«Debating Materialism: Cavendish, Hobbes, and More Stewart Duncan Draft of July 2011 1. Introduction Thomas Hobbes’s materialism was famous in the ...»
Debating Materialism: Cavendish, Hobbes, and More
Draft of July 2011
Thomas Hobbes’s materialism was famous in the seventeenth century, and is still well known
today. The materialists who followed Hobbes are less well known. In this paper I discuss the
materialist views of one of them, Margaret Cavendish, focusing on the relationship between
Cavendish’s materialism and the views of her contemporaries Hobbes and Henry More1. The
relationship between Cavendish’s views and Hobbes’s is the better documented. Hobbes worked for the Cavendish family – though Margaret Cavendish reported having almost no interaction with him about philosophical matters – and both Hobbes and Cavendish were materialists, albeit of different sorts.2 There were not the same personal connections between Cavendish and More that there were between her and Hobbes, but Cavendish came to think of More as an important figure with whom she needed to engage. In the Blazing World, Cavendish names as the six ‘most famous modern writers’ ‘Galileo, Gassendus, Descartes, Helmont, Hobbes, H. More’ (Cavendish 1994, 181). And the discussion of ‘that learned Author Dr. Moor’ is a significant part of the Philosophical Cavendish’s philosophy has been more discussed in recent years than previously, as historians of philosophy have paid more attention to the work of early modern women. Some of this discussion has taken the form of introductions and overviews, but attention has increasingly been given to exploring the details of Cavendish’s views. The line between the two sorts of work is obviously somewhat vague. But for works that are more like overviews, see (Broad 2002, 36Cunning (2009), James (1999), and O’Neill (2001). For more detailed engagements with particular aspects of Cavendish’s philosophy, see Detlefsen (2006; 2007), Hutton (1997; 2003), Michaelian (2009), and Sarasohn (2010).
For the limited philosophical conversation, see Cavendish (1655, ‘An Epilog to my Philosophical Opinions’). In her Life of William Cavendish, her husband, Cavendish reports two conversations involving him and Hobbes: one about whether it would be possible for men to fly, the other about witches (Cavendish 1667, 143-5). In general, Cavendish was often in an environment in which philosophy was discussed, even if she was rarely an active participant herself. See also Whitaker (2002).
Letters (PL 137).3 Cavendish’s discussion of More there pays a good deal of attention to his 1659 Immortality of the Soul, which itself spends a good deal of time discussing Hobbes’s materialism.
Thus we find More talking about Hobbes, Cavendish talking about Hobbes, and Cavendish talking about More talking about Hobbes.4 There is at the very least an interesting and welldocumented debate here. The rest of this paper focuses on that debate. I argue for two main claims.5 The first is that Cavendish’s views sit, often rather neatly, between those of Hobbes and More. For example, while remaining a materialist, Cavendish saw the attraction of the considerations that lead More to believe in a spirit of nature, an incorporeal substance guiding the workings of the world. Cavendish, however, held on to materialism, but adopted a nonHobbesian picture of matter.6 This is just one instance of how she ended up agreeing with I use several abbreviations in giving references in this paper. CSM = René Descartes,
Philosophical Works of Descartes, edited by Cottingham, Stoothof, and Murdoch (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1984); EL = Thomas Hobbes, Elements of Law, edited by J.C.
Gaskin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990); EW = Thomas Hobbes, English Works, edited by Molesworth (London: Bohn, 1839-45); IS = Henry More, The Immortality of the Soul (London, 1659); L = Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, edited by Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994);
OEP = Margaret Cavendish, Observations on Experimental Philosophy, edited by Eileen O’Neill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); PL = Margaret Cavendish, Philosophical Letters (London, 1664).
Hutton (1997) explores the connection between Cavendish’s views and Hobbes’s, bringing out the Hobbes-Cavendish connection, and arguing that Cavendish was genuinely contributing to philosophical debates of her time. I agree with Hutton about that, but something important is added if we see Cavendish’s materialism in relation to More’s view as well as Hobbes’s. Hutton (2003) argues that ‘Cavendish’s philosophical position is very much the obverse of More’s’ (190) though she does acknowledge ‘some uncanny parallels between Cavendish’s Nature and More’s Spirit of Nature’ (191).
