There are no pure bodies: The monotheistic spiritual naturalism of Anne Conway, part 1

The books I was waiting for, re: Anne Conway, have all arrived and I’ve been reading from them diligently.  By happenstance my discovery of Conway coincided with my receiving a “bonus” from my employer, and this enabled me to buy, rather than merely borrow, many of these books.  Here is a list of them, along with my comments about each one.  The ones I consider essential are prefixed with a diamond character.  (And no one should take this list to be a complete Conway bibliography – e.g., it is missing work by Carolyn Merchant and Richard Popkin.)

Anne Conway’s one and only philosophical work (reprints/translations):

The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy.  Modern reprint of the Latin and English printings, edited and with an introduction by Peter Loptson, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1982.  The English text reprinted here is from 1692 and has the advantage of being contemporaneous, in terms of style, with the English of Conway’s day.  But it’s important to realize that the text is a back-translation, into English, of the Latin text of 1690, which was itself a translation from Conway’s original English manuscript, which has been lost.  Moreover, according to the editors of the next book listed here, this Latin-to-English translation is “virtually incomprehensible in places.”  So, if one does not read Latin, and sadly I do not, the main attraction of this book is the introduction.  Before the appearance of Byrne’s monograph-length study (in 2005, see below) Loptson’s introduction (pp. 1-60) seems to have been the most detailed exposition and analysis of Conway’s text and ideas, in and of themselves, available anywhere (a great deal of the literature about Conway has, rightfully, been devoted to her intellectual relationships and influences, her rarity as a seventeenth-century woman philosopher, and so on).  Loptson is a philosopher of the analytic tradition and so Conway’s theology and naturalism are of little interest to him.  He focuses on the more rational side of Conway’s thought, and he finds aspects there that he considers quite original, possibly even unique.  One-sided though it is, Loptson’s introduction is essential reading for students of Conway.  The book is out of print and hard to find, for purchase, but I was able to borrow it from the library.  In 1998 a parallel-text edition of the book, which Loptson also edited, was published, but I haven’t seen it and I don’t know whether it has the same introduction that is in the 1982 edition.

The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy.  Modern English translation from the Latin printing, edited and with an introduction by Allison P. Coudert and Taylor Corse, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.  This is the “standard” edition of Conway’s work that most subsequent literature cites.  It is a tighter, more formal translation than the one by Jonathan Bennett that I mentioned in my last post (available online, here) where the tone is less formal, and where portions of the text are freely rearranged, reformatted, and occasionally even omitted, in order to make the text more “reader-friendly.”  To my mind there’s nothing at all “unfriendly” about the translation by Coudert and Corse, but your mileage may vary.  The introduction (pp. vii-xxxiii) provides a good and useful overview but it does not dive all that deeply into her philosophy, in the way that Loptson’s introduction does.  The book is in print, albeit pricy for its small size.  Cheaper used copies are readily available.  Bennett’s online translation does have the advantage of being free.

Anne Conway’s letters:

The Conway Letters : The Correspondence of Anne, Viscountess Conway, Henry More, and Their Friends, 1642 – 1684.  Modern printing of surviving correspondence, primarily between Henry More and Anne Conway, edited by Marjorie Hope Nicolson; revised edition, with an introduction and new material, edited by Sarah Hutton; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.  A labor of love and scholarship, on the part of Nicolson, this book was originally published in 1930.  The letters offer us a fascinating window into the intellectually “distant” seventeenth-century.  Henry More, one of the so-called Cambridge Platonists, was Anne Conway’s teacher, mentor and lifelong friend.  Conway’s philosophy and theology eventually diverged from More’s, especially after Conway met and befriended F. M. van Helmont, but the two continued to correspond.  Unfortunately, for Conway scholars, many more of More’s letters to Conway survived than did Conway’s letters to More, but the letters are a vital resource for scholarship on Conway, More, van Helmont, and others.  The book is organized into thematic chapters, and Nicolson has written prefaces to each chapter that contain the fruits of her historical research on the people and places mentioned in the letters.  At nearly 600 pages there is an enormous amount of material in this book.  If I haven’t delved into it much, as of yet, it’s not for lack of interest, but simply because my first consideration has been to grapple with Conway’s most deeply held ideas, and I am given to understand that the letters are only occasionally helpful in this regard.  Conway kept private notebooks in which she recorded, in pencil, her core ideas and beliefs.  Only after her death were these notebooks retrieved and preserved, by van Helmont and More, and eventually published as The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy.

