Absent Voices #3: Words from the Soul: Private Letters between John Locke and Damaris Masham

Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Oil on canvas. 76×64 cm. Britain, 1697. Source of Entry: Collection of Sir Robert Walpole, Houghton Hall, 1779. Attribution: Sir Godfrey Kneller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
It’s not often, as a Gender Studies researcher studying the history of philosophy, that I find myself wanting to hear more from one of the famous-dead-white-men that make up the bulk of the field. You might be especially surprised to hear that, after working my way through An Essay Concerning Human Understanding from start to finish, I wanted to hear more from John Locke. When my PhD project is on early modern women philosophers, women whose philosophical voices are still too often absent from the classroom, why would I want to read missing texts from one of the great canonical English philosophers, a man whose writings we possess in abundance?

It’s like this. One of the women I’m studying is Damaris Masham (1658/9-1708), a philosopher whose thought is largely known to us through her two published treatises. But they weren’t all she wrote. Masham was an extremely close friend of Locke’s – they met when she was twenty-two, twenty-three, when he was already an established philosopher of nearly fifty. They quickly struck up an exchange of letters which lasted for several years. The only reason the epistolary flow between them stopped was that he actually moved into the house Masham shared with her husband and lived there until his death. They were close enough that snide comments were made at the time about the “seraglio” at the Masham household, and speculation has been made since about the extent to which their intense friendship bordered on a romantic connection. Continue reading

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