A History of Western Philosophy

Mechanics And Male Mastery

This lecture tells a story. It begins with what Aristotle has to say about nature and gender, and then explores some recent comments about the impact that such thinking has had on what we have been following as the Great Chain of Being, or the classifications that underpinned inequality and prejudice in the Western tradition. We will look at ‘race’ in future lectures. 

In his Generation of Animals (732a1-12) Aristotle stated that[1]

As the first efficient or moving cause, to which belong the definition and the form, is better in its nature than the material on which it works, it is better that the superior principle should be separated from the inferior. Therefore, wherever it is possible and so far as it is possible, the male is separated from the female. For the first principle of the movement, whereby that which comes into being is male, is better and more divine, and the female is the matter. The male, however, comes together and mingles with the female for the work of generation, because this is common to both.

A thing lives, then, in virtue of participating in the male and female principles.

And a little later in the same text he said, 

The animal is a body with soul; the female always provides the material, the male that which fashions it, for this is the power that we say they each possess, and this is what it is for them to be male and female … While the body is from the female, it is the soul that is from the male, for the soul is the substance of a particular body (738b 19-26) …

When the active and the passive come in contact with each other in that way in which one is active and the other passive (I mean in the right manner, in the right place, and at the right time), straight-way the one acts and the other is acted upon. The female, then, provides matter, the male the principle of motion (740b21-25).

One can see very clearly here the roots of the trope that has persisted for centuries that the male of the species is active and the female is passive. This is grounded in a further idea that has its ground in the philosophy of the Great Chain of Being, namely that, intellect is divine substance and material is merely earthly. As we saw in earlier lectures, intellect defines that which occupies the top of the Chain and lack of intellect (mere material, or mere body, or even mere nature) defines that which is at the bottom of the Chain. From Aristotle comes the assertion that men, with intellect, are able to fashion material to rational (male) ends, while women simply wait and receive and accept all that men do by acting upon the body. As we will see in later lectures, but also in this lecture, these ideas are now actively challenged, and indeed have been challenged by women for centuries but largely unheard. 

Carolyn Merchant (1980)[2] has remarked on the effect that Aristotle’s hierarchy had on social arrangements. 

Aristotelian philosophy, while unifying matter and form in each individual being, associated activity with maleness and passivity with femaleness. Form reigned superior over dead, passive matter. Socially, Aristotle found the basis for male rule over the household in the analogy that, as the soul ruled the body, so reason and deliberation, characteristic of men, should rule the appetites supposedly predominant in women (p. 13).

Susan Griffin (1978)[3] in a still remarkable set of writings from 1978 entitled Woman and Nature, the roaring inside her, describes this aspect of the Great Chain of Being in something close to philosophical poetry. The first chapter of the book, ‘Matter’, is a rewriting of a women’s philosophy of history and I hope you might go and experience it for yourselves. I summarise from its first page.

It is decided that matter is transitory and illusory like the shadows on a wall cast by firelight; that we dwell in a cave, in the cave of our flesh, which is also matter, also illusory; it is decided that what is real is outside the cave, in a light brighter than we can imagine, that matter traps us in darkness. That the idea of matter existed before matter and is more perfect, ideal …

It is decided that matter is passive and inert, and that all motion originates from outside matter.

That the soul is the cause of all movement in matter and that the soul was created by God: that all other movement proceeds from violent contact with other moving matter, which was first moved by God. That the spheres in perpetual movement are moved by the winds of heaven, which are moved by God, that all movement proceeds from God.

That matter is only a potential for form or a potential for movement.

It is decided that the nature of woman is passive, that she is a vessel waiting to be filled (p. 5).

Lisa Walters’s (2014)[4] book on Margaret Cavendish we will return to again. But on the subject of Aristotelian philosophy regarding women she remarks on the passage from Aristotle that we quoted earlier. 