Secondary sources:

Broad, Jacqueline, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).  In six chapters Broad profiles the responses of six women philosophers of the seventeenth century to Cartesian dualism, among whom are Margaret Cavendish and Anne Conway (pp. 65-89).  Broad argues: “Although Conway’s cosmology is commonly labelled as ‘spiritualist’, her system is not much different from Cavendish’s ‘materialist’ philosophy.”  Contra Broad, Byrne (the author of the next entry) acknowledges some similarities between the two but says, “I find the differences far more striking,” and concludes, “Cavendish was first and foremost a materialist who added some life to some particles of matter, but Conway was first and foremost a spiritualist who added some body to spirit.”

Byrne, David.  Anne Conway: An Intellectual Portrait of a Seventeenth Century Viscountess.  PhD dissertation (Claremont: Claremont Graduate University, 2005).  This dissertation, which was submitted in the field of history, is the best – because the most comprehensive and detailed – examination of the whole of Conway’s own thought that I have seen.  It certainly deserves to be published as a monograph.  Hutton’s intellectual biography (see below) probably comes closest to it in terms of purpose and scope.  Hutton’s book is excellent too but, as the blurb on its back cover accurately states (emphasis added), “Sarah Hutton’s study places Anne Conway in her social and intellectual milieu.  She traces her intellectual development in relation to friends and associates such as Henry More, Sir John Finch, F. M. van Helmont, Robert Boyle and George Keith.”  It seems to me that a historian of thought can do a bang-up job of tracing every personal influence on a thinker, and of reconstructing and perfectly placing said thinker in his or her milieu, and yet somehow miss the essential originality of the thinker.  Byrne too, as he should, discusses Conway’s milieu and relationships to other thinkers, but he does so from the opposite end to Hutton.  By this I mean that Byrne begins first and foremost with Conway’s thought, and then works from it outward to her milieu and relationships, whereas Hutton begins first and foremost with Conway’s milieu and relationships, and then works from them inward to her thought.  In theory both approaches can accomplish the same result, but in practice, the tendency is to “peter out” before quite reaching the other end.  Bryne also seems freest to me from ideological or methodological “lenses” that I have noticed others tend to bring to Conway’s work (such lenses need not be obscuring; indeed, in the case of Duran and Nye, see below, they prove highly clarifying).  Above all, I want the heart and mind of the thinker herself, because while certainly no one thinks in a social vacuum, yet there irreducibly remains something solitary and unique about every great thinker.  I feel that Byrne’s dissertation gets one very close to the quiet center of Conway’s thought.  If you’re interested you can obtain a copy of it in electronic (PDF) form via ProQuest for $37, here (like I did), although I’m sure there are also other ways to get it.  There is much I want to cite and comment on from Byrne’s dissertation, but to avoid completely hijacking this “bibliographical” post I will defer this until a later post.

