Finch, Anne (1631–1679)

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Finch, Anne (1631–1679)

Viscountess Conway and English philosopher. Name variations: Lady Anne Conway; Viscountess Conway. Born on December 14, 1631; died on February 23, 1679; daughter of Sir Heneage Finch (d. 1631, speaker of the House of Commons); sister of physician John Finch (1626–1682); educated at home; married Edward, 3rd viscount Conway, in 1651; children: one son, who died in infancy.

Selected works:

The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (1690).

Although in 17th-century England few women received much education, Anne Finch benefited from the intellectual environment of her home. The Finches were wealthy aristocrats who encouraged reading and philosophical discussion. In fact, the frequent and severe headaches Anne suffered from the age of 12 (probably a form of migraine) were at first attributed to too much reading, encouraged by the many gifts of books she received from her older brother John Finch. Her only education was at home, but she studied French, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, mathematics, and philosophy.

John was a good friend as well as a brother to Anne, and through him she encountered the intellectual circle with which she would be involved throughout her life. She was knowledgeable of the history of philosophy as well as the contemporary philosophy of Descartes, Hobbes and Spinoza. But John's introduction of her to his tutor at Cambridge, the Platonist Henry More, allowed her philosophical life to blossom. More adopted Anne as his own student (informally, as women of the day in England could not attend university), calling her his "heroine pupil." She became More's confidante and collaborator.

Both her intellectual and personal life were impacted by the relationship with More. At 19, Anne married Edward, Viscount Conway, who had also been More's student. Edward encouraged her friendship with More and the intellectual circle grew to include three other Cambridge Platonists, Ralph Cudworth, Joseph Glanvill and George Rust, as well as Francis Mercury van Helmont, a Kabbalist philosopher (involved with Jewish mysticism), who was known as "the gypsy scholar." All were frequently guests at the Conway home. Van Helmont also acted as Anne's doctor, as did many notable physicians of the day as her headaches worsened.

Anne Finch's only work, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, was published posthumously, but her ideas were discussed in her circle and reflected the concerns of the time. The dominant philosophical questions concerned science and the view of reality in terms of mechanisms. Finch endeavored to reconcile a mechanistic philosophy of nature with Platonism, the view that the form of the natural world is derived from the form of the heavens. She developed an understanding of nature that is both mechanistic (causation is the result of motion) and spiritual (motion is a spiritual emanation). Finch was one of the earliest proponents of vitalism, which claims that all of the material world is living and that there is only one substance that occurs on a continuum between the physical and the mental. She argued that God does not exist on the continuum, but outside it, and that Christ is the mediator between God and the natural continuum. This thinking had far-ranging philosophical implications, including the idea that sin is improper motion. Henry More rejected the implication that God contributes spirituality to nature because it seemed to lead to pantheism, the view that God exists in everything.

After the death of her only son as an infant, Finch's headaches became much worse. She spent the last 20 years of her life at her estate in the country, Ragley Hall. During her lifetime Finch's reputation as an intellectual grew. In her final years, when she was too weak to leave her bed or even to raise her head, she was visited by many famous scholars. Van Helmont, a Quaker, encouraged her conversion to Quakerism in the last days of her life, a move that was contrary to the advice of her friends and family, as Quakerism was then an obscure and unpopular sect. He also preserved her body in wine after her death in 1678 at the age of 47, until her husband Edward could see her. She was then buried at Warwickshire in a glass coffin inside another coffin.

The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy was written during a two-year period near the end of her life. What could be deciphered of her handwriting in the notebook was published posthumously by van Helmont. She was only credited in the preface as "a certain English Countess." More and van Helmont translated the work into Latin. The only English version remaining is a retranslation.

It is very likely that the text influenced the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who borrowed from her the concept of "monad," which is the basis of his most famous work, The Monadology. He admitted the similarities between their views, and he may have received a copy of her work from van Helmont, or the two may have discussed the ideas presented in Finch's text. It is possible, however, that the similarities between the two philosophers' views were simply the result of the type of ideas in general that were being discussed among intellectuals at the time.


Atherton, Margaret. Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1994.

Kersey, Ethel M. Women Philosophers: a Bio-critical Source Book. NY: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Waithe, Mary Ellen, ed. A History of Women Philosophers, vol. 3. Boston, MA: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987.

suggested reading:

Hutton, Sarah, revised ed. Marjorie Hope Nicholson, ed. The Conway Letters: The Correspondence of Anne, Viscountess Conway, Henry More, and their friends, 1642–1684. NY: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Catherine Hundleby , M.A. Philosophy, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada