Vibrations across the Centuries: Anne Conway’s Early Modern Cosmology and Postmodern Spirituality
by Carol Wayne White
In this chapter, I explore in the history of Western spirituality by first introducing the vitalistic ideas of the seventeenth-century philosopher Anne Conway and then examining their import for formulating a contemporary postmodern spirituality. Conway studied the esoteric writings of Jakob Böhme, incorporated elements of the Lurianic Kabbalah into her views of nature, and embraced the embodied spirituality of the Quakers. She also wrote a treatise on nature that was grounded in a rich synthesis of philosophic, religious, and scientific principles. In rejecting Descartes’ mechanistic philosophy, Conway’s vitalistic views placed an emphasis on the life of all things, and conceived a principle of an imminent activity permeating nature. I first show that Conway’s vitalistic cosmology provided the foundations of a mystical naturalism aimed at promoting equality within the natural order, compelling adherents to adopt an ethics of care for all natural processes and to assert the inherent worth of everything alive. I then contend that elements of Conway’s mystical naturalism continue to obtain in subtle ways today in select twentieth-century process thought, inspiring the formation of a naturalistic spirituality that challenges a tradition of morally disengaged ‘scientific’ discourse on nature. For example, I examine the extent to which the Whiteheadian concept of ‘internal relations’ and doctrine of ‘prehension’ resonate with Conway’s emphasis on nature’s sentience; I also glean specific religious perspectives that are implicit in Conway’s ethical mandate for all of nature to love itself. This postmodern spirituality encourages individuals and communities to view themselves as nature aware of itself. Accordingly, this spirituality functions as a fundamental orientation in life, and its practice is inspired by an aesthetic ethical vision that acknowledges the inherent worth of everything alive.
In this chapter, I explore in the history of Western Spirituality by first introducing the vitalistic ideas of the seventeenth-century philosopher Anne Conway and then examining their import for formulating a contemporary postmodern Spirituality. Conway wrote a treatise on nature that was grounded in a rich synthesis of philosophic, religious, and scientific principles. In rejecting Rene Descartes’ mechanistic philosophy, Conway’s vitalistic views placed an emphasis on the life of all things, and conceived a principle of an imminent activity permeating nature.
I first show that Conway’s vitalistic cosmology provided the foundations of a mystical naturalism aimed at promoting equality within the natural order, compelling adherents to assert the inherent worth of everything alive. I then contend that elements of Conway’s mystical naturalism continue to obtain in subtle ways today in Process thought, inspiring the formation of a naturalistic Spirituality that challenges a tradition of morally disengaged ‘scientific’ discourse on nature. The result, I suggest, is a model of Spirituality that encourages individuals and communities to view themselves as nature aware of itself. Accordingly, this Spirituality functions as a fundamental orientation in life, and its practice is inspired by an aesthetic ethical vision that acknowledges the inherent worth of everything alive.
2. Overview of Conway’s Mystical Naturalism
In her sole published text, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, Conway constructed the universe as a vitalistic, organic unity, arguing that all existents (from God through Christ to non-divine creation) were one substance, which ‘varie[d] according to its modes of existence, one of which [was] corporeality.’1 Created beings or species were comprised of an infinite number of hierarchically arranged particles or monads, and were alive and capable of perception and motion. The pervasive sentience that Conway detected in the created order was firmly rooted in her conception of divine nature, which generated a participatory goodness permeating all of creation. Although created nature did not share in God’s incommunicable traits (e.g., aseity, independence, immutability, infinity, and perfection), it did share other communicable ones.2
To further distinguish divine nature from the rest of creation, Conway pointed to the latter as mutable, capable of changing from one state to another, differentiating between two kinds of change: 1) the intrinsic power to change either for good or bad (common to all creatures), and 2) the ability to move only from one good to another good (found only in the Christ figure). Conway thus envisioned a natural order where the fundamental, common feature of all creatures is the urge toward the fullness of life, or toward ultimate (divine) fulfilment.3 Indeed, for Conway, (human and non-human) creation’s constitutive nature was to change and constantly evolve.
