Anne Conway’s Metaphysics of Substance

In the growing literature on Anne Conway’s philosophy, one often finds the following two claims: Conway is a spiritual or vitalist monist, and her vitalist metaphysics closely resembles Leibniz’s system of spiritual monads. In this paper, I argue that both of these claims are in need of qualification. Contrary to what has been claimed by some commentators, I show that even though Conway’s vitalism and her talk of “monads” prima facie seems to move her close to a Leibnizian metaphysics of spiritual substances, her view ultimately turns out to be closer to a priority monism not unlike Spinoza’s. However, while Spinoza’s parallelism of attributes still carries with it the remnants of Cartesian mind-body dualism, Conway develops a unique version of substance monism which transcends the Cartesian framework. What motivates this “spiritual monism”, I further suggest, is not merely Conway’s rejection of Cartesian dualism or of “dead matter” theories, as commentators have claimed. Rather, her monism has a fundamentally moral dimension, insofar as she views it as a necessary condition for the perfectibility of creation.