Damaris Cudworth Masham

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Damaris Cudworth Masham
Born 18 January 1659
Cambridge, England
Died 20 April 1708(1708-04-20) (aged 49)
London, England
Nationality English
Era 17th-/18th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
Main interests
metaphysics, logic, theodicy, universal language

Lady Damaris Cudworth Masham (18 January 1659 – 20 April 1708) was an English philosopher, proto-feminist, and advocate for women's education. Despite problems with her vision and lack of access to higher educational resources, she published two philosophical works, A Discourse Concerning the Love of God (1696) and Thoughts in reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life (1705).

Personal life[edit]

Early life[edit]

Cudworth was born on 18 January 1659, the daughter of Ralph Cudworth, a prominent member and leader of the Cambridge Platonist School and author to the unfinished treatise The True Intellectual System of the Universe, a criticism of Calvinist views and atheistic determinism.[3] Her father was a strict opponent to Calvinism, as were most Platonists, and was a prominent speaker and lecturer at Cambridge. Though not many documents exist regarding Cudworth's early life, it is known that she was likely educated by her father, as she had no formal schooling, and women had very limited access to higher education during the early modern period. Despite this hindrance, in her early letters to John Locke, she showed experience in philosophical discourse and is widely acknowledged for sharing many of her father's Platonist views and having knowledge of many Platonist works at her time of correspondence with Locke.[4]

Cudworth also suffered from what could be understood as advanced near-sightedness, which rendered it extremely difficult for her to study written works. Though no medical documents exist that diagnosed her poor sight, many of her colleagues made references to her poor sight and difficulty with reading. John Norris, a colleague and rival mentioned her 'blindness' in Reflections upon the Conduct of Human Life.[5] Locke also makes mention of her poor eyesight in correspondence with Philip van Limborch.[6] However, despite her disability, she was well-read into many modern philosophical works by the time of her correspondence with John Locke in 1682, which indicated that she did not let her disability prevent her from educating herself in philosophical works of the time.

Later life[edit]

Cudworth married Sir Francis Masham, an Essex squire, in 1685 at the age of 26 and took the title Lady Damaris Cudworth Masham. This was the typical age of marriage for most women of her status during this time period. Masham had been a widower who had fathered eight children with his previous wife, and fathered one son with Cudworth by the name of Francis Cudworth Masham.[7] Cudworth gained little in the way of social or educational advancement through the marriage and very little else exists regarding their personal relationship.

Cudworth maintained a very close personal relationship to John Locke throughout his lifetime, beginning in her early twenties when they were likely introduced by a mutual friend, Edward Clarke.[8] The two met sometime before 1682, and had a very close personal relationship throughout which they exchanged many personal and often flirtatious letters. Locke described Masham admirably in a letter to Phillipp von Limborch, “The lady herself is so well versed in theological and philosophical studies, and of such an original mind that you will not find many men to whom she is not superior in wealth of knowledge and ability to profit by it.”[4] Locke held great importance to Cudworth as her philosophical mentor and personal friend. So much so that he became a resident of Cudworth and Masham’s home in 1691 until his death in 1704. This period was considered to be a major influence on Cudworth’s philosophical education, as Locke brought with him his library of nearly 2,000 books, and also purchased Cudworth a writing desk, ink, and quills and paid for the binding of her works.[9] Locke and Cudworth had spent most of their time together, exchanging philosophical ideas and theories and entertaining many other theologians and philosophers, including the likes of Isaac Newton and Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont.[10] It was during this time that she published her first work, A Discourse Concerning the Love of God, a response to John Norris’s Practical Discourses, and shortly after Locke’s death she published her most well-known work, Thoughts in Reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life.[11] Both of these works were published anonymously, to avoid any critiques that may stem from her status as a woman scholar and leave only the work itself to be received.

Another major factor on Cudworth’s informal education as a philosopher was her correspondence with Gottfried Wilhem Leibniz, during which she exchanged ideas and discussed both his and her own theories, which allowed her to grow herself as a philosophical scholar. These included discussion on Leibniz's work, on Pre-established harmony, her father's work, and the relationship between body and soul.[12]

Philosophy and Advocacy[edit]

Often touted as the "Lockean feminist" by scholars such as Jaqueline Broad and Lois Frankel, Cudworth's public works consisted of a mix between her father's Platonism, Lockean theories and arguments, and her own proto-feminist ideals and advocacy. Cudworth criticised the double-standard of men and women's moralities and women's lack of access to higher education.[13]

