It has already been noted that Margaret Cavendish was critical of Descartes's description of the mind as housed in a central gland, like a spider in a web. In fact, much of her criticism of Descartes called attention to the inadequacy of the many analogies which motivate his philosophy.
Many of the analogies come under the heading of what Descartes called "suppositions" or "hypotheses," which are used in scientific explanation when first causes cannot be discovered. Recall the account of fluid bodies, which were said to be composed of thin particles like "slippery little eels" which would not entangle themselves with one another. Cavandish typically took the suppositions further and showed how they go wrong in situations other than the intended ones. For example, how can water freeze if its particles are "long and entangled like a knot of eels?" (Philosophical Letters, XXXVIII). In general, Cavandish rejected corpuscular explanations of physical phenomena, opting for qualitative descriptions. "I observe the nature of water to be flowing, dilating, dividable and circular; for we may see, in tides, overflowings, and breaking into parts, as in rain, it will always move in a round and circular figure."
In the last of her Philosophical Letters, Cavendish summarized her principal charges against Descartes: "I am for self-moving matter, which I call sensitive and rational matter, and the perceptive and architectonical part of nature, which is the life and knowledge of nature" (XLII). She was what we now call a "naturalist," who views human beings and their lives to be nothing apart from nature, only a more sophisticated product thereof. Cavendish criticized the human conceit of philosophers like Descartes who declare that they exist separately from their bodies, and that other animals are mere robots. "Wherefore though other creatures have not the speech, nor mathematical rules and demonstrations, with other arts and sciences, as men; yet may have as much intelligence and commerce betwixt each other, after their own manner and way, as men have after theirs: To which I leave them, and man to his conceited preogative and excellence" (XXXVI).
As has been discussed, Descartes himself had suggested a more intimate connection between the mind and body than that of a spider sitting in its web. The mind is said to be "intermingled" with the body, though this poses a difficult problem because it apparently requires that the mind be extended. Cavendish's account of the mind makes it intermingled by nature, not by an accidental union. Distributed with the inanimate matter of the body is animate (self-moving) matter as well as sensitive matter. Thus it is the eye which sees objects, the hand which feels them. "I believe that the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and all the body, have knowledge as well as the mind." So there is a "double knowledge," with rational knowledge being had by rational matter, which is "subtle and pure."
But how is sensitive knowledge obtained by parts of the body? Here Cavendish resorted to a metaphor of her own: the bodily parts "pattern out" an image of the perceived object. She held the general view against Descartes that motion cannot be communicated from one body to another, so she used the "patterning out" metaphor to describe how through a "self-motion" parts of the body can take on the form of other bodies. "All perception is made by corporeal, figuring self-motions, and . . . the perception of foreign motions is made by pattering them out: as for example, the sensitive perception of foreign objects is by making or taking copies from these objects, so as the sensitive corporeal motions in the eyes copy out the objects of sight. . . . " (XLII).
Odd as Cavendish's description of perception sounds, it is at least an advance over the medieval theory, according to which a sensible "species" is thrown off by the preceived body and received by the mind. It also avoids Descartes's problem of the dissimilarity of ideas from their objects. Sensible knowledge, if not rational, does resemble the objects it patterns out.
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