What does Cavendish’s supernatural soul do?

[Cross-posted from http://philosophymodsquad.wordpress.com/2013/07/16/supernatural-soul-2/.]

One of Margaret Cavendish’s longer discussions of the supernatural soul comes towards the end of part 2 of the Philosophical Letters [PL], where she discusses the work of Henry More. Unlike More, who believes in natural, extended, incorporeal spirits, we ought — Cavendish thinks — to distinguish between natural and supernatural souls. Natural souls are indeed extended, but are corporeal. Supernatural souls are something else entirely. But what are they? At times, Cavendish appears inclined to say that we simply cannot say what the supernatural soul is, only that it is. Thus PL 2.29 begins “Touching the State or Condition of the Supernatural and Divine Soul, both in, and after this life, I must crave your excuse that I can give no account of it”. And the remainder of that letter is partly occupied with listing topics that we should not meddle with, some of which are “Poetical Fancy”. Elsewhere she offers reasons why we cannot, at least naturally, know anything about this soul. But Cavendish is nevertheless sometimes more forthcoming about what the supernatural soul is like.

Some seemingly relevant passages — the passages featuring immaterial spirits in the Blazing World — contain her own fancies. These passages are certainly related to philosophical discussion, but we cannot simply read statements about Cavendish’s views about immaterial beings out of that fictional work. They would contradict things she clearly states elsewhere, in her more directly philosophical writings. For example, the immaterial spirits in the Blazing World talk about the “corporeal vehicles” that they require, but in PL 2.29 Cavendish lists the vehicles of souls as among the things to be taken “rather for Poetical Fictions, then Rational Probabilities; containing more Fancy, then Truth and Reason, whether they concern the divine or natural Soul”.

Leaving the fiction and fancy aside, however, Cavendish did venture some claims about what the supernatural soul is like.

In PL 2.31 we find a discussion of how supernatural beings may relate to natural ones. Cavendish opposes the view that “that created Immaterial or Incorporeal beings should order Corporeal Nature”. This fits with her opposition to More’s spirit of nature as an explanation of the natural world’s regular behavior, but also is in opposition to the idea that human bodies are controlled by incorporeal human minds. Nevertheless, Cavendish holds that incorporeal things “may really exist and subsist in Nature; onely, as I said before, it is well to be considered, that there is difference betwixt being in Nature, and being a part of Nature”. Only corporeal things can be parts of nature, which is wholly corporeal. Nevertheless, incorporeal things can apparently somehow be “in” nature. But this being in must be quite different from the usual way in which a material thing is part of a larger material thing. But how can that be? Is a supernatural soul in nature not inevitably going to be a corporeal part of a corporeal world?

Cavendish foresees the objection:

But you will say, The divine Soul is a part of Man, and Man a part of Nature, wherefore the divine Soul must needs be a part of Nature. I answer, Not: For the divine Soul is not a part of Nature, but supernatural, as a supernatural Gift from God onely to Man, and to no other Creature: and although in this respect it may be called a part of Man, yet it is no natural or material part of Man; neither doth this supernatural Gift disturb Nature or natural Matter, or natural Matter this supernatural Gift (PL 2.31).

This is not really a detailed answer. But perhaps we should take the idea of supernatural souls being ‘in’ nature as simply a way of talking about the claim that individual supernatural souls have some special relation to parts of the natural world (namely human bodies). This would also seem to fit well with Cavendish’s idea that supernatural souls can have no motion, which they would seem to have if they were in the natural world in a strong sense. (“I am not able to comprehend how motion can be attributed to a spirit; I mean, natural motion, which is only a propriety of a body, or of a corporeal being” (OEP, p.112).)

One thing we do get, above and elsewhere, is some sense of the ways in which the two souls relate to each other: “they cause no ruine or disturbance to each other, but do in many cases agree with each other, without incroachment upon each others powers or actions” (PL 2.31, 225). The two souls each do their own thing, not interfering with one another. But what is the role of each one?

On the material side, Cavendish has a fair amount to say, e.g.: “there is sensitive and rational matter, which makes not onely the Brain, but all Thoughts, Conceptions, Imaginations, Fancy, Understanding, Memory, Remembrance, and whatsoever motions are in the Head, or Brain” (PL 2.18, 185). What then is the role of the supernatural soul? It does not — unlike, say, the Cartesian incorporeal soul — do the work of thinking. So what does it do?

It might be tempting to say that this soul’s really important role emerges after the death of the body — that this is the thing that creates the possibility of life after death. But to talk of that would bring us close to discussing “of the Souls after the departure from humane Bodies”, one of the discussions of philosophers that Cavendish takes “rather for Poetical Fictions, then Rational Probabilities” (PL 2.29). Much as Cavendish does seem, at least in PL and OEP, to want to secure belief in a supernatural soul, it does seem rather close to being an unknown thing that fills an unknown role.


Philosophical Letters [PL]. London 1664. Available on EEBO.

The Blazing World and other writings. Edited by Kate Lilley. London: Penguin, 1994.

Observations upon Experimental Philosophy [OEP]. Edited by Eileen O’Neill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.