Sensitive Witnesses
Feminist Materialism in the British Enlightenment
Kristin M. Girten



IN 1759, JONATHAN SWIFT sparked considerable outrage and debate with the publication of A Modest Proposal, a work now regularly presented to students as a quintessential example of early modern satire. Though the precise target of Swift’s Proposal is notoriously difficult to pin down, as is the case with the majority of his works, its title gives us an important clue.1 Its satire is directed at “modesty,” embodied by the Proposal’s speaker. To discern what this parody entails, we must ask: what exactly does Swift mean by the term modest? At the time of the work’s composition and publication, this term was variable in usage, shifting according to the gender of the subject to whom it was applied. For women, modesty suggested one who was “decorous in manner and conduct; not forward, impudent, or lewd; demure; . . . scrupulously avoiding impropriety or vulgarity in speech or behaviour.”2 For men, in contrast, it implied “[h]aving a moderate or humble estimate of one’s own abilities or achievements; disinclined to bring oneself into notice; becomingly diffident and unassuming; not bold or forward.”3 As multispecies feminist theorist Donna Haraway observes, “[f]emale modesty was of the body; the new masculine virtue [of modesty] had to be of the mind.”4 Given that the speaker of Swift’s Proposal is male, we may assume that it is the modest man whom the work parodies and thus satirizes.

Haraway characterizes masculine modesty as a “new virtue” because of how central it would become to the new empirical philosophy—what we would now call science—of the Enlightenment era. With his 1620 Novum Organum, the forefather of modern science, Francis Bacon, developed a distinctive philosophic orientation to nonhuman nature that perceived man as both separate from and dominant over the material world. It is this perception that informs the masculine modesty of the Enlightenment era; therefore, the Enlightenment philosopher has come to be known as a “modest witness.” Whereas women were expected to preserve the modesty of their bodies—by embodying virtue and thereby preserving their chastity—men were expected to preserve the modesty of their minds. They were to do so by remaining detached from and transcendent over the material world. Consequently, while the modest woman was to be courteous, polite, and demure in her actions, the modest man was to be aloof, sober, and neutral in his thinking. It is precisely such masculine modesty that the male speaker of Swift’s Modest Proposal performs and that the work thus satirizes. In A Modest Proposal, Swift shows that modesty—specifically, the modesty entailed by “calculating the financial worth of a population” or what was then known as “political arithmetic”—was not only unreliable as a means by which to ensure the authority of one’s observations and analysis; it was also a source of arrogance and inhumanity as well as utter cluelessness.5 As such, it could produce the most ridiculous of ideas. In the case of Swift’s Modest Proposal, it inspires the simultaneously ridiculous and abhorrent promotion of cannibalism—specifically, the eating of children: “A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.”6

As Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer explain in their foundational work Leviathan and the Air-Pump, “a man whose narratives could be credited as mirrors of reality was a modest man; his reports ought to make that modesty visible.” He did so by using the form of “the experimental essay,” by adopting a “naked way of writing,” and by “speak[ing] confidently of matters of fact.”7 These techniques were perceived to allow the scientist to establish and maintain his Baconian modesty. In 1663, they were institutionalized in the Royal Society’s statutes thus: “In all Reports of Experiments to be brought into the Society, the matter of fact shall be barely stated, without any prefaces, apologies, or rhetorical flourishes; and entered so in the Register-book, by order of the Society.”8 “In other words, as Tita Chico observes, they were to use “language that is emphatically not literary.”9 Over the next century or so, such modesty would come to be known as the scientist’s objectivity, his “view from nowhere.”10 The scientist’s basic techniques for achieving modesty, and thereby becoming an “independent observer,” have persisted into the present day.11

The philosophical method that Bacon pioneered was distinguished from the Aristotelian scientific tradition that preceded it by its reliance on experience, experiment, direct observation, and induction. Whereas previous scientific practices regularly tended to be primarily theoretical, speculative, or discursive, Bacon’s was fundamentally empirical in nature. With his innovation came new challenges. Bacon was particularly concerned with what he called “the idols of the mind.” Bacon claims that, “beset” by the idols, “the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolours the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.” The solution he provides is for the scientist to “free . . . and cleanse” their “understanding.”12 Bacon suggests that modern science requires that its practitioners purify themselves so they may be set apart and, thus, unencumbered by the very material world they seek to explore and understand. It is this indifferent neutrality, or modesty, that would eventually evolve into what we now refer to as “objectivity.” Still regularly cited as the forefather of “the scientific method,” Bacon has had an enduring legacy. Objectivity persists as a requirement of reliable scientific investigation. The scientist, then and now, is regularly expected to be an “independent observer” who resists the temptation to intermingle with, and thus become swayed by, their objects of study.

Women were, in the Enlightenment era, regularly understood to be highly sensitive and thus overly susceptible to external stimuli as well as fundamentally and thus unavoidably associated with materiality. Consequently, they were perceived as unequipped to achieve the kind of masculine modesty that their male philosophical counterparts strove to achieve. To cite a representative example, in 1708, the British Apollo replies thus to a reader who had asked “whether women were as capable of learning as men”: women “are cast in too soft a mould, are made of too fine, too delicate composure to endure the severity of study, the drudgery of contemplation, the fatigue of profound speculation.”13 Throughout the Enlightenment, “sensitive,” “tender,” and “womanish” were close synonyms for “delicate,” and these terms were regularly used in a pejorative sense.14 According to physician Robert Whytt, “A DELICATE or easily irritable nervous system, must expose a person to various ailments, from causes affecting either the body or mind, too slight to make any remarkable impression upon those of firmer and less sensible nerves.”15 As this passage illustrates, regularly perceived as delicate creatures, women were thought to be particularly open and vulnerable to their environment (“causes affecting either the body or mind”).16 It is no surprise then that Baconian modesty, distinguished by a practice of separating oneself from one’s environment, was generally viewed as unavailable to women. The distance required by masculine modesty was a privilege generally deemed incompatible with being a woman.

Women’s identification with materiality was even seen to make them, along with the enslaved and the poor, less human than their male counterparts. As scholars regularly acknowledge, Locke’s theory of the “property in one’s person” provides an important foundation for the emergence and development of the modern subject. This theory, premised as it is on alienation, contributes significantly to the “buffered” nature of the modern self while also closely identifying Lockean subjectivity with possessive individualism.17 The key passage comes from Locke’s Second Treatise, published anonymously in 1689. It begins: “Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself.”18 Here, while depicting nonhuman nature as a commons, Locke nevertheless proceeds to separate individual men—and their “persons”—out from the commons. In so doing, he alienates men from one another. A man’s ownership of his person fundamentally estranges him from his fellow man. Furthermore, he alienates men from themselves: a man may only possess “his own person” if he and “his person” are distinguished and thus estranged from one another. As many scholars have noted, this alienation was instrumental in the birth and development of the modern subject.19 It ensures that, to return to Locke, “[t]he labour of his body, and the work of his hands . . . are properly his”—his to use to “exclude . . . the common right of other men” in the state of nature.20 By so excluding “the common right” in what amounts to an act of “inclosure,” man makes that which originates in the commons useful and thus valuable. Perhaps even more importantly, though, he asserts his own personal sovereignty over his environment as well as himself.21 The property in one’s own person thus ensures man’s integrity as a subject as well as his freedom and power.

