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Astell, Mary (1666–1731)

from ENTRIES

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2016

Alice Sowaal
Affiliation:
San Francisco State University
Lawrence Nolan
Affiliation:
California State University, Long Beach
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Summary

Born in Newcastle, England, Astell wrote four philosophical texts and several pamphlets to develop a systematic metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political theory, and theology in order to address the condition of women. In doing so, she appropriates and develops Descartes’ ideas, which reveal the positive role his views play in the history of feminism (Atherton 1993). For example, she extends the Cartesian method such that all women and laboring men (who, unlike learned men, lack teachers and the experience of travel) can question custom and thus can prepare to engage in the skeptical concerns of the First Meditation and, ultimately, remedy the passions by acquiring generosity (see virtue) (Sowaal 2007).

God plays a central role in Astell's metaphysics, and she presents ontological and cosmological arguments for the existence of God. Unlike Descartes, however, she holds that God exercises his will in accordance with the nature and truth of things, and so is an “intellectualist,” not a “voluntarist” (see eternal truth) (Broad 2002, 103). Her dualism involves the claim that mind and body are really distinct; she argues against Locke's treatment of thinking matter (Squadrito 1997, Taylor 2001).

Astell holds Cartesian views on reason (Atherton 1993) and employs his notion of clear and distinct perception, as well as his view that the idea of God serves as the basis for other ideas. However, she holds we cannot have distinct perceptions of God, our own souls, or bodies because the required intellectual exclusion is possible (Serious Proposal, 173) (see abstraction versus exclusion). Thus she is aligned with Nicolas Malebranche and John Norris (whose views of occasionalism and “seeing all things in God” she employs and critiques to various extents) (see cause). On Astell's occasionalism, see Wilson 2004, Taylor and New 2005, and O'Neill 2007.

Highly critical of the custom of marriage, Astell holds that many married women have become “slaves” to men and that there is a state of nature in the domestic sphere that has not been explored by the social contract theories of Hobbes and Locke. However, she does not advocate for divorce. Rather, she maintains that women should be better educated to fully understand vows before they make them and that society should offer an alternative to marriage (Weiss 2004).

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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References

Astell, Mary. 2002 (1694, 1697). A Serious Proposal to the Ladies. Parts I and II, ed. Springborg, P.. Ontario: Broadview Literary Texts.Google Scholar
Astell, Mary. 1996 (1700, 1704). Astell: Political Writings, ed. Springborg, P.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Astell, Mary. 1705. The Christian Religion, as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England. In a Letter to the Right Honourable, T.L. C.I. London: R. Wilkin.Google Scholar
Astell, Mary, and Norris, John. 2005 (1695). Letters concerning the Love of God, ed. Taylor, E. D. and New, M.. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.Google Scholar
Atherton, Margaret. 1993. “Cartesian Reason and Gendered Reason,” in A Mind of One's Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity, ed. Antony, L. M. and Witt, C.. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 19–34.Google Scholar
Broad, Jacqueline. 2002. Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Perry, Ruth. 1986. The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
O'Neill, Eileen. 2007. “Mary Astell on the Causation of Sensation,” in Mary Astell: Reason, Gender, Faith, ed. Kolbrener, W. and Michelson, M.. Aldershot: Ashgate, 145–64.Google Scholar
Sowaal, Alice. 2007. “Mary Astell's Serious Proposal: Mind, Method, and Custom,” Philosophy Compass 2: 227–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Springborg, Patricia. 2005. Mary Astell: Theorist of Freedom from Domination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Squadrito, Kathleen M. 1987. “Mary Astell's Critique of Locke's View of Thinking Matter,” Journal of History of Philosophy 25: 433–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Taylor, E. Derek. 2001. “Mary Astell's Ironic Assault on John Locke's Theory of Thinking Matter,” Journal of the History of Ideas 62: 505–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Taylor, E. Derek, and New, Melvyn. 2005. “Introduction, Mary Astell and John Norris: A Correspondence,” in Mary Astell And John Norris: Letters concerning the Love Of God, ed. Taylor, E. Derek and New, Melvyn. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1–41.Google Scholar
Thickstun, Margaret O. 1992. “‘This was a Woman that taught’: Feminist Scriptural Exegesis in the Seventeenth Century,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 21: 149–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Weiss, Penny A. 2004. “Mary Astell: Including Women's Voices in Political Theory,” Hypatia 19: 63–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wilson, Catherine. 2004. “Love of God and Love of Creatures: The Masham-Astell Debate,” History of Philosophy Quarterly 21: 281–98.Google Scholar

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  • Astell, Mary (1666–1731)
  • Edited by Lawrence Nolan, California State University, Long Beach
  • Book: The Cambridge Descartes Lexicon
  • Online publication: 05 January 2016
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511894695.014
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  • Astell, Mary (1666–1731)
  • Edited by Lawrence Nolan, California State University, Long Beach
  • Book: The Cambridge Descartes Lexicon
  • Online publication: 05 January 2016
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511894695.014
Available formats
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Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

  • Astell, Mary (1666–1731)
  • Edited by Lawrence Nolan, California State University, Long Beach
  • Book: The Cambridge Descartes Lexicon
  • Online publication: 05 January 2016
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511894695.014
Available formats
×