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About the Cambridge Platonists

What was Cambridge Platonism?

Cambridge Platonism is the term that has come to be used to identify the thought of a group of seventeenth-century English thinkers who had a major influence on modern thought, at a pivotal period in its development (between 1650 and 1830). The name (coined in the nineteenth century) derives from the fact that they were largely associated with the University of Cambridge and that there is a distinctively Platonist strand in their intellectual formation.

 

Who were the Cambridge Platonists?

The core members of the group were Benjamin Whichcote (1609-83), Ralph Cudworth ( 1617-88), Henry More (1614-87), Peter Sterry (1613-1672), John Smith (1618-1652) and Nathaniel Culverwell (1619-1651). Others associated with them were John Worthington (1618-1671), George Rust (d. 1670), Anne Conway (1630-1679) and John Norris (1657-1711). See Cambridge Platonists at Cambridge Colleges for a fuller list of their associates (written for the project by Marilyn A. Lewis). For reading lists of primary and secondary sources relating to Cambridge Platonism, please click on our Bibliography pages.

 

What was their Significance?

The Cambridge Platonists had a major influence on modern thought, between the first major reception of Descartes and European Romanticism. They attempted to negotiate the claims, on the one hand, of the inherited Hellenic–Christian synthesis of antiquity and, on the other hand, the startling new mechanical vision of the universe presented by Galilean-Cartesian science. In the period between Descartes and Newton, they were fully engaged with the major developments of contemporary philosophy and science. Trenchant critics of leading seventeenth- century philosophers, such as Descartes, Hobbes and Spinoza, they developed a distinctive conception of nature as an antidote to the early modern mechanical philosophy. Their contribution to their moral philosophy is a major source for modern secular ethical theory and ideas of tolerance.  Their legacy to modern thought includes central concepts, such as Monotheism, Materialism, Self-Consciousness. Among their fold we find some of the first women writers of philosophy, including Anne Conway, Mary Astell and Damaris Cudworth. Their influence in Europe was sustained well into the late eighteenth-century. Through its take-up by, among others, Lord Shaftesbury their moral philosophy was mediated to the Scottish Enlightenment. They influenced the development of the so-called ‘hylozoic’ atheism by Diderot, and of German Naturphilosophie, which formed such a core element in European Romanticism. They contributed most notably to the Greek-Platonic revival in Germany of the 1760’s which affected such luminaries as Herder and Goethe.


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