For a rather different approach to Cavendish’s discussion of More in the Philosophical Letters, see Sarasohn (2010), who argues that ‘Cavendish’s attack on Henry More was about sex and power’ (Sarasohn 2010, 136).
In thinking about Cavendish’s view in this way, I do not make claims about the origins of Cavendish’s views. When she wrote her first works in the early 1650s, she claimed to have read only Hobbes’s De Cive (Hobbes 1651b) and half of Descartes’s Passions of the Soul (Descartes 1650). It is reasonably clear that her basic philosophical views were not formed by extensive engagement with the books of her contemporaries (Cavendish 1655, ‘An Epilog to my Philosophical Opinions’). That engagement came later, and resulted in two books of the mids: Philosophical Letters, with its long discussions of Descartes, Hobbes, More, and van Helmont (and shorter discussions of others including Galileo and Charleton) and Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, which focuses on Hooke, Power, and Glanville.
Hobbes on some issues and More on others, while carving out a distinctive alternative view.7 The second main claim is that this debate illustrates a more general puzzle about just what divided materialists from their opponents. The terms of the debate were not stable. Individual participants had their own views of what the corporeal and the incorporeal were. So seemingly straightforward disagreements about whether incorporeal substances exist turn out to be more complex ones in which the nature of those things is being disputed at the same time as their existence.
Each of the next five sections considers an important issue in the exchange between Hobbes, More, and Cavendish. Section 2 looks at accounts of perception, and possible connections between materialist accounts of perception and panpsychism. Section 3 considers answers to the central question, whether there are incorporeal substances. Section 4 then looks at the related issue of whether there are created intelligences that control the regular workings of the material world. Finally, sections 5 and 6 consider two sorts of argument for materialism. The first focuses on the alleged inconceivability of incorporeal substance, and the second on arguments related to supernatural things such as visions, ghosts, and witches. In each of these five sections I look at the views of Hobbes, More, and Cavendish, typically in that order, to see their reactions to and criticisms of one another.
2. Sense, reaction, and panpsychism In De Corpore 25, among other places, Hobbes explains his model of perception. Perception, like the other subjects of physics, is to be explained in terms of matter in motion. Hobbes’s story about visual perception, for instance, involves motions in the medium causing motions in the eye, which cause motions in the nerves, which themselves push towards the heart, where there is The argument of Detlefsen (2007, 181-3) that Cavendish’s theory of freedom sits between Hobbes’s and Bramhall’s is parallel to my argument about Cavendish, Hobbes, and More.
Meanwhile, on More’s views in relation to Hobbes’s and Descartes’s, see Pasnau (2007).
a reactive motion that pushes back outwards. When there is this reactive motion there is appearance and representation.
However, if sense is identified with reaction, there will apparently be sense throughout the world, in many unexpected places. Pushing my finger into an inflated balloon and feeling the pressure back against my finger, I am creating the same sort of system that Hobbes describes as sensing. So it seems that according to Hobbes’s basic account the balloon and finger system has sense in it. But it also seems that balloons and fingers, and many other systems involving action and reaction, do not sense anything. Hobbes notices the problem, and wonders how to respond.
necessary that every thing that reacteth should have sense. I know there have been philosophers, and those learned men, who have maintained that all bodies
we commonly understand the judgment we make of objects by their phantasms;
namely, by comparing and distinguishing those phantasms; which we could never
Here we see three possible responses to the problem: say that there is sense throughout the world, everywhere there is motion and reaction; distinguish the sense involved in these cases of simple reaction from the sense that is in us; or provide a further necessary condition for sense.
Hobbes hopes to reject the first, makes some use of the second, and relies mainly on the third.
