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A figurative matter : continuities between Margaret Cavendish's theory of discourse and her natural philosophy Robinson, Leni Katherine


This dissertation explicates the natural philosophy of Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, and develops some source arguments. It concludes that Cavendish’s theory of discourse (which includes music, art, action, speech and reason) is central to her natural philosophy, that discourse as she theorizes it constitutes her natural world. Mathematics and speculative music influence Cavendish’s adoption of animist materialism. The musical genre of playing divisions intersects with her vocabulary for natural processes, her aesthetic descriptions of Nature, and her theory of time. Declamatory song informs the presence of expressiveness and prosody within Nature and the mind. It also provides a model for natural sympathy. Discursive arts surface in Cavendish’s doctrines of “figure” as shape. Figure defines and determines the nature of objects, and physical change is meaningful change of gesture and posture. The matter of the mind and the cosmos is written in a way that enables memory and the conservation of figure. Metaphors from needlework and textiles emphasize aesthetic expression and the significance of lines and surfaces in Nature. Discursive action appears primarily through dance metaphors. The noble style of dance gives Cavendish the category of “figure” in the sense of dance steps performed along a geometrical trajectory. Dance metaphor is gradually naturalized into the language of her mature philosophy. It informs Cavendish’s discussions of causation and free will. Speech production and hearing provide access to Cavendish’s tenets concerning perception. The evolution of her doctrine of visual perception through a trade-based model, to an impact-based one, and finally to a model of “patterning out” represents a change of emphasis in a single model which connects perception to the use of the camera obscura by a painter. Finally, mental discourse underlies divine, poetic and natural forms of creation. Sexual generation connects to literary translation, while spontaneous generation parallels poetic creation. Most forms of creation or production involve a tension between unified rational purpose and conversational collaboration. This tension stems from the details of Cavendish’s panpsychism, according to which rational matter never fully coalesces, even in sites of complex higher consciousness. Cavendish’s use of architectural metaphor highlights this tension.

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