Cavendish’s Triumvirate and the Writing Process

I’m working through Margaret Cavendish’s Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666) at the moment. It’s not the first time (in fact, I taught a course on it after Christmas), but her writing is dense and is neither as systematic as someone like Descartes nor as succinct as someone like Berkeley. But the pay-off is a philosophy rich full of insights that genuinely does seem to be, if not ahead of its time (I don’t want to be accused of anachronism), then idiosyncratic to its immediate historical context in some striking ways. For example, I’m reading Cavendish alongside Keith Allen’s A Naïve Realist Theory of Colour (OUP, 2016), and there are clear signs that she had thought deeply about phenomena such as colour constancy (whereby we take objects to have remained the same colour even though a different coloured light is shining on them) and metamerism (objects with different microphysical qualities that appear to be the same colour) that are central to contemporary perception debates (Colin Chamberlain has written a great article on Cavendish’s atypical philosophy of colour). As far as I am aware, these aren’t issues that her contemporaries (Hobbes, Descartes, Berkeley, et al) were much preoccupied with. And while reading and working through Cavendish’s philosophy is a bit like trying to untangle a charger cable that’s been kept in a box in a drawer too long – each time you think you’ve untangled all the knots another one appears – it tends to be rewarding, even if it is near impossible to pin down exactly what she thinks about any given issue ‘X’.

Perhaps because of the inevitable struggle that comes with defending an interpretation of Cavendish’s philosophy, I’m also thinking a lot about the trials and tribulations of the writing process (it may also be because I have literally nothing else to do). For a long time, I’ve thought that one of the best pieces of writing advice came from Daniel Dennett who, in various platforms (including a keynote he gave here in Dublin last September) has encouraged writers to ‘blurt something out, and then you have something to work with’. I’ve regurgitated this advice to students several times, and it chimes well with me because I find it much easier to shape and mould a pre-existing block of text, than to face the task of squeezing something out of the ether (or my brain – wherever it comes from) and onto the page. Like Leibniz, I prefer a block to chip away from than a Lockean blank page. With that in mind, I’ve started to wonder whether a particular aspect of Cavendish’s metaphysics might provide us with a nice model for the writing process.

Perhaps one of the most interesting, and remarkable, aspects of Cavendish’s system of nature is her claim that all parts of nature contain what she calls a “triumvirate” of matter (note: Cavendish is a materialist, even the mind is composed of material substance in her system). She claims that each and every part of nature is made up of three kinds of matter: (1) rational matter, (2) sensitive matter, and (3) inanimate matter. Even if you could pick out an atomistic unit (although she rejects atomism herself), she thinks, you would find varying degrees of all three kinds of matter. Inanimate matter is matter as we would ordinarily think of it, bulky stuff that weighs the other kinds of matter down and does the important job of filling up space (a job I’ve gotten very good at myself during lockdown). Cavendish compares inanimate matter to the bricks and mortar used to build a house. Continuing this analogy, she suggests that sensitive matter plays the role of the team of builders, moving inanimate matter around and getting it to take up particular shapes and forms. The variety of ways that inanimate matter is put together, she thinks, explains the variety of things in the natural world around us. What’s more, if there were no sensitive matter to move inanimate matter around, she claims, the world would be entirely homogenous. Finally, she compares rational matter to the architect responsible for it all. For the sensitive matter wouldn’t know what to do with all the inanimate matter if it wasn’t told what to do by someone with a plan. In the section of the Observations entitled ‘An Argumental Discourse’ (one of the strangest philosophical dialogues out there, between two ‘halves’ of her own mind who are ‘at war’) she sums up the triumvirate of matter like so:

as in the exstruction of a house there is first required an architect or surveyor, who orders and designs the building, and puts the labourers to work; next the labourers or workmen themselves; and lastly the materials of which the house is built: so the rational part… in the framing of natural effects, is, as it were, the surveyor or architect; the sensitive, the labouring or working part; and the inanimate, the materials: and all these degrees are necessarily required in every composed action of nature.

Observations upon Experimental (Cambridge Texts Edition, edited by Eileen O’Neill (2001)) pp. 24

This is, then, a top-down approach to understanding both orderliness and variety of things in nature. It’s all possible, Cavendish thinks, because there’s an ‘architect’ (the rational part of a thing in nature) that devises a plan and decides what to do the with bulky mass of inanimate matter. (Another note: Cavendish is a vitalist materialist or what we might retrospectively call a panpsychist: she thinks that every part of nature, from grains of sand to plants, animals, and people, has life and knowledge of things in the world around it.)

Right, so how does all this relate to the writing process? I don’t quite know whether this is intended to be a helpful normative suggestion, or just a descriptive claim, but I suggest that Cavendish’s triumvirate might provide a model for thinking about how writing works. In this case, the role of bulky, cumbersome inanimate matter is played by the words on the page you’ve managed to ‘blurt out’, to use Dennett’s technical terminology. Or, perhaps it’s the thoughts/ ideas you’ve still got in your head. Either way, it’s a mass of sentences, propositions, textual references, and so on, that you’ve got to do something with (another tangled charger cable, if you will). What options have you got? Well, structure and presentation are important – and while these are facilitated by your word processor (for example), they constitute a kind of medium between your thought and the words on the page. So I’d suggest that presentation, structure, perhaps even the phrasing of individual sentences, is what plays the role of sensitive matter: Cavendish’s labourers or workmen.

