Material Enlightenment

Dr Joanna Wharton’s new book looks at the writings and lives of five very different women – Anne Barbauld, Honora Edgeworth, Hannah More, Elizabeth Hamilton and Maria Edgeworth – whose work helped transform educational practice and influence social reformist politics. Here Dr Wharton recalls early inspirations and introduces us to some of her book’s central themes.

Title page from Mary Hays’s Memoirs of Emma Courtney , 1796. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

It was reading Mary Hays’ Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796) during my MA at the University of York’s Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies that first led me to question the gendered associations that have traditionally been attached to the disciplines of literature and philosophy. Hays, I learned, was a materialist and a necessitarian. She believed that the ‘powers of the human mind’ were ‘produced by mechanism’ and therefore ‘subject to fixed and invariable laws’ (Letters and Essays, 1793).

The atheistic connotations of materialism, and its association with the French, made this a remarkable enough belief for anyone to publicize in 1790s England. What made Hays even more intriguing, however, was her use of materialism not only to argue for improvements to the rights of women but to insist on the legitimacy of women’s sexual desire. In this respect, Hays might be considered more radical than her friend, the better-known ‘female philosopher’, Mary Wollstonecraft.

At the start of my PhD, I set out to find other examples of materialist philosophy in writings by women in late eighteenth-century Britain, but the more I read the more exceptional Hays appeared. In their publications, none of the central figures in my book (which builds on my doctoral research) expressed such firm materialist and radically feminist beliefs. However, they were all deeply interested in the human mind and its relation with the material world; and, through the language of materiality and the experimental practices they developed, they made important contributions to the philosophy or ‘science’ of mind.

The dominant model of mind in Anglophone philosophy of the late eighteenth century was the doctrine of association, later known as associationism, which had developed from John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). One strand of associationism that came to be particularly influential in Britain ran from Locke through David Hartley’s Observations on Man (1749), to Joseph Priestley’s Hartley’s Theory (1775) and, I argue in the book, Anna Letitia Barbauld Lessons for Children (1778-9).

In her innovative and influential children’s books, Barbauld uses the language of association to position the text as a practical and in more than once sense material application of theory. Through an imagistic simplicity and clarity of prose, frequent references to ‘sensible objects’, or things in the real world, and the gradual extension of a network of associated ideas, Barbauld sought to lay the foundations of learning, cultivate sympathetic and benevolent affections, and develop a devotional ‘taste’ or feeling for Nature in a generation of child readers.

Barbauld, and those who followed her in what Frances Burney called the ‘new Walk’ in children’s literature, understood education as a means of shaping the nation’s moral and religious character. Education was a distinctly practical, domestic activity with wider social and political significance: ‘The task’, Barbauld writes in her ‘Advertisement’ to Lessons, ‘is humble, but not mean; for, to lay the first stone of a noble building, and to plant the first idea in a human mind, can be no dishonour to any hand’.

Maria Edgeworth by Mackenzie, after William Marshall Craig line and stipple engraving, 1808. Image Credit: National Portrait Gallery

As well as looking at the science of mind in children’s literature, novels, poems, conduct books, chapbooks, letters, essays and treatises, the book considers certain practices, such as gift-giving, teaching, and charitable organization, as experiments in and applications of early psychology. Often, these practices had Lockean and Hartleyan inflections, in that they were meant to build and strengthen ‘habitual associations’—not just between words and ideas but, through the promotion of familiar and domestic affections, between individuals in communities and, on a national scale, between different classes of society.

Several new findings in the book relate to the Anglo-Irish Edgeworth family’s ‘experimental science’ of education, as it developed from Honora Sneyd Edgeworth’s observations of her children and the collaborative manuscript practices at Edgeworthstown House in County Longford, Ireland. They include Maria Edgeworth’s involvement in the drafting of the ‘Irish Education Bill’ presented by her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, to the parliament at Dublin Castle in 1799.

What I hope readers will take from my book is an understanding of Barbauld, Honora Edgeworth, Hannah More, Elizabeth Hamilton and Maria Edgeworth as practitioners of Enlightenment science of mind, deserving of recognition for their contributions to the area of study we now call psychology. Their contributions were by no means unproblematic: Hannah More’s social conservatism, especially surrounding women’s sexual ‘conduct’ and the education of the poor, cannot be overlooked; nor can the orientalist prejudices that cling to Elizabeth Hamilton’s philosophical writings. And as the example of Honora Edgeworth shows, ‘enlightened domesticity’ often served patriarchal interests while purporting to offer a meaningful occupation, if not a formal ‘profession’, for scientifically-minded women.


This guest post is written by Joanna Wharton is an Early Career Fellow at Lichtenberg-Kolleg, the Göttingen Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Material Enlightenment
Women Writers and the Science of Mind, 1770-1830
by Joanna Wharton
Hardback / 9781783272952 / £45 or $74.25