All posts by David Leech

Some reflections on the category ‘Cambridge Platonism’

(By David Leech)

In a project on ‘Cambridge Platonists at the Origins of Enlightenment’ it is clear that the legitimacy of the category ‘Cambridge Platonism’ cannot simply be taken for granted, and it is a priority of ours to bring some needed clarity to the use of this category. There are several reasons why this matters. One is because while there is broad consensus about which figures constitute the ‘hard core’ of Cambridge Platonism, there has been less consensus about who else should be classed as a ‘Cambridge Platonist’. Another is because some may regard the category itself as representing a kind of problematic reification of more complicated intellectual realities. Dmitri Levitin, for instance, in his Ancient Wisdom in the Age of New Science (2015) has noted critically that the early modern period is one ‘often defined by recourse to ancient ideologies, to the extent that one could believe that ancient Greece was being relived in seventeenth-century Europe.’ The problem, as he sees it, is the following:

The period saw, we are told, the demise of ‘Aristotelianism’ in favour of any other number of ‘isms’…What is remarkable is the extent to which such readings tend to take for granted the existence of essentialist ‘isms’ whose play through the course of a historical period can be charted… To turn texts into ‘ideologies’ and then to chart the play of ideologies through various periods is tempting: it brings a familiarity to the material, and allows far easier descriptions of philosophical ‘traditions’ and their development through centuries of textual renegotiation. But this is to ignore the specificity of reception, and the fact that readers, in our case, seventeenth- century Englishmen and women, have unique and contingent attitudes towards philosophical texts. (3-4)

This is a serious concern and deserves a detailed response. I cannot hope to offer that here but instead I will restrict myself to offering some preliminary reflections. So far as I have been able to trace, the English terms ‘Cambridge Platonism’ or ‘Cambridge Platonist(s)’ are in use only from the 1840s. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the category of Cambridge Platonism is a retroprojection of nineteenth century historiography. This is because earlier practices of referring to a group of primarily Cambridge-based ‘Platonists’, invariably including Ralph Cudworth (1617-88) and Henry More (1614-87), usually Benjamin Whichcote (1609-83), and (more variably) a number of other key figures, can be traced back at least to the 1730s in continental Europe, and still earlier in English texts. It is also clear that those nineteenth century authors who refer to ‘Cambridge Platonism’ and ‘Cambridge Platonists’ were aware of and influenced by these traditions. Indeed, there is also an earlier practice of referring to More and Cudworth separately as Platonists. This does not just as such mean that the reification concern is exploded, but it does, I think, mean that the problematic reification would need to be traced back to the first quarter or so of the eighteenth century, and perhaps earlier (even to contemporaries). However that may be, in this short blogpost I will restrict myself to noting some of these early practices of referring to ‘Cambridge Platonists’ which, I think, the reification objection will need to accommodate.

Johann Franz Buddeus, for instance, in his Analecta Historiae Philosophicae (1706), calls Henry More ‘the celebrated restaurer of the Platonic philosophy’ (141), and in Daniel Georg Morhof’s sketch of the history of Platonic philosophy in his Polyhistor (1708), More is classed as a ‘Platonico-Cartesian’ (40). In Gilbert Burnet’s History of His Own Time (1723), he refers to a ‘new set of men’, ‘called Latitudinarians’, ‘generally of Cambridge’, who were ‘formed under some divines, the chief of whom were Drs. Whitchcot, Cudworth, Wilkins, More, Worthington’ (186-187). Burnet does not explicitly mention ‘Platonism’, although he does note that Whichcote ‘set young students much on reading the ancient Philosophers, chiefly Plato, Tully, and Plotin’. However, Johann Lorenz von Mosheim in his Latin translation of Cudworth’s True Intellectual System of the Universe (Systema Intellectuale huius Universi) of 1733 and Johann Jacob Brucker in his Kurtze Fragen Aus Der Philosophischen Historie (1735) and his Historia Critica Philosophiae (1743), both drawing on Burnet (Brucker also adds Widdrington, Theophilus Gale, and [Thomas?] Burnet), refer to this set of men as Platonists. They also take it for granted that Samuel Parker’s Free And Impartial Censure of the Platonick Philosophy (1666) refers to them. Curiously, Brucker counts Gale, together with More and Cudworth, as among ‘the most celebrated’ of this set.

