Anne Conway's Intellectual Neighborhood
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Anne Conway (1631-1679) fits into standard narratives of seventeenth-century natural philosophy only as a footnote, that rare example of a well-documented educated woman. The focus placed on print publication by the history of science community means that most scholarly work views Conway through her metaphysical treatise, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, which was printed eleven years after her death. -- In early modern England, however, print did not carry the same cultural weight as today. Manuscript and letters were not viewed as less important methods of communication. Instead, each mode had its own norms and culture which intertwined in complicated ways. Privileging printed work flattens many aspects of early modern natural philosophy, but especially erases the involvement of women, who participated more freely in manuscript- and letter-based culture. -- This leads back to the archive, where Anne Conway's surviving correspondence--much of it published in 1930--provides a wider perspective on her life and work. Via letters, Conway received information on natural history and natural philosophy from as far away as Italy and Constantinople; discussed Descartes, Euclid, and the Kabbala; and orchestrated at least one debate between friends. Careful reading of her correspondence also suggests that Anne Conway's home, Ragley Hall, was the site of an ongoing dialogue about these and similar topics. She continually brought people to live and converse with her at Ragley: men and women, Quakers and Cambridge scholars, relatives and friends of friends. -- The ideas of community and the neighborhood have an important place in the historical literature on the early modern period, particularly in relation to women's lives and identities. Bringing this perspective to bear on Anne Conway, I use the term "intellectual neighborhood" to describe the network which Conway created and maintained to gather information about the world as well as people with whom to discuss that information, and to construct a place for herself as a natural philosopher.
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