There are some people who just don’t care about what other people think. Seventeenth-century English feminist Mary Astell (1666-1731) was one such person. When unwanted visitors came knocking at her door, she would hang her head out the window and bluntly inform them she was “not at home”. When a colleague gave her his unpublished manuscript, she blithely sent it back with “offensive and shocking” criticisms in the margins. Another colleague lamented that Astell was unnecessarily harsh upon the male sex, and it’s certainly true that her feminist works made liberal use of the B-words and C-words to refer to men – as “blockheads” and “coxcombs”, that is. In short, Astell was difficult, she was prickly, and she had the intellectual personality of a truck. In her political writings, in particular, she would brutally run down the views of her adversaries and then gleefully reverse back over them, just to make sure they were dead and crushed.
The great thing about “people who don’t care” is that they often say things other people wouldn’t dare even whisper. Like psychopaths in the aftermath of disasters, their emotional detachment can be handy and useful – in a practical, albeit alarming and scary, sort of way. Throughout the history of philosophy, it’s often been the deviants who have dared to be different, or to think outside of society’s norms, who have taken the next logical step forward or who have broken free of “custom’s enchanted circle”, as Astell would say. With her own writings, she had this enchantment-breaking effect. In her lifetime, she was praised and admired for her efforts to awaken women out of their dull and unthinking way of living. The influence of her ideas can be felt well into the eighteenth century and even up to the heyday of the suffragettes in late nineteenth-century England. Today she is best remembered as one of the earliest English feminists. She was also a philosopher.
Far from being an unfeeling psychopath, all the evidence suggests that Astell cared very deeply about her fellow human beings – or, at least, about her fellow women beings. Her first book, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694), was an ardent plea for the higher education of women and it was signed “By a Lover of her Sex” (and no, that doesn’t mean what you think). She was firmly convinced that women’s intellectual deficiencies might be corrected through study and training. To support her arguments, she drew on some of the most popular philosophical ideas of her time, such as those of French thinker René Descartes.
Like a good Cartesian, Astell urged her fellow women to cultivate a deep and abiding mistrust of internalized prejudices and preconceptions. She encouraged her readers not to assent to customary sense-based beliefs, but rather to affirm only those ideas that carried “clear and uncontested Evidence.” One of the first prejudices she sought to undermine was the belief that women were naturally intellectually inferior to men. This prejudice was held not only by misogynists of her time – men like Alexis Trousset who lovingly referred to the female sex as “the scum of nature,” “the laughing stock of the insane,” and “the cesspool of filth” – but also by quite reasonable and enlightened men who nevertheless thought that women were mentally incompetent compared to men.
Against such views, Astell might have pointed to empirical evidence or historical examples of exceptional women. But she had a more effective strategy up her lace-frilled sleeve: her own inward consciousness of thought. To her critics, she responded: “that we all think, needs no proof” and that “all may Think, may use their own Faculties rightly.” While these insights are not strictly equivalent to the Cartesian cogito (Descartes’ famous assertion that “I think therefore I am”), they do rely on a similar logic. The proposition “I think” need not be true in every possible world, but when a woman conceives this thought or entertains it in her mind, then it is true that she thinks; it cannot be denied.
Such introspection provided a crucial starting point for Astell’s feminist philosophy. To establish that women were naturally mentally competent, she simply urged them to look within themselves and familiarize themselves with their own “natural logic”. If they were unable to discern this capacity, then—sadly, regrettably—they would have to be ranked among “the Fools and Idiots” or perhaps even with the mindless animals. But before women succumbed to this view, Astell encouraged them to think again: could they reason about the management of a household, the intricacies of a romance, or the design of a dress? If they could, then this provided self-verifying evidence of their ability to reason. If they looked carefully enough, she assured her readers, they would see that truth and knowledge could be found inside their own heads.
Of course, Astell allowed that early modern women were particularly prone to making poor judgments. With only a rudimentary education and few opportunities for self-improvement, a woman’s path to knowledge was dark and full of errors. Some of Astell’s criticisms of the female sex are reminiscent of those of her misogynist contemporaries. Women suffered from a “woeful incogitancy”, she said, they had a “slavish temper of mind”, and they rarely achieved anything but a superficial understanding of intellectual subjects. But unlike the trolls of her day, Astell emphasized that the failings of her sex were due to its upbringing and education—the defects were acquired rather than natural.
In her opinion, women could correct their faults by using their own natural logic and following the classic Cartesian rules for thinking. These rules, based on those of Descartes’ Discourse on the Method, and the Port Royal Logic of his followers Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, consisted in the following pieces of advice. First, according to Astell, women must define the key terms of their inquiries as clearly as possible; next, they must avoid digressing into irrelevant topics or unnecessary debates; they must conduct their thoughts in a natural, easy order, and progress from the simplest ideas toward the more complex and sophisticated. They must be careful to complete their inquiries and not leave any part of the subject matter under-examined or under-explored. Then, finally, they must not judge beyond their perceptions or “take any thing for Truth which we do not evidently know to be so”.
Of course, today we might doubt the effectiveness of such recommendations. We might sympathize with Leibniz’s dismissive response to the Cartesian rules: that “like the precepts of some chemist”, they simply tell us to “take what you need and do what you should, and you will get what you want.” It’s difficult to see how such vacuous guidelines could have been practically helpful for those members of society who were barred from the universities and shut out of learned societies.
Nevertheless, the beauty of Astell’s approach is that it placed the onus of proof on her critics. She herself knew without a doubt that she had it in her power to search for the truth, the same as any man. If she had cared about the opinions of men, she would have urged them to prove her wrong. But, alas, she didn’t really care about the opinions of men.