In 1690 a Latin translation of a philosophical treatise, originally written in English by Anne Conway (1631–79), was published anonymously. The English manuscript did not survive, but in 1692 the Latin version of Conway's text was translated into English as The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy. Conway was widely known by seventeenth-century philosophers and religious writers, including the Cambridge Platonist, Henry More; Descartes's correspondent, Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia; Robert Boyle; physician and vitalist philosopher, Francis Mercury van Helmont; as well as numerous Quaker leaders. And her Principles were read with critical approbation by such figures as Leibniz. Further, Conway's text is probably the most anthologized of the writings of seventeenth-century women philosophers. It is curious, then, to discover a dearth of critical literature on the Principles.
When Peter Loptson produced the first modern edition of the Principles (Martinus Nijhoff, 1982), he attempted to interest contemporary philosophers in Conway's essentialist metaphysics. He did a superb job of elucidating Conway's position that: (1) there are individual essences such that Peter, in virtue of his essence, necessarily has the properties both of being Peter and of not being Paul, and (2) there are three types of substances or species essences: God, who is necessarily immutable; creatures, who are necessarily mutable; and a third type of substance—Middle Nature, or Christ—which necessarily has the property of being able to change for the better, but not for the worse. On Conway's view, then, it is impossible for this cow Bessie to be any other individual, but what kind of thing Bessie is can change slowly over time until, for example, Bessie becomes, say, a woman or a tree. An individual is never essentially a member of a specific natural kind. Loptson attempted to show the plausibility of this position by considering thought experiments along the lines of the cases in Ovid's Metamorphoses: it seems that we can conceive of men slowly turning into swine; we don't recoil from this supposed possibility in the way we would from Peter becoming Paul.
Despite Loptson's groundbreaking edition, it must be admitted that recent philosophical trends suggest that what we think we can conceive may not be a reliable guide to what is possible. Secondly, as Bob Sleigh has noted, "If you are interested in making a contribution to the metaphysics of modality, it does no harm to study Leibniz, but Kripke is more to the point" (Leibniz & Arnauld: A Commentary on Their Correspondence [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990], 3). The Principles is first and foremost a text of interest for historians of philosophy attempting to systematize the rich array of seventeenth-century systems of nature and their underlying metaphysics. But even for well-seasoned historians, the Principles is a daunting text. Perhaps this is one reason for the scarcity of secondary literature on Conway.
Sarah Hutton's Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher is the first sustained intellectual biography of Conway, the philosopher. The book is a tour de force of historical scholarship, exposing interconnections between Conway's personal life, her intellectual development, and a host of seventeenth-century problematics, as well as the institutions in which the problems first appeared, e.g., the medical profession and the Royal Society of London. Those daunted by the Principles will profit from Hutton's sketch of Conway's creaturely monism as an attempted solution to problems about mind-body interaction and the limits of mechanism, which also aimed at escaping the theologically untenable consequences of the monistic theories of Hobbes and Spinoza.
In 1930, Marjorie Hope Nicolson edited a large selection of the correspondence between Conway and Henry More, and provided brief biographical chapters that interlaced the letters (The Conway Letters [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930]). Some of the major moments in Nicolson's biography overlap with Hutton's treatment: both highlight Conway's early epistolary exchange with More on problems with Cartesian philosophy. They discuss how Conway's severe, lifelong headaches brought her into contact with some...