Sunday, June 1, 2014

but she did not settle for the method

Can't say she's neutral about it though, Margaret Cavendish, can't say she thinks multiplicity is positive per se, but it needs to be contained a bit featly, “you have enclosed it with elegancy and eloquence” – she is against argumentative multiplicity – the Bear-men in her Blazing World arguing over the actions of the stars until the Empress tells them that they would be better off smashing their telescopes than bickering over their opinions.

[T]hey had seen three Blazing-Stars appear there, one after another in a short time, whereof two were bright, and one dim; but they could not agree neither in this observation: for some said, It was but one Star which appeared at three several times, in several places; and others would have them to be three several Stars; for they thought it impossible, that those three several appearances should have been but one Star, because every Star did rise at a certain time, and appear'd in a certain place, and did disappear in the same place: Next, It is altogether improbable, said they, That one Star should fly from place to place, especially at such a vast distance, without a visible motion; in so short a time, and appear in such different places, whereof two were quite opposite, and the third side-ways: Lastly, If it had been but one Star, said they, it would always have kept the same splendor, which it did not; for, as above mentioned, two were bright, and one was dim.

They beg her to let them keep their telescopes even though those telescopes are “meer deluders” “for, were there nothing but truth, and no falshood, there would be no occasion to dispute,” and they love that fruitless separation play. Without their telescopes “we should want the aim and pleasure of our endeavors in confuting and contradicting each other; neither would one man be thought wiser then another, but all would either be alike knowing and wise, or all would be fools; wherefore we most humbly beseech your Imperial Majesty to spare our Glasses, which are our onely delight, and as dear to us as our lives.”

Now she detects a negative variety, says William White of Stanford, variety is the slave of muddle: '“Cavendish showed with this example that, although the telescope may have revealed new objects in the night sky, the interpretation of these observations was never completely inherent or self evident.” (Science, Factions, and the Persistent Specter of War: Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World.)

Trust, as White does, that the scientific and philosophical societies that the Empress reviews in the Blazing World are Margaret Cavendish's commentaries on the Royal Society in the living world, and that the eyes of the “grey Drone-flye” that the Bear-men show her through their microscopes are the same ones that appear in the illustrated Micrographia of Robert Hooke (1665), then the criticism of the Bear-men's addiction to their instruments is her criticism of everyone who was in the room when she encountered Evelyn and Pepys. “The Empress at last consented to their request, but upon condition, that their disputes and quarrels should remain within their Schools, and cause no factions or disturbances in State, or Government.“ Remember, writes White, she had gone through the English Civil War and the Restoration, and was a Monarchist. Her husband's estates had been taken. She met him while they were both in exile. The Puritans executed her brother.

She valued science for social utility and feared that unchecked discourse could have led to social divisions and chaos, but she did not settle for the method of the Royal Society. Instead, Cavendish promoted a method fueled by human reason, deductive reasoning, and use of the unaided senses to study the external world.

Now her disregard of Glanville's advice can be considered from a new direction, looking less wilful, more thoughtful, the author having already, let's say, examined the evidence and concluded that the methods of official science would not give her the results she wanted. Instead they would ask her to depend on “meer deluders.” No, she won't.


  1. This is a funny take on science, where she shows that the telescopes can actually help gather information about the world, but she doesn't want that information to be available; her own limits should be what limits empiricism (White's " human reason, deductive reasoning, and use of the unaided senses" could be another way of saying "Cavendish's personal prejudices"). How very 21st century, now that I think of it. "the results she wanted."

    I like that claim about knowledge being a tool to puff up the pride of the knowledgeable man. I am surrounded by researchers and I see the juvenile one-upsmanship of discovery all the time.

    This series on Cavendish has been interesting. It's nice to see old Pepys get work.

    1. Katie Whitaker's Cavendish biography (which I finished last night) directly attributes the Bear-men to the existence of public scientists such as Hooke, who "claimed that experiments were the only true foundation for a philosophy of nature, that the society's experimental results were certain, incontrovertible truth, and that their discoveries would bring practical benefits [...] restoring mankind to its pristine knowledge and happiness before the Fall." Cavendish was a sceptic, she didn't have that kind of faith, and she knew, too, because she'd used them, that telescopes and microscopes really did fool you with mythical stars and moving objects because the lenses were hand-ground, and sometimes scratched, and sometimes uneven, and anyone who said that they were going to get perfect results was genuinely talking hubris. Whitaker was useful.

      Pepys pursued her around London for seven weeks, trying to see something more than just her hat. People had told him she was a fascinating eccentric.

  2. That is useful. I've read a couple of books about Bacon and the Royal Society and they all focus on the idea of the Method, the way of looking at data, you know, but this is the first time I've come across someone who talks about the weaknesses of their tools and how foolish it was to trust them. That's a new idea for me because when I was thinking about the history of the telescope (research for my own book), I was aware that of course the early astronomers would only be able to see a little bit more of what's out there than with the naked eye; it never occurred to me that they'd also--because of flaws in the lenses--be seeing things that weren't really there at all. Which completely changes what I thought Cavendish was getting at.

    The dove's eye is still weird, though.

    1. Was Hooke as dogmatic as Whitaker makes him sound? She's on Cavendish's side all the way through this biography, so I wonder.

      Her description of the problems with microscopes (now that I'm rereading this paragraph I realise it was microscopes, not telescopes) goes like this: "As the magnification of a lens became greater, so did the distortion; minute flaws in the glass produced more distortions or multiple images of a single object. How was it possible to know whether what you saw through the microscope was a true representation when even Hooke himself admitted that, with the light coming from different angles, the same object appeared to have very different shapes?"

    2. What I recall is how Hooke admitted that Leeuwenhoek's microscope produced a clearer and more accurate image, but he preferred his own design. Pepys loved Hooke's book; I remember that. I also remember that Hooke and Newton were bitter enemies, but most of what I read about the Royal Society was hagiographic: all the miracles and none of the character flaws.

    3. The way Whitaker describes it, it seems that the Royal Society's two main character flaws, in the eyes of the body of writers who criticised it (she names a few of them), were, a) the resemblance between its scientific Utopianism and the Puritan Utopianism of the Interregnum, and b) "that the society's lengthy researches produced no useful result, either in philosophical understanding or in practical applications."