In context of the history of the body, Aristotelian physiology powerfully demonstrates how deeply sexual politics shaped perceptions of reproduction. Aristotle argues that the male ‘is something better and more divine in that it is the principle of movement for generated things, while the female serves as their matter’. According to this logic, the women does not actively participate in reproduction, since the womb was merely the place where matter is worked on by form and it had no actual role in generation [For Aristotle] ‘that is what it means to be male or to be female. (44)

Now we can move this story on to look at how Aristotle’s Great Chain of gendered Being was always grounded in power and control over nature and at how mechanism offered new possibilities for this.  Carolyn Merchant (1980)[5] again.

Central to the organic theory was the identification of nature, especially the earth, with a nurturing mother: a kindly beneficent female who provided for the needs of mankind in an ordered, planned universe. But another opposing image of nature as female was also prevalent: wild and uncontrollable nature that could render violence, storms, droughts, and general chaos. Both were identified with the female sex and were projections of human perceptions onto the external world. The metaphor of the earth as a nurturing mother was gradually to vanish as a dominant image as the Scientific Revolution proceeded to mechanize and to rationalize the world view. The second image, nature as disorder, called forth an important modern idea, that of power over nature. Two new ideas, those of mechanism and of the domination and mastery of nature, became core concepts of the modern world. An organically oriented mentality in which female principles played an important role was undermined and replaced by a mechanically oriented mentality that either eliminated or used female principles in an exploitative manner. As Western culture became increasingly mechanized in the 1600s, the female earth and virgin earth spirit were subdued by the machine (p. 2).

And on the new scientific method of Bacon she notes something that we have already commented on above.

This method, so readily applicable when nature is denoted by the female gender, degraded and made possible the exploitation of the natural environment. As woman’s womb had symbolically yielded to the forceps, so nature’s womb harbored secrets that through technology could be wrested from her grasp for use in the improvement of the human condition (p. 169).

In this way, “the narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe” could be stretched “to their promised bounds.” … Although a female’s inquisitiveness may have caused man’s fall from his God-given dominion, the relentless interrogation of another female, nature, could be used to regain it (p. 170).

And this paradigm of power and control by intellect over mere nature and the body is given graphic, violent, representation by Montesquieu in the eighteenth century, noted by Cassirer (1951)[6] in his book on the philosophy of the Enlightenment. He notes that,

In the typical style of his youthful writings Montesquieu says: ‘One would say that Nature acted like those virgins who long preserved their most precious possession, and then allowed themselves to be ravished in a moment of that they had preserved with such care, and defended with such constancy.’ The whole eighteenth century is permeated by this conviction, namely, that in the history of humanity the time had now arrived to deprive nature of its carefully guarded secret, to leave it no longer in the dark to be marveled at as an incomprehensible mystery but to bring it under the bright light of reason and analyze it with all its fundamental forces (47).[7]

Returning to Carolyn Merchant (1980) now, we might say that the GCB moves from the harmony of inequality in plenitude and continuity to the forced equality of everything operating according to the order of the laws of mechanics, and order which soon lent itself to the idea of life lived as machine-like. Differences are flattened as it were by such compliance to mechanism, but the equality that results seems to lose something spontaneity and freedom of decision. We will follow this thought in some of what follows below.  

Organic thought in the Renaissance had its roots in Greek concepts of the cosmos as an intelligent organism … [whose parts] were connected and interrelated in a living unity. From the “affinity of nature” resulted the bonding together of all things through mutual attraction or love. All parts of nature were mutually interdependent and each reflected changes in the rest of the cosmos (p. 103). 

The fundamental social and intellectual problem for the seventeenth century was the problem of order. The perception of disorder, so important to the Baconian doctrine of dominion over nature, was also crucial to the rise of mechanism as a rational antidote to the disintegration of the organic cosmos. The new mechanical philosophy of the mid-seventeenth century achieved a reunification of the cosmos, society and the self in terms of a new metaphor—the machine (p. 192).

