Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Monday, April 20, 2015

Damaris Masham, English Philosopher

Damaris Cudworth Masham (died 20 April 1708)


The daughter of a Cambridge philosopher, Damaris Cudworth (born in 1659) would herself become a philosopher. Although she eventually learned Latin, her father did not provide her with the kind of education, in particular the study of Greek and Latin, that a son might have received. She did, however, have the advantage of exposure to philosophical discussion and the advantage of making the acquaintance of the philosopher John Locke, probably when she was in her early twenties, around 1682. It was a deep and intimate friendship that was important to her development as a philosopher in her own right.

Oates, the Masham home.
Married in 1685 to Sir Francis Masham, a widower with eight children (Masham added a son to the household), Damaris Masham might have been expected to set aside her scholarly interests for purely domestic concerns, but she did not do so. Instead, in she continued her correspondence with Locke, and in 1691, the aging philosopher came to live in Oates, at the home of Sir Francis and Lady Masham. 

Damaris Masham published her first work (anonymously), A Discourse Concerning the Love of God, in 1696, her second, Occasional Thoughts in Reference to a Virtuous or Christian Life, in 1705 (also published anonymously). After Locke's death, she also wrote a biography of the philosopher.

In addition to her printed work, Masham's correspondence not only with Locke but with the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz reveals her own philosophical reasoning and positions. 

According to the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Masham's views reflected those of Locke, but she was not entirely a slavish disciple, incorporating as well philosophical ideas developed by the Cambridge Platonists and of her father, Ralph Cudworth:
Lady Masham held that morality is founded in reason and the freedom to act. They [Locke and the Cambridge Platonists] also agree that the end of ethics is human happiness, and that the exercise of virtue requires a right disposition of mind. While she is closer to Locke in epistemology, on ethics, she is closer to Cudworth than Locke on account of her acceptance that moral principles exist independently as part of the nature of things, her belief in free will and in her anti-voluntarism.
In addition to these philosophical traditions, Masham incorporated her own emerging feminist ideas, in particular arguing against a double-standard that viewed women as less rational than men and her arguments in favor of education for women.

Masham is buried in Bath Abbey.