Moving beyond the question of whether there is any reifying going on here, these early practices also raise more specific questions, for instance, why does Brucker include Theophilus Gale, whereas hardly any other accounts of the ‘Cambridge Platonists’, early or late, include him? Why is John Smith omitted from the early continental accounts, while he is standardly included in the later (and some of the earlier) British ones? These are among the questions which need to be properly investigated. But also: what is the nature of their Platonism, and is it homogeneous? Brucker characterises them as revivers of ‘Alexandrian’, or ‘eclectic’ Platonism – what we today would term Neoplatonism – and notes that this form of Platonism was originally fused with Christianity by Origen. However, he distinguishes what he refers to as More’s Platonico-Cabbalism from Cudworth, Gale, and Burnet’s ‘Alexandrian’ form:

THE PLATONIC PHILOSOPHY, mixed with the Pythagorean, was revived by Pletho, Bessario, and Ficinus: Picus added the Cabbalistic doctrine; and his footsteps were followed by Reuchlin, Venetus, Agrippa, and More; while Patricius, Gale, Cudworth, Burnet, and others, rejecting the Cabbalistic dreams, endeavoured to restore Alexandrian Platonism (cited from English translation: The History of Philosophy…drawn up from Brucker’s Historia Critica Philosophiae, xxv (1791))

What motivates this distinction in Brucker? Is it defensible? These questions are tied up with the much underresearched reception history of these figures in continental Europe, which it is another main priority of this project to investigate.

Turning back to accounts of them by contemporaries, our most important sources, in addition to Burnet, are [Simon Patrick] A Brief Account of a New Sect of Latitude-Men (1662); Edward Fowler The Principles and Practices of Certain Moderate Divines of the Church of England (1670); Joseph Glanvil, ‘Anti-Fanatical Religion, and Free Philosophy, in a Continuation of the New Atlantis’, in Essays on Several Important Subjects in Philosophy and Religion (1676); and William Baron, An Historical Account of Comprehension, and Toleration (1706). But does a more unified picture emerge here of the membership of this group, or of the unity of their theological and philosophical outlook? In an earlier manuscript version of the Glanvil text, for instance, he refers to a set of men he calls ‘Cupri-Cosmits’, and names Cudworth, Whichcote, Simon Patrick, Rust, Outram, Smith, More, Ingelo, Tillotson and Stillingfleet as belonging to this set. They are said by Glanvil to be united philosophically by a dislike of syllogistic method and peripatetic metaphysics, a commitment to hypotheses/conjectures, and a (qualified) openness to experimentalism in natural philosophy. But – setting aside the problem that he seems to be conflating two generations of figures here – with respect to explicitly Platonic method or doctrine, he notes that only ‘some’ of this set embrace a Platonic/Socratic method; the doctrine of the spirit of nature [the Platonic anima mundi]; preexistence; and spiritual extension (which Glanvil, curiously, classes as a Platonic doctrine). In fact, Glanvil seems to stress the unity of their theological over their philosophical outlook: they are committed to a rejection of a conception of God as mere power and arbitrary will, and an emphasis on the priority of God’s goodness; on real rather than imputed righteousness; divine and human freedom; a commitment to returning to the early Greek patristics; and on faith as an act of reason. But in an important sense this is as much a part of their Platonism as their metaphysics and natural philosophy more narrowly conceived, and another major task of the project is to account for how this theological core consensus is indebted to what Brucker would have called the synthesis of Alexandrian/eclectic Platonism and Christianity, achieved especially in Origen.

Therefore, although the terms ‘Cambridge Platonism’ and ‘Cambridge Platonist(s)’ are first used only in the nineteenth century, the convergence of British and continental sources just mentioned amply attests to the prior existence of an overlapping set of labels (‘Latitudinarians’ (Patrick), ‘Cupri-Cosmits’ (Glanvil), ‘English/British Platonist Sect’ (Brucker), ‘Platonists’ (Mosheim) for a group of figures, mostly Cambridge based, and these labels consistently identify at least More, Cudworth (and, generally, Whichcote) as core members of this group. This does not by itself settle the reification question, but it is important data that the reification objection must address. It also raises important questions about the identity of this group, and – if it is legitimate (as I think it is) to talk about ‘Platonism’ here – the nature of its Platonism or (perhaps) Platonisms.

