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David Harmon (St Andrews): Shape Is the Instrument of Life: Anne Conway and the Ontological Source of Figure (Postgraduate Session)
March 20, 2024 5:00 pm UK time

Session organised in collaboration with the British Postgraduate Philosophy Association.


In her Principles, Anne Conway states that “shape is the instrument of life” and that “shape serves the operations of life” – a bold thesis about the relationship between her vitalism and her conception of figure. She is generally clear that creatures have figure, by which (I argue) she means that they are characterized by internal and external determinations on their extension which give them geometrical shape. However, there are some fascinating features of Conway’s conception of figure that follow from her commitments to vitalism, body-spirit monism, and creaturely impenetrability. In this paper, I offer an account of Conway’s conception of figure and argue that she inverts an agreeable mechanical thesis by injecting vitalism as a basic feature of her ontology. Conway holds that a creature’s shape is partially the result of its strongest spiritual parts affecting its bodily parts in accordance with the image or idea internal to the spiritual parts. In other words, Conway holds that a creature’s shape is to a great extent self-determined, according to a vital principle internal to that creature. Thus, Conway takes mechanical figure to be dependent on life; this is a surprising inversion of the widely-held Cartesian mechanistic view. Among philosophers like Descartes and Spinoza, explanations of the features of things in the natural world were held to be mechanical in nature. Thus, vital functions of living things were thought to be explainable as the results of mechanical features of bodies, like figure and motion. For Conway, however, it is figure that is explainable in terms of life, not the other way around.

Further, there is a question of the ultimate origin of figure in Conway’s system. God, who is explicitly conceived by Conway as having no figure whatsoever, is named as the ultimate source of figure in creatures. Given a plausible framework for understanding causation in Conway as a species of emanation, according to which causes and effects must be relevantly similar to one another, the source of figure in the system seems somewhat mysterious: how can God cause creaturely figure if God has no figure? I offer an account of figure in Conway that respects her commitments about emanative causality, divine simplicity, and creaturely impenetrability. This account has surprising implications for a recently popular debate in Conway scholarship about classifying her monism. If the account is right, then it provides some evidence that we should think of Conway as a priority monist with regard to creatures.

The aims of this paper are thus roughly threefold: (i) to explore and alleviate an apparent tension between Conway’s commitment to God’s being both figureless and the source of creaturely figure, (ii) to shed light on Conway’s metaphysics of figure as an innovative and highly original account, and (iii) to show that these considerations can help scholars to better understand Conway’s monism.


David Harmon is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews and the University of Stirling. His research is in metaphysics, mostly in the early modern period and with a particular focus on Spinoza and Conway, as well as other expansions on and responses to Cartesianism. Of special interest in his work is the interaction between metaphysics and physics in the 17th century. David also has research interests in contemporary metaphysics.

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