Conway, Anne

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(née Finch) (b. Kensington, United Kingdom, 14 December 1631, d. Ragley Hall, Warwickshire, United Kingdom, 23 February 1679), philosophy.

Conway (née Finch) was the daughter of Sir Heneage Finch and his second wife, Elizabeth Bennett. Born shortly after her father’s death, she was the youngest of her father’s six surviving children, among whom two of her half brothers had distinguished careers: Heneage Finch became Lord Chancellor and was created first Earl of Nottingham; Sir John Finch was to serve as British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. In 1650, she married Edward Conway, who inherited the title of third Viscount Conway in 1655, and was created Earl Conway after her death. The Conways had extensive landed interests in Warwickshire and County Antrim and recovered their political fortunes at the Restoration. Her husband apparently shared her interest in the new philosophy of Descartes. They had one child, Heneage, who died in infancy. Toward the end of her life Anne Conway composed a short treatise, Principia philosophiae antiquissimae et recentissimae, which was published anonymously in Latin translation in 1690, and was translated back into English in 1692.

In order to pursue her interests in science and philosophy, Anne Conway had to overcome two major obstacles: As a woman, she was barred from attending university, and severe ill health inhibited her participation in the intellectual debates of her time. However, a combination of fortunate individual circumstances enabled her to overcome these disadvantages. She received tuition in philosophy from England’s most prominent enthusiast for Cartesian natural philosophy, Henry More, who became a personal friend. For much of her life she found a sympathetic mentor in her half brother, Sir John Finch, a Paduan-trained anatomist and a Fellow of the Royal Society with strong links to the Accademia del Cimento in Florence. She was conversant with the experimental science of the Royal Society in London, and the debates surrounding it. For example, she knew the writings of Robert Boyle (1627–1691) and was acquainted with one of the society’s most acerbic detractors, Henry Stubbe (1632– 1676), who was physician to the Conways. It was the visit of the Irish healer Valentine Greatrakes (1628–1682), whom she consulted in 1666, which sparked a controversy about experimental method between Stubbe and members of the Royal Society. Her ill health also brought her into contact with some of the leading medical thinkers of her time: William Harvey, Thomas Willis, and Francis Glisson. She also consulted Francis Mercury van Helmont (1614–1698), son of Jan Baptiste van Helmont, who subsequently became a friend and mentor. She shared van Helmont’s interest in kabbalism, and it was through him that she came into contact with Quakerism, to which she converted shortly before her death in 1679.

With its critique of Hobbes, Descartes, Henry More, and Spinoza, Conway’s Principia philosophiae is situated at the center of philosophical and scientific debates of the seventeenth century. The metaphysical system it propounds anticipates Leibniz (who is known to have read it), while the natural philosophy it contains suggests the influence of Helmontianism. The treatise sets out a tripartite order of being in which all created things derive from God. Creation is not ex nihilo (creation from nothing) but a continuous emanation of God’s perfection, effected through the agency of an intermediate species, Middle Nature, which shares properties of both God and creation. As the efficient cause by which God creates things, and the final cause, by which nature is organized for the best, Middle Nature bears resemblance to Henry More’s “Spirit of Nature.”

According to Anne Conway, the basic “stuff” of creation is an infinity of monads, each of which contains an infinite number of infinitely divisible particles. The monads may be combined in such a way that some groupings take on more corporeal attributes and some retain more spiritlike attributes. All created things are combinations of these spiritlike and bodylike particles, characterized by extension, solidity, and motion. Soul and body are not radically distinct from one another but exist as part of a continuum of substance, all of which is endowed with life and perception. So, whether they are physical objects such as dust and stones, or complex beings such as animals and humans, all things are living organisms. Because all of created nature and its constituents are composed of one substance and are characterized by mutability and perfectibility, it is theoretically possible for one creature to transmute into another. Nevertheless, Anne Conway maintains the integrity of the species of created things. But she does argue that particular creatures may trans-mute gradually, by successive changes in successive lives: A horse might, by striving to perfect itself within the limits of its species, through successive incarnations, gradually become a man.

Anne Conway’s philosophy of nature exhibits some distinctly Helmontian aspects: For example, she shares the Helmontian view that created substance was originally a form of spirit, and accepts that solids originate as fluids, that individual creatures develop from “universal seeds and principles” (semina et principia), and that all creatures are composites of active (male) and passive (female) principles. She also utilizes the Helmontian theory of imagination to explain the communication of thoughts and perceptions by the transmission of images. Although she does not employ van Helmont’s doctrine of the archeus, there are echoes of van Helmont’s “archeus influens” in her conception of the dominant or “ruling” spirit, which determines the character of the individual creature.

The anonymous publication of Conway’s Principles means that it is impossible to assess its impact. Only in the late twentieth century has there been any serious interest in the treatise. (Leibniz’s copy of the Principia is in the collection of his books in Hanover. He was given it by their mutual friend Francis Mercury van Helmont, and knew her authorship because he inscribed it with her name.)


A complete bibliography is contained in the Hutton biography, cited below. There is no ms of her Principles, but some letters are extant: Cambridge, Christ’s College, MS 21 (Letters of Anne Conway and Henry More); London, British Library MS Additional 23,216 (Letters from Henry More and others); London, British Library MS Additional 23,215 (Letters to Anne Conway from John Finch and Thomas Baines); and London, British Library MS Additional 23,215 (Letters to Anne Conway from Quakers).


Principiae Philosophiae Antiquissimae & recentissimae de Deo, Christo & Creatura id est de Spiritu & materia in genere. Amsterdam, 1690.

The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy: Concerning God, Christ, and the Creature; That is, concerning Spirit and Matter in General. English translation by “J. C.” London, 1692. Modern English translation by Allison P. Coudert and Taylor Corse. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

The Conway Letters: The Correspondence of Anne, Viscountess Conway, Henry More and Their Friends, 1642–1684, edited by Marjorie Nicolson, revised by Sarah Hutton. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.


Hutton, Sarah. Anne Conway, a Woman Philosopher. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

———. “Of Physic and Philosophy: Anne Conway, Francis Mercury van Helmont and Seventeenth-Century Medicine.” In Religio Medici Medicine and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England, edited by Andrew Cunningham and O. Grell, pp. 218–246. Aldershot, U.K.: Scholar Press, 1996.

Sarah Hutton