How Locke’s theory of property, and the version of modern subjectivity it produces, applies to women has been a source of controversy from the date of its publication. As Ruth Perry observes, if “the definition of an individual” is “a property-owning being independent of all other property-owning beings—it is a definition which, in seventeenth-century England, deliberately excluded adult women.” According to Perry, “[t]he requirement that a citizen own property in his own person is the crucial move in Locke . . . by which women were excluded from their place in the polity. . . . Their persons have invariably been understood to be the property of their fathers, husbands, or masters; their labor has been understood to be at the disposal of their families.”22 In the words of early modern Tory feminist Mary Astell, “[H]ow much soever Arbitrary Power may be dislik’d on a Throne, not Milton himself wou’d cry up Liberty to poor Female Slaves, or plead for the Lawfulness of Resisting a Private Tyranny.”23 Rape narratives accentuate the serious challenges women faced in claiming and maintaining their property in their person. As Leslie Richardson demonstrates, in the context of domestic fiction, “[t]he sexual act . . . functions as a symbolic occupation, similar to digging a clod of earth or cutting down a tree in staking a claim to real property.” To document stolen sex is thus to “emphasiz[e] the tenuousness”—if not the impossibility—of “a woman’s self-ownership.”24 Unable to own themselves, women could not even claim to be fully human. It is therefore no wonder that even the most privileged women struggled to assert themselves as philosophers.

In Sensitive Witnesses, however, I show how a group of female author-philosophers in the Enlightenment era managed to assert their philosophical authority by harnessing, rather than denying as the modest witness does, their association with materiality.25 I argue that these author-philosophers counter the promotion of philosophical masculine modesty with an assertion that closeness to, rather than distance from, matter makes for good empirical observation and, thus, successful knowledge-making. Moreover, I assert that these author-philosophers variously drew on and/or contributed to contemporary materialisms that eschewed man’s separation from matter.26 They encourage a touching nature, according to which humanity is experienced as continuous with instead of alienated from its environment. Thus, they preview what has come to be known, in the twenty-first century, as “the new materialism,” which is defined by a recognition of humanity’s “trans-corporeal” “entanglement” with matter.27 Transforming the liability of their gender into an asset, they envision a “material feminism” whereby their association with matter becomes an asset rather than a curse.28 Touching nature, these women author-philosophers come to know nature in ways that one separate from and transcendent over nature never could.

Sensitive Witnesses calls for a revision to our understanding of the Enlightenment era and the philosophical methods for which it is known. I join scholars such as Helen Thompson, Tita Chico, Al Coppola, Alexander Wragge-Morley, and Peter Hanns Reill who complicate the “modesty” associated with the Age of Enlightenment.29 Though early modern empirical philosophers claimed to reject “the paint, of art,” nevertheless, as Chico demonstrates, “early science formulated itself through literary knowledge” and thus had recourse to imagination.30 In other words, they were not as modest as their polemics and publicity purported them to be. In fact, as Wragge-Morley explains, “scientists of the early modern period and beyond recognized the epistemic potential of seemingly subjective states, from the passions of desire to the kinds of instant recognition arising from perceptual habit.”31 In Sensitive Witnesses, I show how a group of pioneering female authors also found philosophical value in “subjective states.”

These philosophers who contributed to an alternative history of sublime knowledge-making enabled by the practice of sensitive witnessing prioritized knowledge gained through observation, experience, and experiment so profoundly embodied and engaged that it defied separation between scientist and specimen, subject and object. A central principle of Bacon’s “Great Instauration” was a focus on the value of experience. In his “Dedicatory Epistle” to Novum Organum, Bacon writes, “[A]t last, after so many ages of the world, philosophy and the sciences may no longer float in the air, but rest upon the solid foundations of every kind of experience properly considered.” He then goes on to say, “I have supplied the Instrument; but the material must be sought in things themselves.”32 With the new philosophy, experience—particularly sensory encounters with “things themselves”—was brought front and center as the best means of achieving knowledge and pursuing discovery. However, though Bacon emphasized the value of such sensory encounters with the material world, he simultaneously encouraged his followers to purify themselves of matter and thus to distinguish themselves from their material environments in preparation for their empirical projects. In contrast, the proponents of sensitive witnessing that Sensitive Witnesses explores challenged the legitimacy and feasibility of such purification. They instead insisted on the unavoidability of humanity’s entanglement with matter and even derived their philosophical authority from it. Sensitive Witnesses explores how these female philosophers substantiated such entanglement and the practice of sensitive witnessing it informed. I argue that, as sensitive witnesses, these pioneering author-philosophers develop a distinctive approach to knowledge-making that is distinguished by sublimity.

Though Bacon promoted modesty and thus a clear separation between observer and observed, recent scholars have demonstrated that, nevertheless, early modern philosophical practices regularly capitalized on scientists’ own material entanglement and, in so doing, violated and thus belied such separation. Contrary to the impression that much of the rhetoric around how science should be pursued and presented gave, intermingling with matter was a key dimension of early modern philosophers’ empirical practice. Sensitive Witnesses demonstrates how various British female philosophers of the Enlightenment era used this often underplayed dimension of the new science to claim access to philosophical authority. In her book Fictional Matter, Helen Thompson challenges the modesty that Shapin and Schaffer and others have associated with the new science as she argues that Enlightenment era “empiricism institutes not separation but relation.”33 Exploring the empirical methods and principles of Robert Boyle (1627–1691), whom she presents as an “avatar of modern science,” Thompson shows that corpuscular philosophies of matter readily persuaded new scientists such as Boyle to “define . . . empirical experience as the porosity of texture that admits . . . subtle . . . entering things.”34 Such a definition of experience runs directly counter to the gentlemanly modesty that Shapin and Schaffer associate with early modern empirical practice, as porosity fundamentally contradicts and thus precludes the buffering and detachment of the scientist that is supposedly distinctive of such modesty.

According to Thompson, “[t]he scientific intervention that galvanizes empiricism is not the split of sensed qualities from objects” as theories of modest witnessing would have us perceive. Rather, it is “the provenance of ideas as ‘impressions’ stimulated by environing bodies.”35 Thus, contrary to those who view Enlightenment era “objective” science as having set the foundation for man’s enduring sense of alienation from and consequent destruction of the environment, Thompson’s study shows that “[t]he shibboleth of ‘scientific objectivity’ . . . cannot accommodate the role of corpuscular power in eighteenth-century chemistry and empiricism.”36 Indeed, as Thompson demonstrates, Enlightenment era philosophical practice profoundly revealed humanity’s impressionistic receptiveness to the environment and thereby made any assertion of one’s separation from matter if not impossible then necessarily complicated: “Chemists like Boyle and Newton, as well as dyers, painters, gem and glassmakers, miners, metallurgists, brewers, tanners, submarine and shipbuilders, and other artificers, really made things with corpuscles (they also suffered from ingesting, breathing, and touching them).”37