New forms of order and power provided a remedy for the disorder perceived to be spreading throughout culture. In the organic world, order meant the function of each part within the larger whole, as determined by its nature, while power was diffused from the top downward through the social or cosmic hierarchies. In the mechanical world, order was redefined to mean the predictable behavior of each part within a rationally determined system of laws, while power derived from active and immediate intervention in a secularized world. Order and power together constituted control. Rational control over nature, society and the self was achieved by redefining reality itself through the new machine metaphor (p. 192-3)

And she goes further than this, by noting that this objectified nature in the way that the system of capitalism turns everything into an isolated object that is given an exchange value in the marketplace. 

The removal of animistic, organic assumptions about the cosmos constituted the death of nature—the most far-reaching effect of the Scientific Revolution. Because nature was now viewed as a system of dead, inert particles moved by external, rather than inherent forces, the mechanical framework itself could legitimate the manipulation of nature. Moreover, as a conceptual framework, the mechanical order had associated with it a framework of values based on power, fully compatible with the directions taken by commercial capitalism (p. 193).


The story so far then, in brief, is that from Aristotle the world of nature was labelled as female and the world of intellect was labelled as male, the defining criterion for this classification being that intellect was active while nature was a passive receiver of such activity. Backed up the logical justification of a prime mover of the cosmos, the principles of plenitude and continuity were expressions of the truth of the logic of the prime mover. He must be able to create everything that could be created, and not be caught out by leaving gaps where things should exist but do not. The inevitable consequence of this logic was the Great Chain of Being, since the world must consist of things both superior and inferior. Since the active intellect was male, and the passive nature was female, men were classified as superior to women and animals and plants. This was sustained for two thousand years by means of models of the cosmos that carried this inequality and prejudice. 

With the discovery of the laws of mechanics the justification for such inequality and prejudice was challenged. No longer was the cosmos divided into the ethereal and sub-lunar realms, and no longer did the cosmos consist of crystalline spheres. Now the whole cosmos was covered by the same mechanics. Everything was equally subject to those laws. But still this did not successfully undermine the Great Chain of Being. Instead, mechanism provided new possibilities for continuing the superiority of male over female and (in terms of ‘race’ that we will explore later) of human being over animal. It replaced divine providence with the perceived need for human control over the threat of chaos and disorder, both in nature and in society. It became a way of thinking that we are now still familiar with, and one we will explore further in later lectures. 

By way of conclusion of this gendered journey from Aristotle to mechanical control Ruth Bleier (1997)[8] makes the following points. 

It appears from all of this that truth, reality, and objectivity are all in trouble from our point of view; we see a male-created truth and reality. a male point of view, a male-defined objectivity. We have been led to believe that the discourse on woman and her nature, a discourse, like all others, from which women have been absent and excluded, has been an objective investigation because it was conducted by science. But, in fact, science itself, the tool for the investigation of such natural objects as women, has always been defined as the expression of the male mind: dispassionate, objective, impersonal, transcendent. The female mind—untamed, emotional, subjective, personal—is incompatible with science. “The presumption is that science, by its very nature, is inherently masculine, and that women can apprehend it only by an extreme effort of overcoming their own nature which is inherently contradictory to science” (Hein, 1981, p. 370). Thus, science has not only investigated, measured, and constructed gender differences, that is, male-female dichotomies and dualisms, but has constructed itself to epitomize and represent that dualism. Science is the male intellect: the active, knowing subject; its relationship to nature—the passive object of knowledge, the untamed—is one of manipulation. control, and domination; it is the relationship of man to woman, of culture to nature. … Science then has defined itself as the epitomy of the very gender dichotomies that it sets about to objectively investigate and explain. Its dualisms—subject­object, culture-nature, thought-feeling, active-passive—are all symbolic and descriptive of the central male-female dualism and the oppositional relations of dominance and dominated. Science epitomizes the structure and history of Western civilization. 

