The Duchess of Newcastle was a prolific authoress whose writings include several works on philosophical subjects. Her interest in natural philosophy was encouraged by her husband, William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle (formerly Marquess), and his brother, Sir Charles Cavendish. Through the Cavendish circle she met both Descartes and Hobbes, although she denied having any significant contact with either. She was a beneficiary of the Cartesian turn in philosophy to the extent that she repudiated traditional book learning and took the thinking self as her point of departure. Her own philosophy is, however, fundamentally opposed to Cartesianism, since she denied dualism of mind and body, proposing instead a materialist and vitalist account of nature. In her Philosophical Letters (1664) and her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666), she made specific criticisms of Descartes, particularly of his dualism – for example, she questioned how an immaterial substance could move a solid body, and his locating the human soul in the pineal gland.
See also Cavendish, William; Dualism; Hobbes, Thomas; Human Being; Pineal Gland
Lady Conway (née Finch) was one of the very few women philosophers of the seventeenth century. She studied Cartesian philosophy with the Cambridge Platonist Henry More, who translated Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy especially for her. Barred from attending university because she was a woman, she studied by correspondence. She was thus exposed to both More's enthusiasm for Descartes and his critique of Cartesianism. She published nothing in her lifetime, but her posthumously published Principia philosophiae antiquissimae et recentissimae (1690) (English trans., The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 1692) rejects the Cartesianism of her philosophical education. Notably, she argues that on Descartes’ definition of mind and body it is impossible to account for interaction between them. Furthermore, it is contradictory to suppose that God as a perfect living being, would create a substance so unlike himself as body as conceived by Descartes. These objections lead her to posit a monism of substance, where all things consist of living particles, which she calls monads. She outlines a Neoplatonic hierarchy of being in which all things derive from God by a process of continuous emanation. Her critique of Cartesian dualism is tempered by her acknowledgment of Descartes’ achievement in elucidating the laws of mechanical motion (see law of nature). The work registers the influence of Francis Mercurius Van Helmont, who brought it to the attention of Leibniz.
See also Cartesianism; Dualism; Human Being; More, Henry; Principles of Philosophy
Cudworth was the most significant philosopher among the Cambridge Platonists. Only a fraction of his manuscript writings on ethics and epistemology was published, and that posthumously: his Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality (1731) and his Treatise of Freewill (1838). The major work published in his lifetime was his The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678), an antideterminist analysis of philosophical atheism in all its manifestations, both ancient and modern. The humanist learning in which this book is steeped masks the modernity of his philosophical outlook and especially, perhaps, his admiration for Descartes. For although Cudworth had major criticisms of Cartesianism, Descartes informs his philosophy in fundamental respects. He lauded Descartes as the reviver of ancient atomism. He regarded the Cartesian conception of body as inert extension as the most intelligible account of corporeality, and the premise of a theory of immaterial (i.e., spiritual) causation. He shared Descartes’ view of mind as a distinct substance from body. And he took clear and distinct perception as the principle of epistemological certainty. However, Cudworth was also critical of Descartes. As concerns dualism, the operative distinction for Cudworth is not between mind and body, but between force and matter, active and passive. Incorporeality is not coterminous with the mental – all self-moving substance is incorporeal; and there are mental activities that neither are conscious nor involve cogitation – in other words, “unconscious.” For Cudworth, the boundaries of the incorporeal and corporeal are softened by his conception of “plastic natures” that govern life processes and direct the workings of nature toward providential ends. He was critical of Descartes’ theory of animal mechanism and rejected his proof of the existence of God based on the truth of our faculties as circular (see Circle, Cartesian). And he criticized Descartes’ rejection of final causes. The fundamental error of Cartesianism was its misidentification of God's will as arbitrary indifference, not subject to divine wisdom. Such a conception of the deity destroys both moral and epistemological certainty, opening the way to irreligion, skepticism, atheism. In his Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality, he develops the ethical dimension of the argument and lays the basis for a theory of active mind. His theory of mind is developed to an elaborate degree in his A Treatise of Freewill and in his unpublished manuscript writings “On Liberty and Necessity.”
See also Animal; Atom; Cartesianism; Cause; Circle, Cartesian; Dualism; Substance
The Cambridge Platonist, More, was one of the most influential figures in the early reception of Cartesianism in England, as both admirer and critic of Descartes. He was one of the first to advocate the teaching of Descartes’ philosophy in English universities and is credited with coining the term “Cartesianism.” More's interest in Cartesian philosophy is first registered in his long poem, Democritus platonissans (1646). In 1648 he entered into correspondence with Descartes (1648–49), possibly at the instigation of Samuel Hartlib. He was attracted by Descartes’ natural philosophy, which he regarded as the best account of the phenomena of nature in the post-Aristotelian context of the mid-seventeenth century. Much as he admired Descartes’ natural philosophy, he did not accept Descartes’ physics in every detail but sought to enlarge the metaphysical dimension of Cartesianism.
