Philosophy Mary Shepherd
by
Manuel Fasko
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 March 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0442

Introduction

Mary Shepherd (née Primrose, b. 1777–d. 1847) is the author of at least two books and three essays published during her lifetime. One of the key focuses of her work rests on the issue of causation. In 1824, the first book, An Essay upon the Relation of Cause and Effect, Controverting the Doctrine of Mr. Hume, concerning the Nature of the Relation; with Observations upon the Opinions of Dr. Brown and Mr. Lawrence, Connected with the Same Subject (ERCE) is published. In ERCE she argues against a Humean notion of causation as constant conjunction that cause and effect are necessarily connected, and that causation requires the causal interaction (‘mixing’) of at least two partial causes. Shepherd returns to the issue of causation, employing the insights from her first book, in the first part of her second book, Essays on the Perception of an External Universe, and Other Subjects Connected with the Doctrine of Causation (EPEU), from 1827. In EPEU she primarily argues that there is a continually existing, mind-independent, and external world. In the second part of this book, we find fourteen essays that discuss a variety of topics ranging from criticizing Berkeley’s mistakes, to discussing various issues in the philosophy of mind and perception. These topics are also the focus in the essays published in 1828. Her last essay, “Lady Mary Shepherd’s Metaphysics” (LMSM) from 1832, contains a dense summary of her metaphysics, which is defended against the criticism of John Fearn (an autodidact and former naval officer). Shepherd’s work seems to have been well-regarded in her day—or at least other participants of the so-called republic of letters were far from indifferent toward it. Her daughter, Mary Brandreth, even writes that William Whewell, a philosopher of science, used one of her books when he was teaching at Cambridge. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, however, Shepherd’s work comes to share the story of most women philosophers and her works drop from view for over a century. It was only around the twentieth century that scholars such as Margaret Atherton, Martha Bolton, and Jennifer McRobert started the work of recovering Shepherd. In the subsequent decades, some articles and overviews were published. Those are mostly concerned with her notion of causation, her criticism of Berkely and Hume or with establishing that she ought to be taken seriously as a philosopher. It is only more recent years, from 2017 onward, that have seen an exponential growth in the philosophical secondary literature on Shepherd. While her notion of causation attracts a lot of attention, as do her criticisms of Berkeley, Hume, and Reid, her metaphysics and epistemology as well as her philosophy of mind now garner significant scholarly engagement. This article, moreover, provides an overview on the primary sources, modern editions, overview articles, and anthologies that are currently available.

Primary Sources

The body of work that can be attributed to Shepherd with certainty is limited to her two books, An Essay upon the Relation of Cause and Effect (ERCE, Shepherd 1824) from 1824 and Essays on the Perception of an External Universe (EPEU, Shepherd 1827), from 1827. Moreover, there is her essay “Lady Mary Shepherd’s Metaphysics” (LMSM, Shepherd 1832) from 1832 as well as two essays, one of which focuses on sense perception, “On the Causes of Single and Erect Vision,” published in Shepherd 1828b and Shepherd 1828c) and the other on a book by John Fearn, “Observations of Lady Mary Shepherd on the ‘First Lines of the Human Mind’” (Shepherd 1828a). Next to this, there are a handful of letters. These works demonstrate that, next to causation whose importance for her can be gleaned in almost any philosophical piece of writing, Shepherd has a sustained interest in metaphysics (e.g., the nature of external objects) and epistemology, particularly our knowledge of the external world, the philosophy of mind and perception as well as in theological issues ranging from proofs for God’s existence to miracles and questions about the afterlife. Although we know little about Shepherd’s education and philosophical influences, it is possible to infer that she is well-read from her mentioning such philosophers as Cabanis (EPEU), Kant (EPEU), Locke (ERCE), Leibniz (EPEU), Malebranche (EPEU), or Destutt de Tracy (EPEU); and from her criticisms of Berkeley (EPEU), Thomas Brown (ERCE), Condillac (EPEU), Fearn (LMSM), Hume (ERCE), Lawrence (ERCE), Newton (EPEU), Reid (EPEU), or Dugald Stewart (EPEU). An interesting feature about Shepherd’s known body of work is that all of it is published within a time span of eight years. It begins when Shepherd is forty-seven in 1824 and ends the year Shepherd turns fifty-five in 1832. While there is a chance that Shepherd has written more and published outside of this brief period, all the writings except for the letters are confined to this period. There are currently twelve known letters written by Shepherd. Eight of these letters are to Charles Babbage, three are to William Whewell and one is to Robert Blakey. The letters are written between 1824 and 1843 and show that Shepherd retains an interest in philosophy even after 1832, when LMSM was published.

