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Abstract

This paper compares two works, Christine de Pizan's L'Advision Christine (1405/6) and Margaret Cavendish's A New World called the Blazing World (1666). These texts, separated by more than two centuries, share a remarkable number of similarities. Each is highly allegorical, each has a partly political purpose, and in each, the author - a woman - attempts to construct an image of herself as a philosopher. There are further similarities worth noting. Both de Pizan and Cavendish aspire to be counted among the philosophers but also demonstrate a certain ambivalence with regard to the bulk of contemporary philosophers; both are monarchists, and both discuss the 'conflict between fortune and virtue'. At the same time, there are differences between the texts and, in particular, differences in the success of the two works which we will tentatively ascribe to developments in the more general persona of the philosopher during the 260 years which separate the two authors. Christine writes allegory, a form of fiction that is taken seriously and is well respected in her time. She handles it with some sophistication. Her attempts to be taken seriously met with some success, as can be seen by later descriptions of her, and in the repeated publication of her works during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Cavendish writes a 'Fancy' which appears to be just that, a fanciful construction. The Blazing World has something in common with Jonathan Swift's imaginings, but lacks his satirical bite; and although Cavendish's preface emphasises the differences between philosophy and fiction, her tale of an imaginary 'new world' tends to suggest that the two disciplines are, in fact, interconnected. Cavendish was far less successful than de Pizan in being taken seriously as a philosopher, in terms of the contemporary reception and publication of her works. This difference might be put down to a difference in aptitude. However, we will argue, tentatively, that it is also due to developments in the masculine 'philosophical persona' during the 260 years that separate these women. These developments made it even more difficult for a woman to successfully achieve this stature in 1666 than it was in 1406. These changes are tied to the rise of the new mechanical science, according to which all natural phenomena could be adequately explained in terms of the size, shape, and motion of physical bodies alone. To be a successful 'natural philosopher', one increasingly needed expertise in mathematics, experimental mechanics, and experimental method. These forms of expertise needed to be acquired in an institutional setting. Christine was hampered by her position as a woman, but she wrote at a time when the 'long path of learning' could be followed by anyone equipped with a knowledge of Latin and access to manuscripts of the authoritative texts. Cavendish accepted contemporary men's claims that their philosophies were grounded in reason and sense, and attempted to promote her own views as equally well grounded. But in fact the new philosophy, despite its own ideology, was grounded in mechanical inventions, geometrical constructions, and empirical predictions which were not able to be grasped by an untrained reason, but increasingly only by a highly trained philosopher/scientist who would soon cease to be represented as a philosopher and become nothing but a scientist.

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