Why We Should Read Frances Power Cobbe as a Philosopher – Guest Blog by Alison Stone

Until recently, women were systematically excluded from the history of philosophy – so systematically that it used to be assumed that there were no women philosophers in the past. Women have even been left out of the canon when they were famous in their own times. The Anglo-Irish philosopher Frances Power Cobbe (1822–1904) is a case in point. 

In later nineteenth-century Britain, Cobbe was one of the most prominent women intellectuals, very well known for her many philosophical writings and her political campaigns against scientific experimentation on live animals and against cruelty to animals more generally. Cobbe’s writings included her first book, An Essay on Intuitive Morals (1855–1857); two books on religion, Broken Lights (1864) and Dawning Lights (1868); and essay collections on feminism (Essays on the Pursuits of Women, 1863), ethics and aesthetics (Studies New and Old of Ethical and Social Subjects, 1865), evolution, philosophy of mind, and other topics (Darwinism in Morals, and Other Essays, 1872), philosophy of history and religion (The Hopes of the Human Race, 1874), pessimism, life after death, and related topics (The Peak in Darien, 1882), science and scientism (The Scientific Spirit of the Age, 1888) and animal ethics (The Modern Rack: Papers on Vivisection, 1889).[1]

As this shows, Cobbe’s work was expansive in scope, and her books were widely read, so much so that she was able to support herself financially from her writing. Cobbe was in such demand that she was employed for seven years as leader writer for a high-circulation daily newspaper, the Echo, who provided her with “a room of her own” for writing her columns. Another indicator of the status Cobbe used to have is that she was one of only three women whom the British Idealist W. R. Sorley included in his 1920 History of English Philosophy, which covered the medieval period up to 1900. (Besides Cobbe, the other two women he included were Harriet Martineau and Edith Simcox.)[2]

Cobbe’s disappearance from the history of philosophy, then, is rather mysterious, all the more so because much of her work was quite straightforwardly philosophical. She did not generally do philosophy in the medium of novels, or poetry, or other literary forms, and she wrote in a direct and very readable style, so that her work does not present the complex interpretive challenges that we face, for instance, with Bettina Brentano-von Arnim. Cobbe tackled many questions traditionally seen as central to philosophy, such as the existence of God, the nature of moral principles and moral knowledge, how to balance our moral responsibilities to ourselves and to others, the relation between mind and body, and beauty in nature and art. Her moral theory was most heavily influenced by Kant but she engaged with a variety of thinkers, including Comte, Darwin, John Stuart Mill, and Schopenhauer – to mention just a few already-canonical men. 

Besides dealing with these traditional subjects and reference-points, Cobbe also innovated in addressing questions – animal rights, feminism, the nature of health and well-being – that have only recently become accepted as legitimate parts of the philosophical agenda. Finally, unlike many women of her period who published anonymously or using pseudonyms or initials, Cobbe published almost everything signed with her full female name. 

Despite all this, Cobbe has fallen so far off our collective radar that her name is barely known to philosophers today. Even the feminist effort to recover women philosophers has hardly reached her.[3] Why is this? The answer is complicated, but here are two factors.

First, Cobbe published in a milieu – the world of Victorian periodicals – that was lost to view for most of the twentieth century. Victorian Britain had many general but still heavyweight and serious journals such as the Westminster Review, Fraser’s Magazine, Macmillan’s Magazine, and the Contemporary Review. Cobbe published in a lot of these journals – indeed, most of her books were collections of her journal articles. The four periodicals I have just mentioned were among the best-known, but they were the tip of a huge iceberg: more than a hundred thousand journals, magazines, and newspapers came and went over the century.[4]Until researchers began to study Victorian periodicals around forty years ago, this vast world had become invisible to scholars. 

Today, several decades of research by Victorianists, now aided and accelerated by digitisation, have restored this world to sight. Susan Hamilton has estimated that women contributed at least 13% of all Victorian periodical content[5] – not great, but then again not too bad compared to the numbers of women contributing to philosophy journals in the twentieth century (according to Joel Katzav, who looks at the Philosophical Review, the proportion of woman-authored content fell from 11% in the 1910s to just 2% from 1950–1970).[6] Cobbe was one of the highest-profile of these Victorian women journal authors, alongside others such as Harriet Martineau, Anna Jameson, Julia Wedgwood, Edith Simcox, Vernon Lee, and Constance Naden. These women, like Cobbe, await recovery as the philosophers they were.[7]

A second, and related, factor is nationality. The lion’s share of modern-day interest in nineteenth-century philosophy goes to German-speaking traditions.[8] In contrast, British philosophy of the time is often regarded, rather dismissively, as having been amateurish. It is true that the culture was amateur, deliberately so. The prevailing assumption was that “Minds of the first rank are generalizers; of the second, specializers.”[9] But this very lack of specialisation helped to keep periodical culture open to women, because one did not have to be a professional academic with specialist credentials to publish in it. In other words, nineteenth-century British philosophy had not yet undergone the disciplinary “purification” that Eileen O’Neill, and others such as Anna Ezekiel elsewhere on this blog, have rightly highlighted as having been key to women’s exclusion.[10] It is interesting to note, moreover, that our now-standard division of modern Western philosophy – into early modern (c. 1600–1800 across Europe and beyond), post-Kantian (1800 onwards primarily on the European mainland), and history of analytic (1900 onwards primarily in Anglophone contexts) – renders nineteenth-century British and English-speaking philosophy invisible. This has worked against Cobbe, as well as other women of her place and period such as Martineau and Wedgwood.