It was not just in the laboratories of chemists like Boyle and Newton that corpuscular philosophy emphasized man’s material openness to, and thus entanglement with, the environment. Works by moral philosophers such as John Locke and David Hume did not only attest to such openness and entanglement but regularly theorized and thus helped emphasize it. Consequently, there are valuable connections to be made between such works and those by the female author-philosophers Sensitive Witnesses explores. Various scholars have recognized the influence of Boyle’s corpuscularian chemistry on John Locke, and their scholarship invites an appreciation of how Locke’s moral philosophy complicates, if not forecloses upon, masculine philosophical modesty.38 Thompson’s analysis of Boyle’s influence on Locke is particularly relevant to the present study given her focus on the literary consequences of this influence. As Thompson explains, Locke portrays as “delusory” “the figural boundaries of things as humans perceive them”—including humans themselves. Consequently, for Locke as for Boyle, the detached modesty and buffering of the self that Bacon and his followers (including Boyle himself) recommend can only ever be aspirational and thus a performed fiction rather than a material fact.39 In truth, according to Thompson’s persuasive analysis, the entanglement between observer and observed becomes even more profound in Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding than it is in Boyle’s corpuscularian chemistry as Locke denies “Boyle’s distinction between mechanical affections or texture, which compose a thing’s insensible but real physicality, and sensible qualities, which texture effects as ideas ‘in us.’40 Whereas “Boyle divides mechanical affections in things from sensible qualities in persons,” Locke in contrast “differentiates primary qualities—the same mechanical attributes, plus texture, invoked by Boyle—from ‘secondary Qualities’ that also reside within the object.”41 In other words, in spite of his corpuscular philosophy, Boyle nevertheless maintains a separation between things and persons, while Locke altogether refuses such a separation. As Thompson goes on to observe, “Locke’s secondary qualities are effectively in things and in persons at once.”42 Furthermore, “qualities are elicited from bodies [only] by relations to other bodies—including, of course, the human body.”43 Thus, in Locke as in Boyle, empirical observation is only possible because of the material relationality between the observer and observed and, thus, is fundamentally reliant on a kind of material immodesty.

Building on the moral philosophy of John Locke, David Hume similarly recognizes the importance of such relationality. In fact, he emphasizes it more overtly as he extends its influence beyond empirical observation to the very constitution of the self as well as to the operations of reason. Jay L. Garfield’s book The Concealed Influence of Custom: Hume’s Treatise from the Inside Out offers an illuminating depiction of the centrality of material relationality within Hume’s moral philosophy. Far from arguing for detached and neutral empiricism, Hume asserts the fundamental instrumentality of “imagination” to empirical observation. To quote Garfield, according to Hume, “we presuppose a causal link between the object and our senses.”44 In other words, we believe characteristics of an object cause our perceptions of the object. However, as Garfield proceeds to explain, “Hume observes . . . that we have no theoretical arguments to the reality of causal necessity, although we presume this necessity in our ordinary life and in doing science. . . . A few pages later, Hume argues that our tendency to reason causally is grounded neither in the senses nor in memory, but in the imagination.”45 Causality and, thus, what we believe we empirically observe is “a propensity of the mind, mediated by processes in the imagination and by social practices of explanation.”46 In fact, according to Hume’s Pyrrhonic skepticism, we cannot reason with certainty that an external world even exists much less presume that we may gain direct and therefore neutral empirical access to it.47 Moreover, Hume asserts, “All our reasonings concerning causes and effects are deriv’d from nothing but custom; and . . . belief is more properly an act of the sensitive, than of the cogitative part of our natures.”48 As Garfield explains, for Hume, “reason itself has no independent warrant as an instrument for gaining knowledge.”49 Thus, even our most abstract beliefs and reasonings are derived from our sensitive responses to material stimuli. Hume’s moral philosophy is therefore fundamentally incompatible with the gentlemanly modesty that Bacon and his followers promote because there is simply no psychological experience that is unmingled with or disentangled from either the matter of one’s experience or one’s physical environment. In Hume as in Locke, Baconian modesty can only ever be a fantasy.

Furthermore, as Garfield shows, Hume repeatedly, and in various contexts, describes the individual’s material openness and responsiveness to their surroundings and the others with whom they come in contact. According to Hume, one’s very self is constituted only in relation to other selves. As Garfield observes, Hume maintains that “[w]e are . . . social animals, tuned to resonate to each other . . . . We therefore develop as persons in response to social engagement. . . . Our own view of ourselves is determined by the views of others, and the self we represent is an essentially social self.”50 Moreover, sympathy between humans is a “natural” and “autonomic” phenomenon—a “psychic force, akin to gravitation in the physical world.”51 Indebted to Sir Isaac Newton, Hume’s theory of sympathy is founded not on a “theory of reasoning” but, rather, on a “theory of forces” that explains how “[t]he communication of psychic energy . . . allows a kind of expansion of our self to include others, and the attitudes we have toward ourselves to be extended to those others as objects. . . . Other persons are not simply objects among other objects: they (and perhaps other animals by extension or analogy) are so intimately related to us that their very identities overlap ours.”52 Not only is the Humean self intimately (and materially) connected to other selves. It is in fact inclusive of—and thus fundamentally intermingled with—other selves. As a consequence, we cannot help but care for others.53

Considering how prominent early modern British philosophers such as Boyle, Locke, and Hume recognized the reality and significance of material entanglement, what are we to make of the philosophical modesty that the founder of the new science, Francis Bacon, promoted and to which many of his philosophers aspired? Both Thompson’s and Garfield’s studies certainly invite a reevaluation of Enlightenment era philosophical modesty and the buffering of the self it implies. In fact, Thompson argues that her book “refutes literary history’s dominant account of early modern science”—in particularly, this account’s “literal portrait of empirical knowledge, which places science and representation in a phenomenal enclosure delimited by visible things.”54 Sensitive Witnesses also complicates this portrait as it shows how British women authors of the Enlightenment era used contemporary concepts of material entanglement and relationality to claim philosophical authority for themselves in spite of the fact that women’s capacity to contribute to collectively produced and accepted philosophical knowledge was rarely taken seriously. However, whereas Thompson appears to dismiss the practice of early modern modest witnessing altogether, portraying it as a misrepresentation of the new science by twentieth-and twenty-first-century historians, I take a more moderate view. While I agree with Thompson’s characterization of how much Enlightenment era philosophy and literature preclude the practice of modest witnessing, I would assert that it is nevertheless important to recognize how philosophers regularly aspired to and performed gentlemanly modesty in their public presentations and publications, even (and perhaps especially) when such modesty conflicted with the material entanglement and relationality that their philosophical practices and principles emphasized.

