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Margaret Cavendish and the Epistemology of Imperfect Instruments



Margaret Cavendish is skeptical of the bold assertion that there is scientific relevance in an imperceptible world that is not directly visible to the naked eye. Though the empirical evidence of modern science has sided with Robert Hooke, the epistemic thrust of her criticisms remains unresolved — when do instruments augment, rather than distort, the senses? How can claims about the unobservable be verified when verification relies on ‘unnatural’ devices, which, themselves, are potentially deceiving? And finally, more broadly, what knowledge is relevant and worthwhile to acquire?

Cavendish opens by grounding her argument in an appeal to expertise. She discusses the observations of artists — craftsmen who are employed for their ability to accurately depict reality — who “confess” the multitude of conflicting perspectives produced by factors such as lighting and positioning.[1] She suggests that as vision is a fallible sense, thus things may appear to contradict their true essence. So, if perception cannot be used to discriminate between truth and fiction, how can the actual form of objects be determined? Cavendish proceeds with a discussion of the utility of objects. She argues that because both knives and pins fulfill their function, their form must enable that function. The true shape of an object is revealed in its interactions with the world. A knife cuts because it holds an edge, just as a pin penetrates paper due to the sharpness of its point. For Cavendish, observations to the contrary provide a condemnation of tools rather than a refutation of her argument. She believes that the ‘imperfections’ made visible via instrumentation are introduced by the instruments themselves.

Cavendish is unconvinced by the tools that are supposed to augment the senses. She sees a “hermaphroditical” property of observations made via artificial means — the purity of nature perverted.[2] She poses the thought experiment of a woman drawn to the proportions as seen from a microscope. The image of a woman is seen through a “glass” and is distorted by “various refraction and reflexion,” resulting in a “monstrous” and false perception of the woman’s form. Here, observation mediated by an unnatural property, is deceiving.[3] This phenomenon leads Cavendish to believe that artificial aids cannot be used to understand nature. Only conclusions derived through the synthesis of un-aided observation and rational contemplation are credible. Though that transition to a more experimental science may seem inevitable in retrospect, during its nascent stages, it was similarly predicated upon belief — if not in God or scripture, than in the devices that acted as portals to worlds beyond the senses.

Cavendish is a peculiar scientific figure for her time, in that she was a woman. Her husband, the Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was a member of the Royal Society.[4] He was supportive of her work and his position afforded her certain privileges, such as becoming the only woman to attend one of their meetings.[5] Despite the gendered nature of science in England at the time and her perceived eccentricity for engaging in such a male-dominated activity, Cavendish did not shy away from intellectual confrontation. She clashed directly with members of the Royal Society, notably Robert Hooke. While not referenced by name in this passage, Hooke and his promotion of the microscope as a relevant scientific tool are the principle foils for Cavendish’s Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy. The examples she uses, such as the fly’s eyes, the point of a pin and a knife’s edge, are all directly pulled from Hooke’s work. And when she continues, discussing the “unprofitable” science done with microscopes, it is a clear jab at Hooke as he works on the dime of patrons of the Royal Society.[6] Embedded in her criticism of Hooke is the sincere belief that “better arts and studies” were being spurned for fanciful distractions.[7] With the experimental philosophy promoted by Hooke and enabled, in part, by the use of microscopes, Cavendish believed that too much emphasis was placed on seeing “exterior” phenomena rather than on understanding the manner by which things actually function.[8]

So what are the criteria that Cavendish uses to determine what makes knowledge worth acquiring? In the paragraph that follows the selected quotation, Cavendish enumerates the ways in which a science could be considered useful: from improving agriculture to increasing commerce, any tangible benefit to society is enough. Yet, from her perspective, no actionable information can be acquired by a microscope. For example, seeing what a louse looks like doesn’t help the beggar rid himself of lice.[9] Thus, the knowledge is useless. This helps contextualize her closing characterization of the sights seen by microscopes as merely “superficial wonders.”[10] Whether or not instruments do, in fact, allow the natural world to be perceived in a news ways — Cavendish clearly believed the latter — was irrelevant, as even if the images seen through a microscope were accurate, Cavendish did not think that they contributed to a productive society.

Cavendish’s critique of experimental philosophy demonstrates the type of epistemic tension that occurs when an old paradigm confronts a novel one. What instrumentation is credible? What types of knowledge are worth knowing? These questions are important. And even, while Cavendish’s skepticism has proven unfounded, her arguments, for the time, were nuanced and provocative.


[1] Margaret Cavendish, Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy (Cambridge: HS100 Editions, 2017), p. 5.

[2] Ibid., p. 4.

[3] Ibid., p. 5.

[4] Alex Csiszar, HS100 Lecture 7 (Sept. 21, 2015), Slide 13

[5] Ibid.

[6] Margaret Cavendish, Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy,  p.4

[7] Ibid., p. 5.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 6.

[10] Ibid., p. 5.

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