Now we turn to two examples of women who challenged this new mechanics: Émilie du Châtelet and Margaret Cavendish.

Émilie du Châtelet

Émilie du Châtelet (1706-1749) or Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, was raised in Paris and by the age of twelve she was fluent in Latin, Italian, Greek and German (translating Aristotle and Virgil) and received education in mathematics, literature, and science. As women were banned from the Sorbonne, she had tutors in mathematics and physics as a preparation for advanced contributions in both of those disciplines. 

In particular she worried that Newtonian physics threatened some basic ideas on free will. She was a supporter of Newton but thought that perhaps it needed some philosophical clarity. Mary Ellen Waithe[9] notes that du Chatelet felt that until the question “why these laws of physics and not some others?” could be answered, scientists could not know with confidence that the laws of physics with which the world appeared to be in accord would remain those with which it was in accord. … du Chatelet wondered, did God create the universe as an expression of his omnipotent will, or as an expression of his omniscient reason? (p. 137). 

At stake was the status of the laws of the universe. If such laws depended upon the freedom of God’s will then they could have been different, and if they could be different, Newton’s discovery of those laws lost their predictive certainty because ‘God could change his mind’ (Waithe, 1991, 138). In addition, if God had to keep intervening in the cosmos then that suggested his creative powers were imperfect and constantly needed correcting.  

How, then to reconcile God, free will and a deterministic Newtonian universe where human action could be more than just predetermined reaction? Waithe suggests that as a Newtonian and a metaphysician, du Châtelet insisted that the baby not be thrown out with the bath water. In du Châtelet view, if Newtonianism were modified or perhaps merely supplemented by Leibnizian metaphysics it would fit with the cherished philosophical and theological views. As a philosopher, she could make it possible for scientists to retain Newtonianism and for theologians to retain the doctrine that an omnipotent, omniscient deity created humans and endowed them with free will (p. 139).

Her solution, says Waithe, was the actual world is willed by God because it is the best of all possible worlds. And, du Châtelet reasoned, if it is the best of all possible worlds, God will not change the way it works because it already must reflect his perfection. Conceptually speaking, God cannot change the way this best of all possible worlds works. Since, as du Châtelet assumed, Newtonian physics provides a sound, valid explanation of the way the actual world works, it provides a sound, valid explanation of the way in which the best of all possible worlds will continue to work. By adapting Leibnizian metaphysics to Newtonian physics, Emilie du Châtelet was able to establish the predictability of Newtonian science (p. 141).

As such, Waithe concludes, that for du Châtelet, our actual existence is a consequence of God’s willing our existence. What God wills is the best of all possible worlds, therefore human free will is describable as the freedom to will to act within the constraints of human possibilities as those possibilities have been determined by God. Du Châtelet applications of Leibnizian metaphysics to Newtonian physics imply that a better fit is possible between Newtonian mechanistic accounts of the universe and our considered judgments about divine and human natures. No longer are humans reduced to being a cog in the machine. Human initiative is possible, human action is not necessarily reduced to mere mechanical reaction. Free will is restored to the canon and, along with it, virtue, vice, and the warrant for the establishment of political society. (p. 142).

If we turn now to du Châtelet’s Foundations of Physics (1740) we will see the logic that underpinned the principled reason that he employed in such thinking. The two key principles are those of non-contradiction and of sufficient reason. They are both in conformity to the logic of mastery and first principles that we have been following in our lectures. Du Châtelet says here[10],

All aspects of our knowledge are born from each other and are founded on certain principles whose truth is known without even reflecting on it, because they are self- evident.

Some truths immediately depend on these rst principles, and are derived from them as a result of a small number of conclusions only (p. 124).