Though Boyle’s corpuscular chemistry recognizes material relationality (including between the scientist and his specimens), the “naked” style of his published writings nevertheless performs, and thus conveys a sense of, a separation between himself and his objects of study. So too does his employment of experimental technologies, which effectively place him at a literal remove from the matter of his investigations. Thus, though I find Thompson’s study of the material relationality implied by early modern corpuscular philosophy wholly convincing, I nevertheless find it compatible with Donna Haraway’s portrayal of modest witnessing as a means by which to ensure philosophical authority. Indeed, as Haraway argues, gentlemanly modesty allowed male empirical philosophers like Boyle to avoid appearing to be “polluted by the body,” to “guarantee . . . the clarity and purity of objects” and, therefore, to ensure their own ability to make reliable philosophical claims, in spite of their own material entanglement which they profoundly perceived.55 To witness is not only to see but also to document how one sees.56 I would argue that while the early modern philosopher’s perception itself—including their sense of their own relationship to the objects that they perceived—may not have been modest, the written evidence they provided of such acts of perception (for instance, in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and other publications similarly intended to be read by their peers) nevertheless tended to be so. Thus, early modern philosophers cultivated what may be seen as a semblance of detachment that downplayed and even repressed their acutely felt sense of their own material entanglement. Their empirical practice itself may have relied on sensitivity, but their public performance of their empiricism rarely broadcast this. See for instance this passage from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665): “Nor, is there a less admirable and wonderfull Mechanism in the foot of a Spider, whereby he is able to spin, weave, and climb, or run on his curious transparent clew.”57 Here, even as Hooke acknowledges the astonishment and pleasure afforded by his microscopic investigation, he retains a reserved air that prevents such acknowledgment from violating the distance between the philosopher and his object of study. Were he to have exclaimed with wonder, and thus evoked his own sensitivity, he would have compromised his philosophic remove. Instead, he describes his wonderment through sober statement, thus perpetuating the spider’s otherness as well as his own distance, control, and even superiority.58 Such performed restraint persisted in published philosophical works intended for virtuosi audiences throughout the long eighteenth century.

As it thus persisted, such restraint helped ensure the continued exclusion of women from serious philosophical activities. Though Al Coppola is right to recognize that “the immodest and interested observer” embodied by “the virtuosa” took center stage in popular science at mid-century, he neglects to recognize key differences between philosophical works intended for broad audiences and those intended for narrower ones comprised of serious practitioners.59 Consequently, I would argue that he extends his argument too far when he contends that “[t]he eager spectator,” which “derives from the figure of the female enthusiast,” would “come . . . to organize [British] Enlightenment natural philosophy” in the second half of the eighteenth century.60 In the chapter where Coppola presents this argument, the only work he substantially addresses that is not primarily designed for a popular audience is Joseph Priestley’s The History and Present State of Electricity, with Original Experiments. Regarding this work, Coppola argues,

Priestley imagines “the present state of electricity” . . . to be a vast and majestic terra incognita on the cusp of discovery, a sublime landscape of natural knowledge that cannot be charted solely with the sober empiricism of a few highly learned experts. Rather, the work positively requires the unschooled exertions of enthusiastic amateurs who are prepared to throw themselves into a highly sentimental experimental practice and feel their way around, by sheer instinct and nerve, to heretofore unknown truths.61

However, Coppola neglects to recognize that Priestley expressly addresses this work both to a popular audience (“persons who have a taste for Natural Philosophy in general”) and to one comprised of serious virtuosi (“electricians in particular”) and that his celebration of the “sublime” pleasures afforded by the study of electricity is more directed at the former than at the latter.62 Moreover, though Priestley does repeatedly celebrate the “sublime” pleasures afforded by the study of electricity (not only in his preface but throughout the work), when he proceeds to document his experiments with electricity in the main body of the work, Priestley nevertheless performs precisely the same kind of gentlemanly philosophical modesty that seventeenth-century empirical philosophers promoted and performed.63 See for instance this introduction to his “Experiments on Excitation”:

Finding by my own experiments, and those of others, that a glass tube, out of which the air was exhausted, discovered no sign of electricity outwards, but that all its effects were observed on the inside; I imagined that, if the air was condensed in the tube, it would operate more strongly on the outside; so that an additional atmosphere would give it a double virtue. But the result was the very reverse of my expectations.64

Without any points of comparison, it is impossible to be convinced by Coppola’s analysis that Priestley’s History is indicative of a broad trend. However, even if we presume that it is thus broadly indicative, I would assert that Priestley’s consistent performance of gentlemanly philosophical modesty throughout the body of the work reveals Coppola’s claim that the “entertainment promised by Priestley . . . is the very engine of discovery in the science of electricity, the epistemological ground of the later eighteenth-century’s sentimental empiricism” to be inaccurate.65

In actuality, at least within the British context, gentlemanly modesty persisted throughout the Enlightenment era as a philosophical convention and a prerequisite for philosophical authority.66 Contrary to the impression that Coppola gives when he asserts that “the masculine modest witness of science ceded primacy to a new feminized (and, increasingly, female) figure,” women continued to be excluded from natural philosophy that was supported, condoned, and publicized by and for the Royal Society and its members. A woman would not claim a place in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the society’s journal, until 1787 when Caroline Herschel presented “An Account of a New Comet” addressed to “Charles Blagden, M.D. Sec. R. S.” Even then, Caroline Herschel was an exception to the generally accepted rule of excluding women from serious philosophical study and contribution. Her “Account” illustrates her perception of herself as an outsider and the obligation she felt, as a result, to assure readers of her humility while subordinating herself and her philosophical practice to her brother William Herschel, a prominent fellow of the Royal Society. Presented in the form of a letter to the then Secretary of the Royal Society, Charles Blagden, her account begins thus: “Sir, In consequence of the friendship which I know to exist between you and my Brother, I venture to trouble you in his absence with the following imperfect account of a comet.”67 As this opening sentence makes clear, Caroline Herschel is well aware that it is only because of her close relationship with her brother that her comet sighting is accepted into the Philosophical Transactions. That a letter from her brother William is included in the volume directly after her own, vouching for the authority of her sighting, only further demonstrates her philosophical dependence on him.68 To help secure and maintain her philosophical authority, Caroline Herschel performs masculine modesty as she records her observations: “August 1, 1786, 9 h. 50’, the object in the center is like a star out of focus, while the rest are perfectly distinct, and I suspect it to be a comet. Tab. 1. fig. 1 10 h. 33’, fig. 2. the suspected comet makes now a perfect isosceles triangle with the two stars a and b.”69 However, because she is a woman, her philosophical modesty and, thus, her right to participate in this publication by and for male virtuosi are reliant on her brother.

It is in stark contrast to the conventional modest witness, who performs a sense of detachment even when their philosophical experiences or principles belie it, that the authors explored in the present study conduct themselves. As sensitive witnesses, these authors eschew the aloofness and sobriety of the modest witness and instead allow themselves not only to feel but also to express the profound effect that objects have on them and their empirical investigations. In the words of William Smith’s English translation of Longinus’s first-century foundational treatise on the sublime, Peri Hupsous, they allow themselves to be “sensibly affected” such that they “swell . . . in transport.”70 Far from aloof, these sensitive witnesses maintain a sense of their own psychological and material porosity and, thus, a recognition of the interpenetration between subject and object, observer and observed. Such a recognition further contributes to the sublime dimension of their knowledge-making as it entails a breaking down and even, at its most extreme, a complete dissolution of the isolated self. According to the most prominent theorist of the sublime in Enlightenment England, Edmund Burke, we experience the sublime “when we contemplate the Deity,” for when we find ourselves so doing, “we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated before him.”71 In the cases of perception and observation that Sensitive Witnesses investigates, such annihilation of self occurs not only in “contemplation of the Deity” but in contemplation of the material world, including its most trivial and mundane elements. Softened, penetrated, charmed, seduced, intrigued, devastated, or emotionally moved by that which they witness, these sensitive witnesses open themselves to and commune with the beings and objects that inhabit their environments. As they do so, they suggest that knowledge is best made when an ontology of individuality (or individualism) is replaced by an ontology of kinship according to which self and other are continuous and, thus, united with rather than alienated from one another.