Three Academic Texts by George Rust, 1656 and 1658

Marilyn Lewis has drawn our attention to the following publication, which will be of interest to all readers of Cambridge Platonist texts:

” ‘Origenian Platonisme’ in Interregnum Cambridge: Three Academic Texts by George Rust, 1656 and 1658″, edited by Marilyn A. Lewis, Davide A. Secci, and Christian Hengstermann, with assistance from John H. Lewis, and Benjamin Williams, History of Universities, vol. XXX / 1-2, pp. 43-124, published 3 August 2017.

Abstract: “Building on Professor Sarah Hutton’s designation of the years 1658-1662 as an ‘Origenist moment in English theology’, this article adds substantial detail to our knowledge of what Marilyn Lewis describes as an ‘Origenian Platonist’ moment. The article presents English translations of three Latin academic texts, written by George Rust in 1656 and 1658 while he was a fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge. The first text, Messias in S. Scriptura promissus olim venit should be assigned to Rust’s fulfilment in 1656 of the requirement to dispute in the Divinity Schools in the University of Cambridge in order to qualify for the degree of Bachelor of Divinity. The second and third texts were presented at the annual University of Cambridge Commencement Day in 1658, when Rust incepted BD. His Act verses, Resurrectionem e mortuis Scriptura docet nec refragatur Ratio and Anima separata non dormit appeared on a souvenir broadsheet for the day, and the final text, Resurrectionem è Mortuis S. Scriptura tradit, nec refragatur Ratio was the discourse which Rust defended in the disputation. Not only are these two 1658 texts important additions to the writings constituting the ‘Origenian Platonist moment’, but a reconstruction of the Commencement on 5 and 6 July will show that they formed part of what was perhaps the most public exposition and celebration of Origenian Platonist doctrines in Interregnum Cambridge.”

Link: History of Universities, XXX (2017), on OUP website

Discovery of A New Conway Letter

Professor Sarah Hutton has recently discovered a Conway letter not included in the Conway Letters edited by herself and M.H. Nicolson. It is National Library of Ireland MS, from Lord Conway to his wife, written from Dublin and dated 24 August 1678–the year before her death. It tells her that he has arranged for imprisoned Quakers to be released and for the charges against others to be dropped. It also tells the story of a “bad” Quaker who cheated someone of his inheritance. And other things.

Conference of the British Society for the History of Philosophy, 6-8 April, Sheffield

The programme for the annual conference of the British Society for the History of Philosophy, to take place at the University of Sheffield on 6-8 April 2017, is now available on the conference website: It will include a workshop on the Cambridge Platonists with papers by David, Sarah Hutton, Douglas Hedley and Christian Hengstermann.

Michael Allen: Transfiguration and the Platonic Fire Within (Divinity Faculty, Cambridge, 1st December, 5 pm)

At the opening of a new centre for the research on Platonism headed by Dr Douglas Hedley (Cambridge),  Professor Michael Allen (California) will give a talk entitled “Transfiguration and the Platonic Fire Within” at the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University on 1st December 2016 (5 pm, Runcie Room). The centre is intended to provide an international hub for researchers working on Platonism old and new with regular Werner Beierwaltes lectures focusing on key aspects of ancient, medieval, early modern and contemporary Platonic philosophy.

£833,472 AHRC research grant secured

A major AHRC research grant secured!

The Cambridge Platonists at the origins of Enlightenment: texts, debates, and reception (1650-1730)

The research team of Douglas Hedley, Sarah Hutton and David Leech, with Technical Adviser Mike Hawkins, will employ two full-time research assistants. The grant will cover funding for extensive editorial work with both texts and manuscripts.

The project, worth £833,472 and shared between the Universities of Cambridge and Bristol, will start on 1 September 2016 and run for three years.

