Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) in the history of European ideas of consciousness


What is MC-EuCon?

The MC-EuCon project investigates the philosophy of Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), with the aim of providing a detailed interpretation of her theory of consciousness and assessing her contribution to past and present debates in philosophy of mind.

Questions about consciousness, its origin and presence in nature, which dominate present-day debates in philosophy of mind, arose during the 17th century. Against Descartes’s mind-body dualism and his attribution of mental life to humans alone, Cavendish argued for a wholly material, yet wholly thinking universe. By providing one of the earliest and most original responses to Descartes’s theories, Cavendish played a seminal role in the European history of the concept of consciousness. Her work offers a rich opportunity for developing our understanding of how problems about consciousness evolved and were addressed in Europe in the early modern period. 

However, since no specific word for ‘consciousness’ was available in the philosophical vocabulary of her day, extrapolating her views on the topic is problematic. The MC-EuCon project focuses on texts of Cavendish and her interlocutors, in order to reconstruct her vocabulary related to consciousness and clarify her theory. It then assesses the significance of her ideas for past and present-day debates in philosophy of mind.

Portrait of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Copy from a print by van Schuppen after Diepenbeke, 1800.


What does MC-EuCon deal with?

The overall goal is to gain a coherent and complete comprehension of Cavendish’s theory as exposed in her writings, and assess the way in which she accounted for the presence of consciousness in both human and non-human beings.

Cavendish’s ideas on the nature of conscious thought are embedded in metaphysical and cosmological considerations. The core research activities consist, therefore, in close-reading analyses and interpretations of 17th-century texts by Cavendish and her intellectual network (with particular regard to members of the so-called “Cavendish Circle”, named after her husband William Cavendish, and gathering thinkers such as Hobbes, Descartes, and Digby), in order to discern and understand her terminology and ideas about consciousness in their historical contexts. These texts deal with metaphysics, ethics, natural philosophy, and observations on early modern scientific methods. Comparative analyses with other monist and panpsychist thinkers contemporary to Cavendish (most notably Spinoza) will also be performed, in order to highlight and assess the original traits of Cavendish’s theory. The research is assisted by the use of secondary academic literature in the fields of history of early modern philosophy and present-day philosophy of mind, in order to increase knowledge of the intellectual and historical contexts in which Cavendish’s theory developed, and to provide present-day notions regarding consciousness and its functions that can work as heuristic interpretive devices.

Portrait of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Peter Lely, 1665.



30 April 2024 - Workshop: “The Cavendish Circle: Philosophical Networks in the 17th Century”
Aula Valent, Department of Philosophy and Cultural Heritage, Ca' Foscari University of Venice, Malcanton Marcorà, Dorsoduro 3484/D, Venice, Italy.

Papers presented in the workshop investigate ways in which philosophical and scientific ideas were discussed and circulated through the mediation and within the context of the so-called “Cavendish Circle” during the 1640s. By gathering five expert contributors, the event aims to shed light on a vibrant intellectual context, which was seminal for the advancement of the ideas of pivotal thinkers in the history of European philosophy, such as Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, Margaret Cavendish, Pierre Gassendi, Kenelm Digby, and Walter Charleton. Papers discussed in the workshop will be submitted for a special issue in “Hobbes Studies” (forthcoming in 2025).

Invited speakers:

  • Julia Borcherding (University of Cambridge)
  • Stephen Clucas (Birkbeck, University of London)
  • Karolina Hübner (Cornell University)
  • Antonia LoLordo (University of Virginia)
  • Timothy Raylor (Carleton College)
The Family of William Cavendish, Marquess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Abraham van Diepenbeeck, 1656.


  • 26 October 2024: “‘Ogni cosa è animata’: 10 anni di ricerca all'estero su Spinoza (1632-1677), Cavendish (1623-1673) e la coscienza di tutte le cose”, public lecture at the LSS (State Scientific High School) Paolo Lioy, Vicenza, Italy ("Vent’anni dopo… al Lioy", lectures to celebrate the hundredth anniversary since the foundation of the school).
  • 9-11 July 2024: TBD, Dalhousie University, Canada ("21st Atlantic Canada Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy").
  • 4 June 2024: With Alexandra Chadwick, “The Hobbesian Sort of Panpsychism”, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, France ("Journée d’étude sur Descartes et Hobbes").
  • 30 May 2024: “Spinoza on Sympathy and Humanity”, ZRC SAZU Institute of Philosophy, Ljubljana, Slovenia (conference “Early Modern Philosophy: Metaphysics, Physics, Method(s)”).
  • 23 May 2024: With Alexandra Chadwick, “The Hobbesian Sort of Panpsychism”, University of Jyväskylä, Finland ("JYU Philosophy Research Seminar").
  • 8 May 2022: “Monism and Panpsychism in the 17th Century: Cavendish, Hobbes, and Spinoza”, University of Oulu, Finland ("Works in Progress Workshop in Early Modern Philosophy").
  • 25 January 2024: “Sympathy and Humanity in Spinoza”, Roma Tre University, Italy (conference “Ethics of Sympathy in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries”).


  • “Mapping the Boundaries of Conscious Life in Margaret Cavendish’s Philosophy”. Forthcoming in “Revue Philosophique de Louvain” 120:3 (2023).
  • "The Cavendish Circle and Hobbes: Philosophical Networks in the 17th Century" (ed., with Pietro Daniel Omodeo). Special issue forthcoming in “Hobbes Studies” (proposal accepted).
  • “Challenging Cartesianism: Early Modern Philosophies of Mind” (ed., with Vili Lähteenmäki and Jani Sinokki). Edited volume forthcoming with Routledge (under contract).
  • “Cartesianism and Philosophy of Mind” (ed., with Vili Lähteenmäki and Jani Sinokki). Edited volume forthcoming with Routledge (under contract).


Oberto Marrama

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow

Pietro Daniel Omodeo

Associate Professor, Supervisor