Margaret Cavendish and the Poetry of Animal Cognition

At a Women’s Studies Colloquium, Brandie Siegfried discussed 17th-century writer and natural philosopher Margaret Cavendish and her poetics of matter, perception, human nature and animal cognition.  

margaretcavendish-2-e1477511579396PROVO, Utah (Oct. 6, 2016)—A veritable Renaissance woman, Margaret Cavendish was not only one of the most prolific female writers of the 17th century, but a brilliant philosopher and science theorist as well. She wrote poetry, essays, plays, epistles of philosophy, memoirs, biographies and parodies, and is even one of the earliest known science fiction writers. Poems and Fancies, her first published book, combines her love of both poetry and science and makes the disputed scientific and mathematical theories of her day accessible and even pleasurable to her readers.

At a Women’s Studies Colloquium entitled “The Stag and the Lady: Margaret Cavendish on Animal Cognition in the Scientific Revolution,” associate professor of English Brandie Siegfried discussed the value of Cavendish’s versatile voice in the literary canon and how her theory of matter informed her poetry’s representation of animal cognition.

Siegfried said that Cavendish adapted the Epicurean model of atomism to produce her own theory of matter as intelligent and self-organizing. Though Cavendish agreed that  changes in nature were the result of various configurations of atoms, she also modified the theory to hypothesize for a matter that was both sensitive and thinking.

Siegfried continued that Cavendish’s publications challenged prominent European philosophers and scientists, which is identifiable in Poems and Fancies’ “The Circle of the Brain cannot be Squared,” a poem referencing the early modern mathematical debate on the concept of quadrature or the possibility of squaring a circle.

“The best reason for framing Cavendish’s theory of animal intelligence in the context of 17th-century mathematics is that geometry and algebra play crucial analogical roles in the social and political theories of key figures such as René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes,” Siegfried said. “That is, geometry was closely wed to ethics.”

She continued, “In Cavendish’s day, geometers were developing this notion on the way to calculus, and in this poem Cavendish uses the popular quadrature problem to challenge both Hobbs’ and Dees’ use of geometry for moral or political philosophy. Hobbes’ geometrical model is here depicted as inadequate to the demands of comprehending the human mind, and is set in contrast to Dees’ desire, ‘to mount beyond the weight of material things with mathematical, speculative means.’”  

img_8963-e1477512267361Siegfried said that Cavendish valued the materiality of the human brain, adding that the brain cannot be contained in the “non-geometrical character of mind,” because of its capacity for doubts, hopes and curiosity.

She continued, “Cavendish argues that while humans have interesting stories of human knowledge and capabilities . . . humans are not the culmination of all animal excellence. Just as a sphere has properties peculiar to it and unlike those of a tetrahedron, so particular combinations of such forms would result in distinctive modes of intelligence. This is the genius behind Cavendish’s insistence, not only on animal intelligence, but on modes of intelligence in many cases surpassing that of humans.”

The philosopher Lucretius asserted that animals could think and feel, a sentiment that Siegfried sees manifested many times in Poems and Fancies, but most strikingly in the poem, “The hunting of the Stag.” She said, “Poems and Fancies takes up the question of justice implicit in that proposition, and argues vigorously on behalf of including animals in our considerations of the moral universe.”

Siegfried concluded, “For Cavendish, when looking at other creatures of the natural world of which she herself was a part, the question was never ‘what is that?’ but ‘who is that?’”

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

Sylvia Cutler covers events for the English Department and the women’s studies program for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a double major in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.

Image 1: Portrait of Margaret Cavendish, lady Newcastle, from the frontispiece to her ‘Poems and Fancies’, 1653. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.