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Lascano Receives $50,400 National Endowment

Published: June 1, 2015

Philosophy’s Marcy Lascano recently received a $50,400 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship to finish her book, Early Modern Women Philosophers: Cosmology to Human Nature.

“I’m very pleased to receive this fellowship,” said Lascano, a member of the university since 2006. “I think this fellowship is important for two reasons. One, there hasn’t been much of this kind of research into women philosophers. What there has been is focused on their social and political views. Some women philosophers such as Margaret Cavendish wrote plays and short stories so she has been studied by other disciplines than philosophy. But there hasn’t been as much attention paid to her philosophy until now.”

The NEH is an independent federal agency created in 1965 and is one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the U.S. NEH grants typically go to cultural institutions, such as museums, archives, libraries, colleges, universities, public television, and radio stations, and to individual scholars.

Lascano returned to campus in the spring after a fall 2014 sabbatical to work on Early Modern Women Philosophers and will continue her research for another year’s leave beginning in the fall of 2015. Her first chapters examined the views of Cavendish, a 17th century philosopher, poet, scientist, fiction-writer and playwright, and Lady Anne Conway, one of a tiny minority of 17th century women who was able to pursue an interest in philosophy. The remaining chapters will focus on Mary Astell, Damaris Masham, Emilie du Châtelet, Gabrielle Suchon and Marie Huber.

“Margaret Cavendish is representative of the women I study because she had such a wide range of interests,” she said. “She is sometimes credited with writing the first science fiction novel titled The Blazing World which she appended to her philosophical work Observations on Experimental Philosophy. She was in contact with the great British philosopher Thomas Hobbes who was a materialist just like she was. The microscope and telescope had just been invented and change was everywhere. By looking through them, it was thought the true natures of things would be revealed. She disagreed. It is fascinating to see how a 17th century women develops her own philosophical system.”

Early Modern Women Philosophers is Lascano’s first book.

“One of the biggest challenges is time,” she said. “I’ve been very fortunate in that the university has given me sabbatical time to work on it. Because there is not a large body of secondary literature written by philosophers, I’m going it alone.”

Lascano was especially pleased to receive the NEH fellowship because the grant was initially reviewed by philosophers.

“I was very excited that a group of my peers had thought that this was something the profession needed and that this was a project worthy of support,” she said.

The subtitle of the book, “Cosmology to Human Nature,” addresses the fact that the book concentrates on these women’s metaphysical views.

“I looked at the women philosophers and their views on the nature and structure of the world,” she said. “How did the universe come into existence? Why is it the way it is? Do human beings have free will? I’m trying to place these women among their peers both male and female in terms of metaphysics and epistemology.”

By bringing 17th century voices into the 21st century, Lascano means to tell her readers that philosophy was not always the creation of men.

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PHOTO COURTESY OF MARCY LASCANO
Marcy Lascano

“There were a lot of women who were active participants in the philosophical discourse of their time,” she said. “They are answering objections and talking about other philosophers. Their works were discussed by Leibniz and Locke. Yet, sometime in the 19th century, a lot of what were considered ‘minor figures’ were dropped. I hope this book helps to repair some of philosophy’s ongoing problems with forgetting about women.”

Lascano earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Washington and her Master of Arts and doctorate in 2005 from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Receiving this fellowship reminds Lascano that it is an exciting time to be a philosopher.

“We are shaking up the way we think about our own past,” she said. “A lot of these women held views that are back in style. For example, if you read David Chalmers on consciousness, he will talk about panpsychism or the idea that mind is a fundamental feature of the world. Some of these women were panpsychists in the 17th century.”

The thinking women of the 17th century still have plenty to say to the 21st century, according to Lascano, who noted that by teaching these women philosophers at the undergraduate level, students can see they really existed.

“Some women students thank me for including women philosophers,” she said. “This book is meant to start a conversation about their views so that both scholars and students can learn about these women.”

Cavendish would have been thrilled that 21st century scholars are looking at her philosophy, Lascano said.

“She once said she wanted to be famous, not because she was eccentric or because she was rich, but for her philosophy,” she said. “For several hundred years, she was forgotten completely. But at a recent meeting of the American Philosophical Association, there was a session devoted to the philosophy of Margaret Cavendish. I presented a paper on her work along with two other scholars. When I realized I was giving a paper to a major philosophical conference nearly 340 years exactly after the death of Cavendish, it was very exciting.”