Beginning in the 1640s with Lucy Hutchinson’s translation of Lucretius’s Epicurean poem De Rerum Natura and concluding with Charlotte Smith’s 1807 epic poem Beachy Head, Sensitive Witnesses traces and theorizes the practice of sensitive witnessing across Britain’s long Enlightenment. As it does so, it appeals for a reconsideration of what the Enlightenment entailed and, thus, represents. For several decades, critical theorists have regularly criticized the Enlightenment era, portraying it as having provided the foundation for modern man’s tendency to oppress, exploit, and dominate Others, both human and nonhuman. It has become commonplace to identify the Enlightenment era as the beginning of the Anthropocene, a new epoch in which human activity has become the prime mover of ecological change. James Watt’s development of the steam engine in the 1780s is often cited as an important early touchstone in the epoch’s historical emergence.72 According to this analysis, climate change and other forms of ecological devastation that are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore as their effects grow increasingly apparent are by-products of the ambition and arrogance that the Enlightenment fomented.

While I recognize the persuasiveness of such analysis, with Sensitive Witnesses I refine the story that such critiques of the Enlightenment imply. As Aaron Hanlon has argued, “perhaps one of the most formidable challenges of the Anthropocene age is to rethink the kind of ‘Real Knowledge’ that positions nature as an inanimate object in relation to the human subject, and thus to learn how to articulate our world as animated with us, not in opposition to us.”73 This book rethinks such “Real Knowledge” by telling a story of the Enlightenment in which, through sublime knowledge-making and sensitive witnessing, philosophers develop an appreciation for their continuity with the material world—an appreciation that sets the foundation for a new sense of ecological responsibility and, ultimately, a new commitment to an ethic of care. This story does not cancel out more conventional depictions of the era of Enlightenment but, rather, disputes their claim to comprehensiveness. Sensitive Witnesses calls for a more inclusive approach to the Enlightenment and its legacy by uncovering philosophical practices and affective experiences that challenged the monolithic status of Baconian philosophy in Enlightenment era Britain. It helps not only to expand our historical understanding but also to broaden how we understand and experience what it means to be human in the modern world. I share the goal Lynn Festa outlines in her recent book Fiction without Humanity: Person, Animal, Thing in Early Enlightenment Literature and Culture to emphasize “the insecure foundation of humanity” while simultaneously recognizing that the distinguishing of man from matter (people, creatures, and things that are not man) was essential to the dawning of modernity.74 Sensitive Witnesses shows that women found particular ways of engaging with, and even capitalizing on, such insecurity. Thus, I argue that their writings are particularly well equipped to, quoting Festa, “help us reconceive the rights to which we—whoever we are—seek to lay claim.”

In her recent book, Sweet Science, Amanda Jo Goldstein demonstrates how certain authors of the Romantic period employed Lucretian materialism to legitimate their claim to philosophical authority and knowledge, thereby producing “an alternative . . . romanticism that runs athwart its usual basis in the English reception of Kantian and post-Kantian idealist philosophy.”75 Sensitive Witnesses complicates the originality of the Romantic Lucretian materialism that Goldstein highlights as it demonstrates that a number of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century British female authors had already, prior to the Romantic authors that Goldstein studies (Blake, Goethe, and Shelley), pursued and promoted a “sensitive” and thus “sweet” science, using poetry and other forms of literary expression as “privileged” sites of philosophical investigation and observation.76 Goldstein contends, “Romantic, revisionary poetic sciences . . . challenged emergent life-scientific and aesthetic protocols to understand ‘raw’ sensation itself as susceptible and generative of social and rhetorical transformation; to countenance the mutual, material influence between the subjects and objects of experiment; and to position vulnerability—to impression, influence, and decay—as central, not inimical, to biological life.”77 While such Romantic “poetic sciences” may have been “revisionary” of what had become conventional scientific practices and principles by the turn of the century, they nevertheless hearken back to the earlier literary-philosophical productions that the present study investigates. Though scholars have, over the past several decades, begun to appreciate the influence of eighteenth-century writers on Romanticism, it is still all too common to take Romantics at their word when they claim to have made a break with the Enlightenment and, consequently, to overlook their indebtedness to earlier authors. This is particularly true of the influence eighteenth-century female authors had on canonical (male) Romanticism.78 Considered in relation to Goldstein’s Sweet Science, Sensitive Witnesses suggests that there is a connection to be made between feminist materialism of the British Enlightenment and British Romantic materialism. Even if the authors studied here did not have a direct influence on the Romantic authors that feature in Goldstein’s book, their similarities are so striking and significant that they certainly have the potential to open up new possibilities of understanding the complex relationship between Romanticism and the Enlightenment.

In chapter 1, I explore how Lucy Hutchinson and Margaret Cavendish develop a practice of sensitive witnessing from opposite sides of the political spectrum that, directly influenced by Lucretian Epicureanism, sets an important foundation for transforming one’s association with matter, as a woman, from an encumbrance into an asset. Insisting that all beings (whether male or female) are prone to the pull of and identification with matter, these author-philosophers challenged Bacon’s investment in the modest witness. They instead promote an empirical practice that values the physical and psychological intimacy facilitated by atoms and that uses such intimacy for philosophical discovery and insight. In chapter 2, I explore how, like Hutchinson and Cavendish, Aphra Behn drew significant inspiration from Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura. In this chapter, I assert that Behn presents a strong critique of contemporary philosophical practice while proposing an alternative that is distinguished by libertine Epicureanism. Behn encourages her readers to appreciate how sensory stimuli move and beguile our will, making us profoundly vulnerable to our environments. While such vulnerability threatens Baconian empiricism, which is invested in masculine modesty, it proves to be a boon to the philosophical practice that Behn models and promotes. It enables discoveries and insights that are unavailable to the masculine modest witness and, in so doing, shows that femininity is something to be proud of as a philosopher. Behn parodies masculine philosophical modesty and sets a foundation for the appreciation of feminine sensitive witnessing.

In chapter 3, I turn to the work of Eliza Haywood. I argue that Haywood presents a sensitive witness who is distinguished by skeptical doubt. Philosophers should, according to Haywood, practice sensitivity so that they may maximize their access to empirical truths. However, they should take care not to become swept up by their observations so that they may avoid becoming dogmatic or overly attached to a certain result of their enquiries. They must remain steadfast and thus resilient in the face of whatever truths come their way. Haywood directly challenges the modest witness and, specifically, its efficacy and ethics. She both legitimates and emphasizes the value and importance of feminist empirical philosophy. In the final chapter, I show how, at the end of the Enlightenment era, Charlotte Smith preserved the philosophical value of sensitive witnessing even as it became associated with the “cult of sensibility,” which had become a target of satire and criticism by the end of the century. For Smith, the sensitive witness must combine feeling and reason. In doing so, they not only avoid the superficiality that was regularly seen to characterize sensibility but also cultivate an ontology of kinship and an ethic of care, which are, according to Smith, valuable to both philosophy and the public good.