Papers on Cambridge Platonism at the 13th Annual Conference of the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies,

The following papers will be offered on Cambridge Platonism at the 13th Annual Conference of the ISNS in Buenos Aeres, Argentina, June 15-19th 2015:

Thursday, June 18 

Cambridge Platonism and the Enigma of Early Modern Neoplatonism (Platonismo de Cambridge y el enigma del neoplatonismo en la temprana Modernidad) I

Douglas Hedley and Natalia Strok

Silvia Manzo, Universidad Nacional de La Plata / IDHICS-CONICET

“Henry More and Francis Bacon on matter’s activity and antitypia”

Rodolfo E. Fazio, UBA

“Newton and the neo-Platonic offensive against Cartesianism”

Fernando Bahr, UNL-CONICET

“Bayle and Le Clerc: the traces of Cambridge Platonism in early Eighteenth Century French Philosophy”

Cambridge Platonism and the Enigma of Early Modern Neoplatonism (Platonismo de Cambridge y el enigma del neoplatonismo en la temprana Modernidad) II

Douglas Hedley and Natalia Strok

Douglas Hedley, Cambridge University

“Whence Cambridge Platonism? Reflections on Cudworth’s 1647 House of Commons Sermon”


“Plutarch’s Strong Presence in Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe

For the full programme (to be advertised shortly), click here

‘Cambridge Platonists’ panel at International Society for Neoplatonic Studies 2014 Lisbon Conference

The 12th Annual Conference of the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies. Hosted and sponsored by the Philosophy Centre of the University of Lisbon, to be held at the Faculty of Letters of the University of Lisbon (Portugal) on June 16-21, 2014. This year includes a panel on ‘Cambridge Platonists’ (Douglas Hedley). For list of panels, follow this link.

session of the American Academy of Religion on ‘Cambridge Platonism Revisited’

On Monday 25th of November 4.00 pm-6.30pm 2013 there will be a session of the American Academy of Religion at Baltimore on 'Cambridge Platonism Revisited'. Speakers are Eric Parker (McGill) on Peter Sterry, Heather Ohanson (Columbia) on Cudworth and the Readmission of the Jews, Alex Hampton (Cambridge) on Herder and Cudworth. Douglas Hedley (Cambridge) will be presiding.

Conference ‘Platonism after Plato in the Renaissance’

Platonism after Plato in the Renaissance

7 – 8 November 2013

Jointly organised by the Centre for Neoplatonic Virtue Ethics, University of Copenhagen,
and the Warburg Institute

Click here to download the poster

Organisers: Leo Catana (Copenhagen), Anna Corrias, Guido Giglioni and Jill Kraye (Warburg Institute)

Speakers: Leo Catana (Copenhagen), Christopher Celenza (American Academy in Rome/Johns Hopkins), Riccardo Chiaradonna, (Roma Tre), Anna Corrias (Warburg Institute), Rocco Di Dio (Warwick), Guido Giglioni (Warburg Institute), James Hankins ( Harvard), Sarah Hutton, (Aberystwyth), Cecilia Muratori (Villa I Tatti), Denis Robichaud (Notre Dame), Valery Rees (School of Economic Science), Valerio Sanzotta (Ludwig Boltzmann Institute) and Maude Vanhaelen (Warwick)

The conference will focus on the early modern reception of Plotinus and the post-Plotinian Platonists. Among the topics which will be discussed are: Marsilio Ficino’s translation of and commentary on the Enneads and his translation of works by Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus; the different ways in which Ficino’s translation and interpretation shaped the view which European scholars and philosophers had of late ancient Platonism up to the nineteenth century; the circulation of Plotinian and post-Plotinian philosophy after, and independently of, Ficino’s translations; and post-Plotinian elements in early modern Platonism.

For further details, see:

new book by Charles Taliaferro

reviewed in Notre Dame Philosophical Review which begins:

“Taliaferro’s book could be fairly described as the world viewed from the perspective of the seventeenth-century Cambridge Platonists (Henry More, Ralph Cudworth and others), elegantly updated to take account of contemporary philosophical and cultural challenges to that view.”