Anne Arbuthnot, Philosopher

The problem with trying to introduce people to Anne Arbuthnot as a philosopher is that the most obvious route of introduction is through her aunt, Catharine Trotter Cockburn (1674/9-1749), and most people haven’t heard of her either. Cockburn, however, is very much established as a member of an alternative canon of early modern philosophy – that consisting of a variety of women philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries including Elisabeth of Bohemia, Anne Conway, Margaret Cavendish, Damaris Masham and Mary Astell in their number. While obscure in a general sense, she is very much a known name in the field. (She’s also studied by literary historians on account of her role as a female Restoration playwright and poet.) Anne Arbuthnot, though, is not.

The reason it makes sense to introduce Arbuthnot with reference to her aunt is that we know of Arbuthnot, as far as I can tell, only through her correspondence with Cockburn. In the Works of Mrs. Catharine Trotter Cockburn, Theological, Moral, Dramatic, and Poetical (1751) – titles in those days weren’t designed to be particularly tweetable – we’re presented, in the second volume, with a selection of Cockburn’s correspondence with friends and family. Her correspondents include Thomas Burnet of Kemnay, a friend, Patrick Cockburn, her husband-to-be, the Rev. Dr. Fenn, her unsuccessful suitor – and her niece, Arbuthnot. The correspondence as presented in the Works is largely one-sided: while we have a large quantity of Cockburn’s letters to Anne, only two replies are included. (It’s worth noting that there may be more of Arbuthnot’s letters in the Cockburn archives in the British Library – I haven’t yet checked those out. I’m aware that they contain many more letters than were finally included in the Works, however.)

However, those two letters, along with what we can glean about Arbuthnot’s letters from Cockburn’s detailed responses to her niece, reveal Arbuthnot to be highly concerned with philosophical engagement and well-read on contemporary philosophical topics. In the first letter included in the Works, she writes to Cockburn following the death of her husband at sea stating that she would be “the most unhappy person on earth, was it not for a very strong relish I have for the subject of morality” (Works 1751, Vol. II, 306).

The second printed letter, sent by Anne in 1747, finds her engaging with Cockburn on some of Cockburn’s favourite philosophical topics – such as “the ground of moral obligation” (326), which she judges to be “a very perplexed subject” (326), but one on which she does venture an opinion: that “the essential difference of things, the moral sense, and the will of God, did all perfectly coincide. The first I think the foundation of the other two; the second results from the first; and what could be more fit, than that a creature should obey the will of his creator…?” (326)

Arbuthnot continues her letter to show herself to be familiar with the writing of Lord Shaftesbury, whose “letters to a student of divinity, and to Robert Molesworth, Esq” (326) she judges to be “exceeding good” (326). She argues that Shaftesbury’s philosophy and Cockburn’s are consistent, “for I take his moral sense to be a sense of the fitness of actions” (326). (This is a claim which Cockburn takes some exception to in her next letter!)

Following her commentary on Shaftesbury, Arbuthnot argues against human nature’s natural benevolence, writing that while people are “capable of disinterestedness…with long cultivation and care” (326) there is in fact “very little of it practised in the world” (326). She suggests that “a great many things that are brought to prove it” are “only deceitful appearances, as particularly, that of people’s concern for their children” (326). Nonetheless, she agrees with “Dr. [Joseph] Butler, that self-love, when in its due degree, does not derogate from the morality of an action” (326). She continues by providing an alternative interpretation of a specific case Cockburn had put forward to demonstrate human benevolence.

Arbuthnot concludes the overtly philosophical portion of her letter self-deprecatingly, writing to her aunt “though you will easily see, that I am but lame on these subjects, yet I have ventured to give you my opinion, even where it seems to differ from yours” (327), and seeks to reassure Cockburn that “I endeavour, as much as possible, to keep a mind open to conviction on all subjects, and wish I could keep as clear of scepticism, as I can do of dogmatism” (327).

Although the 1747 letter from Arbuthnot is the bulk of her philosophising as we see it in the Works, we can also glean information from some of Cockburn’s responses to her niece. For instance, in the reply to the letter from Arbuthnot I’ve just summarised, Cockburn also responds to a letter which hasn’t been included, which tells us a lot about what the letter must have contained. She writes “You ask me, who it is, that calls the moral sense a blind instinct, for you are sure Mr. [Francis] Hutchinson does not” (338). In a later letter, she expresses herself to be “glad you now apprehend my arguments better, and are come to some agreement with me on moral points. The objections you make against a disinterested benevolence, are, I believe, owing to your not being thoroughly acquainted with the scheme of those, whom the advocates for it oppose,…” (340). She repeats several more of Arbuthnot’s points in her efforts to rebut her niece: “You say, our concern for our offspring has much of an instinctive nature in it. …You say, we consider them much as part of ourselves:…You mistake too the nature of that liberty of conscience we boast of:…” (340, 344).

I’m not trying to claim that Anne Arbuthnot was an outstandingly original philosopher, or warrants elevation to canonical status (although I have plenty of objections to the very concept of the canon in the first place). However, I think it’s still worth paying attention to her and bringing her to notice.

First, she provides an example of early modern female scholarly engagement and philosophical activity who has barely been touched upon by the literature on early modern women writers or philosophers. Where she has been mentioned at all, it has been almost entirely with reference to Cockburn’s side of the correspondence. Indeed, in Patricia Sheridan’s 2006 edition of Cockburn’s Philosophical Writings, a couple of Cockburn’s letters to Anne are included in the Appendix – but none from Arbuthnot in return. The edition gives no hint that any of Arbuthnot’s side of the correspondence exists.

Second, the letters between Cockburn and her niece provide an all-too-rare example of two women talking to each other about philosophy. Much of the time, when looking at women in early modern philosophy, we can get the impression of lone women bobbing in a sea of male philosophers who surround them – isolated from each other. In Cockburn and Arbuthnot we have evidence that women talked to each other about the philosophical issues of the day, and debated with each other.

Finally, and connected to the last point, the Cockburn-Arbuthnot correspondence gives us an example, in Cockburn’s philosophical education and direction of her niece, of a woman taking the mentoring-tutoring role in a philosophical relationship. We have several examples in the period of a young woman being mentored philosophically via correspondence with an older male philosopher: in the letters between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and Descartes, for example, or between Anne Conway and Henry More. The correspondence between Catharine Cockburn and Anne Arbuthnot, however, is the only instance I’m aware of in which a younger woman is tutored in philosophy by another, older, woman. (Please get in touch with further examples if you have them!)

If anyone wants to read Arbuthnot’s letters to Cockburn for themselves, the Works are available from Eighteenth Century Collections Online – or, for anyone who doesn’t have access to this, get in touch and I’m happy to type up the letters. As I mentioned above, Thomas Birch’s archival collection of Cockburn’s writings which he compiled to produce the Works is also available at the British Library – I hope to go there soon to see if there are any additional philosophical letters by Arbuthnot that remain unprinted.


Cockburn, C.T., 2006. Catharine Trotter Cockburn: Philosophical Writings. P. Sheridan, ed., Broadview Press.

Trotter, Catharine. The works of Mrs. Catharine Cockburn, … Several of them now first printed. Revised and published, with an account of the life of the author, by Thomas Birch, … In two volumes. … Vol. Volume 2. London,  1751. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. University College London. 20 Mar. 2017




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