The earliest author-philosophers I study here acquired support and inspiration for their innovative views and practices from Lucretius’s Epicurean epic poem, De Rerum Natura. In recent years, scholars have become increasingly interested in Lucretius’s influence on Enlightenment philosophy and literature. There is a general consensus now that his popularity in the period helped rouse an Enlightenment “neo-Epicurean revival.”79 Two main themes of De Rerum Natura are atomic interconnectedness and the material nature of humanity. Following Epicurus, Lucretius denies man’s separability from nonhuman nature and portrays human as well as nonhuman existence as wholly determined by atomic interactions. The sensitive witnesses that I explore use such materialist principles to challenge the feasibility of modest witnessing and to lend support to their own distinctively affective form of knowledge-making. While Lucretius’s Epicurean materialism directly informs the philosophical practice of the first three authors in this study—Hutchinson, Cavendish, and Behn—the final two authors, Haywood and Smith, espouse a materialism that is not explicitly identified with Lucretius or Epicurus. Theirs is instead symptomatic of how, by the middle of the eighteenth century, materialist concepts such as atomic transcorporeality, physical continuity, and the corporeality of thoughts and feelings had become so ubiquitous in England that one could invoke these concepts without attributing them to a particular philosopher or philosophy. Sensitive Witnesses shows that these various prominent female philosophers of the British Enlightenment chose feminine sensitivity over masculine modesty because they believed that it was both more sustainable and more capable of enhancing their ability to make reliable and illuminating observations about our atomically charged material universe. If man is inseparable from nonhuman nature, then claims to purity and transcendence are spurious at best and certainly not as authoritative as the modest virtuoso would have them seem.

The female philosophers Sensitive Witnesses addresses were not essentialists. They did not believe that women were intrinsically closer to matter than men. Rather, they understood such feminine closeness as a social construction and one of the many ways in which patriarchal society disadvantaged women. By developing and promoting sensitive witnessing, though, they were able to transform their close identification with matter from a symptom of their inferiority into an asset and even an indication of their philosophical superiority. While the modest witness conducts philosophy by the clear lights of indifferent observation and cool reason, the sensitive witness does so by the vibrant lights of embodied perception and engaged reason. In the face of matter, the sensitive witness welcomes physical and emotional stimulation whereas the modest witness is intent on remaining sober. Indeed, for the sensitive witness, the best knowledge-making is informed by experiences in which the very boundaries of the self are breached.

For each of the author-philosophers studied here, knowledge-making was both a philosophical endeavor and a sublime experience. They encourage nature’s touch, both physically and emotionally. As they do so, they submit to the realization that they are themselves material beings and thus, in spite of their perception of themselves as individuals, they recognize their own continuity with their environments. To do so is a discomposing, often transporting, and sometimes annihilating experience. In his book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor depicts the modern self as distinguished by a capacity to “tak[e] a distance from” or to “disengage[e] from everything outside the mind.” According to Taylor, the modern self is fundamentally “buffered.”80 The pioneering women featured in this book, however, resist becoming such a self. Far from “buffered,” they experience themselves instead as transcorporeally entwined with, and thus physically and emotionally joined to, their environments. Longinus argues that the sublime, “endued with Strength irresistible, strikes home, and triumphs over every hearer.”81 Though Longinus was writing in reference, specifically, to sublime rhetoric, in the Enlightenment era, his definition of the sublime was applied to the natural world as well. Eighteenth-century theorists of the sublime, such as Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, maintained that, for nature to be sublime, one had to be at a safe distance from it. Thus, they devised a masculine modesty for aesthetic experience that closely corresponded to that devised by Bacon for the new science. The philosopher-authors Sensitive Witnesses explores fundamentally challenge modesty both aesthetic and empirical as they develop a practice of sensitive witnessing that is not only philosophically illuminating but also generative of the sublime. For these pioneering women, the material world is a source of sublimity, but rather than standing at a distance from it so that they may admire it, they subject themselves both physically and emotionally to its “Strength irresistible” while recognizing themselves as a part of it. Thus, for these women, the sublime “strikes home” in a more dramatic, all-consuming way than Burke and Kant were ever willing to allow.

As many historians of science and ecocritics have shown, Bacon’s distinctive variety of modest witnessing appeared to legitimate grand projects of environmental manipulation and exploitation.82 Baconians may have performed modesty, but their deepest ambitions and most far-reaching projects were anything but humble. In Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.Female-Man_Meets_OncoMouse (1997), Donna Haraway proposes to “queer” Bacon’s modest witness so that we might “enable a more corporeal, inflected, and optically dense, if less elegant, kind of modest witness to matters of fact to emerge in the worlds of technoscience.”83 I would like to conclude this introduction by suggesting that the author-philosophers Sensitive Witnesses studies should be understood as early modern precursors to the “queer modest witness” that Haraway proposes. As Haraway explains, Bacon’s modest witness boasts of both neutrality and transcendence.84 Moreover, empirical modesty is closely tied to and informs the association between technoscience and masculinity—an association whose legacy unfortunately persists in our present day, as the persistent underrepresentation of women in the hard sciences attests. Haraway seeks to queer the modest witness to achieve both a more inclusive science as well as a more ethical one that not only acknowledges but is fundamentally inflected by humanity’s kinship with nonhuman nature.

Whereas Bacon’s modest witness transcends nature, Haraway’s queer variety remains interwoven with nature. As a direct consequence of this radical intermingling, she experiences the creatures, both sentient and nonsentient, with whom she inhabits the earth as “kin.” For Bacon’s modest witness, such creatures are fundamentally Other than himself. In contrast, Haraway’s queer modest witness “becomes with” her fellow creatures.85 She sees herself as bound up with them: “one must be in the action, be finite and dirty, not transcendent and clean.”86 Bacon’s method fosters an ontology of detachment; Haraway’s, an ontology of kinship. As a result, whereas Bacon’s modest witness is perfectly willing to sacrifice life for knowledge, Haraway’s queer witness is much more circumspect. Bacon encourages an ethic of discovery and advancement; Haraway an ethic of care. Bacon’s modest witness pursues progress for its own sake, without much if any concern for the sacrifices it exacts. Haraway’s queer witness’s pursuit of progress is always accompanied by a deeply felt ecological responsibility. All of these features of Haraway’s queer witness may be detected within the Enlightenment author-philosophers that Sensitive Witnesses investigates. Thus, as we seek to queer scientific practice in the twenty-first century while we reckon with the increasing ecological catastrophes that our unabashed consumption and exploitation have created, I would propose that we take inspiration from the pioneering women of the Enlightenment era who refused to conform to masculine modesty even as they sought to assert themselves both as philosophers and as authors of the sublime. Because of the prominence of Baconian empiricism as well as aesthetic philosophies, such as those of Burke and Kant, that similarly recommend masculine modesty—distance, detachment, sobriety, aloofness—nature has become perceived as “a reified thing in the distance.”87 However, Sensitive Witnesses shows that there was a significant feminist tradition of not only critiquing such modesty but also offering alternatives to it in the Enlightenment era. I share this study in the hopes that we may together learn about these pioneering women but also so that we may take inspiration from them as we seek to heal and preserve our material world.