Hobbes acknowledges that respectable figures have thought that there is sense throughout the world. A plausible figure for him to have in mind here is Tommaso Campanella (Leijenhorst 2002, 99-100). We might also take note of an intriguing passage in Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum, in which Bacon claims that it ‘is certaine that all bodies whatsoever, though they have no Sense, yet they have Perception’.8 Bacon notes the sensitivity of this ‘perception’, and goes on to give several examples, many of which are examples of things that are signs of the weather.
However, Bacon is clear in wanting to attribute perception, not just to regard these as cases of unthinking signs. But he also distinguishes between perception and sense. Thus we see someone saying there might be different sorts of perception in the world, not all of which are like our perception, but all of which are deserving of the name ‘perception’, rather than merely, say, ‘effect’.
Illustrious antecedents notwithstanding, Hobbes resists the conclusion that there is sense throughout the world. He adds an extra condition to his analysis of sense to address the problem. At least, he adds it to his analysis of sense ‘as I here understand it, and which is commonly so called’. Such qualifications leave open the possibility that there is sense in another sense: sense which is just reaction, and is all around us. So though the main thrust of Hobbes’s response is to say that sense is not just reaction, he does leave open the possibility of saying that the new analysis describes sense in one sense, while there is sense in another, weaker sense all around us in the world.
Bacon (1627, 211). This is at the beginning of the ninth of the ten Centuries into which Bacon’s book is divided. See Skrbina (2005, 82-3). This is intriguing in part because of the persistent question of the relation between Bacon’s views and those of his onetime secretary Hobbes.
Hobbes’s main manoeuvre, though, is to add a further condition to his analysis of sense, so sense involves memory as well as reaction. If we had no memory, he argues, we could not make sensory judgments. This is clearest in the case of judgments about whether something’s features have changed: even over a very short period of time, some memory will be required to make the judgment. Indeed, memory seems required for the judgment that an object has any stable features at all, rather than constantly fluctuating ones. So sense ultimately for Hobbes requires both reaction and memory.
More argued that Hobbes’s solution to his problem about panpsychism would not work.
For all that Hobbes has said, there will be memory too in many systems we think of as lacking perception.
More plays here on Hobbes’s view that imagination and memory are decaying sense. The central problem is that memory, like the basic sense which is just reaction, or indeed like judgment, must be characterized in terms of a certain sort of motion. But whatever abstractly characterized sorts of motions are said to be memory, those same sorts of motions will almost certainly be found elsewhere in the world, and certainly could be. Hobbes cannot respond by saying that this sort of motion gives rise to memory in brains, but not in bells, because they are made of different stuff.
Given his overall position, he needs to explain that difference in terms of different motions, a different mechanism, and he was not in a position to do that.9 This sort of objection to Hobbes’s attempt to avoid the panpsychist consequences of his theory of perception has been popular in recent literature on Hobbes. See Sorell (1986, 74), Leijenhorst (2002, 98), and Skrbina (2005, 84-5).
Cavendish, in her Philosophical Letters, commented on both the above discussions.
Cavendish was at this point in time a sort of materialist. Indeed she was a materialist who agreed with Hobbes in believing in a plenum, rather than atoms in the void.10 But Cavendish was also a panpsychist. Above we saw a possible route from materialism to panpsychism, via an account of sense in terms of reaction (or some other abstractly characterized motion). That sort of materialist panpsychism is a possible view, and More discussed it later in his Immortality of the Soul (IS 85). It is not the sort of materialist panpsychism that Cavendish advocated though, as is illustrated by her responses here. Commenting on De Corpore chapter 25 she says that
One clear claim here is that perception is not just done by humans, but also by other animals, and indeed by other creatures that are not animals. Cavendish does distinguish this perception from the perception of humans – it may not be the same ‘manner or way’ of perception – but it does count as perception.11 Also present in this passage, though not explained in detail, is In her earliest publications Cavendish was a sort of atomist. This is true at least of Cavendish (1653a), and perhaps also of Cavendish (1653b). But she had rejected the view by Cavendish (1655). On the early atomism, see Sarasohn (2010, 34-53). On Cavendish’s later opposition to atomism, see Detlefsen (2006).