Mary Astell (1666-1731) was a convinced rationalist thinker contending that all knowledge is founded on reason, not the senses. She is also a cartesian dualist and believes that to progress women should view their souls as entities for thinking, different from their bodies and capable of mastering corporal sensations and passions.
However, she did not embrace cartesian doctrines in their entirety. She rejected Descartes' concepts of innate ideas and the soul's essence. In morality she is closer to Malebranche than Descartes since she was intensely religious. This led her to criticise Locke's Whig philosophy.
Astell's epistemology was based on clear and distinct ideas. This comes from regulating the will which asserts or rejects concepts. Error is due to the will accepting more than it perceives, by rashly judging beyond its information. Regulating the will depends on moderating the passions and emotions, for example pride and vanity. When faced with a truth that contradicts our interests we reject it without reason.
Astell follows Descartes in her six rules for attaining happiness and truth through thinking:
- the need to have a clear idea of the subject and understand its main terms
- follow thoughts in a logical order, avoiding diverging into irrelevances
- start with the simple subjects before moving on to the complex ones
- make a thorough examination by parts
- focus attention on the subject in hand
- do not judge more than can be perceived and affirm truths, unless they are unquestionable.
Astell introduced a religious element into her theory of knowledge by proposing that to perceive truth is to participate in God's mind. This denies Descartes' concept of innate ideas and embraces augustinian illuminism by which humans can only know through divine light.
The author's body/soul dualism is part of her criticism of Locke's concept of 'thinking matter'. She asks if the human thinking part is material or immaterial. Locke states that it is material in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Astell insists that the mind is independent from the body, which means it can think autonomously, seperately from the influence of the body. Against Locke, she maintains that thinking excludes physical extension.
The author insists on cartesian duality by claiming that a human is made up of two substance: the soul, or mind, which thinks and the body which is extended substance. It remains unclear, however, how the soul affects the body or how the body causes feelings in the soul. She infers that only God can bring about changes in the mind and that The Divinity is the cause of all sensations. These ideas were similar to those held by Malebranche.
Astell's idea of human identity as a thinking thing influences her feminist thinking. She encourages women to value themselves through esteeming their souls, not their bodies. They should abandon all material living devoted to material things and seek to perfect their thinking as immaterial beings.
In 1694 Mary Astell published A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest by a Lover of Her Sex, Part I. Part II was published in 1697.
Astell does not blame the patriarchal society or the lack of rights for women's problems. She argues that women themselves lack personal freedom and self-mastery. Instead they allow themselves to be governed by emotional whims. They also attend more to outward appearances rather than using reason to judge realities. They think that material things such as beauty and riches are important, more than their souls which are immaterial. This makes them prey to the vices of vanity and pride, which are the wrong values. They often depend on men's appreciation, instead of valuing themselves.
The author believes that the core causes of women's defects are poor education and cultural attitudes. She maintains that women are not taught to think about their true natures but learn to depend on what men think of them:
"Women are from their very Infancy debar’d those Advantages, with the want of which, they are afterwards reproached, and nursed up in those Vices which will hereafter be upbraided to them.”
Women's ignorance, according to the author, are linked to their vices because they are not taught how to think and so cannot discern between reality and pretence. In this way they tend to value themselves on beauty or money.
Another of women's problems is custom. This involves forming personal habits and encountering social impositions, both of which are difficult to reverse. By following a pattern of vanity and foolishness, while avoiding the exercise of rationality, women become incapable of improving. Those who challenge the social status quo are subjected to censure, which acts against self-improvement.
Astell proposes a solution to the women's problems she perceives. One is to establish female educational centres. They are retreats, similar to convents, where women could dedicate their lives to education and virtue. This secluded life will protect them from the moral dangers of the world which leads them into vanity. There they will also be shielded from the effects of bad habits and develop virtuous characters.
Part II of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies... details the system of self-improvement for the conventual community. They would practise meditation, reading, philosophical reflection, and emotional self-control. Meditation on philosophical concepts, were based mostly La Logique ou l’art de penser (1662) (Logic or the Art of Thinking) by the Jansenists, Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, from the Cistertian convention of Port-royal Des Champs, a nunnery, centre of Jansenism and of literary activity in 17th-century France.
