Review of Broad’s Philosophy of Mary Astell

Jacqueline Broad, The Philosophy of Mary Astell: An Early Modern Theory of Virtue, Oxford University Press, 2015, 205pp., $70.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780198716815.

Reviewed by Penny Weiss, St. Louis University

It is hard to believe that it was only in 1986 that the first two modern books on Mary Astell were published, one a biography, the other a collection of complete and excerpted works. In the 30 years since, all of Astell’s major writings have been made available, several with substantive introductions, and three monographs, an anthology of critical essays, and dozens of academic articles from multiple disciplines have been published. We can now add to the growing list this book by Jacqueline Broad, who has mastered and engages with all of this primary and secondary literature. Broad is the first to read Astell’s texts as parts of “a united and consistent” (5) philosophical system with a moral theory at its core, which she importantly claims is how Astell understood her own work. Broad’s unmistakable grasp of Astell does not always manifest itself evenly; one chapter tackles a particular work while another deals with a theme and yet another makes central a conflict in the secondary literature. Further, one chapter is overwhelmed by comparisons with those who influenced Astell, in another they rarely appear, and in none but the conclusion are contemporary links pursued, though they practically beg to be explored. Nonetheless, everyone will learn from this text, several debates about Astell are resolved in it, and Astell’s philosophical status is generally elevated.

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The Philosophy of Mary Astell: An Early Modern Theory of Virtue by J. Broad OUP, 2015

The Philosophy of Mary Astell: An Early Modern Theory of Virtue

Jacqueline Broad

Mary Astell (1666–1731) is best known today as one of the earliest English feminists. This book sheds new light on her writings by interpreting her first and foremost as a moral philosopher—as someone committed to providing guidance on how best to live. The central claim of this work is that all the different strands of Astell’s thought—her epistemology, her metaphysics, her philosophy of the passions, her feminist vision, and her conservative political views—are best understood in light of her ethical objectives. To support that claim, this work examines Astell’s programme to bring about a moral transformation of character in her fellow women. This ethical programme draws on several key aspects of seventeenth-century philosophy, including Cartesian and Neoplatonist epistemologies, ontological and cosmological proofs for the existence of God, rationalist arguments for the soul’s immateriality, and theories about how to regulate the passions in accordance with reason. At the heart of Astell’s philosophical system lies a theory of virtue, including guidelines about how to cultivate generosity of character, a benevolent disposition towards others, and the virtue of moderation. This book explains the foundations of that moral theory, and then examines how it shapes and informs Astell’s response to male tyranny within marriage and to political tyranny in the state. It concludes with some reflections on the historiographical implications of writing Mary Astell back into the history of philosophy.


Print publication date: 2015 Print ISBN-13: 9780198716815
Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: August 2015 DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198716815.001.0001

Keywords: Mary Astell, benevolence, existence of God, feminism, generosity, immateriality of the soul, moral theory, the passions, tyranny, virtue of moderation

The Oxford Handbook of British Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century, Review by Timothy Yenter

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

2014.06.32 View this Review Online   View Other NDPR Reviews

Peter R. Anstey (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of British Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century, Oxford University Press, 2013, 651pp., $150.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780199549993.

Reviewed by Timothy Yenter, University of Mississippi

This volume continues the high level of scholarship expected of the Oxford Handbooks. The articles are without exception careful, detailed, and (both on controversial and non-controversial points) well supported. The largest drawback is the selection of topics covered, a side effect of the emphasis on natural philosophy.

Three of the most pressing issues facing a person considering purchasing a handbook such as this are (a) how well it orients the reader to philosophy as it was done in the period, (b) how well it orients the reader to the current scholarship, and (c) whether the individual articles lean toward surveying important interpretive positions or toward arguing for a particular interpretation, historical narrative, or reconstruction of an argument or position. My review will focus primarily on these three issues. I will begin with the first two questions and then use the third to frame the discussion of the individual essays, with more attention given to the articles that push the secondary literature forward.

As editor Peter Anstey describes in his introduction, the volume has two goals: that it provide a “comprehensive overview of the current issues that are informing research in the field” and that it not just offer “a review of the latest research in the subject” but also, “carry the debate forward in the interpretation of leading philosophical texts and arguments” (1). Three new developments that Anstey uses to shape the volume include “a wider appreciation of the different and somewhat fluid nature of the disciplinary boundaries that prevailed in the  century” (within philosophy and between philosophy and other disciplines) (2), “heightened historiographical awareness” (this includes down-playing the rationalist-empiricist distinction and up-playing the experimental-speculative distinction) (3), and “a reassessment of the philosophical canon” (contextualization can lead us to realize a work is less impactful than previously thought, and can help us recognize those whose work has been improperly ignored) (3). Anstey notes philosophy of language and (some parts of) philosophy of religion receive less attention than would be ideal. Continue reading “The Oxford Handbook of British Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century, Review by Timothy Yenter”