Finally, there’s the role of rational matter: the architect or surveyor who’s plan the sensitive matter is just waiting to carry out. I actually think this may be the hardest comparison to draw. It would be easy to simply say ‘you’ are the architect of your writing, but once you’ve taken away the words/ ideas as well the as the way they are presented or structured, it’s hard to know exactly what’s doing the work or what’s left (just ask Hume). Last year, I saw Anna Burns, author of the brilliant Milkman, give a talk where she was asked about her writing process. Her answer, which in the mouth of another could have sounded pompous or pretentious, was honest and revealing: she had literally nothing to say. She couldn’t explain what the real source of her writing was and, even more remarkably, she wasn’t particularly interested. In any case, there’s something that’s grouping together, or paying selective attention to, some ideas or notions and advocating that they should become a piece of writing. Whatever that is, I suggest it plays the role of rational matter: Cavendish’s architect.

How might this be helpful to writers? I’m not sure it can in any practical way, but I find it helpful when I hit upon a nice description of something I’ve grappled with or when it seems that someone is describing my own experiences (it’s one of the reasons I like reading both philosophy and fiction). Perhaps Cavendish’s triumvirate model can be useful in this way. It may also, and I have begun to think in these terms myself, provide you with a measure of where you are in the writing process. Am I still sourcing the bricks and mortar? Are the labourers at work? Or are they waiting for instructions from the architect? Sometimes, it’s helpful to know where you are, because it lets you take stock of what there is still to do – and, in keeping with Cavendish’s analogy, who’s going to do it.

3 thoughts on “Cavendish’s Triumvirate and the Writing Process

  1. Many thanks, Peter, for a truly beautiful piece on the writing process! There are a lot of points to pick up on, but I’d simply like to ask about an assumption that I find at once striking and common. You write: “Perhaps because of the *inevitable* struggle that comes with *defending an interpretation* of Cavendish’s philosophy, I’m also thinking a lot about the trials and tribulations of the writing process …”
    What does it mean to defend an interpretation? And what is inevitable about the struggle that comes with it? – It might of course mean many things. But it seems to insinuate that such an interpretation be coherent and plausible. Now coherence, if that is one crucial criterion, can be dominated by different factors. Does it have to be coherent, first of all, with:
    – other discussions in the primary or secondary literature?
    – facts or the universe you take her to think about?
    – or with your beliefs about what’s going on?
    Obviously, all these things figure. But I mention them because they might figure *most* in the ‘architecture’ you are driven by.

    Let me explain: You begin by saying that Cavendish’s writing is not very “systematic” or “succinct”, compared to other authors. But this judgment reveals a host of crriteria or standards that determine you interpretation before you begin the blurting out. So my guess is that it might pay to ask what it is that makes you say these things about systematicity and succsinctness. Her writing? Really? Certainly your expectations. But what were they formed by?

    I have no answers to this, and I don’t think it’s easy to formulate them. But they might help with understanding the architecture.


  2. Thanks Martin! This is a really interesting point and one I think you’re right to call me out on. Here’s some thoughts in response (this got quite long!):

    (1) On the ‘inevitable struggle’ of interpreting Cavendish, I suppose I simply mean that she is not entirely consistent within her own writing and in fact explicitly undermines views she previously held. I suppose this isn’t unique amongst the Early Moderns (or indeed more recent thinkers, e.g., Wittgenstein). A particular interpretative issue with Cavendish, though, is her use of terminology. She has at least four different ways of using the term ‘perceive’ and isn’t always clear about she is using it.
    – I should add, in her defence though, that Cavendish has some interesting thoughts on her own use of language/ writing ability, which she connects to her status as a woman writer. So there’s more to me said (and more dimensions from which to think about her language-use).

    (2) On ‘defending’ an interpretation, I suppose my primary aim is to try and get into the headspace of the thinker I’m looking at. Maybe that means I’m a bit of a purist, or maybe that’s what many historians of ideas are doing (I don’t want to suggest anything I do is unique to me!). I *think* ideally the views that I attribute to (e.g.) Cavendish would actually be her views, i.e., the one’s she was trying to express in writing. (But then again I do find myself straying away from the text at times…)
    – Maybe that’s an obvious/ trivial point for someone doing the history of philosophy? Put another way, if I’m writing a paper on, say, Cavendish, then I’ll first spend a lot of time with Cavendish’s writing, and *then* delve into the secondary literature and find out where my rough views are situated.
    – One thing I am clear on though, is that my own beliefs don’t play much of a role in my historical work (I’ve never been much interested in them!)

    (3) Finally, yes, I think there are definitely some assumptions, as you say, motivating my (even somewhat casually phrased) claims. I think perhaps my expectations coming to a text are driven by what I’m spent the most time exposed to previously – which, for me, is Berkeley’s writing (the focus of my PhD). Maybe this is more generalisable to historians of ideas, in the sense that we come with expectations of what we’ll find/ hope to find based on what we found/ enjoyed finding in that which we’re previously exposed to? And, perhaps what you’re getting at, is that we should be aware of this. We’re not approaching new texts as Lockean blank slates?

    I think I probably have more thoughts on this, but I’ll not go on!

    Liked by 1 person

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