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My dissertation examines the philosophies of René Descartes and Mary Astell with the aim of answering the question: what makes cognitive improvement possible? Both Astell and Descartes acknowledge prejudice as a significant barrier to cognitive improvement such that the possibility of cognitive improvement depends in part on routing such prejudices and their effects. However, for Descartes, part of what explains the challenge presented by prejudices also explains the possibility of cognitive improvement: humans are susceptible to habituation. In chapter one, I argue that Descartes should be read as appropriating a scholastic notion of habitus in accounting for both the challenge of prejudice as well as the goal of cognitive improvement, namely, better cognitive habits. Yet, merely being susceptible to habituation cannot fully explain cognitive improvement. In chapter two, I argue that another significant feature of Descartes’s account of cognitive improvement is what I call Rational Self-Confidence: a subject’s confidence in their ability to use and improve the cognitive capacities. Still, recognizing the importance of rational self-confidence for cognitive improvement suggests another barrier to such projects: not all subjects possess this confidence. In chapter three, I argue that Astell recognizes how a peculiar prejudice, what I call the Women’s Defective Will Prejudice [WDWP], can undermine the rational self-confidence of women especially – those cognitive subjects that most concern Astell. The effect of this prejudice on a subject’s rational self-confidence leads to what I call the Astellian Circle: the apparent truth of the WDWP can undermine a subject’s rational self-confidence and inhibit subjects from pursuing activities that would cultivate their cognitive capacities, thus further reinforcing the apparent truth of the WDWP and so on in circulo. Significantly, a subject caught in this circle is unlikely to engage in projects of cognitive improvement. Accordingly, chapter four argues that Astell’s account of cognitive improvement addresses precisely the influence and effects of the WDWP and the Astellian Circle. In particular, I contend that Astell’s social solutions stand to promote a subject’s rational self-confidence, thus supporting their engagement in projects of cognitive improvement. By recognizing and addressing a more preclusive barrier to cognitive improvement, Astell develops an account of cognitive improvement that expands the pool of potential subjects that could succeed in such projects.
April 28th-30th, 2023 Reappearing Ink: Celebrating the Legacy of Eileen O’Neill, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
2022 “Descartes on Rational Self-Confidence”, Quebec-Ontario Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy, Toronto, Ontario
2022 “A Virtue That Comprehends all the Rest: Astellian Friendship” Friends of Mary Astell, APA Pacific, Vancouver, BC