Colloquium: Karen Detlefsen (UPenn)

October 25, 2019 -
3:30pm to 5:30pm


"The Genres and Methods of Margaret Cavendish"

Abstract: In recent years, two competing interpretations of Margaret Cavendish's philosophy have emerged. According to one interpretation, Cavendish endorses a radical natural equality among all created beings. According to this reading, for example, humans are not superior to non-human animals, men and women have naturally equal rational abilities, Cavendish is a sort of Republican endorsing the freedom from arbitrary domination for all individuals, and the like. According to the other interpretation, Cavendish maintains that at least some individuals stand in hierarchical relations, with some kinds of creatures being superior to others. For example, she is commonly interpreted as maintaining that males' rational capacities are superior to those of females. There are good reasons for these conflicting readings: her texts seem to support both interpretations.
In this paper, I argue that Cavendish should be read as most likely offering the egalitarian position with respect to men's and women's rational capacities. I start by showing that she was well aware of what we would these days call epistemic injustice, e.g., the discounting of women's knowledge claims simply because they are made by women, and the inflation of men's knowledge claims just because they are made by men. Given this, she was also aware of the difficulties she faced in ensuring her ideas would be taken seriously, most especially on an issue as contentious as women's intellectual equality with men. And so, she tended to address issues to do with gender in genres that we do not easily associate with philosophy these days, including her fictional plays and the prefaces to her more traditional philosophical treatises. Unlike her more traditional philosophical treatises, these other genres do not present careful reasoning and argumentation toward unambiguous conclusions. Rather, she employed a range of other methods -- autobiographical accounts of her own lived experience, impassioned reactions against men's unearned power to make knowledge claims, ironic banter about women's rational capacities, and the like -- which make it very difficult to extract unambiguous conclusions about gender, even while these methods allow her to present incisive social commentaries about knowledge and power. I nonetheless argue that the evidence -- however difficult it may be to interpret -- favors the view that Cavendish was an egalitarian when it comes to women's and men's rational capacities.

Location and Address

Cathedral of Learning Rm 1008