3. Conway Response to Descartes’ Mechanistic Philosophy
The principle of immanent change permeating creation was a vital component of Conway’s mystical naturalism, which helps us to make sense of her particular reading of, and response to, Cartesian mechanism. As a mechanist, Descartes typically posited the universe as consisting of matter in motion. After introducing motion into matter (or extended substance), Descartes divided matter up into bodies that have primary modes: shape and motion. In Part II of The Principles of Philosophy, Descartes discussed the fundamental interactions of these bodies within his system, speaking of the conservation of motion or force and three laws of nature that governed the behaviour of bodies. Once in motion, he asserted, bodies constantly collided with one another.4 Furthermore, in establishing knowledge upon clear and distinct ideas, Descartes proposed the coexistence of two independent substances and introduced an irreducible dualism within his system: thought and extension (where the essence of mind was thought and that of body was extension). For Descartes, mechanical causation sufficiently explained activity of phenomena in res extensa, but it did not account for what lay in the realm of res cogitans (reason and free will).
While agreeing with Descartes that the cosmos was comprised of substances that have both thought and extension, Conway adamantly denied any ontological separateness of these two dimensions of reality. She rejected any notion of dualism because of its logical separation of matter and spirit, of non-conscious and conscious qualities, and of world and divine reality. Conway believed that by denying the union of spirit and body, both ancient and modern philosophies like Descartes’ ‘have generally erred and laid a poor foundation in the very beginning, and thus their entire house and building is so weak and, indeed, so useless that the whole edifice must collapse in time.’5
Conway also challenged Descartes’ theory of matter, which asserted that, aside from humanity, everything in the cosmos consisted entirely of inert, passive matter; whatever movements or actions material bodies experienced were simply the result of matter in motion. She reasoned that dead matter could not share in divine goodness in the least, nor was it capable of reason and able to acquire greater goodness to infinity; as a result, ‘dead matter is completely non-being, a vain fiction and Chimera, and an impossible thing.’6
While acknowledging that Descartes taught many ‘remarkable and ingenious things concerning the mechanical aspects of natural processes and about how all motions proceed according to regular mechanical laws,’ Conway argued that the laws of local motion cannot explain the vital operations of nature.7 Materialist explanations may explain everything in terms of local and mechanical motion, but such reductionism fails to take account of the movements of life itself. In asserting this idea, Conway opposed Descartes and other mechanical philosophers who ‘do not go beyond the husk and shell, nor ever reach the kernel. They only touch the surface, never glimpsing the centre. For they ignore the most noble attribute of that substance, which they call matter and body, and understand nothing about it.’8
In advancing her vitalistic model, Conway generally accepted an instrumental role for local (or mechanical) motion in the operations of nature, which allowed the body to be transported from one place to another. However, she argued, ‘vital action is a far more noble and divine way of operating than local motion.’9 For Conway, the changes that one might observe in a natural object’s outward appearances were not the mere result of immediate and local change described by the mechanists; they were also the results of an organism’s inner movement toward goodness. Vital action reveals the ‘wisdom, goodness, and power’ intrinsically present in creatures that continue to perfect themselves as they participate in goodness.10 While clearly different from local or mechanical motion, vital action is not separate from it. In addition, the particular configuration of any one body is but one attribute of its fundamental substance.
For Conway, Descartes’ great error was in neglecting the value and import of vital motion associated with the living body. She thus distinguished between two features found in all creatures: material and virtual extension. The former is that which matter, body or substance has, considered without motion or action. She wrote:
Virtual extension is the motion or action which a creature has whether given immediately from God or received from some fellow creature… every motion which proceeds from the proper life and will of a creature is vital, and I call this the motion of life, which clearly is neither local nor mechanical like the other kind but has in itself life and vital power.11
Conway believed interaction between creatures was by a process analogous to emanation or radiation. The virtual extension, or a motion or action that a creature has, proceeds from the innermost parts and reaches to other creatures through a proper spiritual medium. This spiritual principle of causality may be likened to a field of force, and provides the dynamics of perceptionism in Conway’s ontology. The mechanistic idea that matter is merely the passive carrier of external forces was insufficient – it would also be too simplistic to be used in later explanations of chemical reactions or biological processes.