Looking at nineteenth-century women like Cobbe therefore raises questions about what we count as philosophy and why, and which fields of discussion are included in the history of philosophy and which are not. To make sense of Cobbe’s philosophical thought and even to access it in the first place, we need to recognise Victorian print culture as having been a site for philosophical invention, argument, and debate. This culture was lively, diverse, colourful, and fast-paced; there was much more to it than stereotypes about narrow-minded and repressed Victorians would lead us to expect. This culture found room for a number of significant female voices, and provided a platform for Cobbe to rise to become “the thoughtful woman par excellence” in the eyes of her contemporaries.[11]

Alison Stone is Professor of Philosophy at Lancaster University and the author of a number of books on feminist philosophy and nineteenth-century philosophy. These include Frances Power Cobbe (Cambridge University Press, 2022), an edited collection of Cobbe’s essays, Frances Power Cobbe: Essential Writings of a Nineteenth-Century Feminist Philosopher (Oxford University Press, 2022), and an article on Cobbe’s aesthetics. Some of her shorter pieces on Cobbe are “Frances Power Cobbe and Nineteenth-Century Moral Philosophy” at the Blog of the APA and “Revealing Voices” at Project Vox. Her podcast on “British Women Philosophers of the Nineteenth Century” is here

[1] Most of Cobbe’s work can be easily accessed through digital archives such as Internet Archive or Hathitrust. I have edited a selection of some of her key essays: see Alison Stone, ed., Frances Power Cobbe: Essential Writings of a Nineteenth-Century Feminist Philosopher (Oxford University Press, 2022). Many of Cobbe’s animal ethics writings are collected in Susan Hamilton, ed., Animal Welfare and Anti-Vivisection 1870–1910: Frances Power Cobbe (Taylor & Francis, 2004), and several of her feminist essays are in Susan Hamilton, ed., Criminals, Idiots, Women & Minors: Victorian Writing by Women on Women (second edition; Broadview Press, 2004).

[2] Sorley, A History of English Philosophy (US edition; Putnam’s Sons, 1921).

[3] There is, however, a considerable literature on Cobbe from outside philosophy, including Susan Hamilton, Frances Power Cobbe and Victorian Feminism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), Sally Mitchell, Frances Power Cobbe: Victorian Feminist, Journalist, Reformer (University of Virginia Press, 2004), and Lori Williamson, Power and Protest: Frances Power Cobbe and Victorian Society (Rivers Oram Press, 2005). Also, two books that adopt a more philosophical angle are Sandra J. Peacock, The Theological and Ethical Writings of Frances Power Cobbe, 1822–1904 (Edwin Mellen, 2002) and recently my short book Frances Power Cobbe (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

[4] See Laurel Brake and Marysa Demoor, Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism in Britain and Ireland (Academia Press, 2009). The label “journalism” should not put one off – in the nineteenth century a “journalist” simply meant someone who published in the journals; the modern divide between (“mere”) journalists and academics did not exist.

[5] Hamilton, Frances Power Cobbe, 6.

[6] Katzav, “Women Philosophers in the Philosophical Review,” Digressions&Impressions.

[7] It is an interesting question why one woman philosopher of this place and period – Harriet Taylor Mill – has escaped the oblivion that has befallen her (rough) contemporaries. I suspect that, ironically, her connection to John Stuart Mill has saved her – whereas, of the other women philosophers I’ve mentioned, Harriet Martineau, Julia Wedgwood, Edith Simcox, Vernon Lee, and Constance Naden never married. Nor did Cobbe, who had a life-long partnership with another woman, the sculptor Mary Lloyd. Having said that these women await recovery as philosophers, I must mention Clare Stainthorp’s invaluable Constance Naden: Scientist, Philosopher, Poet (Peter Lang, 2019); moreover, much can be learnt about these women’s philosophical views from biographical, historical or politically focused studies – e.g., for just two examples, Judith Johnston, Anna Jameson: Victorian, Feminist, Woman of Letters (Scolar Press, 1997), and Caroline Roberts, The Woman and the Hour: Harriet Martineau and Victorian Ideologies (University of Toronto Press, 2002).

[8] For instance, on Philpapers.org, within the breakdown of “Nineteenth-century philosophy” we find: American philosophy – 9343 books and articles; Austrian – 4698; British – 3458; and German – 26,066.

[9] Eastern Hermit, “Ivy-Leaves,” Fraser’s Magazine 17 (1878): 268. “Eastern Hermit” was the pseudonym of William Allingham; this illustrates the fact that men, as well as women, often wrote with pseudonyms or anonymously. Anonymity was in fact standard in British periodicals up until the mid-1860s.

[10] O’Neill, however, says that the purification happened in the nineteenth century and that this was therefore the “pivotal era” for women’s disappearance (“Early Modern Women Philosophers and the History of Philosophy,” Hypatia 20.3 (2005): 186–187). But in nineteenth-century Britain at least, professionalisation had not yet happened; it only occurred at the end of the century. 

[11] This phrase comes from the Glasgow Herald (3rd February 1891), who were actually saying that Cobbe had vacated this role now that she had retired to Wales; they saw her role as being taken over by Julia Wedgwood. Wedgwood was a friend of Cobbe’s, and took Cobbe as her role model of an intellectual woman; see Sue Brown’s excellent recent biography of Wedgwood, Julia Wedgwood: The Unexpected Victorian (Anthem Press, 2022).

“In later nineteenth-century Britain, Cobbe was one of the most prominent women intellectuals, very well known for her many philosophical writings and her political campaigns against scientific experimentation on live animals and against cruelty to animals more generally”

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