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)

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