  • Shepherd, Mary. An Essay upon the Relation of Cause and Effect, Controverting the Doctrine of Mr. Hume, concerning the Nature of the Relation; with Observations upon the Opinions of Dr. Brown and Mr. Lawrence, Connected with the Same Subject. London: Old Bond Street, 1824.

    Shepherd’s anonymously published first book that, as the name suggests, focuses on rejecting the Humean notion of causation and offering an alternative account. Shepherd argues in detail against Hume and develops a theory of causation according to which cause and effect are necessarily connected. She also critically engages with the views of her contemporaries Thomas Brown and William Lawrence to illustrate how a Humean notion of causation causes problems in the science of the day.

  • Shepherd, Mary. Essays on the Perception of an External Universe, and Other Subjects Connected with the Doctrine of Causation. London: John Hatchard and Son, 1827.

    The second known book by Mary Shepherd, published under her own name. It consists of two parts. The first contains one essay called “An Essay on the Academical or Sceptical Philosophy, as Applied by Mr. Hume to the Perception of External Existence.” The second part holds fourteen essays that range from criticism of Berkeley, Reid, or Stewart to discussion of the mind body relation as well as the afterlife and miracles.

  • Shepherd, Mary. “Observations of Lady Mary Shepherd on the ‘First Lines of the Human Mind.’” In Parriana: Or Notices of the Rev. Samuel Parr, L.L.D.; Collected from Various Sources, Printed and Manuscript, and in Part Written by E. H. Barker, Esq. Vol. 1. By Edmund H. Barker, 624–627. London: Henry Colburn, 1828a.

    Short essay offering critical thoughts on John Fearn’s First Lines of the Human Mind (1820) alongside with a reply by Fearn. The publication of the content of the essay seems to have been unlicensed and to contain what was intended to be a private correspondence. The text shows that Shepherd agrees with Fearn’s analysis of color but rejects the latter’s treatment of extension and identifies a lack of knowledge about the nature of causation as the source of Fearn’s mistake.

  • Shepherd, Mary. “On the Causes of Single and Erect Vision.” Philosophical Magazine and Annals of Philosophy 18 (June 1828b): 406–416.

    Longer essay offering an explanation for the reason we see an object as single and erect when these visual perceptions are seemingly caused by two inverted representations on our retinas—an issue Shepherd also addresses in Essay 14 of EPEU. Drawing from five premises as well as Reid’s Inquiry, Shepherd argues that there are two images, but they appear as one to the ‘mental capacity of perception.’

  • Shepherd, Mary. “On the Causes of Single and Erect Vision.” The Kaleidoscope; or, Literary and Scientific Mirror 9.420–421 (1828c): 13.

    Article continues on pp. 22–23. Another printing of the same content as found in Shepherd 1828b.

  • Shepherd, Mary. “Lady Mary Shepherd's Metaphysics.” Fraser’s Magazine 5.30 (1832): 697–708.

    Shepherd’s final known piece of published writing. Written in answer to John Fearn’s criticism and the latter’s unlicensed publishing of Shepherd 1828b. Next to a scathing criticism of Fearn’s position, the essay contains a summary of important points of Shepherd’s metaphysics as well as her (notorious) claim that she advances a “modified Berkeleian theory.” (LMSM 699).

  • Shepherd, Mary. “Correspondence with Blakey, 1843.” In May Shepherd’s Essay on the Relation of Cause and Effect. Edited by Don Garrett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2024.

    Currently last known piece of writing by Shepherd, transcribed here. She is referring to a forthcoming work (probably Blakey’s History of the Philosophy of Mind). Shepherd argues that she should be considered in this work because she offers a theory of causation that can refute atheism as well as explain puzzles in optics, and that made an impression on the Edinburgh School.

  • Shepherd, Mary. “Correspondence with Babbage, 1824–1839/40.” In May Shepherd’s Essay on the Relation of Cause and Effect. Edited by Don Garrett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2024a.

    Shepherd’s longest and most producitve correspondence in terms of output, transcribed here. There are currently eight known letters by her. The correspondence first focuses on induction and the parallels between mathematical and physical reasoning. There is also an inquiry about the magnetic poles, discussions about geology and an inquiry about what Babbage’s machine can work out. The letters get shorter and less philosophical as the years go on.

  • Shepherd, Mary. “Correspondence with Whewell, 1837–39/40.” In May Shepherd’s Essay on the Relation of Cause and Effect. Edited by Don Garrett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2024b.

    Three transcribed letters that are written between 1837 and 1840. The focus of the discussion is on (the nature of) induction. Another issue, also addressed in her correspondence with Blakey, that she covers is atheism. This can be taken to suggest the importance of this issue at this stage of her life. Furthermore, Shepherd inquires for support for her son-in-law’s proposed induction into the Royal Society.

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