The social dimension of generosity in Descartes and Astell

Deborah Brown, Jacqueline Broad

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


For Descartes, the passion of generosity—defined as legitimate self- esteem—appears to be egocentric, the result of agents’ contemplation of their nature. Yet Cartesian generosity is also intended to serve as the foundation for other- regarding passions, attitudes, and dispositions. This paper examines this tension as it is addressed in the writings of an early Cartesian feminist, Mary Astell. We uncover the social dimension of generosity in Descartes’s Passions of the Soul and demonstrate
how Astell extends the Cartesian concept in her Serious Proposal. We argue that while there is an internal relationship between Cartesian generosity and good will toward others, Astell’s work recognizes that generosity can only be fully actualized under
equitable social conditions. We thus provide a deeper analysis of the role that this master passion plays in Descartes’s ethical thought as well as a greater appreciation of the impact of Cartesian ethics on early modern feminism.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)409-427
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of the History of Philosophy
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Descartes
  • Astell
  • generosity
  • self-esteem
  • passions
  • social dimensions
  • equality
  • dignity
  • Somers

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