Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period by Margaret Atherton

In Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period, Margaret Atherton selects seven of these notable philosophers to showcase. She writes how each of these women felt herself to be unusual. Frequently, they deprecated their own views as coming from a woman’s pen/ And almost universally, those who responded to their work felt call upon to remark upon the woman’s gender.

Your glass will not do you half so much service as a serious reflection on our own minds

— Mary Astell

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are considered the early modern period. They are noted for their high level of philosophical activity. Unfortunately, their is an imbalance in the recognition of the works of women philosophers.

We now seek to right the scales and recognize and learn from the writing of women philosophers from that period.

Other factors influenced a woman’s ability to develop and express upon her philosophical perspectives: maternity, wealth, and religion. Inasmuch as the care of one’s soul was everyone’s concern–even a woman’s–women may have felt entitled and even obliged to have an opinion on religious matters.

Further, Descartes encouraged the idea that sound reasoning was in the power of every human soul–hence within the means even of a woman. This may have made it easier for women to see themselves–and to be seen–as capable of doing philosophy.

Seven of the women philosophers of the early modern period
  1. Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia
  2. Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle
  3. Anne Viscountess Conway
  4. Damaris Cudworth, Lady Masham
  5. Mary Astell
  6. Catharine Trotter Cockburn
  7. Lady Mary Shepherd

Readings comment on the major works of the period. Included are letters to prominent philosophers, philosophical tracts arguing a particular view, and comments on controversies of the day.

Women philosophers of significance

In making selections for this anthology, Atherton chose portions of each woman’s work that comment on the writings of the philosophers typically included in the history of modern philosophy course. In doing so, she says this was not to imply that the writings of these women are exclusively commentaries on the work of men.

Rather, she is guided by what she sees as a way of effectively integrating the work of these women in a relative way. I would like to see more of the work see as having merit on its own although I understand the pedagogical benefit of organizing the book in this way.

Mary Cavendish is a good case in point. Although she reflects on Descartes in her Philosophical Letters, she does not owe her position to him. The view she puts forth is materialist … What the ideas of these various seventeenth-century women fill in for us is the richness of the existing debates about the nature of matter, its relation to the soul, and its capacity for motion.

Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period by Margaret Atherton 

Each section is prefaced by a head note giving a biographical account of its author and setting the piece in historical context. Atherton’s introduction provides a solid framework for assessing these works and their place in modern philosophy.

Spirit and body differ not essentially but gradually.

–Anne Conway

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