What Makes a Friend?

Nancy Kendrick, professor of philosophy, had her article “Mary Astell’s Theory of Spiritual Friendship” published in January in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy.

An English feminist, philosopher, and rhetorician, Mary Astell (1666 – 1731) was a frequent advocate for equal educational opportunities for women, which earned her the title of “the first English feminist.”

In contrast with common theories of friendship rooted in Aristotelian philosophy, Kendrick defines Astell’s notion of friendship as distinctly anti-Aristotelian. Astell rejects the Aristotelian criteria of reciprocity and partiality as essential features of the friendship bond, declaring that neither criterion is necessary for friendship.

“Astell relies on Platonist metaphysics to advance a theory of friendship that turns out to be completely at odds with Aristotle’s view,” said Kendrick, “This is important because the Aristotelian theory of friendship is the best known and most written about theory of friendship in the West.” Kendrick writes that Astell’s complete rejection of such a prominent doctrine is what sets her apart from others.

The article simultaneously explores the uniquely feminist nature of Mary Astell’s work and her theory of female-female spiritual friendships which suggested that such bonds were sanctioned by God and authorized alternatives to heteronormative standards.

Kendrick’s interest first emerged when preparing to teach a course on friendship. She discovered that textbooks which approached the topic from a historical philosophical perspective did not include any selections from women writers.

Kendrick’s own research focuses on the 17th and 18th centuries. This discovery prompted her to scour texts written during by women in that period. This extensive search eventually uncovered the work of Mary Astell. Uncovering this work, however, was by no means the final challenge.


“There is very little scholarship on Astell’s theory of friendship, so I had to evaluate her arguments within a bit of a scholarly vacuum. I also had to provide an overarching narrative that would enable readers of my work to connect Astell with other philosophers who have written about friendship” said Kendrick.

Kendrick is currently working on an article that will be published next year on Mary Wollstonecraft’s view of friendship and family bonds. She is also working on a book called Friendship and Friendlessness.

Read the article in
British Journal for the Historical Philosophy,
Volume 26, Issue 1, (2018): 46-65