Mistaken Rhetoric: Cavendish’s Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy

Our reading group this week tackled Margaret Cavendish’s Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy (1666). Since I started reading Cavendish (many years ago, now), I’ve always been struck by her prefatory material—first, just the sheer amount of it for any given text and, second, her emphasis on mistakes. Many of her prefaces include warnings and comments on why her text will not be perfect. As reasons, she often emphasizes her lack of education, the jumbled motion of her thoughts, or, most insistently, her gender. At first, I read these comments as simply overly effusive humility topoi, a way to combat the censure we know she tended to receive after publication. But lately I’ve been drawn more and more to the insistence of these statements and the way she uses them to outline alternative paradigms for reading and writing.

For instance, in a preface to Poems and Fancies (1653), Cavendish casually explains,

If I do erre, it is no great matter; for my discourse of [atoms] is not to be accounted authentick: so if there be any thing worthy of noting, it is good chance; if not, there is no harm done, nor time lost. For I had nothing to do when I wrot it, and I suppose those have nothing, or little else to do, that read it (“To Naturall Philosophers”).

Contrary to the very purposeful, humanist model for early modern reading (reading is meant to be highly instructive, both for one’s own writing but also as a model for one’s actions and attitudes), Cavendish uses the potential mistakes in her text to suggest that reading and writing can be much less purposeful activities than humanist theories purport. Anything “worthy of noting” in Cavendish’s text is “good chance”—the reader, in other words, will be pleasantly surprised to find something useful. But if the purpose of both writing and reading is, as Cavendish suggests, to pass time, the use-value of the text becomes much less important. Cavendish, it seems, puts forth an early model of reading for pleasure.

mcavfront1Our reading group’s conversation on Observations prompted me to think more about these ideas from a slightly different perspective. In Observations, mistakes potentially become a crucial element of Cavendish’s philosophy. As we discussed in reading group, this text in large part claims that the human body is the most reliable and effective instrument for scientific inquiry, and human reason in particular should be the basis for the speculation and study of nature, rather than tools (the microscope and telescope, for example) that mediate our relationship to nature. “Our rational perception,” Cavendish argues, “is much purer and subtler than the sensitive” (47).* Compared to “rational perception and knowledge,” artificial instruments and the “artifice” of experimental science are “apt to delude sense, and cannot inform so well as reason doth” (47). Given these broader textual claims, it seems important to Cavendish that mistakes are a part of science. If the human body and human reason are the best instruments we have, then mistakes not only will be part of the process of science, but also become the markers of good science.

Arguably, Cavendish foregrounds mistakes in Observations more forcefully than in any other text. One clear demonstration of this, as the inimitable Mandy Zoch pointed out in our discussion, is Cavendish’s long list of corrections and clarifications in her preface to the reader (which, consequently, runs 17 pages long) before the body of the text even begins. She announces,

I found after the perusal of this present book, that several places therein might have been more perspicuously delivered, and better cleared; but since it is impossible that all things can be so exact, that they should not be subject to faults and imperfections; (for as the greatest beauties are not without moles, so the best books are seldom without errors;) I entreat the ingenuous reader to interpret them to the best sense; for they are not so material, but that either by the context or connexion of the whole discourse, or by comparing one place with another, the true meaning thereof may easily be understood; and to this end I have set down this following explanation of such places, as in the perusal I have observed, whereby the rest may also easily be mended (14).

In part, this prefatory note is simply meant to precede the long list of clarifications that follows it. But, before she announces “this following explanation of such places,” Cavendish uses the text’s “mistakes” to suggest a very active mode of reading. In a sense, she asks her reader to reason through her text with his/her body and mind: because there are undoubtedly errors in this text, she writes, “I entreat the ingenuous reader to interpret them to the best sense.” She prompts the reader to interpret, or reason through, any mistakes or moments that seem confusing. This interpreting act should be undertaken both by mentally positioning the “mistake” in the context of the larger discourse or, as a much more embodied tactic, Cavendish suggests that the reader should “compar[e] one place with another” in order to uncover an accurate explanation—we can perhaps picture the reader flipping from one part of the book to another, finger in the page with the “mistake,” in order to reference another section that might help explain the erroneous idea or statement.

In our group discussion of the mistakes in Cavendish’s texts, Amanda Henrichs smartly prompted us to think about the gender implications behind this foregrounding gesture: how do we read Cavendish’s mistakes, and do we read them in a gendered way? If “mistakes” are somehow gendered feminine by Cavendish in her prefaces, does that affect the way we read them? Even though the above quote does not cite mistakes as such, an earlier preface in Observations to the learned men of Cambridge comments on “those weaknesses, and imperfections which you know my sex is liable to” (6). As much as it pains me to say it, to some extent I think we do read Cavendish’s mistakes as inherently feminine—both because she categorizes them as such and because we know that her science is, in fact, factually inaccurate compared to the male scientists she’s writing against.

But this gendered reading, or misreading, might be tempered if we consider the possibility that Cavendish uses mistakes as a method in her texts—a rhetorical mode from which her texts can potentially become more potent and more embodied. If mistakes are inherently feminine, as Cavendish suggests, they are also inherently human, and Cavendish fully recognizes this as well. If Cavendish’s natural philosophy relies on human reason and speculation rather than man-made technologies, then mistakes are part and parcel of her philosophical model. But, more crucially, mistakes seem to ask the reader to do more work with his or her body. Cavendish emphasizes the role not only of the writing body in working through philosophical concepts, but also the reading body in understanding and contextualizing those concepts.

Consequently, I want to suggest that mistakes (counterintuitively) provide Cavendish with a more stable rhetorical position from which to make other kinds of interventions. So, while Cavendish’s “science” might not be factually correct, her text does posit a kind of “ecology of science,” an alternative trajectory for knowledge building and ways of knowing that actually might work—that might not be a mistake.**

*All citations from Cavendish’s Observations are from Eileen O’Neill’s wonderful edition: Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish. Margaret Cavendish: Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. Ed. Eileen O’Neill. Port Chester, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

**This claim is further complicated by the fact that Cavendish published Observations with Blazing World, connecting her philosophical critique of experimental science to what some consider early modern science fiction. This pairing is something Cavendish scholars have been particularly interested in, and here I just want to add my recognition that the combination still deserves further attention. Excitingly, Jen Boyle at Coastal Carolina University is working on a digital edition of Cavendish’s text, piecing together Observations and Blazing World for the first time since its original publication. Still in progress, but an exciting endeavor: http://scalar.usc.edu/works/observations-on-a-blazing-world/index.


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