Lady Mary Shepherd (1777-1847)

Lady Mary Shepherd (1777-1847) was born and raised at Barnbougle Castle, near Edinburgh. She settled in London in 1808 after marrying the English barrister Henry John Shepherd (McRobert 2014: 19, 47), and subsequently published two books and three essays. According to a memoir written much later by one of her daughters, Shepherd had earlier written some 'metaphysical disquisitions' about Hume and Priestley, although these have since been lost (Brandreth 1886: 28-9).

Shepherd's daughter reports that Shepherd was involved with "both the scientific and the literary sides of the learned world" and that her social circle included Sir Charles Lyell, Charles Babbage, Mary Somerville, William Whewell, Sydney Smith, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo (Brandreth 1886: 41-42).

Shepherd's first book was An Essay upon the Relation of Cause and Effect, published in 1824. Her primary target in this book is Hume's view that necessary connections between causes and effects are properly understood in terms of constant conjunctions of precedent and subsequent events and causal inferences from one to the other. Instead, Shepherd defends the view that causal principles can be known by reason to be necessary truths. "In contradiction to these ideas of Mr. Hume," she writes, "it is Reason, and not Custom, which guides our minds in forming the notions of necessary connexion, of belief and of expectation" (Shepherd 1824: 42; emphasis in original). In the first two chapters, Shepherd offers arguments in support of two causal principles, "A Being cannot begin its existence of itself" and "Like causes necessarily have like effects" (Shepherd 1824: 39 and 43-4). In the third chapter, she describes the process we rely on when we apply these causal principles in ordinary life and judge that some object will or will not continue to behave as it has in the past.

Shepherd then turns in Chapter Four to the work of Thomas Brown (1778-1820), author of Inquiry into the Relation of Cause and Effect (1818) and Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind (1820). While Shepherd praises Brown for his astuteness "in detecting some of Mr. Hume's fallacies" (Shepherd 1824: 138), she is critical of his endorsement of Hume's view that causal relationships can be expressed as "A followed by B." Instead, she suggests, a causal relationship is more aptly expressed as "A x B = C," where that means that when two items A and B "mix" or conjoin, item C arises (Shepherd 1824: 141). Causes and effects are synchronous, according to Shepherd. In the final two chapters, she argues against the materialist views of William Lawrence (1783-1867) as expressed in his 1819 Lectures on Physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man. In an 1843 letter that Robert Blakey includes in his memoirs, Shepherd reflected on her 1824 book, writing that "the ideas there advanced are the foundation of all sound philosophy" (Blakey 1879: 160).

Shepherd's second book, Essays on the Perception of an External Universe (1827), contains a long essay intended to show that we have good reason to attribute a continued, external, and independent existence to objects. This is followed by eight shorter essays addressing some of the philosophical arguments of Berkeley, Dugald Stewart, Thomas Reid, and Hume; five essays that she characterizes as "against several modern atheists" (Shepherd 1827: x) on the immateriality and eternity of the mind, the existence of God, and the interaction of mind and body; and a final brief essay on why we see objects as single even though we perceive them with two eyes. Shepherd expanded on the points made in the final essay of her 1827 book in an essay entitled "On the Causes of Single and Erect Vision," published in The Philosophical Magazine in June 1828. 1828 also saw the publication of an exchange between Shepherd and a philosophically-inclined naval officer named John Fearn in the magazine Parriana: or, Notices of the Rev. Samuel Parr, L.L.D. Shepherd had written a brief commentary on Fearn's 1820 book First Lines of the Human Mind; in a condescending document six times as long as Shepherd's critique, Fearn accused Shepherd of "oversight," "haste," and having been "betrayed into a train of contradictory positions" (Parr 1828: 633, 642).

In her final publication, an essay entitled "Lady Mary Shepherd's Metaphysics," Shepherd notes that her critique of Fearn was "really not intended for the public eye" (Shepherd 1832: 697). Lest Fearn's doctrines "obtain thereby some few proselytes," she undertakes in this essay to show that his remarks in Parriana were "unphilosophical" and "inconsistent with each other" (Shepherd 1832: 697). In the course of replying to Fearn, Shepherd provides a clear and concise summary of her own views on extension, sensation, ideas, and causation.

Shepherd died on 7 January 1847 at her home in London. Her philosophical works were apparently well received in her day; her daughter reported that Whewell used one of her books as a textbook at Cambridge (Brandreth 1886: 29), although it is unknown which of Shepherd's two books Whewell used. Her daughter also reported that both Whewell and Lyell described Shepherd as an "unanswerable logician, in whose argument it was impossible to find loophole or flaw" (Brandreth 1886: 29). Robert Blakey included a discussion of Shepherd's work in his 1848 History of the Philosophy of the Mind, where he wrote that Shepherd's writings displayed "great acuteness and subtility" (Blakey 1848: 40). Since then, however, Shepherd's insightful work has been unjustly neglected. There are as yet no scholarly modern editions of her books, and very little secondary literature on her work. Fortunately, this is starting to change, as historians of philosophy begin to attend to the works of the many women philosophers who have been written out of history.


Suggested further reading

Dr. Deborah A Boyle