In his letters, he argues that that all substance, both corporeal and incorporeal, is extended and that God Himself is res extensa. Since both corporeal and incorporeal substance are extended, the operative distinction between them is solidity (or what he called impenetrability), bodies being extended and impenetrable, while incorporeal substance (soul or spirit) is extended and penetrable. He also took issue with Descartes over his denial of the possibility of a vacuum, rejecting final causes, and denial that animals have souls. He raised the problem of transmission of motion from one body to another, if motion like shape is merely a mode of body. He points up areas where Descartes is not fully self-consistent, or has dissembled his position, notably in positing the indefinite extent of the universe but not its infinity. He also criticized his account of refraction, and his vortical theory of celestial motions (see vortex). Descartes responded to More's letters in detail, though he evidently regarded More's arguments as too anthropomorphic for his liking.
‘Honoratissima atque illustrissima Domina’
Anne Conway was born on 14 December 1631. She was the posthumous daughter of Sir Heneage Finch, younger son of Sir Moyle Finch, and Elizabeth Bennett, the daughter of William Cradock of Whickambrook in Staffordshire and widow of Sir John Bennett, a wealthy London merchant. Anne's parents were married on 16 April 1629 at St Dunstan's in the West in the City of London. Her father was himself a widower, his first wife, Frances Bell, having died on 11 April 1627. But he did not live long after his second marriage: he died on 5 December 1630, less than two weeks before the birth of his youngest daughter, Anne. When she married Sir Heneage Finch, Elizabeth Bennett already had at least one child, Simon Bennett, from her previous marriage. By her marriage to Sir Heneage, she became stepmother to the four surviving children from his first marriage: Heneage, Frances, Elizabeth and John. In her second marriage she had two children, both daughters, Francis and Anne. The future Lady Conway, then, was the youngest child of a large family of at least seven children raised in a fatherless household.
The Finch–Bennett match ensured their children belonged to a network of prosperous families, well on the road to social advancement: with roots in the City of London, a judicious combination of career and marriage alliances was to bring them connections in the law, government and the aristocracy.
‘this Light, Seed, Life, and Word’
Probably the best-known fact about Anne Conway's personal spirituality is that she died a Quaker. Her conversion took place late in her life – sometime between 1677 and 1678. For a woman of her class, this was a momentous choice, made in direct opposition to the views of her immediate family and of her mentor, Henry More. Her ‘convincement’ followed that of her other key mentor, Francis Mercury van Helmont, who, as we have already noted, was instrumental in bringing her into contact with the Society of Friends. However, her conversion was not a sudden or unexpected event, but must be seen in relation to the religious route which extends back through her life to her earlier interest in religious dissent and illuminist spirituality. Her interest in Quakerism was most intense during the years 1674–9, and overlaps with her investigations of kabbalism, apocalypticism and heterodox Christianity. A rich texture of these religious topics fills her correspondence in the 1670s. If more letters of hers were extant, it would be easier to judge whether this represents a new intensity in her religious curiosity or a continuation of longer-term involvement with radical spirituality. These later letters are, of course, particularly important, because her philosophical treatise was written at the end of this period, against this background.
In this chapter, I shall focus particularly on the route that led her to Quakerism, and on the important role of the Scottish Quaker leader, George Keith.
‘So Noble, so Wise and so Pious a Personage’
In the seventeenth century religion was central to people's lives and an essential component of the intellectual landscape. Anne Conway was no exception in this regard. Discussion of religious matters is a dominant theme in her letters, and the centrality of religion to her philosophy is beyond question, as the very title of her treatise makes plain. In this chapter I shall discuss her religious life from her early years until the period just prior to her encounter with Quakerism and kabbalism. After examining personal aspects of religion, this chapter will discuss the currents of non-conformist, millenialist and patristic theology which she encountered. One further aspect of Anne Conway's investigations of religion, her response to Islam, will be discussed in a later chapter, in relation to her brother John.
The fusion of theology and philosophy which Anne Conway achieves in her treatise entails a radical revision of her early view that philosophy is incompatible with Christianity. Writing to her father-in-law in 1651, she delivered herself of the opinion ‘that Philosophy is fitted for the Religion of the Heathen and that it cannot agree with Christian Religion’. By the time she wrote her Principles, however, she had found a way of reconciling religion and philosophy without compromising her Christian piety. This may be explained in part by the fact that her formal training in philosophy was predicated on the compatibilist position that philosophy was the handmaid of religion.