Coudert, Allison P.  The Impact of the Kabbalah in the Seventeenth Century : The Life and Thought of Francis Mercury van Helmont (1614 – 1698) (Leiden: Brill, 1999).  When examining a magisterial work like this, one is by turns humbled, excited and envious: humbled, to realize how few of us have the scholarly skill and endurance to produce such an encyclopedic work; excited, to see this fascinating and unjustly overlooked man from the seventeenth century receive such close attention; envious, to realize that any number of equally deserving historical figures will probably never receive such a fine treatment.  F. M. van Helmont was phenomenally well-connected to the top thinkers of his day.  He seems to have been everywhere and met everyone.  Van Helmont was long dismissed as an intellectual lightweight and gadabout, but this book, and other recent scholarship, has helped, if not to entirely rehabilitate van Helmont’s reputation, to at least make us more aware of his ideas and of the subtle “shaping” process that caused us to think of him as unimportant.  To put it bluntly, van Helmont was backing clear “losers” in terms of the harsh judgment of history.  Just when empirical science was a-birthing and assuming its long historical reign, and beginning to displace religion from the public sphere, van Helmont was immersing himself in such “musty relics” as hermeticism and Jewish mysticism.  It hasn’t helped van Helmont that he produced no single work that comprehensively states his ideas and beliefs.  An endlessly voluble man, his ideas were spread out over his many books and manuscripts, which are now in cloistered library collections, and without the assiduous efforts of scholars like Coudert his ideas would have remained there, neglected and unreflected on.  In this respect there can be no greater contrast than that between van Helmont and Conway.  Conway’s ideas are readily accessible in a single, in-print book of less than a hundred pages!  Coudert devotes a chapter in her book (pp. 177-219) to Conway and her thought, near the end of which she writes: “Had it not been for the efforts made by van Helmont and Henry More to see that Anne Conway’s The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy was published, we would only know her as she appears in the Conway Letters, as a highly intelligent, charming, and educated woman with a penchant for philosophy.  But with her treatise in hand, we can see just how deeply she thought about the philosophical and theological issues that divided the intellectual and religious community at the time.”  Coudert’s chapter is excellent, but like Hutton’s work, it is rather long on tracing Conway’s influences and relationships, and rather short on in-depth discussion of her ideas.  It remains to say that not every admirer of Conway sees value in plumbing the depths of van Helmont’s thought.  In an article published in 1995 (cited by Byrne) Peter Loptson, author of the discerning introduction cited above, wrote this: “More and van Helmont are both somewhat wooly thinkers.  The mark of Rosicrucianism is on both, the allure of secret, mystical, numerological, ancient wisdom.  Van Helmont in particular is of the party of questers for Lost Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle and the Lochness monster; and More is only a little more sensible.  It is a wonder that Conway is as good, philosophically, as she is, keeping their company.  All the more credit to her.”  Loptson’s ideological and methodological lens as an analytic philosopher is readily apparent here, but I’m at least partly on the same page with him.  Conway learned a great deal from van Helmont but she certainly did not borrow from him wholesale.  She is, rather, cannily selective about what she takes, and what she doesn’t take, from every thinker she engages with.  In this respect I think Conway bears comparison with Maximus the Confessor, the seventh-century Byzantine theologian, who for a very long time was regarded as a not terribly original copyist or compiler of ideas he had taken from earlier Church Fathers.  Only within the past hundred years have discerning scholars like Sherwood, von Balthasar, Thunberg, Blowers, and Larchet provided us with an adequate appreciation of the synthetic but highly original genius of Maximus’ theology.  A lens that I haven’t yet seen applied to Conway is the theological one.  It would be interesting to see what a sympathetic (i.e. able to bear Conway’s unorthodox views) theologian might be able to do with her philosophy.

Duran, Jane.  “Anne Viscountess Conway : A Seventeenth-Century Rationalist,” in Linda Lopez McAlister (ed.), Hypatia’s Daughters : Fifteen Hundred Years of Women Philosophers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996) (appeared originally in Hypatia, vol. 4, no. 1, Spring 1989).  Although Jane Duran currently teaches in a black studies department, she earned her doctorate in philosophy, and it shows, in this entry and the following one.  Like Loptson she engages with Conway’s philosophy in a serious way, but she is more open to the full range and amplitude of Conway’s thought than Loptson is.  In particular she is sensitive to, and approving of, Conway’s nonanthropocentric naturalism, although this is far more apparent in the next entry.  Noting that Conway’s philosophy has frequently been compared with Leibniz’s, in this article (pp. 92-107), Duran shows “in what ways Conway differs from – and intersects interestingly with – Descartes.”

Duran, Jane.  Eight Women Philosophers : Theory, Politics, and Feminism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006).  This book is passionate, very well-written, and deeply thoughtful.  In it, Duran draws upon the lives and works of eight women philosophers: Hildegard of Bingen, Anne Conway, Mary Astell, Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor Mill, Edith Stein, Simone Weil, and Simone de Beauvoir.  Duran’s application of feminist theory is so strong that the book’s title and subtitle might as well have been reversed, but if any academic discipline is in greater need of feminist and feminine perspectives than philosophy, I’ve not heard of it.  Duran braves, and I think effectively answers, the perhaps inevitable charges of essentialism that a work like this invites.  In her examination of Conway (pp. 49-76) she acknowledges that applying a feminist lens (my word, not hers) to Conway is not an obvious, or easy, thing to do.  Conway’s work, which is clearly recognizable as a work of philosophy, is written in a masculine style.  All of Conway’s known interlocutors are men and she has no examples of other women philosophers with whom to compare or model herself.  In self-consciously creating a comprehensive “system” Conway engages in a philosophical predilection more commonly associated with men (perhaps even now).  Despite these contraindications Duran finds enough “gynocentric” indications in Conway’s work (and letters) to warrant her inclusion in the book, and I am glad of it.  In particular, Duran remarks often and discerningly on the surprisingly empathetic naturalism of Conway’s philosophy.  Whether or not these sensitivities are primarily attributable to her gender is debatable, I suppose, but the fact remains that it is rare for any philosopher, certainly in that era, to devote more than passing attention to animals, plants, and even rocks – and Conway is a woman.  Here are passages from Duran’s book on this aspect of her thought:

Conway posits a notion of betterment for all creatures, and she fully explicates that notion, not only for the human world, but for animals as well.  She indicates, for example, that a horse after death may “return[] to life and obtain the body of another horse, so that it becomes a horse as it was before, but stronger and more beautiful and with a better spirit than before.”  Although her doctrine does not amount to a metempsychosis or doctrine of reincarnation, she sees the possibility for a number of creatures to obtain a greater admixture of spirit in a continual cycle of spirit/matter interminglings that go on as long as the earth abides and the New Jerusalem has not yet come. (p. 55)  . . .  Conway’s brief treatise does not have a fully articulated ethics or theory of value . . . but a great deal can be extrapolated from what she has written, because it is clear that the notion of betterment and perfection that is entailed in her series of ontological gradations does indeed do ethical work.  The example of the horse is but one example that shows her interest in the world around her, and her sensitivity to the lives of animals.  . . .  Conway was ahead of her time . . . because her allusion to the horse’s spirit and beauty shows her awareness that other animals – above and beyond human beings – had traits worth protecting and developing.  There is, in fact, a great deal in the Principles that speaks to these issues. (p. 56) . . .  Anne Conway became a Quaker toward the end of her life, provoking one of her few disagreements with Henry More.  But the Quakers urged “men to find the divine spark within themselves.”  To a great extent, Conway had already found that spark.  She had articulated it in the Principles, lived with it and through it in her bodily torment [her incapacitating headaches – MM], and shared it, at least on some occasions, with some of her discussants.  Her sense that this spark was also shared by other creatures, and not confined to the human world alone, led her to a complex set of arguments that survive to this day.  (p. 69)

All of this delights me and I applaud Duran for writing it!  Indeed I have but one bone to pick with her, and although I’m painfully aware how unfair it is to seem to single her out for the following critique, since everybody does what she does, here goes anyway.  There is a tacit and pervasive horizontality in her analysis.  Discussion of God and religion is by no means avoided, and cannot be in any case, given that most of the women Duran profiles were vertical “believers” of one sort or another.  Moreover it is impossible to detect condescension, much less hostility, towards religion in her book.  Duran maintains a serious, respectful tone at all times.  And yet, for all that, one still senses here the implicit belief, so common in academia, that religion is something we moderns (or postmoderns) have moved decisively and irrevocably past.  Thus we think that our culture – our social reality – is constructed by us alone: talk of God in, say, the seventeenth century was contextual, merely a product of their culture; lack of talk of God, at least within intellectual circles, in the twenty-first century is contextual, simply a product of our (intellectual) culture.  In the “milk” of today’s intellectual discourse honest-to-God talk about God, i.e. without the usual arms-length distancing, is about as welcome as high-fat cream floating on the surface in the milk tank.  It has to be flitched off lest we drink our milk “whole” – and who wants that?  Today, we health-conscious intellectuals insist that our milk be skim, or 1% at the most.  In most academic writing, and not just in Duran’s, I sense prior and private commitments and/or forswearings that have the effect of placing these writers, when they are trying to empathize with historical examples of religious commitment, in a position not unlike that of the über-logical Mr. Spock when he tries to grok human emotions.  The religious content of such writing tends to ring hollow.  An understanding of Løgstrup’s ontological ethics could help here, could open some eyes, could help more of us realize that not only is our material existence founded in the universe but also our moral existence.  And this comprehensive reliance of ours suggests, although it cannot prove, a comprehensive religious interpretation of the universe.  But few people outside of Denmark – even few philosophers – know of Løgstrup, and those who do often accept his ethical ideas but not his metaphysical ideas, not understanding that the former have no foundation without the latter.  If my blog can serve in however small a way to “connect up” interest in holistic thinkers such as Conway and Løgstrup, perhaps it will have achieved its goal.

[Continued in next post]

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This entry was posted in Animal theology, Conway, Anne, Helmont, Francis Mercury van, Kabbalah, Løgstrup, K. E., Maximus the Confessor, Quakerism, Scandinavian creation theology, Science, History of, Theology (uncategorized). Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to There are no pure bodies: The monotheistic spiritual naturalism of Anne Conway, part 1

  1. Pingback: There are no pure bodies: The monotheistic spiritual naturalism of Anne Conway, part 2 | Extravagant Creation

  2. Lesli says:

    Very nice write-up. I definitely love this website.
    Keep it up!

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