1. On the context and reception of Swift’s Modest Proposal, see especially Ian McBride, “The Politics of A Modest Proposal: Swift and the Irish Crisis of the Late 1720s,” Past & Present 244, no. 1 (2019): 89–122; Charlotte Sussman, “The Colonial Afterlife of Political Arithmetic: Swift, Demography, and Mobile Populations,” Cultural Critique 56 (2004): 96–126.

2. “Modest,” Oxford English Dictionary Online.

3. Ibid.

4. Donna J. Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience (New York: Routledge, 1997), 30.

5. Sussman, “The Colonial Afterlife of Political Arithmetic,” 96.

6. Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal, The Writings of Jonathan Swift, ed. Robert A. Greenberg and William B. Piper (New York: Norton, 1973), 504.

7. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 65. The phrase “naked way of writing” is from Robert Boyle, “Proëmical Essay . . . with some Considerations touching Experimental Essays in General,” in The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle, vol. 1, 2nd ed., ed. Thomas Birch (London: J. & F. Rivington, 1772), 318.

8. The Record of the Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge, 4th ed. (London: Morrison & Gibb, 1940), 290.

9. Tita Chico, The Experimental Imagination: Literary Knowledge and Science in the British Enlightenment (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018), 26.

10. On the evolution of Baconian modesty into objectivity, see Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity (Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2007). The phrase “the view from nowhere” is from Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

11. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, Responsible Science: Ensuring the Integrity of the Research Process: Volume I (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1992), 38.

12. Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, in The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, vol. 8 (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1864), 76–77, 99.

13. My emphasis; qtd. in G. J. Barker-Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 23.

14. “Delicate,” Oxford English Dictionary Online. See also “womanish.”

15. Robert Whytt, Observations on the Nature, Causes and Cure of those Disorders which have been Commonly called Nervous, Hypochondriac or Hysteric (Edinburgh, 1765), 115.

16. On the perceived sensitivity of women’s nerves, see esp. Barker-Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility; G. Rousseau, Nervous Acts: Essays on Literature, Culture and Sensibility (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). For a helpful overview of the gendering of nerves in the British Enlightenment, see also Eleanor C. L. Crouch, “Nerve Theory and Sensibility: ‘Delicacy’ in the Work of Fanny Burney,” Literature Compass 11, no. 3 (2014): 206–17.

17. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 37–38.

18. John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, ed. C. B. Macpherson (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1980), 19.

19. See especially, Jennifer Rae Greeson, “The Prehistory of Possessive Individualism,” PMLA 127, no. 4 (2012): 918–24; Charles Taylor, “Locke’s Punctual Self,” in Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 159–76.

20. Locke, Second Treatise, 19.

21. Ibid., 21.

22. Ruth Perry, “Mary Astell and the Feminist Critique of Possessive Individualism,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 23, no. 4 (1990): 452.

23. Mary Astell, Some Reflections upon Marriage Occasion’d by the Duke & Dutchess of Mazarine’s Case, Which Is Also Considered. (London: Printed for John Nutt, 1700), 72.

24. Leslie Richardson, “Leaving Her Father’s House: Astell, Locke, and Clarissa’s Body Politic,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 34 (2005): 152.

25. I appreciate Kathleen Lubey’s suggestion that the use of “‘female’ and ‘male’ as adjectives . . . risk[s] positing an anatomical sexual binary” and “assert[ing] causality between genitals and gender.” Like Lubey, I oppose binaristic and/or essentialist understandings of gender. In fact, the authors whom I address throughout Sensitive Witnesses regularly do so as well. However, I have nevertheless chosen to use “female” and “male” as adjectives throughout the book for one main reason: these were terms that were regularly used in Enlightenment Britain as adjectives to signify gender and are thus historically precise. Additionally, as a historian and across many contexts, I have found them more neutral and therefore versatile than the terms “woman” and “man.” Kathleen Lubey, What Pornography Knows: Sex and Social Protest Since the Eighteenth Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2022), 27.

26. Karen Gevirtz has also explored how Enlightenment era female authors pose significant challenges to masculine modest witnessing. However, whereas Gevirtz’s study focuses almost solely on narrative fiction, and is primarily interested in the literary consequences of authors’ philosophical practices and principles, Sensitive Witnesses studies a broad variety of genres and attends equally to their philosophical and literary consequences. Furthermore, Gevirtz neglects to consider the influence of materialism on Enlightenment era female authors. In recognizing this influence, the present study encourages a fuller and more nuanced appreciation of British women’s claim to philosophical authority in the Enlightenment period. Karen Bloom Gevirtz, Women, the Novel, and Natural Philosophy, 1660–1727 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

27. The term “trans-corporeality” comes from Stacy Alaimo’s highly influential book Bodily Natures. With this concept, she seeks to encapsulate, and to provide a framework for theorizing, the way in which “the human is always intermeshed with the more-than-human world” such that “the substance of the human is ultimately inseparable from ‘the environment.’” Alaimo uses the term “trans-corporeality” to “think . . . across bodies” so as to “catalyze the recognition that the environment, which is often imagined as inert, empty space or as a resource for human use, is, in fact, a world of fleshy beings with their own needs, claims, and actions. By emphasizing the movement across bodies, trans-corporeality reveals the interchanges and interconnections between various bodily natures.” Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 2, 4. The term “entanglement” comes from Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities 6 (2015): 160.

28. My concept of “material feminism” is especially informed by Stacy Alaimo and Susan J. Hekman, Material Feminisms (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008). See also Sara Ahmed, “Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Gestures on the Founding Gestures of the ‘New Materialism,’European Journal of Women’s Studies 15, no. 1 (2008): 23–39; Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Susan Hekman, The Material Knowledge: Feminist Disclosures (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010).

29. Chico, Experimental Imagination; Helen Thompson, Fictional Matter: Empiricism, Corpuscles, and the Novel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017); Al Coppola, The Theater of Experiment: Staging Natural Philosophy in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Alexander Wragge-Morley, Aesthetic Science: Representing Nature in the Royal Society of London, 1650–1720 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020); Peter Hanns Reill, Vitalizing Nature in the Enlightenment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). See also Lorraine Daston, “On Scientific Observation,” Isis 99 (2008): 97–110; Jessica Riskin, Science in the Age of Sensibility: The Sentimental Empiricists of the French Enlightenment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); Charles T. Wolfe and Ofer Gal, eds., The Body as Object and Instrument of Knowledge: Embodied Empiricism in Early Modern Science (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, 2010).

30. Abraham Cowley, “To the Royal Society,” in The History of the Royal-Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge, by Thomas Sprat (London, 1667), n.p; Chico, Experimental Imagination, 1.

31. Wragge-Morley, Aesthetic Science, 3.

32. Bacon, Novum Organum, 5.

33. Thompson, Fictional Matter, 3. Other prominent descriptions of Enlightenment era modest witnessing Thompson similarly challenges are Barad, Meeting the Universe; Michael McKeon, The Origins of the English Novel, 1600–1740 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).