This meditation was aimed at helping women develop their powers of reason and how to conduct their lives. They would understand that they possess an immaterial, immortal, soul which renders the material world and their bodies secondary. On realising this women will stop worrying about bodily beauty and fashion. They will also reach autonomy and no longer be reacting to emotional shifts or social impositions.
Astell's method was aimed not at social or political change, but internal transformation. She explains that:
“Men therefore may still enjoy their Prerogatives for us, we mean not to intrench on any of their Lawful Privileges, […] our only endeavour shall be to be absolute Monarchs in our own Bosoms.”
Astell belonged to the Anglican High Church. She had a belief that God always worked for the best, which assured her that the Creation was moral. She used this credence to argue that to obtain happiness women should live their lives in obedience to God's law and to reason.
She proffers several arguments for the existence of God: the ontological proof is that God's existence is based on our experience of existence and that Divine self-existence must be perfect and infinite. The divine existence cannot be derivative and must be independent of other existences. Her cosmological argument is based on empirical observations of the world. It is inspired by reasoning on first causes
For Astell virtue lies in the soul mastering the body and aiming its passions guided by reason. Love, hate, fear and desire are bodily sentiments that can have a negative effect on the spirit. Regulation of passions is part of reaching for virtue.
Astell does not reject passions, but believes they need not be a hindrance to virtue, if they are cleansed in some way. Her strategy is meditation on what involves true good and bad and following only that which is known through knowledge. Core to this is focusing on our nature as rational beings, the nature of material entities and the nature of God.
For Astell the characteristics of virtuous excellence are: benevolence, generosity, and friendship.
Benevolence means promoting the well-being of others but not for selfish ends. She compare it with a desire to possess others exemplified in self-centered love.
Following Descartes' Passions of the Soul, the author describes generosity as self-esteem based on some positive personal feature. Moral value depends on using free will and striving to do your best. This will lead to not needing others' approbation and self-protection against censure or ridicule. The problem for women is that they are culturally conditioned to base their personal value on secondary aspects like looks and attire. They have not been taught to value themselves on their rational powers of thought and their free will. This can be remedied through study of religion and philosophy. For Astell Christianity is particularly useful in this respect since it teaches that what is truly valuable does not depend on the transience elements of this world.
Friendship, particularly in her academy, will prosper among women. They can then help and guide each other towards perfection
Astell's proposal is about raising women's consciousness, in order to reform their moral and intellectual standing. She puts forward the idea of a female academic institute to promote this. This never came to be in her lifetime, possibly because it sounded too much like a nuns' convent.
The author challenges the idea that women are intellectually inferior, not by referring to famous examples of women, but by appealing to a consciousness of their personal capacities. The search for knowledge does not entail learning Greek or obscure facts, but being capable of calibrating truth and being free to criticise ideas. In this, says Astell, women are on a par with men.
Mary Astell maintains that to improve reasoning women only need to understand their own natural logic. If they show any defect in reasoning it is acquired, not natural, and can be corrected through training and meditation.
She disagrees with the cartesian concept Cogito ergo sum, that is, thinking of self as something different whose characteristic is thinking. She also believes in God's good design for humanity, which means that, as women have been given rational minds, they must be allowed to develop them. It is a woman's religious duty to rise to the perfection her Maker intended.
Astell was High Church Tory and a vocal opponent of Locke's political ideas and Whig conceptions of liberty, resistance and tolerance. Her feminist agenda was based on philosophical principles, not political ideology and she did not canvass for political equality.
She draws her politics from her religion and maintains that subjects must obey political authority and accept any penalty for disobedience, in cases where authorities order something sinful. She rejects resistance to tyrannical power from the king and this leads her to criticise Locke's idea that everyone has the right to freedom from arbitrary power and to depose it by force.
Astell agreed with Locke that self-preservation was a right, but she interpreted this as protecting the immaterial soul. This meant that we can only rebel in order to save our souls from damnation. This entails passive obedience, not active resistance.