Volume 9, Issue 2, Fall 2020
Margaret Cavendish among the Baconians
Margaret Cavendish is a very difficult thinker to place in context. Given her stern critique of the “experimental philosophy” in the Observations on the Experimental Philosophy, one might be tempted to place Cavendish among the opponents of Francis Bacon and his experimental thought. But, I argue, her relation to Baconianism is much more subtle than that would suggest. I begin with an overview of Cavendish’s philosophical program, focusing mainly on her later natural philosophical thought in Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1663), Philosophical Letters (1664), Observations on the Experimental Philosophy (1666/68) and her Grounds of Natural Philosophy (1668). I then turn to Francis Bacon, and talk about how he understood his philosophical program in the 1620s, and how it had been transformed by later Baconians in the 1650s and 1660s. While Bacon held a vitalistic natural philosophy, what was most visible, particularly in Royal Society propaganda, was his experimentalism. But Margaret Cavendish’s natural philosophical program is, in a way, the exact contrary. While she was skeptical of Bacon’s experimentalism, she was an enthusiastic advocate for a vitalistic materialism that may well have been inspired, at least in part, by Bacon’s thought. Because of her opposition to the experimental philosophy, her contemporaries may not have seen her as a Baconian. But even so I think that she was a philosopher whom Bacon himself would have recognized as a kindred spirit.