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Empress vs. Spider-Man: Margaret Cavendish on pure and applied mathematics

  • Alison PetermanEmail author
S.I. : Use & Abuse of Maths


The empress of Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World dismisses pure mathematicians as a waste of her time, and declares of the applied mathematicians that “there [is] neither Truth nor Justice in their Profession”. In Cavendish’s theoretical work, she defends the Empress’ judgments. In this paper, I discuss Cavendish’s arguments against pure and applied mathematics. In Sect. 3, I develop an interpretation of some relevant parts of Cavendish’s metaphysics and epistemology, focusing on her anti-abstractionism and what I call her ’assimilation’ view of knowledge. In Sects. 4 and 5, I use this to develop Cavendish’s critiques of pure and applied mathematics, respectively. These critiques center on the claims that mathematics purports to describe non-beings, that nature is infinitely and irreducibly complex, and, perhaps most originally, that mathematical thinking (like other formal methods in philosophy) deforms the subject of representation, not just the object.


Margaret Cavendish Anti-mathematics Mathematics Natural philosophy Spidermen 


Works by Cavendish

  1. Grounds of natural philosophy. London (1668).Google Scholar
  2. The blazing world. London (1666).Google Scholar
  3. Observations upon experimental philosophy. In E. O’Neill (Ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2001).Google Scholar
  4. Poems and fancies. London (1653).Google Scholar
  5. Philosophical letters. London (1664).Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of RochesterRochesterUSA

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