Contradiction is that which simultaneously affirms and denies the same thing; this principle is the first axiom, on which all truths are founded. Everyone readily agrees on this, and it would even be impossible to deny it without lying to one’s conscience; for we sense that we cannot force our minds to admit that a thing simultaneously is and is not, and that we cannot not have an idea while having it, nor see a white body as if it were black while we see it as white (p. 126)…

This axiom is the foundation of all certainty in human knowledge. For, if one once granted that something may exist and not exist at the same time, there would no longer be any truth, even in numbers, and every thing could be, or not be, according to the fantasy of each person, thus 2 and 2 could equally make 4 or 6, or both sums at the same time (p. 127)…

The principle on which all contingent truths depend, and which is neither less fundamental nor less universal than that of contradiction, is the principle of sufcient reason. All men naturally follow it; for no one decides to do one thing rather than another without a sufficient reason that shows that this thing is preferable to the other.

When asking someone to account for his actions, we persist with our own question until we obtain a reason that satisfies us, and in all cases we feel that we cannot force our mind to accept something without a sufficient reason, that is to say, without a reason that makes us understand why this thing is what it is, rather than something completely different.

If we tried to deny this great principle, we would fall into strange contradictions. For as soon as one accepts that something may happen without sufficient reason, one cannot be sure of anything, for example, that a thing is the same as it was a moment before, since this thing could change at any moment into another of a different kind; thus truths, for us, would only exist for an instant (pp. 128-9).

For some, du Châtelet’s remarkable contribution here was to reconcile the determinism of Newtonian physical laws with a metaphysical defense of human nature endowed with free will, making her ‘a true Enlightenment woman’ (Waithe, p. 127).

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1623 – 1673)

Margaret Cavendish was a prolific writer in the 17th century, covering science, poetry, romance, plays, and science fiction. Over twenty years she published twenty three volumes and this at a time when a tiny fraction of published books were by women. Through her marriage to the Marquis of Newcastle and while in Paris she met many famous intellectuals including Descartes and Hobbes. Then later in Antwerp she began her literary and philosophical career. Lisa Walters[11](2014) notes Cavendish’s promotion of education for women. In Cavendish’ Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655) she stated that men thinking it impossible we should have either learning or understanding, wit or judgement, as if we had not rational souls as well as men, and we out of a custom of dejectednesse think so too, which makes us quit all all [sic] industry towards profitable knowledge being imployed onely in [low], and pettie imployments, which takes away not onely our abilities towards arts, but higher capacities in speculations, so as we are become like worms that onely live in the dull earth of ignorance, winding our selves sometimes out, by the help of some refreshing rain of good educations which seldom is given us; for we are kept like birds in cages to hop up and down in our houses (2014, 34).

Walters herself notes here

Her epistemology counters early modern beliefs that women should be silent, obedient and chaste, and were unfit for positions of power or intellectual rigour. In particular, Cavendish’s theory of Nature disrupts cultural signifiers which shaped early modern understandings of body and corporeality, and their corresponding gender ideologies which directly or implicitly situated women and femininity as passive, incomplete, irrational and impure (34).

In what will become important for her natural philosophy, Cavendish also opposes the Aristotelian inspired classification of male-active and female-passive that we have been exploring in this lecture. She assigns strength, power, and wisdom to a female conception of nature whose material substance she does not relegate as inferior substance to anything other than God. She speaks of an infinite equality in the infinite matter of the universe.[12]

Deborah Boyle[13] (2013) has also worked together the themes of gender and nature in Cavendish’s natural philosophy.  She is close to the mechanism of her day, but for her matter is not an inert or lifeless material waiting control by human intellect, it is self-moving. One thing may influence another, but the matter that is influenced makes the change for itself through its own choice. The parts of matter are part of a whole that operates by rules of peace and harmony and order, but still the parts are able to choose whether or not to conform to those rules.  Boyle says,

Cavendish’s theory of occasional causation and regularities is relevant for understanding her views about human nature. Every part of nature has free will; when one part of nature causes an effect in another part of nature, the first part is merely providing an occasion for the second part to choose how to act. For Cavendish, this applies to humans, too. Thus events in someone’s life do not necessitate a certain response from the person; only the person herself causes the response, with the events serving merely as occasions for the person to act. Not even the “nature” of an individual object or person leads inexorably to a certain kind of behavior, for a thing or person’s “nature” is just the norms set up by Nature, governing what behavior is most conducive to peace, but not dictating that that behavior must absolutely occur (p. 519).

