Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759–1797)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L116-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved November 30, 2022, from

2. Wollstonecraft and philosophy

Wollstonecraft was not a systematic political philosopher aiming primarily at theoretical rigour, but something more like a philosophe as defined in Diderot’s Encyclopedie (see Diderot, D. §1) For the philosophe, reasoning consisted in speculative generalization from experience, applied to the social issues of the day with an eye to practical improvement. Wollstonecraft combined ideas drawn from a variety of Enlightenment philosophies, from contemporary science, and from prevailing political, cultural and social movements into an explanation and evaluation of the current condition of women, of the state of society, and of her personal and professional experience within it. Her object was a rational programme of reform; her political works use philosophy only incidentally, to support political polemic.

Though this political polemic uses the language of liberalism, its philosophical foundations are, first, a speculative anthropology which distinguishes between natural and artificial human attributes, assigns most of human development to environmental influences, and expects progressive human improvement in morality and civilization; and second, a moral philosophy and psychology inspired by personal experience, current theories of the nervous system, and the suggestions of rational religion about the purpose of human life. This philosophical moral psychology achieved only fragmentary expression in Wollstonecraft’s political works, but its outlines are fairly clear from her educational, fictional and travel writings.

Citing this article:
Zaw, Susan Khin. Wollstonecraft and philosophy. Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759–1797), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L116-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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