Remembering Margaret Cavendish
This is a blogpost from my other blog (for AP Literature,) and I was proud of this
Around a week or so ago, my AP Literature class read the letters and history of the great philosopher and academic Margaret Cavendish. Ever the curious and studious scholar, Cavendish tussled and tugged at the ontological aspects of nature. She wondered about perception, the esoteric, and the relationships between art and nature. She questioned, prodded, criticized, and sundered the arguments of giants in the philosophical world, many of whom did not reciprocate academic respect. Margaret Cavendish, enamored with the fundamental mysteries, wrote letter after letter, ineptly, clumsily, awkwardly, stumbling through the philosophical lexicon. Yet, out of brazen tenacity, she was able to construct compelling, logical, and well-thought out works of philosophy.
Around 30 hours or so ago I read "The Hacker's Manifesto." If you search the term "The Hacker's Manifesto" at my school and click the first link, it gets blocked for "security." You have to scroll down to the 9th link and read off of some old-school HTML website with a gif of a 3D skull rotating around in infinite circles. In medium bright yellow text:
"This is our world now...the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud. We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt cheep if it wasn't run by profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals. We explore...and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias...and you call us criminals. You build atomic bombs, wage wars, murder, cheat, and lie to us and try to make us believe it is for our own good, yet we're the criminals. Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for. I am a hacker and this is my manifesto. You may stop this individual, but you can't stop us all...after all, we're all alike."
The brilliance of the "Hacker's Manifesto" lay in its ability to redefine the term "criminal" to mean "witty," "principled," and "curious." It is rhetorically bullet-proof. It was also written by a 21-year-old, a curious, studious "computer geek."
Like most of my friends reading Cavendish's essay "Observations upon Experimental Philosophy," I was a bit surprised by Cavendish's bold and confident temperament. On the first page, she outlines her academic setbacks, debunks snobbish philosophical tradition, and evinces the intellectual capacity of women: "I do ingenuously confess, that both for want of learning and reading philosophical authors, I have not expressed myself in my philosophical works . . . so clearly and plainly as I might have done, had I had the assistance of art, and the practice of reading other authors." ". . . I have writ [these works], not out of an ambitious humour, to fill the world with useless books, but to explain and illustrate my own opinions. For, what benefit would it be to me, if I should put forth a work . . . [which] could not be understood?" " . . . I hope [no one] will blame me for it (not being versed in philosophical lexicon), since it is sufficiently known, that our sex being not suffered to be instructed in schools or universities, cannot be bred up to it." ". . . [M]any of our sex may have as much wit, and be capable of learning as well as men; but since they want instructions; it is not possible they should attain to it; for learning is artificial, but wit is natural."
Last week, all I could focus on was perception and ontology, the material and the immaterial. I wanted to grasp the nature of consciousness, what it meant to "think." I called my microbiologist friend and pleaded her to throw some biological answer to this quandary. I remember her telling me that genes do such wonderful things as coding the color of our hair and eyes and who we are and how we interact with the world. She told me that when it gets down to a certain level, the interacting parts get too complex to understand. Yet, when the connections between neural networks get too entangled, it also gets too complex to understand. Simply put, we need a more magnified microscope AND a bigger picture view of nature. The entire thing reminds one of that one paradox of the heap of sand: if you remove a grain of sand one by one from a heap of sand, at what point does it cease to be a heap? If you remove a brain molecule by molecule, at what point does it cease to have consciousness?
I can hardly understand the words of Margaret Cavendish. I can comprehend a few facets, a few arguments in her letters. She argues, for instance, that "all perception is not impression and reaction," which I wrote down in my commonplace book and am now trying to understand the context of. She states that she cannot possibly conceive the existence of a natural immaterial spirit to be possible (letter 14 Observations.) She describes the nature of "self-motion" and "motion." I found it humorous that she believed that "reaction doth not make sense (as in, perception)." In a way, I was forced into her position of trying to struggle to comprehend the intellectual framework. Yet, there she stands, at the top with all the rest of them. I wish I had the energy to discuss further the depths to this whole ontology business, how intriguing and it all is. I find her work impressively intellectual and rhetorical, a mix of scientific observation and artistic imagination. Cavendish is a portrait of the rogue scholar, sneering back at a contemptuous society while beckoning humankind to marvel at her sculpted work.