In Thoughts in reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life, Cudworth makes two important points regarding the inferior education given to women. First, she argues that by giving an inferior education to women, it leaves them unfit to be able to give their children a proper education, as most children during this time period are still given early education by their mothers as education is still much reserved to those in the elite classes.[14] Cudworth writes,

“The improvements of Reason, however requisite to Ladies for their Accomplishment, as rational Creatures; and however needful to them for the well Educating of their Children, and to their being useful in their Families, yet are rarely any recommendation of them to Men; who foolishly thinking, that Money will answer to all things, do, for the most part, regard nothing else in the Woman they would Marry … Girls, betwixt silly Fathers and ignorant Mothers, are generally so brought up, that traditionary Opinions are to them, all their lives long, instead of Reason."[15]

Here Cudworth argued that it would be a benefit to all mankind should women be allowed access to higher education, as it would have allowed them to better educate their sons and daughters and advance reason in society.

Secondly, Cudworth argued that women should have access to education for not only their children’s spiritual welfare, but for their own as well. She argued that “Women have Souls to be sav’d as well as Men,” and that by being blessed with rational thinking, it was imperative that women understood the principles and values behind their own religious beliefs.[16] “They [women] are, perhaps sometimes told in regard of what Religion exacts, The they must Believe and Do such and such things, because the Word of God requires it; but they are not put upon searching the Scriptures themselves, to see whether, or no, these things are so."[17] She argued that a woman's duty and knowledge should not be grounded on the "uncertain and variable Opinions of Men"[17] and should instead be able to nurture their minds as well as their bodies to form their own opinions about spirituality.

Influence on other philosophers[edit]

Cudworth's work and correspondence with many of the great philosophers of the Enlightenment was bound to have an influence on their resulting published works. Most notably, it is surmised that Cudworth had an influence on Locke's second revision of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.[18] Locke worked on the various revisions of this treatise between 1689 until his death in 1704, during the time he had taken up residence with Cudworth and Masham's manner, Oates. Thus, it is not unlikely that Cudworth could have some intellectual influence over these revisions. In the revision of the section "Of Power" Locke seems to adopt many of the ideas of Ralph Cudworth, especially the ideas contained in his unpublished manuscripts that are considered the second and third parts to his The True Intellectual System of the Universe.[19] However, these manuscripts are not suspected to be in Cudworth's possession until the death of her older brother, John Cudworth in 1726. However, Locke's apparent influence from Ralph Cudworth's ideas cannot be ignored and has lead historians to believe that it was Damaris Cudworth herself and in familiarity with her father's works that may have influenced Locke during his second revision of "Of Power."[20] Cudworth did make parallels to her father's ideas on free will contained in his third manuscript, which appear in her publication Occasional Thoughts,

"without a capacity in the Creature to act contrary to the Will of the Creator there could be no desert, or self-excellency in any Created Being; contrariety to the Will of God is therefore permitted in the Universe as a necessary result of Creaturely imperfection, under the greatest endowment that a Created Being is capable of having, viz. That of Freedom or Liberty of Action."[21]

Indicating that her father likely passed down many of his ideas regarding free will and the rejection of determinism to Cudworth either directly through the reading of his manuscripts or indirectly from her tutoring in philosophical discourse.[22]

List of Works[edit]

  • A discourse concerning the Love of God. 1696
  • Occasional Thoughts in reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life. 1705


