Conway, Anne (1631–1679)

views updated


Anne Conway (Anne Finch, Viscountess Conway), the English philosopher, was born in London. Her education was primarily informal and self-directed. Her associates included Henry More, Ralph Cudworth, Francis Mercury Van Helmont, William Harvey, and Robert Boyle, the latter two as physicians for her serious headaches. Later in life she scandalized More by becoming a Quaker.

Work and Influence

Conway's sole published work, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, published posthumously in 1690, shows the influence of the Cambridge Platonists, Kabbalism, and Neoplatonism. It criticized Thomas Hobbes, Benedict de Spinoza, and René Descartes, and influenced Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who, during the year he was introduced to her work by Van Helmont in 1696, adopted her term monad and used it in a quite similar way (Merchant 1979). A notable difference between their uses of the term is that, while Leibniz's monads are purely spiritual, Conway's are both physical and spiritual. Leibniz refers directly to Conway in his New Essays (book 1, chap. 1) as one of the better advocates of vitalism.


Conway begins the Principles by asserting without proof the existence of a perfect God, the description of which is influenced by Neoplatonism and Kabbalism. Conway's God is one of three kinds of substance, each with its own essence. God is a complete, self-sufficient fountain that necessarily emanates Christ, the second kind of substance, and through the mediation of Christ, who shares some attributes with God, others with creatures, necessarily emanates creaturesthe third kind of substance. Because emanative creation is creation "out of" God rather than "out of" nothing, creatures have a share of the divine attribute of life. Since all creatures are of the same kind of substance, they have a single essence, differing only modally from one another. Thus, spirit or mind and body are not "really distinct." There are many degrees of corporeity, and thus "a Thing may more or less approach to, or recede from the State and Condition of a body or a Spirit" (Conway 1982, p. 192). Conway draws the further conclusion that creatures are interconvertible: A horse, for example, can turn into a bird and spirits can turn into bodies (p. 177).

Not only God's creative act, but all of God's actions flow automatically from God's nature. Thus, God does whatever does not involve a contradiction. Conway's deity, like Leibniz', is timeless. Both Conway and Leibniz consider time to be relative to succession and motion; they consider succession and motion to be inferior analogues of eternity and the divine will, respectively, and thus to belong only to creatures (Conway 1982, p. 161).

Conway employs the concept of mediation, introduced in her account of creation, to explain action at a distance as well as causation between bodies and spirits. All created substances, in addition to sharing an essence, are interconnected by means of "Subtiler Parts," which are the "Emanation of one Creature into another." These mediated connections facilitate action at a distance and form "the Foundation of all Sympathy and Antipathy which happens in Creatures" (Conway 1982, p. 164). Conway offers, by contrast to the mechanical philosophy, a fairly direct account of the intelligibility of causation based on the concepts of similarity (or sympathy) and mediation. Similarity between cause and effect, as in the case of causation among bodies, renders causation directly intelligible, "because Things of one, or alike Nature, can easily affect each other." Mediation is required in the case of mind-body causation, because a soul is a "Spiritual Body" (pp. 214215).

Since Conway regards interconnection as primitive, she requires no detailed explanations of causal interactions. Here she contrasts markedly with mechanistic philosophers' demands for explanations using motion and passive matter as primitives. Conway nonetheless incorporates causation by motion into her overall account of causation: Motion, especially vital motion, and divine emanation do not differ intrinsically from one another but are analogically related.

See also Boyle, Robert; Cambridge Platonists; Causation: Metaphysical Issues; Causation: Philosophy of Science; Cudworth, Ralph; Descartes, René; Harvey, William; Hobbes, Thomas; Kabbalah; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; More, Henry; Neoplatonism; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Vitalism.


Conway, A. The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy. Edited by P. Lopston. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1982.

Duran, J. "Anne Viscountess Conway: A Seventeenth-Century Rationalist." Hypatia 4 (1989): 6479.

Frankel, L. "Anne Finch, Viscountess Conway." In A History of Women Philosophers, Vol. 3, edited by M. E. Waithe. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1991.

Frankel, L. "The Value of Harmony." In Causation in Early Modern Philosophy, edited by S. Nadler. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

Merchant, C. "The Vitalism of Anne Conway: Its Impact on Leibniz's Concept of the Monad." Journal of the History of Philosophy 17 (1979): 255269.

Nicolson, M. H. Conway Letters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1930.

Lois Frankel (1996)