4. The Aesthetic-Ethical Vision of Conway’s Early Modern Naturalism
Conway’s mystical naturalism sought transformation of self, world, and neighbour through the metaphor of relational love, epitomized by nature’s desire to perfect itself while participating in divine life. Out of the eclectic admixture of religious, mystical, and scientific beliefs characterizing Conway’s system, a hermeneutic of nature gradually emerges, asserting that all of nature is essentially good and valuable. Her subjectivism of nature thus evoked an aesthetic-ethical dimension in grasping the natural world, highlighting certain principles that may help shape and inform human nature’s behaviours in its relational movement toward actualization. Among these are:
- Emphasis on the life of all things as expressions of a life force;
- Rejection of a radical dualism of matter and spirit;
- Acceptance of an imminent activity permeating nature;
- Reverence for the goodness inherent in all creation;
- Recognition of a universal love among all ‘forms’ of nature.12
These principles constitute a different legacy of modernism—a counter tradition – that may serve as a point of departure for articulating a postmodern Spirituality. In short, they may help us advance expansive conceptions of nature broach the fullness (or the More) of life, challenging or resisting what Theodore Roszak identifies as ‘that peculiar sensibility which degrades what it studies by depriving its subject of charm, autonomy, dignity, mystery.’13
Conway’s early modern work thus encourages some of us to emphasize a key metaphor (relationality) to grasp the fundamental truths of life—a key feature of contemporary Process cosmology. While Conway is not a process theologian per se, her mystical naturalism does have interesting points of convergence with process thought, leading me to suggest that reverberations of her basic vitalistic thrust continue in new and fascinating forms in a process framework.
5. Conceptual Basis of a Postmodern Spirituality
Although its antecedents reach as far back as some pre-Socratic philosophies, modern process thought emerged in the early twentieth century and remains a confluence of philosophic insights engaged in dismantling a scientific optimism that had escalated into a secular form of apocalyptic fulfilment. In process thought, events and relationships—rather than separate substances or separate particles—constitute reality. Becoming, not being, is the central metaphor for understanding reality, and contingency, emergence, and creativity are essential elements that take precedence over determinism and the static. Process thought thus encourages us to take very seriously the actuality of change; accordingly, nothing is constant, everything is in flux. This idea resonates with an observation of Henri Bergson, who suggested that ‘reality appears as a ceaseless upspringing of something new, which has no sooner arisen to make the present than it has already fallen back into the past.’
In his classic cosmological work, Process and Reality (1929), Alfred N. Whitehead offered a remarkably innovative picture of reality in which the basic unit of nature is not static material substance, but rather creative, experiential events, actual occasions of experience. Whitehead posited the building blocks of reality as ‘actual occasions’ or processional units, with human experience showing the most supreme exemplification of these living units of elemental experience.14 In the language of Whitehead, complex objects are societies‚ or nexus‚ of actual occasions that endure cooperatively. Complex objects are no mere aggregates, but possess a defining unity. Enduring material substance is mere appearance and exists as the stable patterns established by sequential processes.
Process philosophers justify all of these claims on the existential grounds that we can only truly understand the units comprising the physical world by analogy with our own experience that we know from within. Experience shapes the very process of becoming that is enjoyed by all actual entities. Process thought acknowledges a new sort of relationship between experience and consciousness. All actual entities, and not just conscious beings, enjoy experience. Whitehead asserts: ‘Consciousness presupposes experience, and not experience consciousness.’15 Stated another way, this means that we must look within, see the experiences of our life, and understand that they are not things that happen to us, but rather are the fundamental elements of the real that comprise us. We are our experiences and we change without ceasing.
In a Whiteheadian processional framework, all entities have subjectivity and responsiveness, and there is a dynamic relationship between individual organisms. Each occurrence in turn exerts influence, which enters into the becoming of other occurrences. The technical Whiteheadian term ‘internal relations’ helps us to make sense of these activities.16 These basic unit-events of the world are not vacuous, but rather possess a subjective nature that allows them attributes that might be called feeling, memory, and creativity. Every event, while influenced by the past through a process Whitehead calls prehension‚ exercises some amount of self-determination or self-creation.
The potential of each event to exert creative influence on the future characterizes the creative advance into novelty, which is a key feature of Whitehead’s cosmos. Similar features of natural processes are present in Conway’s cosmology—albeit expressed in early modern idiom. Her worldview also contains a network of interactions of events or actual occasions (she calls them spiritual particles or monads) that are interdependent. The pivotal notion ‘prehension’ in Whitehead’s theory, which indicates precisely the point of ‘internal relations’ between and among actual entities, is also discernible in Conway’s thought.17 Conway’s spiritual particles (monads) resemble Whitehead’s actual occasions in terms of prehending what goes on around them in a way that encompasses a low-grade mode of emotion, consciousness, and purpose.
