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


February 2024
246 pages.

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503633032
Ebook ISBN: 9781503637696

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Kristin M. Girten tells a new story of feminist knowledge-making in the Enlightenment era by exploring the British female philosophers who asserted their authority through the celebration of profoundly embodied observations, experiences, and experiments.

This book explores the feminist materialist practice of sensitive witnessing, establishing an alternate history of the emergence of the scientific method in the eighteenth century. Francis Bacon and other male natural philosophers regularly downplayed the embodied nature of their observations. They presented themselves as modest witnesses, detached from their environment and entitled to the domination and exploitation of it. In contrast, the author-philosophers that Girten takes up asserted themselves as intimately entangled with matter—boldly embracing their perceived close association with the material world as women. Girten shows how Lucy Hutchinson, Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, and Charlotte Smith took inspiration from materialist principles to challenge widely accepted "modest" conventions for practicing and communicating philosophy.

Forerunners of the feminist materialism of today, these thinkers recognized the kinship of human and nonhuman nature and suggested a more accessible, inclusive version of science. Girten persuasively argues that our understanding of Enlightenment thought must take into account these sensitive witnesses' visions of an alternative scientific method informed by profound closeness with the natural world.

About the author

Kristin M. Girten is Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.

"Girten demonstrates, thoroughly and convincingly, that materialism constituted an alternative conception of early science to the mainstream, Baconian view. This is an important book, very much part of one of the central conversations currently unfolding in science and literature studies."

—Jess Keiser, Tufts University

"Sensitive Witnesses is a fluently written and well-researched study that moves nimbly between philosophical sources and a wide range of literary genres to enrich our understanding of Enlightenment ways of knowing."

—Sarah Tindal Kareem, University of California, Los Angeles

"A figure for our own time, Girten's sensitive witness emerges as the unashamed hero of a history of scientific passions."

—Wendy Anne Lee, New York University