14 Dec

Anne Conway and Ireland

Woman reading a letter in a large hall. Her dog is in the foreground and a cat looking down from the stairs behind her.
Detail of Perspective View with a Woman Reading a Letter by Samuel van Hoogstraten Some believe this depicts Anne Conway. Wikimedia, Public Domain

Anne Conway is not an Irish philosopher. Born in England in 1631, her philosophical interests were encouraged by her half-brother Henry Finch, who introduced her to the Cambridge Platonist Henry More, who was one of John’s tutors at Christ’s College, Cambridge. She was corresponding with More on philosophical matters by 1650. She married Edward Conway, later 1st Earl of Conway in 1651. She died in 1679.

via @jdmccafferty
via @jdmccafferty

A small portion of her writing was translated into Latin and published in 1690 as Principia philosophiae antiquissimae et recentissimae (The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy), and translated back to English in 1692. Conroy criticised both the materials (such as Hobbes) and the Cartesians. She argues that there is one substance in the created universe, but this is not inert mechanical matter in motion but living and perceiving, and consists of spirit. Mediating between God and creation is “middle nature”. This brief summary shows the neoPlatonist elements in her thought, a thread within early modern thought that is often overlooked.

While not Irish Anne Conwayhad links to Ireland. Her husband Edward Conway became (in 1755) the 3rd Viscount Killultagh in the Irish peerage. His father was a learned man, who amassed a huge library of 11,000 books which was a casualty of the Irish Rebellion in 1641. Edward Conway had been recalled from his Grand Tour of Europe to defend the Irish lands at Portmore, near Lisburn, Co. Antrim. While he never attended university, Conway was aware of Descartes and Campanella. While Anne Conway became a Quaker, Conway remained Anglican but patronised clergymen and theologians who were “latitudinal in practise and liberal in theology” (Hutton, 2004, p. 58). The best-known of these was Jeremy Taylor, who Conway brought to Portmore in 1658. Both Conways were close to Taylor, who became Bishop of Down and Conor after the Restoration.

Anne Conway spent little if any time in Ireland. However she corresponded with Robert Boyle. More knew Boyle through the Hartlib Circle, and the Conway and Boyle families knew each other through their interests in Ireland. That link raises the possibility that Anne Conway knew Lady Ranelagh but if there was any correspondence it no longer survives. It is likely that Anne Conway corresponded with Dorothy Moore: there is a suggestion she contacted Moore regarding Henry More’s health. In addition Moore had connections with the Court of the Winter Queen in the Hague while Conway corresponded with the Winter Queen’s daughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia. It’s tantalisingly possible Anne Conway, Lady Ranelagh and Dorothy Moore had discussions together, but it’s likely we’ll never know for sure. Indeed, if Conway’s Principia had not been printed, we would almost certainly have no idea how extensive her philosophical work had been. It shows how fragile the records of 17th century women, and many 17th century men, were.

Further reading
A good place to start exploring Anne Conway and her work is on her Project Vox page, which includes biography, key facts, portraits, connections, online resources and more:
Conway (1631-1679): Anne Conway, Viscountess Conway and Killultagh

The text (English) of The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy
by Anne Finch, Viscountess of Conway [aka Anne Conway] (London: 1692) is available online from the University of Pennsylvania.

A “translation” in contemporary English is available from Early Modern Texts.

Further information on Anne Conway’s philosophy from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Lady Anne Conway (by Sarah Hutton).

For a biography of Anne Conway see: Sarah Hutton (2004) Anne Conway, a Woman Philosopher, Cambridge University Press. This is the main source for the post above.

Samuel Lewis (1840) A topographical dictionary of Ireland includes an entry on Ballinderry and Portmore mentioning Edward Conway and Jeremy Taylor.

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