34. Thompson, Fictional Matter, 33.

35. Ibid., 34.

36. Ibid., 279. This presumptive view of the Enlightenment era has become ubiquitous in twenty-first century environmental humanities. For a particularly multifaceted recent representation of it, see the special issue of Telos devoted to the Anthropocene in 2016 wherein, for example, Timothy Sean Quinn finds in Francis Bacon’s philosophy “the beginnings of the modern worldview: a duality of a cosmos without purpose or intrinsic meaning, and a purposive world of human action upon that indifferent world, developing technologies that aid us in dominating it.” Timothy Sean Quinn, “Anthropocene Crises and the Origin of Modernity,” Telos 177 (winter 2016): 47. Of course, as foundational works by Horkheimer and Adorno as well as Carolyn Merchant attest, such an identification between early modern scientific innovations and the environmental exploitation that would come to distinguish later centuries is far from new. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1982); Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1980).

37. Thompson, Fictional Matter, 15. For example, Principe provides evidence that Newton suffered from “mercury poisoning.” Lawrence M. Principe, The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and His Alchemical Quest (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 179. A particularly illustrative example of the intense physicality of philosophers’ engagement with their specimens is Robert Boyle’s Workdiaries. Robert Boyle, The Workdiaries of Robert Boyle (1647–1691), eds. Michael Hunter and Alison Wiggins, CELL website, Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, 2001,

38. See for instance Thompson, Fictional Matter, 66–107; Peter R. Anstey, John Locke and Natural Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Stephen Gaukroger, “The Role of Natural Philosophy in the Development of Locke’s Empiricism,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 17, no. 1 (2009): 55–83; Michael Hunter, Boyle: Between God and Science (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009); J. R. Milton, “Locke at Oxford,” in Locke’s Philosophy: Content and Context, ed. G. A. J. Rogers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 29–48; J. R. Milton, “Locke’s Life and Times,” in The Cambridge Companion to Locke, ed. Vere Chappell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 5–25; G. A. J. Rogers, “The Intellectual Setting and Aims of the Essay,” in The Cambridge Companion to Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Lex Newman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 7–32; Patrick Romanell, John Locke and Medicine: A New Key to Locke (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1984); Rose-Mary Sargent, The Diffident Naturalist: Robert Boyle and the Philosophy of Experiment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); John W. Yolton, Locke and the Compass of Human Understanding: A Selective Commentary on the ‘Essay’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).

39. Thompson, Fictional Matter, 106.

40. Ibid., 79.

41. Ibid., 79.

42. Ibid., 80. As Thompson recognizes, “[t]he location of Locke’s secondary qualities marks a sustained source of philosophical dispute,” hence the controversial nature of her argument. Thompson, Fictional Matter, 296n37.

43. Ibid., 80.

44. Jay L. Garfield, The Concealed Influence of Custom: Hume’s Treatise from the Inside Out (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 123–24.

45. Ibid., 124–25.

46. Ibid., 127.

47. Ibid., 173–78.

48. My emphasis; David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), ed. Ernest C. Mossner (London: Penguin Books, 1969), 234.

49. Garfield, Concealed Influence, 154.

50. Ibid., 93–4. In fact, according to Garfield, Hume’s “social account of the passions . . . is [his] greatest contribution to the moral psychology of the eighteenth century.” It is “the heart of the Humean project.” Garfield, Concealed Influence, 58.

51. Ibid., 98–99.

52. My emphasis; ibid., 99–101.

53. Ibid., 95n6.

54. Thompson, Fictional Matter, 2.

55. Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium, 32, 24.

56. “Witness,” Oxford English Dictionary Online.

57. Robert Hooke, Micrographia (London, 1665), 171.

58. In an article on what I call “tactile microscopy,” I read the detachment of this passage by Hooke in relationship to the satires of science presented by Jonathan Swift’s “Voyage to Brobdingnag” in Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and by an anonymous pornographic poem entitled “The Microscope” (1732). Kristin M. Girten, “Mingling with Matter: Tactile Microscopy and the Philosophic Mind in Brobdingnag and Beyond,” The Eighteenth Century, 54, no. 4 (Winter 2013): 508–9.

59. Coppola, Theater of Experiment, 173.

60. Ibid., 175.

61. Ibid., 174.

62. Joseph Priestley, preface to The History and Present State of Electricity, with Original Experiments (London, 1769), i.

63. Ibid., ii.

64. Priestley, History, 550.

65. Coppola, Theater of Experiment, 174.

66. In Science in the Age of Sensibility, Jessica Riskin makes a strong case for what she calls “sentimental empiricism” in the context of the French Enlightenment, and Coppola relies heavily on her study. However, it is important not to assume that British empiricists were inclined to invest in sentiment and sensibility as their French counterparts were. More research needs to be conducted to develop a precise understanding of how British empirical philosophers of the Enlightenment era engaged (or resisted engagement with) sentiment and sensibility.

67. Caroline Herschel, “An Account of a New Comet. In a Letter from Miss Caroline Herschel to Charles Blagden, M. D. Sec. R. S.,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 77 (1787): 1.

68. William Herschel, “Remarks on the New Comet. In a Letter from William Herschel, LLD. F. R. S. to Charles Blagden, M. D. Sec. R. S.,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 77 (1787): 4–5. For a fuller analysis of the relationship between Caroline’s account and William’s subsequent remarks, see Emily Winterburn, “Learned Modesty and the First Lady’s Comet: A Commentary on Caroline Herschel (1787) ‘An account of a new comet,’Philosophical Transactions: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 373, no. 2039 (April 13, 2015): 1–11.

69. William Herschel, “Remarks,” 2.

70. Longinus, On the Sublime, trans. William Smith (Dublin, 1740), 11.

71. My emphasis; Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), ed. James T. Boulton (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), 68.

72. See for example Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene,’IGBP Newsletter 41 (2000): 17–18; Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 7.

73. Aaron Hanlon, “Margaret Cavendish’s Anthropocene Worlds,” New Literary History 47 (2016): 65.

74. Lynn Festa, Fiction without Humanity: Person, Animal, Thing in Early Enlightenment Literature and Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), 39.

75. Amanda Jo Goldstein, Sweet Science: Romantic Materialism and the New Logics of Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 18.

76. Ibid., 7, 18.

77. Ibid., 8.

78. For examples of studies documenting this influence, see for instance Annette Wheeler Cafarelli, “How Theories of Romanticism Exclude Women: Radcliffe, Milton, and the Legitimation of the Gothic Novel,” in Milton, the Metaphysicals, and Romanticism, ed. Lisa Low and Anthony John (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 84–113; Stuart Curran, “Charlotte Smith and British Romanticism,” South Central Review 11, no. 2 (1994): 66–78; Elizabeth Eger, Bluestockings: Women of Reason from Enlightenment to Romanticism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Carol Shiner Wilson, Re-Visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776–1837 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994).

79. The phrase “the neo-Epicurean revival” comes from Richard W. F. Kroll, The Material World: Literate Culture in the Restoration and Early Eighteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 27. See also Mary Helen McMurran and Alison Conway, eds., Mind, Body, Motion, Matter: Eighteenth-Century British and French Literary Perspectives (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016); Catherine Wilson, Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

80. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 37–38.

81. Longinus, On the Sublime, 3.

82. Martin D. Yaffe, “‘Anthropogenic Effects’ in Genesis 1–11 and Francis Bacon,” Telos 177 (2016): 16, 19.

83. Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium, 24.

84. As I show in “Mingling with Matter,” not all Enlightenment thinkers accepted the effectiveness of such transcendence.

85. Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene, 160.

86. Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium, 36.

87. Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 3.