything in the world is composed of matter. But, unlike some other materialists, she was also resolutely anti-atomist, denying that matter consists of impenetrable, indivisible atoms traversing the void—occasionally bumping into one another in such a way as to compose tables, chairs, and human beings. For Cavendish, there is no empty space, no void through which atoms could fly about; the universe, instead, is a plenum, every space, no matter how small, completely filled with matter. Moreover, Cavendish was a vitalist, believing that all such matter is alive, intelligent, and thinking, and it is precisely these qualities that account for the motions and behaviors of material objects. “For Cavendish,” McNulty explains, “pieces of matter are intelligent and must decide what to do, instead of being passively moved about.” 

Taken together, these three features produce a novel metaphysical account of the natural world, one that informed Cavendish’s philosophical method and put her at odds with her mechanistic contemporaries. While natural philosophers affiliated with the Royal Society, such as Boyle and Hooke, sought to understand the natural world through new inventions, such as the air pump and the microscope, Cavendish mocked such an experimental approach to philosophy. In Cavendish’s view, these newfangled devices only further removed us from the way in which we interact with objects in our everyday lives, and hence from a correct way of understanding the world.  

Order and Infinitude 

But no less interesting than Cavendish’s metaphysical commitments are her reasons for adopting them. Central to many of Cavendish’s metaphysical arguments is the concept of order. “She uses the concept as a sort of cudgel against her opponents,” McNulty explains, “dismissing rival metaphysical theories by showing that they entail disorder.” For Cavendish, that the natural world exhibits order is taken as a given. Any metaphysical theory which implies otherwise is thereby reduced to absurdity. 

It is precisely this concept of order by which Cavendish supports perhaps the most striking feature of her metaphysics, namely her vitalist conception of matter as alive and intelligent. As McNulty explains, “for Cavendish, there would be no reason for material objects to stay intact unless the pieces of matter composing it were intelligently conspiring to move together.” Thus, were matter not intelligent, the universe would consist only of “dust blowing in the wind,” with no coherent structure, or order, emerging from the chaos. But this, Cavendish thinks, is impossible; the world does exhibit order and hence matter must be intelligent. 

But what exactly is order for Cavendish? And why does she think it obvious that the natural world exhibits it? These are questions that McNulty takes up in his recent article published in the July issue of the History of Philosophy Quarterly, entitled “Margaret Cavendish on the Order and Infinitude of Nature.” In the article, McNulty argues in favor of what he calls an “infinite balance account” of Cavendish’s conception of order. 

According to McNulty, Cavendish’s contention that the world exhibits order is closely connected to her claim that the world is infinite. For Cavendish, McNulty points out, the infinitude of nature doesn’t simply mean that the world is spatiotemporally infinite but also that it contains infinite varieties and infinite particulars of every kind. Cavendish’s universe contains all of the infinite possible configurations of material bodies, which gives rise to infinite varieties. “Nature,” as McNulty puts it, “is for Cavendish optimally diverse, with all particular variations of matter and its attributes existing somewhere in the infinite plenum.”  

Moreover, McNulty claims, these infinite varieties and particulars of nature counterbalance one another. All natural occurrences—all of the infinitely many actions and properties of matter—are “poised” by their opposites, and the order of nature consists precisely in the resulting balance among its infinite varieties and particulars.

McNulty maintains that one strength of his infinite balance interpretation is that it alleviates the apparent tension between Cavendish’s conception of nature as orderly and her recognition of “irregular phenomena” such as war and death. According to McNulty, war and death are respectively the necessary counterbalances to the regular phenomena of peace and life. Without these irregular counterbalances, the world would be at risk of collapsing into disorder, dominated by a particular configuration of matter. “Far from violating the order of nature,” McNulty remarks, “phenomena such as war and disease are for Cavendish necessary elements of an orderly and infinitely various universe. Such irregular phenomena must exist to offset their counterparts in an orderly universe.”

An Epistemological Challenge 

But McNulty points to a challenge faced by his infinite balance account of order: If order for Cavendish is just balance among nature’s infinite varieties and particulars, how do we come to know that the natural world exhibits order? The challenge is made particularly acute in light of Cavendish’s epistemology, or theory of knowledge, according to which knowledge is grounded ultimately in sensory experience. According to Cavendish, we cannot form an adequate image of an infinite world, since the infinite is beyond the possibility of sensory experience. “How could we possibly know that nature is orderly if orderliness is understood as involving balance among infinite aspects of the universe?” McNulty asks. “For Cavendish, the order and infinitude of nature are best thought of as brute or conceptual facts,” he answers, “falling out of the very notion of nature.” Thus, McNulty suggests, our knowledge of nature’s order and infinitude has a conceptual, non-empirical basis for Cavendish. Order and infinitude, then, are not observable features of nature so much as qualities innate to the very idea of nature itself.

Cavendish in the Classroom

McNulty’s engagement with Cavendish has not been confined to publications in academic journals, however; he has also been incorporating her texts into his own early modern courses, exposing his undergraduate students to an exciting and underappreciated figure of early modern thought. “I became dissatisfied with the traditional way of teaching early modern courses,” he says, “and I wanted to incorporate more varied texts by less familiar thinkers.” 

Some might wonder whether including overlooked philosophers like Cavendish in early modern survey courses detracts from teaching students about the most canonical and influential figures of the period. But McNulty emphasizes that the figures we today identify as canonical were not necessarily the most influential in their time period, and nor were they at other times when they told the history of early modern philosophy. “Our set of canonical figures is a product of the early 20th century,” he says, “its members picked out not because of their influence, but rather for sociological, academic, and disciplinary reasons, in accordance with certain contingent goals and concerns of that period.” McNulty questions the relevance of these contingent factors to the question of whether to incorporate one or another figure into the early modern curriculum. 

Moreover, McNulty maintains that in choosing readings for their courses, instructors ought to ask themselves: What are the goals of philosophical education and of education in general? “Is the goal to have someone at the front of the room tell students about canonical figures and have students say accurate things about canonical figures?” he asks, “Or, rather, is the goal to have students engage in close reading and argumentation? Depending on how you answer these questions, one might be pushed towards having different sets of readings and assignments in their classes.” 

For his part, McNulty admits that he’s not necessarily interested in inculcating his students with knowledge of those six European men who make up the canon of early modern survey courses. “I’m more interested in weaving together the rich tapestry of philosophy, exposing students to different approaches to the discipline,” he says. “For the purposes of teaching close reading and critical thinking, it’s just as fruitful to grapple with Anne Conway’s monism as Spinoza’s. If we want to have an engaging text to parse apart argumentatively, we have a lot of leeway and opportunity to use different sorts of texts. And the benefit of using the texts of traditionally overlooked figures like Margaret Cavendish or Anne Conway is that it shows my students that you don’t need to be a privileged white European male to do philosophy. Philosophy, in fact, is an activity that many different people have engaged in, people of different races and genders and from many walks of life. The discipline only flourishes from those different perspectives.” 

This story is part of a larger article. Read more at Diversifying the Canon: Exploring the Works of Conway & Cavendish.