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Conway’s Optical Theory of Animal Generation

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The project presents the reconstruction of an original theory of animal generation in Anne Conway. Conway’s only surviving work The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy contains a systematic treatment of animal generation based on her vitalist metaphysical principles. The reconstruction shows that Conway’s theory was based on her broader model of cognition and memory as an optical apparatus. In Conway’s view the conception and development of a creature’s body follows the creature’s idea of itself, whereas the idea is formed and retained through an optical mechanism, therefore animal generation follows optical principles.

Conway’s optical theory of animal generation is highly original in the context of its period. First of all, the Aristotelian and Galenist debate on the activity of the seeds had no significance for Conway because she held that spirit and body are inseparable. Likewise, Conway associated “male” and “female” principles with activity and retentivity rather than biological sex: “In every visible creature there is body and spirit, or a more active and a more passive [sc. retentive] principle, which are appropriately called male and female because they are analogous to husband and wife” (Conway, Principles, 38). Conway even ascribed the male and female principles for cognitive entities: “the internal productions of the mind (namely the thoughts which are true creatures according to their kind and which have a true substance appropriate to themselves) are generated. These are our inner children, and all are masculine and feminine; that is, they have a body and spirit” (Conway, Principles, 39).

Therefore, Conway has thought that male and female principles (as opposed to biological sex) are required in every generation: “For just as the normal generation of human beings commonly requires the conjunction and cooperation of male and female, so too does every generation and production, whatever it may be, require the union and simultaneous operation of those two principles, namely spirit and body” (Conway, Principles, 38). The two principles that Conway here identifies as spirit and body are required exactly because of their active and retentive qualities. Activity and retentivity are requisites for conception as an optical procedure in which the vital and spiritual light is reflected of the retentive body and recognizes its own image.

A robust conception of sexual generation would contradict some of Conway’s metaphysical principles. If we understand sexual generation as a process in which a creature is born out of two parents of the opposite sex, then it would be a unification of two different entities (two seeds). This is contradictory to Conway’s view that there is no mixing of individual creatures. No two creatures can become one because that would imply that creatures are intimately present in one another: “But to suppose that one creature can be intimately present in another so that it mingles or unites with it in a most perfect way [...] confounds creatures and makes two or more into one” (Conway, Principles, 50).

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