Moreover, the ethical and ecological perspectives that are suggestive in Conway’s religious philosophy are fully explicit in Whitehead’s cosmology. An emphasis on internal relations as constitutive of all individual entities in the universe leads Whitehead to suggest that all events are literally ‘members one of another.’ In Whitehead, as in Conway, microcosm and macrocosm are coordinated, linked to one another in a seamless web of process. There is a dialectical tension between individual and world. Each item of existence in nature touches the others and without them would not be what it is. This aesthetic, ethical vision of nature is what Conway was suggesting in her own novel way when she formulated the fundamental ethical mandate for all of nature to love each other.18 Finally, Conway’s depiction of all creatures perfecting themselves in the participation of goodness resembles one of Whitehead’s earliest views that all livings things characterized by threefold urge: to live, to live well, and to live better.19
This sketchy comparison constitutes, at the least, a case of sympathetic vibrations across the centuries. More importantly, for me, it suggests that the trajectory of religious naturalism initiated by Conway, and exemplified most recently by process cosmologies, provides one helpful conceptual basis for a postmodern spirituality. This spirituality affirms a processual worldview that celebrates events and relationships rather than reality as separate substances or particles. Here, humans are part of an organismic metaphysics in which experience, feeling, power, and potentiality are key categories characterizing the whole and the parts.
This postmodern spirituality also encourages contemporary religionists to accept a quintessential ethical task for our age: continued reflection upon our evolving nature. This is a time in which the notion that humans are indeed ‘evolution made aware of itself’ is pressing upon us with new force and urgency. We see now that one possible future depends in an important way on humans having a clear awareness of what we are—value-driven decision systems—and acting properly in accord with that awareness. In positing the pulsating, valuing human organism, this spirituality envisions a type of planetary ethics—as coined by Ursula Goodenough—where the vital forces of love, or of élan vital, promotes an understanding of, and commitment to, the importance of valuing and preserving ecosystems (whether understood as organisms, individuals, populations, communities, and their interactions).
This paper is shared with Spiritual Naturalist Society members here by the author, Carol Wayne White. It was originally from a series of papers from an international conference on spirituality held in Prague in 2012 and published in Part 8 of “Spirituality: Theory, Praxis and Pedagogy”; one part of a series entitled, Critical Issues: Imaginative Research in a Changing World. Edited by Martin Fowler, John D. Martin III, and John L. Hochheimer. © Inter-Disciplinary Press; Oxford, UK.
1 A. Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, pp. 41-42.
2 Ibid., pp. 44-45.
3 Ibid., pp. 32, 45.
4 R. Descartes, The Principles of Philosophy, Part II: The Philosophical Works of Descartes, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985, pp. 232-44.
5 Conway, op. cit.
6 Ibid., pp. 45-46.
7 Ibid., p. 64.
8 Ibid., p. 66.
9 Ibid., p. 67.
10 Ibid., p. 66.
11 Ibid., p. 69.
12 Ibid., pp. 39-40 and pp. 45-48.
13 T. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society, Doubleday, New York, 1972, p. 264.
14 A.N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, Free Press, New York, 1978, pp. 18-20 and 80-87.
15 A.N. Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, Macmillan, New York, 1929, p. 53.
16 Ibid., p. 201.
17 Whitehead, Process and Reality, op. cit., pp. 22-24; 52; 234; 243-45.
18 Conway, The Principles, pp. 46-48.
19 A.N. Whitehead, The Function of Reason, University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1929, p. 8.
Bergson, H., Creative Evolution. Henry Holt, New York, 1911.
Conway, A., The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996.
Descartes, R., The Principles of Philosophy, Part II: The Philosophical Works of Descartes. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985.
—, The World in The Philosophical Works of Descartes. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985.
—, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking the Truth in the Sciences in The Philosophical Works of Descartes. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985.
Roszak, T., Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society. Doubleday, New York, 1972.
Whitehead, A.N., Adventures of Ideas. Macmillan, New York, 1929.
—, The Function of Reason. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1929.
—, Process and Reality. Free Press, New York, 1978.