For most of her life Anne Conway was afflicted by debilitating chronic illness for which no cure or palliative could be found. The crippling pain visited on her by her condition was an inescapable fact of her daily existence, and attempts to alleviate her suffering dominated her life. One consequence of this was that she had more than average contact with medical men. As we shall see, it was through events supervening upon her consultation of the Irish healer, Valentine Greatrakes, that she became a front-row spectator of the debates about method and interpretation occasioned by the experimentalism of Robert Boyle (1627–91) and his defenders in the Royal Society. In this chapter I shall discuss links between Anne Conway's medical history and contemporary debates about theoretical and methodological issues. I shall also discuss some of the metaphysical issues raised by the competing explanatory claims of those who attempted to interpret natural phenomena, especially in the context of medicine.
Anne Conway's personal experience of unrelievable pain certainly impinges directly on her philosophy. It is more than likely that her own incontrovertible experience of bodily pain affecting her mind contributes to her refutation of mind–body dualism in the passage in her Principles where she asks,
Why does the spirit or soul suffer so with bodily pain? For if when united to the body it has no corporeality or bodily nature, why is it wounded or grieved when the body is wounded, whose nature is so different? … But if one admits …
Before the controversies between More, Stubbe and Boyle had played themselves out, a new figure entered Anne Conway's life. This was Francis Mercury van Helmont (1614–98), whom she first encountered in 1670. Physician, alchemist, inventor, diplomat, religious seeker, natural philosopher and Christian kabbalist, Francis Mercury van Helmont is a colourful figure who defies classification in modern terms. Anne Conway's contact with him was to have a decisive impact on her thinking and outlook in her last years. The importance of Francis Mercury van Helmont for Anne Conway was, of course, not confined to medicine, and cannot be adequately covered in a single chapter. Like More, Van Helmont was someone who had a far-reaching impact on her thinking, as she did on his. His crucial importance in introducing her to Quakerism and kabbalism is too large a topic to discuss here and will be dealt with in later chapters. In this chapter we shall meet him in the capacity in which he first entered her life, namely as a physician. In that capacity he certainly had his own distinctive medical philosophy, but it originated from the natural philosophy of his famous father, Jan Baptiste van Helmont (1579–1646), whose legacy Francis Mercury had been responsible for collecting and publishing. Together, Jan Baptiste van Helmont and his son Francis Mercury were by far the most important of the many medical and natural philosophers whose chemical and biological theory forms the background to Lady Conway's treatise.
‘Conferences concerning Des Cartes philosophy’
The question of what educational background any particular philosopher might have had is normally discussed in terms of shaping influences, be these positive or negative, that the individual concerned might have received – for example, Descartes' grounding in mathematics at the Jesuit College at La Flèche or Locke's encounter with academic scholasticism at Oxford. In the case of a woman philosopher living at a time when education for women was the exception rather than the norm, the question of educational background becomes part of the wider question of how she came to philosophy at all. This is a question which is not usually asked about male philosophers, even when the information about their education is quite full. Besides, the broad categories of school and university training do not fit the seventeenth-century female subject very comfortably. Nor are they especially illuminating in Conway's case, unless they are set in relation to other circumstances, in particular her social background, her personal relationships and the state of philosophy and philosophical education in the 1640s and 50s.
That Anne Conway was highly educated there can be no doubt. The address to the reader which prefaces her Principles describes her as ‘a woman learned beyond her sex, most skilled in the Latin and Greek literature and especially well versed in every sort of philosophy’. However, the documentation of her education is patchy, consisting largely in the imperfect record that her surviving correspondence affords.
‘l'histoire de cette Dame extraordinaire’
The anonymous manuscript treatise that lay unpublished among Anne Conway's papers was the culmination of a lifetime's interest in philosophy. In its final form, it was most probably produced no more than a couple of years before she died. But it is the outcome of on-going philosophical discussions which, as we have seen, may be traced back to her earliest study of philosophy. Her youthful doubt as to whether philosophy and religion are compatible opened the way to central questions about the nature of God, the world, and God's relation to the world – questions she tackled using the philosophical tools of Platonism and Cartesianism, and in the light of her study of contemporary natural philosophy. Central to her investigations were the issues of how material reality can be produced by an immaterial God, and how the existence of pain and suffering can be reconciled with the perfection of God. The ‘paper book’ Van Helmont found among her papers contained the answers to these questions in the form of a synthesis which explains the nature of the world through its causes. The resulting Principles is both a philosophy of nature and a philosophy of religion, a cosmology and a theodicy, in which the ultimate origin of all things is God.
The centrality of God is not unusual in seventeenth-century philosophy, but for Anne Conway what matters is not simply the existence of God, but the nature of God, because her system is founded on an analogy between God and the created world.
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