Observations upon Experimental Philosophy  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666) is a work by Margaret Cavendish.


Cavendish’s Natural Philosophy

Eileen O'Neill offers an overview of Cavendish's natural philosophy and its critical reception in her introduction to Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. O'Neill describes Cavendish's natural philosophy as rejecting Aristotelianism and mechanical philosophy and favouring Stoic doctrines. She notes that while women rarely wrote about natural philosophy in the seventeenth century, Cavendish published six books on the subject. O'Neill points out that Cavendish herself was not formally educated in natural philosophy, though William Cavendish and his brother Charles shared an interest in the subject and supported Margaret's interest and study in the area. Cavendish may also, as O'Neill notes, have been influenced through social encounters with philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes. O'Neill believes that Hobbes (who had instructed Charles in philosophy) had significant influence on Cavendish's natural philosophy and notes that Cavendish was among the few seventeenth century supporters of Hobbes' materialist philosophy, which argued that incorporeal souls do not exist in nature. Beginning in the 1660s, O'Neill notes, Cavendish began to more seriously study the work of her contemporaries. O'Neill suggests that such study was intended to enable Cavendish to better argue her own points by contrasting them with those of other natural philosophers.

Critical Response to Cavendish's Natural Philosophy

O'Neill notes that Cavendish's natural philosophy, and writing in general, was criticised by many of her contemporaries as well as by more recent readers, such as Samuel Pepys, Henry More and Virginia Woolf. Cavendish's work has also received positive criticism and she is lauded by many for such reasons as having written on typically male dominated subjects, such as natural philosophy. Letters and poems of praise written by her husband were included in several of her published works.

Writing as an Honourable Disease

In her preface to Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, Cavendish states that she expects readers to say that her practice of writing prolifically is a disease. If so, Cavendish states, then many others, including Aristotle, Cicero, Homer and St. Augustine, have also been very ill of the same disease. She remarks that it is an honour for someone of great ambition (as she has often identified herself) to share the disease of such wise and eloquent men. Also common to her other writings is her assertion that she writes for herself and that her writing is a harmless pastime when considered in comparison with those of many other women. She does contradict herself, however, by adding that she writes for delight, which she had denied in her previous work. Also somewhat contradictory is her assertion that she would continue to write even if she had no readers, which is not in line with her desire for fame. Ultimately, Cavendish excuses her criticism of and engagement with the theories of other natural philosophers as a necessary step in the search for truth.

Learning versus Wit

In her epistle to the reader, Cavendish writes that woman's wit may equal that of man, and therefore women may be able to learn as easily as men. She argues that wit is natural, whereas learning is artificial, and that, in her time, men have more opportunity to educate themselves than women do.

Cavendish remarks upon her own experience reading philosophical works. She notes that many such works challenged her understanding, as they often contained many difficult words and expressions that she had not previously encountered. It follows that Cavendish advises writers of philosophy to use language appropriate to aiding the understanding of those less expert than themselves. Cavendish defends her position by stating that philosophical terms ought to ease communication of one's thoughts on the subject. She believes that successful communication is possible in all languages and criticizes those who complicate communication (particularly English writers) as aiming to gain esteem from those who admire writing simply because they do not understand it, without considering that it may be nonsense. In her own work, Cavendish states, she chooses not to uses difficult terms, although she points out that she understands such terms. Her stated reason for this is that she desires her work to be accessible to people regardless of their degree of learnedness. Her aim, she states, is to clearly communicate her ideas. She requests that any errors that may be found within her work be overlooked and that readers remain focused on her main ideas. Here, as in many of her epistles, Cavendish instructs her reader in how to approach her work, requesting that readers read her work in its entirety and that they withhold criticism until they have done so.

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