Distinguished Professor: Margaret Atherton

The historian of philosophy is best known for her studies of Berkeley and women philosophers of the early modern period.

By Peter Hansen
Margaret Atherton Photo

In the 17th and 18th centuries, philosophy and psychology were not viewed as separate disciplines, and, as UWM Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Margaret Atherton observes, “A good deal of theoretical thinking, observation about minds and mental behavior took place within a group of people that we now label philosophers.” Prominent among this group was George Berkeley, whose revolutionary 1709 Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision laid the foundation for studies in psychology of vision.

Berkeley has been a cornerstone of Atherton’s research on English philosophers of the early modern period. In an interview, she cites the work of Berkeley and John Locke as “the beginnings of an attempt to understand human cognitive processing.”

In her first book, Berkeley’s Revolution in Vision in 1990, Atherton offers a reinterpretation of his New Theory, asserting that the essay was a landmark in the history of scientific thought, a view often contested by philosophers.

“I find it very worthwhile to go back and read historical texts because I think that, very often, they’ve been badly misunderstood,” she says.

Atherton’s view on Berkeley’s scientific impact attracted a $33,000 grant from the National Science Foundation in 1986 for a project titled “Berkeley’s Science and Philosophy.” A leading grant recipient in her department, she has also received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Center for Interdisciplinary Research at the University of Bielefeld in Germany.

Atherton’s work on Berkeley attracted the prestigious Turbayne International Berkeley Essay Prize in 1999, but she is a prominent scholar of Locke, René Descartes, and others as well.

Atherton is also recognized for her studies of women philosophers of the early modern period. “The ordinary assumption twenty years ago when I first started looking into this,” she says, “was that there were no women in philosophy and there hadn’t been any women in philosophy until around 1950.”

But she soon discovered that some were able to overcome the formidable barriers to education for women during that time and have an impact as philosophers. “I started sort of a recovery project to try to understand what sort of work was done by women, the institutional possibilities for them to participate, and the kind of work they did,” she says. “In every case it seems these women were able to enter a like-minded intellectual community where they found support and respect.”

In addition to writing one book, Atherton has edited three collections and written 53 articles.