Article ID: CBB373320588

Epigenesis and the Rationality of Nature in William Harvey and Margaret Cavendish (2017)


The generation of animals was a difficult phenomenon to explain in the seventeenth century, having long been a problem in natural philosophy, theology, and medicine. In this paper, I explore how generation, understood as epigenesis, was directly related to an idea of rational nature. I examine epigenesis—the idea that the embryo was constructed part-by-part, over time—in the work of two seemingly dissimilar English philosophers: William Harvey, an eclectic Aristotelian, and Margaret Cavendish, a radical materialist. I chart the ways that they understood and explained epigenesis, given their differences in philosophy and ontology. I argue for the importance of ideas of harmony and order in structuring their accounts of generation as a rational process. I link their experiences during the English Civil war to how they see nature as a possible source for the rationality and concord sorely missing in human affairs.

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Authors & Contributors
Attie, Katherine Bootle
Thell, Anne M.
Lewis, Jayne
Lupton, Julia
Bowerbank, Sylvia Lorraine
Cummins, Juliet
British Journal for the History of Philosophy
Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science
Modern Philology
Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Technology
History of European Ideas
Johns Hopkins University Press
Virginia, University of
Indiana University
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
University of California, Irvine
Science and literature
Natural philosophy
Women in science
Rhetoric in scientific discourse
Biogenesis; origin of life; spontaneous generation
Science and religion
Harvey, William
Cavendish, Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle
Bacon, Francis, 1st Baron Verulam
Shakespeare, William
Sprat, Thomas
Hobbes, Thomas
Time Periods
17th century
16th century
Early modern
18th century
19th century
Royal Society of London

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