Mary Astell

Sunday, November 19, 2023

What Is It

Mary Astell (1666–1731) was an English philosopher and writer who advocated for equal rights for women. While she described marriage as a type of “slavery,” she was also a staunch conservative who claimed that women who did marry should accept subordination to their husbands. So what was Astell's vision for the education of women? How did she reconcile her seemingly conflicting views on marriage? And why did philosopher John Locke criticize her views on natural law? Josh and Ray explore her life and thought with Allauren Forbes from McMaster University, author of the Oxford Bibliography on Mary Astell.

Part of our series Wise Women, supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.



Josh Landy  
Coming up, it's Philosophy Talk.

Love and Death  
I never want to marry. I just want to get divorced.

Josh Landy  
The Life and thought of Mary Astell.

Comments (3)

Daniel's picture


Sunday, October 29, 2023 -- 3:20 PM

Conditioned by the

Conditioned by the interpretation of Astell's conception of liberty as an agent's faculty of preservation of internal self-governance in the context of arbitrary constraint, which distinguishes it from any reference to an absence of constraints, one could characterize it accordingly as reserved competency of an agent rather than as a condition for the performance of rational action. Although in A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II, Astell distinguishes between Understanding as the receptacle of comparable ideas and the Will as the capacity to prefer one to the other, which closely follows Locke's distinction between the agreement and disagreement of perceived ideas (Understanding) and the desire for or rejection of an idea as motive ground for some bodily motion which begins an action (Will), she adds, at least in one interpretation, the notion of liberty as constituting a separate faculty from Will on account of the fact that reserved capacity for observable behavior and preserved ability for unobservable self-organization are different. It is this latter which insures that one can prefer submission to some customary behavior, e.g. Marriage, which makes one's grounds for action discoverable only in another agent, and nevertheless avoid becoming an agent of the respective custom itself.

Because Liberty then in contrast to Will can be described as the faculty of internal self-governance in contrast to that of the generation of optional effects by ideal causes, does Astell hold that some arbitrary constraint by customs handed down by tradition are a necessary condition of any rational action at all, on the basis that without them a faculty of internal organization would be irrelevant? If some customs, say, those given out by a Deity, are limited in number but can be put together in a potentially infinite variety of combinations, does Astell's Liberty entail a continually evolving form of preferable slavery? In particular, could Astell's view of marriage be described as a libertarian stoicism in free conformity with arbitrary custom overriding independent will?

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tebvas's picture


Sunday, December 3, 2023 -- 8:47 PM

Does Astell's Liberty include

Does Astell's Liberty include a type of preferred enslavement that is always evolving? For example, if some practices, such as those that are bestowed by a deity, are restricted in quantity but may be combined in an endless number of different snow rider 3d ways, then does this imply that Astell's Liberty is a form of superior slavery?

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Daniel's picture


Tuesday, December 5, 2023 -- 3:01 PM

No. But maybe your bot can

No. But maybe your bot can come up with an answer for this:
1) A law enforcement official (O) licensed by the state seeks a dangerous fugitive from the law (F).
2) O has received information indicating that F is riding on a ferris wheel at a popular amusement park.
3) Fearing that F might escape if O's response to this information is delayed, authorized by O's authority, the ferris wheel is unhooked from its axel and rolls into the nearby sea, drowning all of its riders.

From O's perspective, two outcomes of this action are possible:
a) The fugitive is found among the victims, and the operation is proclaimed a success or,
b) the fugitive is not found among the victims, and the operation is pronounced an unfortunate accident and miscalculation.

The question is this: If a lawyer for the family of one of the victims which is not identical with F seeks criminal charges against O for the action of unhooking the ride from the axel, would O be correct to claim that the lawyer is assisting F by seeking such an indictment? And the sub-question is this: Does the success or failure of the operation supervene upon consideration of it potential criminality? Does O's perspective override the legal protections (i.e. rights) of the victims?

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