Cavendish and the divine, supernatural, immaterial soul

[Crossposted from]

Despite her materialism about nature, and her related view that the human mind is corporeal, Margaret Cavendish thought that human beings also have a divine and supernatural soul, which is not corporeal. There are plenty of questions one might ask about this, but for now I just want to ask when she thought this, and whether and why she changed her mind about the issue.

The view that there is such a soul is most prominent in two works of the 1660s in which Cavendish engages with the work of other philosophers, the Philosophical Letters (1664) and the Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666). The first engages with the work of Descartes, Hobbes, More, J.B. van Helmont, and others. The Observations engages with, among others, experimental philosophers such as Hooke and Power.

In the Letters we learn that the natural mind is material: “For the Natural Mind is not less material then the body, onely the Matter of the Mind is much purer and subtiller then the Matter of the Body. And thus there is nothing in Nature but what is material” (PL 2.6, 149). However, there is also another human soul: a “Divine Soul, which is not subject to natural imperfections, and corporeal errors, being not made by Nature, but a supernatural and divine gift of the Omnipotent God, who surely will not give any thing that is not perfect” (PL 2.26, 209-10). Similarly in the Observations: “The spiritual or divine soul in man is not natural, but supernatural, and has also a supernatural way of residing in man’s body; for place belongs only to bodies, and a spirit being bodiless, has no need of a bodily place (p. 79).

There are, as I said, plenty of questions about this. But for now I just want to notice that Cavendish seems not to always to have said this. To see this, one can look at another group of her works, a series of four books — or, we might say, four versions of the same book — in which she sets out her own views in natural philosophy.

In the first of these, the Philosophical Fancies (1653), there seems to be no mention of a divine or supernatural soul. The mind, as it is discussed there, is material. Thus:

But thou hast made such Creatures, as Man-kind,
And giv’st them something, which we call a Minde;
Alwaies in Motion, never quiet lyes,
Untill the Figure of his body dies (p. 93).

The same view (indeed the same passage) appears in the first edition of the Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655). Cavendish does distinguish in that book between what philosophers do and what divines do: “a profest scholer in theologie, is not a profest Philosopher; for Divines leave nature on the left hand, and walk on the right to things supernatural” (To the reader). But there seems to be no suggestion that there is a separate soul that theology tells us about, distinct from the one investigated by natural philosophy.

The same seems to be true of the main text of the second edition of the Opinions (1663). However, in ‘An epistle to the reader’ of that book Cavendish explicitly mentions the divine soul, only to say she won’t talk about it: “I meddle not with the Particular Divine Souls of Men”. So by 1663 she seems to have been acknowledging that there was such a thing, which she would then talk about a little more in the Letters and Observations.

One might expect then, that Cavendish would at least acknowledge the divine soul in the last work in this series, the Grounds of Natural Philosophy (1668). However, she appears not to do so. Indeed, as Eileen O’Neill notes in her edition of the Observations, it appears that Cavendish argues against this view in the Grounds:

sometimes Cavendish argues … that no incorporeal entity – other than God himself – can exist: “An immaterial cannot, in my opinion, be naturally created; nor can I conceive how an immaterial can produce particular immaterial souls, spirits, and the like. Wherefore, an immaterial, in my opinion, must be some uncreated being; which can be no other than God alone. Wherefore, created spirits, and spiritual souls, are some other thing than immaterial …” (Grounds, p. 239.) (O’Neill, p. 287).

Did Cavendish give up the view that humans have a supernatural soul as well as a natural one 1666 and 1668? The above makes it look likely. But perhaps there is some other way to understand how the various passages fit together. It is notable that Cavendish’s discussion of the supernatural soul overwhelmingly occurs in works that are structured round criticizing others, rather than works structured round expounding her own system. The only place is occurs in those latter works is, I believe, in the prefatory material to the 1663 Opinions. There are some reasons for this that don’t point to any changes of view: those works are about natural philosophy, whereas the supernatural soul is explicitly said not to be a part of nature; and Cavendish’s criticism of other philosophers for confusing the natural and supernatural souls naturally leads to saying something about the latter. Still, neither of these explains why someone who believed in a divine immaterial should would say that God is the only immaterial being, unless they had changed their mind.