Visualizing Margaret Cavendish’s Systematic Treatises


Lisa Walters has noted that, for a long time, “Cavendish perceived all her philosophical treatises not as separate works, but as a continuum of revisions.” Walters rightly makes the case that literary scholars ought to pay more attention to the second edition of Cavendish’s Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1663). While there has been much emphasis on the Philosophical Letters (1664) and Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666) — texts that show Cavendish engaging with and responding to other seventeenth-century philosophers — Philosophical and Physical Opinions gives a systematic treatment of her philosophical outlook in its own right. However, it is one in a series of four such systematic accounts: Philosophical Fancies (1653), Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655),  Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1663), and Grounds of Natural Philosophy (1668). These treatises show Cavendish, over the course of a fifteen year period, writing and rewriting her philosophy. Nowhere is the “continuum of revisions” more visible than in the development between these texts.

Yet, readers who haven’t diligently combed through all four treatises in an attempt to untangle the expansions, cuts, and changes that Cavendish introduced into them will have a hard time discerning how and where these revisions were implemented. One of the projects that we have undertaken at the DCP is a visualization of Cavendish’s systematic treatises, which will show how — at the level of the chapter  — she reorganized these texts from edition to edition. The above video gives a glimpse of the map of the first three treatises. This is very much a work-in-progress. (For instance, some of the ligatures between the texts aren’t properly placed). The visualization was built using Coggle, a mind-mapping platform that allows for the construction of diagrams that visually organize information. We’ve encountered some challenges in using this platform to represent something on the scale of the relationships between Cavendish’s four increasingly lengthy treatises. The visualization will eventually take a different form that is more readable and usable for visitors to this site. We hope that in its final form it will offer scholars a helpful means for navigating these writings and generating insights into Cavendish’s “continuum of revisions.” It may also provide a ground plot for a future digital edition of the four treatises.

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