Margaret Cavendish

‘The philosophical and physical opinions ... (London, 1655)

The philosophical and physical opinions ... by Margaret Cavendish
Click here to see a flat image of this page
  These pages show two of Cavendish’s many prefaces to her work, and demonstrate some of the differences between early modern and modern science in genre and tone. Cavendish made no claims to objectivity, either in her own approach to understanding the world (which was defiantly imaginative) or in her treatment of readers. She addresses her readers frequently, inserting her own voice into the work as she by turns pleads, demands, cajoles and persuades them to read the book as she wants it to be read. In the epistle on the recto here (the right hand page), Cavendish asserts,

“I Desire my Readers to give me the same priviledge to discourse in natural Philosophy, as Scholers have in schooles, which I have heard speak freely, and boldly, without being condemned for Atheisme; for they speak as natural Philosophers, not as Divines: and since it is natural Philosophy, and not Theologie, I treat on, pray account me not an Atheist, but beleeve as I do in God Almighty.”

Here she touches on two factors which might prejudice readers against her works: gender and religion. As a woman Cavendish was excluded from membership of academic institutions such as the Royal Society and Oxford and Cambridge Universities, but she demands that readers treat her as they would a scholar. Cavendish also suggests that if she is treated as a scholar of natural philosophy (rather than of theology) readers will understand that her works are not heretical. Though many natural philosophers, such as John Wilkins, were also theologians and clergymen, some strands of natural philosophy threatened religion, as they conceived of a materialist universe composed of atoms. Cavendish writes remarkably little about God, but here she claims that this is due to her subject matter- natural philosophy- rather than because of any lack of faith.
Text kindly provided, especially for this exhibition, by Lizzie Scott-Baumann