Philosophers: Lady Anne Finch Conway
(1631-1679 CE)

[Life & Work] | [Links] | [Bibliography]

She was born in 1631, a week after the death of her father (Sir Heneage Finch, Speaker of the House of Commons). She was tutored (probably pretty perfunctorily) at home, where she learnt Latin (later adding Greek and Hebrew), and showed signs of considerable intellectual curiosity and ability. The Platonist, Henry More, had been the tutor of one of her brothers at Cambridge, and this led to his correspondence with her on the philosophy of Descartes.

More had corresponded with Descartes, and started off as a champion, with reservations, of Cartesian philosophy. His religious-based reservations, especially concerning Descartes' mechanistic account of the world, later grew into rejection.

The correspondence between More and his "heroine pupil" continued after her marriage to Edward Conway in 1651, though their relationship changed from one between tutor and pupil to one between equals. More stated that he had "scarce ever met with any Person, Man or Woman, of better Natural parts than Lady Conway".

Anne Conway followed a particularly unusual intellectual course -- not only for a woman, but for anyone at the time. From Cartesian philosophy she investigated the Lurianic cabbala, and finally converted to Quakerism (generally loathed and feared at the time).

Her philosophical work had another important source: her own physical pain. From youth she suffered from headaches so appalling that she tried cures that for most of us would be beyond consideration (including trepanning -- though no-one dared perform this operation, so instead she had her jugular arteries opened). Nothing worked, and she died in 1679, at only forty-seven.

I say that this was a source of her philosophical thought, for she was very much concerned to provide a theodicy -- an attempt to reconcile the existence of a benevolent god with the existence of suffering and other evil in the world. Modern readers need to be prepared for a religious flavour far more intense than most of her better-known philosophical contemporaries and near-contemporaries.

Her only work (though she collaborated with others on various works) was published posthumously, and itself suffered a strange series of tribulations. She probably wrote it - in English - between 1671 and 1675, and it was first published in a Latin translation in 1690. When an English edition was prepared in 1692, with the title The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, it had to be translated from the Latin translation, the original manuscript having been lost.

Apart from its value as a critical appraisal of the work of Descartes, Hobbes, and Spinoza, Conway had an influence on Leibniz (he acknowledges her work in correspondence), possibly even giving him the term "monad".

+ One Hundred Philosophers (2004)
U.S.A.:     Barron's Educational Books
U.K.:        Apple Press
Australia: A.B.C. Books
The book covers the history of philosophy chronologically from Thales of Miletus (6th century BCE) to Peter Singer (b.1946 CE), with philosophers from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Australasia, and the U.S.A., about 60% getting a page, 40% two pages. Scattered through the book are brief introductions to such topics as African, Chinese, and Indian philosophy, scepticism, women in philosophy, mind and body, the philosophy of science, and moral philosophy. The book's divided into periods, each with its own introduction and timeline of other important events. There's also a glossary, suggested further reading, and an index.

Primary texts

  • The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (translated and edited by Peter Loptson; Martinus Nijhoff, 1982) - a selection from this edition is reprinted in Mary Warnock [ed.], Women Philosopher (J.M. Dent: Everyman, 1996)
  • The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (translated and edited by Alison P. Coudert and Taylor Corse; Cambridge University Press, 1996)
  • The Conway Letters: The Correspondence of Anne, Viscountess Conway, Henry More, and Their Friends, 1642-1684 (edited by Marjorie H. Nicolson; revised edition with introduction and new material by Sarah Hutton -- Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992)

Secondary literature

(largely lifted from Peter Suber's pages)
  • Stuart Brown, "Leibniz and More's Cabalistic Circle" (in Sarah Hutton [ed.], Henry More (1614-1687) Tercentenary Studies, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990)
  • Louise D. Derksen, "Anne Conway's Critique of Cartesian Dualism" (on Paideia)
  • Jane Duran, "Anne Viscountess Conway: A Seventeenth Century Rationalist" (Hypatia, 40, 1 (1989) pp 64-79)
  • Lois Frankel, "Anne Finch, Viscountess Conway" (in Mary Ellen Waithe [ed.], A History of Women Philosophers, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991)
  • Lois Frankel, "Motion and Emanation in the Principles of Anne Conway" (delivered at conference on New Trends in Feminist Philosophy, Ohio State University, April 1985)
  • Lois Frankel, "The Value of Harmony" (in Steven Nadler [ed.], Causation in Early Modern Philosophy: Cartesianism, Occasionalism, and Pre-established Harmony, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993)
  • Sarah Hutton, "Of Physic and Philosophy: Anne Conway, F.M. van Helmont and Seventeenth-Century Medicine", (in A. Cunningham and O.P. Grell [edd], Religio Medici: Medicine and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England, Scolar Press, 1996)
  • Sarah Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
  • Carolyn Merchant, "Anne Conway: Quaker and Philosopher" (Guilford Review, (Spring 1986) pp 2-10)
  • Carolyn Merchant, "The Vitalism of Anne Conway: Its Impact on Leibniz's Concept of the Monad" (Journal of the History of Philosophy, 17, 3 (July 1979) pp 255-69)
  • Richard H. Popkin, "The Spiritualistic Cosmologies of Henry More and Anne Conway" (in Sarah Hutton [ed.], Henry More (1614-1687) Tercentenary Studies, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990)
  • Carol O. Stoneburner, Theodor Benfey, Robert Kraus [edd], Perspectives on the Seventeenth Century World of Viscountess Anne Conway (Special issue of the Guilford Review, no. 23 [Spring 1986])

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