Mary Wollstonecraft: Philosophy and Enlightenment

February 23, 2012
University of Helsinki, Lund University and Uppsala University

Pufendorf Institute
Biskopsgatan 3
Lund 22362


  • Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation
  • Academy of Finland


Sandrine Berges
Bilkent University
Alan Coffee
Birkbeck College, University of London
Lund University
Karen O'Brien
University of Birmingham
Martina Reuter
University of Helsinki


Lund University
Martina Reuter
University of Helsinki

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Mary Wollstonecraft: Philosophy and Enlightenment

A one-day symposium at Lund University

Thursday 23 February 2012.

Venue: The Pufendorf Institute (

This symposium is open to all. Enquiries and registration:

Lena Halldenius ([email protected])

Martina Reuter ([email protected])

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Organized jointly by:

The Understanding Agency Research Programme, Uppsala and Lund

The Philosophical Psychology, Morality and Politics Research Unit, Helsinki and Jyväskylä

Papers with abstracts

Karen O’Brien | Birmingham

Mary Wollstonecraft, Enlightenment thinker

Abstract will follow



Martina Reuter | Helsinki and Jyväskylä

Rousseau, Macaulay and Wollstonecraft on Negative Education

In her Letters on Education, Catherine Macaulay adapts J.-J. Rousseau’s notion of negative education, emphasizing that the primary task of education is to protect children from harmful impressions. There is a certain tension in Macaulay’s use of the notion. Her belief in the active power of reason is much stronger than Rousseau’s and she does not seem to realize that Rousseau introduced the notion of negative education as an explicit critique of John Locke’s theory of education. In my presentation I will first examine Macaulay’s adaption of negative education and then, in the second part of the paper, I will argue that Mary Wollstonecraft seems to be less influenced by the idea of negative education than Macaulay. I suggest that Wollstonecraft’s slightly lesser worry about harmful impressions does not primarily follow from her belief in reason, which she shares with Macaulay, but rather from her conception of the imagination. According to Wollstonecraft’s notion of creative imagination, the imagination is not merely passively inflamed by impressions, but also able to create impressions and combine reason with passion.


Sandrine Berges | Bilkent

Wollstonecraft on the Virtue of Chastity

In the Vindication of the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft offers one of the very few existing philosophical discussions of the virtue of chastity.  I argue that her account is Aristotelian, focusing as it does on the idea that chastity is a firm character trait rather than a natural disposition, and that it is a mean between a vice of excess and one of deficiency. Her account is somewhat complicated by the fact that she explains chastity as a derivative of modesty, not understood as a sexual virtue, but a just understanding of one's own worth. In that sense her account is very close to an account of modesty offered by Irene McMullin in her 2010 paper. The linking of modesty and chastity enables Wollstonecraft to give an account of chastity different from those of her predecessors, such that a feminist would be comfortable accepting it, but it also raises some potential worries about whether concerns of chastity place an unreasonable burden on women. I will argue that responding to these worries by further developing the account in fact gives us some of the tools we need to combat oppressive prejudices and related practices traditionally born of concerns for chastity.

Alan Coffee | Birkbeck

Freedom as Independence: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Grand Blessing of Life

The importance of independence is a central and recurring theme within Wollstonecraft’s work. As she uses the term, independence is not equated with contemporary notions of ‘autonomy’ and should not be understood as an individualistic ideal that is in tension with the social and relational aspects of her writing. Rather, independence is a rich and complex concept that not only protects an individual from all forms of arbitrary power, but which requires that all others in society are also protected to a comparable extent. This guarantees political, economic and, crucially, social equality for both men and women. More significantly, the on-going collective input of both sexes on equal terms is required to ensure that the conditions for independence are maintained. Independence, then, demands an effective and extensive social equality which is backed up by a high degree of social cooperation. Understood in this way, independence is a powerful concept in Wollstonecraft's hands for showing how women's subjection can be brought to an end.

Lena Halldenius | Lund

Drawing from the Original Source. Wollstonecraft on Morality and Nature

My aim here is to analyze what acting morally means and requires in Wollstonecraft’s thought. This is usefully done partly by identifying what it is that makes moral agency so difficult. I argue that there are three components to Wollstonecraft’s theory of moral agency: an internal intellectual struggle, acting on a universal motive, and the activity of freely disposing of one’s person. The sometimes overwhelming difficulty of acting on the duty to be moral – despite a person’s very best intentions – makes up the stuff of Wollstonecraft’s novels. I will use her novels here to investigate how she lets ‘nature’ and its counterpoint ‘artifice’ serve to show of what this difficulty is made.

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