Boyle then relates this to the question of gender.

These views have important implications for Cavendish’s theories about gender and nature. Being parts of nature, of course, women, too, have free will. Thus, even if Nature has dictated that the appropriate behavior for some individual woman is to be, say, quiet and meek, it is up to the individual woman to decide whether to follow that prescription. Some women may choose to follow Nature’s norms; others might choose not to. Women who choose not to follow these norms are acting irregularly, and unnaturally; and, Cavendish suggests, although this may not be a defect from the perspective of Nature as a whole, it is likely to be destructive and dangerous to the society of which the irregularly acting woman is a member (p. 520).

Perhaps if we are to sum up this lecture, we might say that nature was to intellect as passive was to active, and that these were assigned respectively to female and male. In the Great Chain of Being the former were inferior to the latter, according to the logic of mastery that defined truth as that which was actively self-sufficient and in-itself, and error as that which through a lack on independence was dependent upon or merely for-another. The inferiority of women was maintained through logic as well as the manifestations of that logic on the ideas of truth, of nature and of freedom. When the metaphysics of this shape of the Great Chain of Being collapsed it might be supposed that the status of inferiority and superiority would collapse. But the mechanical laws of the universe were used to reshape the metaphysical, scientific and political worlds. Their determinism offered an apology for human intervention in the cause of law and order, made possible by treating everything as objects which were subject to that mechanistic control. The human world recreated itself in the image of machines, and of mechanization. And the prejudices and inequalities that had been carried by the Great Chain of Being were now given empirical validity in the scientific paradigm of objectivity and empiricism. We will return to this in future lectures, most especially in regard to scientific ‘race’ theory. 


[1] From Aristotle, (1984) The Complete Works of Aristotle, vol. 1, Princeton, Princeton University Press.  

[2] Merchant, C. (1980) The Death of Nature; women, ecology and the scientific revolution, San Francisco, Harper Row, p. 13.

[3] Griffin, S. (1978) Woman and Nature, The Roaring Inside Her, New York, Harper Row, p. 5.

[4] Walters, L. (2014) Margaret Cavendish, gender, science & politics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. P44.

[5] Merchant, C. (1980) The Death of Nature; women, ecology and the scientific revolution, San Francisco, Harper Row, p. 2.

[6] Cassirer, E. (1951) The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, Princeton, Princeton University Press, p. 47.

[7] Note here the language of darkness in regard to women. In The Question of Lay Analysis Freud famously remarked that the sexual life of adult women is a ‘dark continent’ for psychology. In later lectures we will see how perceptions of ‘race’ play their part here. 

[8] Ruth Bleier, (1997) Science and Gender, New York, Teachers College Press, p. 196.

[9] Waithe, M.E. (1991) A History of Women Philosophers, volume III. Modern Women Philosophers 1600-1900, Dordrecht, Springer.

[10] Châtelet, E (2009) Emilie du Châtelet Selected Philosophical and Scientific Writings, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

[11] Walters, L. (2014) Margaret Cavendish, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

[12] Note too, that Cavendish wrote The Convent of Pleasure in 1688 in which Lady Happy and group of unmarried women withdraw from the male-dominated world into a cloistered community. It is also a story of cross-dressing, and a romance between Lady Happy and the Princess, who in the end turns out to be a missing Prince. 

[13] Boyle, D, (2013) ‘Margaret Cavendish on Nature, Gender, and Freedom,’ Hypatia, vol 28, no. 3.

Also In this Lecture Series


And so, we reach an interesting problem.  There is the

A History of Western Philosophy: Prejudice and Inequality

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