Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, December 14, 2015

Anne Finch Conway, English Philosopher

Anne Finch Conway, viscountess Conway (born 14 December 1631)

There are two Anne Finches about whom I might post in this women's history daybook--and they are related, somehow, but in such a complicated way that I won't attempt to untangle the knot of their familial connections. Before  you run off to Google, though, let me at least sort out the identities of the two Anne Finches.

The Latin translation
of Anne Finch Conway's
philosophical treatise,
published anonymously
and posthumously
Anne Kingsmill Finch, countess of Winchelsea, was born in 1661 and married the English peer Heneage Finch, 5th earl of Winchelsea. This Anne Finch is now recognized as a noted poet--if you're interested, I'll link you here to her biography at The Poetry Foundation. There you will also find a sample of her work, critical essays, and, for further reading, a bibliography.

But today's Anne Finch, Anne Finch Conway, was born on 14 December 1631. To make matters more confusing, she was the daughter of Sir Heneage Finch--an English politician whose mother was, wait for it . . . the countess of Winchelsea (the 1st countess of Winchelsea)--though her father died a week before Anne's birth.

Anne Finch was raised in the London home of the Finches, now known as Kensington Palace. Although there is no surviving evidence about her education, it is clear that, as Margaret Atherton writes in her Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period, "she does not seem to have been discouraged from educational pursuits, but, among other things, learned Latin and Greek."

Through her half-brother John Finch, Anne was encouraged to pursue her intellectual interests, and John introduced his sister to the philosopher Henry More, his tutor at Christ College, Cambridge. More agreed to instruct Anne Finch in philosophy, though, as a woman, she obviously could not attend his classes. Her instruction was principally through letters.

In 1651, Anne Finch married Edward, who became third viscount of Conway (and later earl of Conway) a few years later, in 1655. Anne Finch's marriage did not end her studies; to the contrary, her husband, who had also been a student of More's, encouraged his wife's intellectual pursuits--and his family owned one of the largest private libraries in England.

Although her husband held numerous political positions (he became a member of the Irish Privy Council in 1660 and governor of Charlmont Fort [Ireland] in 1671), Anne Conway suffered from debilitating headaches and spent much of her time at the Conway estate in Ragley. (The current Ragley Hall, one of the great stately homes of England, was constructed after Anne Finch Conway's death--but there was a large castle at Ragley Park before Edward Conway began the construction of the "new" Ragley Hall in 1680.)

There her friendship with More grew, and her philosophical work ripened. She hosted More and members of his circle of Cambridge Platonists. She also sought treatment from the Flemish physician Francis Mercury van Helmont, who became her personal physician and lived at Ragley from 1671 until Anne Conway's death in 1679. Under his influence, she developed an interest in the Kabbala and then in Quakerism--she converted shortly before her death.

One of the primary sources for Conway's philosophical work is her correspondence with More and his associates--for many early-modern women, their philosophical work survives only in their letters. (Think of Madame de Sévigné or Sophia of Hanover, for example--and, in a few days, I'll be posting about another philosopher, Elisabeth of Bohemia, whose work survives only in her correspondence with Descartes.)

The current magnificent Ragley Hall,
constructed by Edward Conway,
after Anne Finch Conway's death, however

But Anne Conway also completed a philosophical treatise, though it was published posthumously and, as Atherton writes, it has "a rather checkered history." After Conway's death, when the physician van Helmont left Ragley, he took with him Conway's "philosophical notebook," which contained the text of her treatise, left unrevised. Van Helmont and Henry More revised her work and translated it into Latin. The treatise was then published anonymously in Amsterdam in 1690 as Principia philosophiae antiquissimae et recentissimae. This Latin version was then translated back into English and published as The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (London, 1692). 

I am not a philosopher, so I will leave the technical aspects of Conway's philosophical views to those who can best explain them. I'll link you here to Sarah Hutton's excellent essay in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. But I will include her summary of Conway's philosophical significance:
Anne Conway presents her system as an answer to the dominant philosophies of her time. Several chapters of her treatise are devoted to a refutation of the dualism of Henry More, and Descartes. (She does, however, express her admiration for Descartes' physics). She also takes issue with Hobbes and Spinoza, whom she charges with material pantheism, which confounds God and created substance. Anne Conway's concept of substance probably owes much to Platonism and Kabbalism (which, in the version she encountered was heavily Platonised). Her thinking also shows the impact of the teachings of the heterodox Christian theologian, Origen, who was much admired by her teacher, Henry More. As a theodicy and monadology, her system anticipates the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who owned a copy of her treatise (probably a gift to him by their mutual friend, Van Helmont), and who received her work favourably. However, although she was unusual as a female philosopher of the seventeenth century, by virtue of the fact that her philosophy achieved publication, the anonymity of her work has ensured that she has suffered the same neglect that has been the lot of most pre-modern female philosophers.
You can read Conway's Principles, posted by Mary Mark Ockerbloom at A Celebration of Women Writers by clicking here. For the correspondence, see Marjorie Hope Nicholson and Sarah Hutton's The Conway Letters: The Correspondence of Anne, Viscountess Conway, Henry More, and Their Friends, 1642-1684. (I've linked here, even though this book is so expensive it may be beyond the reach of those interested in women philosophers!)