  1. ^ The History of Philosophy, Vol. IV: Modern Philosophy: From Descartes to Leibniz by Frederick C. Copleston (1958)
  2. ^ "It is in Leibniz that Tarde finds the main conditions for the metaphysics of possession.He sees in Monadology (1714) the beginning of a movement of dissolution of classical ontology (notably the identity of "being" and "simplicity"), which would, in a still implicitand unthinking form, find its most obvious confirmation in today's science." In: "The Dynamics of Possession: An Introduction to The Sociology of Gabriel Tarde" by Didier Debaise
  3. ^ Frankel, Lois. "Damaris Cudsworth Masham." Vol. 3, in Modern Women Philosophers, 1600–1900 by Mary Ellen Waith (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991.), 73.
  4. ^ a b Frankel, Modern Women Philosophers, 73–74.
  5. ^ Jaqueline Broad. "Damaris Masham." In Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 138.
  6. ^ Frankel, Modern Women Philosophers, 73–74
  7. ^ Sarah Hutton, "Lady Damaris Masham." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (March 2014). http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lady-masham.
  8. ^ Hutton, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  9. ^ Jaqueline Broad. "A Woman's Influence? John Locke and Damaris Masham on Moral Accountability." Journal of the History of Ideas (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 493.
  10. ^ Frankel, Lois. "Damaris Cudsworth Masham, A Seventeenth-Century Feminist Philosopher." In Hypatia's Daughters, by Linda Lopez McAlister (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1996), 128–138.
  11. ^ Hutton, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  12. ^ Frankel, Modern Women Philosophers, 75.
  13. ^ Frankel, Modern Women Philosophers, 83.
  14. ^ Broad, Women Philosophers. 138.
  15. ^ Lady Damaris Masham. "Occasional Thoughts in Reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life." Project Gutenburg. (1705). https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/13285/pg13285.html
  16. ^ Broad, Women Philosophers. 139.
  17. ^ a b Masham, Occasional Thoughts
  18. ^ Broad. Journal of the History of Ideas, 492.
  19. ^ Broad. Journal of the History of Ideas, 497–500.
  20. ^ Broad. Journal of the History of Ideas, 502–508.
  21. ^ Lady Damaris Masham. "A discourse concerning the love of God." Early English books, 1641 – 1700. (London: A. and J. Church at the Black-Swan in Paternoster-Row, 1696)
  22. ^ Broad. Journal of the History of Ideas, 506.


  • Frankel, Lois, "Damaris Cudworth Masham," Mary Ellen Waithe, ed., A History of Women Philosophers, Vol. 3, Kluwer, 1991, pp. 73–85. (Reprinted from Hypatia, 1989). Also reprinted in Linda Lopez McAlister, ed., Hypatia's Daughters: 1500 Years of Women Philosophers, Indiana University Press.
  • Broad, Jacqueline, 2002, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Broad, Jacqueline, 2006, “A Woman's Influence? John Locke and Damaris Masham on Moral Accountability”, Journal of the History of Ideas, 67: 489–510.
  • Hammou, Philippe, 2008, “Enthousiasme et nature humaine: à propos d'une lettre de Locke à Damaris Cudworth”, Revue de Métaphysique et Morale, 3: 337–350.
  • Hutton, Sarah, 1993, “Damaris Cudworth, Lady Masham: between Platonism and Enlightenment”, 1: 29–54.
  • Hutton, Sarah, 2010, “Damaris Masham”, The Continuum Companion to Locke, P. Schuurman and S.-J. Savonius Wroth (eds.), London & New York: Continuum, pp. 72–6.
  • Hutton, Sarah, 2012, “Religion, Philosophy and Women’s Letters: Anne Conway and Damaris Masham”, Debating the Faith Religion and Letter-Writing in Great Britain, 1550–1800, Anne Dunan-Page and Clotilde Prunier (eds.), Dordrecht: Springer.
  • Laslett, Peter, 1953, “Masham of Oates,” History Today, 3: 535–43.
  • Phemister, Pauline, 2007, “‘All the time and everywhere everything's the same as here’: the Principle of Uniformity in the Correspondence between Leibniz and Lady
  • Masham”, in Paul Lodge (ed.), Leibniz and his Correspondents, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Simonutti, Luisa, 1987, “Damaris Cudworth Masham: una Lady della Repubblica delle Lettere,”Scritti in Onore di Eugenio Garin, Pisa: Scuola Normale Superiore, pp. 141–165.


  • Broad, Jaqueline. "A Woman's Influence? John Locke and Damaris Masham on Moral Accountability." Journal of the History of Ideas (University of Pennsylvania Press) 67, no. 3 (July 2006): 489–510.
  • Broad, Jaqueline. "Damaris Masham." In Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 114–140. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Frankel, Lois. "Damaris Cudsworth Masham, A Seventeenth-Century Feminist Philosopher." In Hypatia's Daughters, by Linda Lopez McAlister, 128–138. Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1996.
  • Frankel, Lois. Damaris Cudsworth Masham. Vol. 3, in Modern Women Philosophers, 1600–1900, by Mary Ellen Waithe, 73–85. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991.
  • Hutton, Sarah. "Lady Damaris Masham." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. 7 March 2014. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lady-masham/ (accessed 8 December 2014).
  • Masham, Damaris Lady. “A discourse concerning the love of God.” Early English books, 1641 – 1700. 1696. London: A. and J. Church at the Black-Swan in Paternoster-Row.
  • Masham, Damaris Lady. "Occasional Thoughts in Reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life." Project Gutenberg. 1705. https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/13285/pg13285.html (accessed 8 December 2014).

External links[edit]