By Matthew Leisinger
1. The Freewill Manuscripts
Ralph Cudworth’s ‘freewill’ manuscripts (British Library Additional Manuscripts 4978-4982) may be somewhat long and rambling, but they are far from incoherent. On the contrary, Cudworth’s substantive views appear to remain largely unchanged across the manuscripts, even if Cudworth constantly seeks new modes of expression. This fact is remarkable because, as Mark Burden explains in his recent and important blog post, the manuscripts may well have been composed over a relatively long period of time. In their substance, the (perhaps) early sketches of 4982(1) and 4982(3) appear largely to agree with the (perhaps) later and more polished 4978 (the posthumously published A Treatise of Freewill).
Of course, this proclamation of consistency begs refutation. Scholarship on Cudworth’s freewill manuscripts remains in its infancy. The task at this point is simply to understand what Cudworth’s views are, not to chart how those views might have developed over time. As scholarship progresses, however, developmental stories may begin to emerge. As the freewill manuscripts become more accessible (in part through the efforts of The Cambridge Platonist Project) and as more scholars follow Burden’s lead by taking seriously the complex textual and philosophical relations between the manuscripts, it may become possible to distinguish the motions of Cudworth’s thought against the fixed background of his understood philosophical commitments.
I wish to make a modest (and perhaps premature) contribution to this project by attempting briefly to point out one such apparent motion. My suggestion will be that Cudworth’s views about animals seem to have gone through three stages. Assuming that Burden’s relative dating of the manuscripts is roughly accurate, I will argue that Cudworth initially believed that animals lack freewill but then lost confidence in this belief and went through a period of indecision before later changing his mind and adopting the contrary opinion that animals do indeed possess at least a kind of freewill.
2. Freewill, Animal and Moral
In order to see this motion in Cudworth’s thought, we need first to establish some fixed background as a frame of reference. To this end, allow me to provide a cursory and dogmatic sketch of Cudworth’s account of freewill.