The Cambridge Platonists at the Origins of Enlightenment: Texts, Debate, and Reception (1650-1730)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Divinity


The Cambridge Platonists, whose leading members were Benjamin Whichcote (1609-83), Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688), Henry More (1614-1687) and John Smith (1618-1652), represent the most important school of Platonic philosophers between the Italian Renaissance and the Romantic Age. This movement, distinguished in its time for toleration, insistence on the compatibility of science and religion, and its optimism about human nature, has been seen as a 'Copernican revolution' in Western moral philosophy. They represent, perhaps, a key step in the shift to a secular ethics. These thinkers are the first Platonists to have confronted the modern scientific outlook as they attempted to negotiate the claims of, on the one hand, the inherited Graeco-Roman-Christian worldview and, on the other hand, the startling new mechanical vision of the universe presented by Galilean-Cartesian science. The key aesthetic notion of 'disinterested pleasure' can be traced back to the Cambridge Platonists. We have derived from them other fundamental philosophical concepts such as 'materialism', 'monotheism', 'philosophy of religion', and 'self-consciousness'. Their influence on women thinkers such as Conway, Masham, Astell, and their impact on the British Dissenting tradition, the Scottish Enlightenment, and the European Enlightenment, have only just started to be appreciated.
The Cambridge Platonists, however, have been largely neglected by modern scholars for a combination of reasons: scholarly misapprehensions, a lack of accessible textbooks and good critical editions of their major works. Their published writings and many important manuscripts have not been edited. The central aims of this project are, first, to address this neglect by producing a digital 'Cambridge Platonism Sourcebook', subdivided into three broad sections - Nature and God; Knowledge and Belief; Human Beings and Morality. The Sourcebook will be made freely available online as a digital thematic research collection on the project website. Secondly, by showing their engagement with contemporary debates, we aim to overturn false perceptions of the Platonists as isolated figures of little relevance to intellectual history.
This sourcebook will consist of extensive excerpts selected from across the entire oeuvre of the Cambridge Platonists and from many of their contemporaries with whom they engaged or who engaged with them. Each section will be supplied with an introduction, and explanatory notes. It will make available both important printed and manuscript sources illustrating the range of their thinking, and ask: what were the distinctive metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical stances of the Cambridge Platonists that gave them their intellectual identity? For instance, what position(s) did they take on problems as diverse as God's relation to space and time, the irreducibility of consciousness, personal identity, reason and emotion, immediate self-knowledge, responsibility, conscience, and free will? Also, how far did they agree with one another? What were the key controversies of their milieu? Which of their contemporaries were their primary targets? What precisely was their influence? In addition to the sourcebook, the thematic research collection will include an online bibliography of Cambridge Platonism, a glossary of technical terms, and a project blog, which will report on developments in Cambridge Platonism scholarship. It will also update on the progress of our work, and offer a forum for scholars and interested members of the public to contribute their input and ideas. In addition, we hope to publish a hard-copy abridged version of the Sourcebook.
The project will liaise with key cultural agencies to promote knowledge of Cambridge Platonism as a highly significant intellectual movement, and an important source of our contemporary culture.

Planned Impact

Impact Summary
We envisage impact events which address the following three topics: (1) Women and education (2) Religion and atheism (3) Poetic imagination. These three topics have been picked out of a range of possible themes which will be covered in the sourcebook, because of their potential for making the general public more aware of the contemporary importance of Cambridge Platonism in shaping our modern cultural imaginary. These topics engage non-academic stakeholders on matters of significant public interest. The three planned events are:
(1) radio talk on BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour and two public talks on the influence of Cambridge Platonists on some of the earliest women to argue for the importance of educating women.
(2) talks on Cambridge Platonism at Malmesbury Philosophy Festival 2016, and Cambridge Festival of Ideas 2015 or 2017 on Cambridge Platonism and the question of atheism
(3) radio talk on BBC World Service programme The Forum on Cambridge Platonist influence on Romantic English Poetry.
We will also publish articles on the above topics in The Philosophers' Magazine and Philosophy Now (2 outlets with a very wide circulation and aimed at the non specialist).
Who will benefit?
Beneficiaries will include:
Radio audiences (for instance, Woman's Hour has a weekly reach of 3.5 million).
Internet users. The radio shows are also available online, to download and as a podcast. There is also an online archive of all previous shows.
Audiences with diverse interests in different parts of the UK (e.g. Malmesbury Philosophy Festival, Cambridge Festival of Ideas both attract a wide level of interest from the public.)
equal rights organisations (especially through connection with the Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies)
reading public with an interest in philosophy (readers of philosophy magazines)
Cultural agencies such as BBC radio, the Institute of Art and Ideas, and Festival organisers whose cultural programmes will benefit directly from the research questions that lie at the heart of the project.
How they will benefit?
Event (1) addresses the important social issue of educating women. Event (2) addresses another urgent issue: religion/atheism, in particular the science-religion debate, which, due particularly to US influence, has recently gained a new salience in the UK, and is also becoming a bigger issue in the Islamic world. Event (3) makes a contribution to UK culture and creative output. These activities will generally promote the presence of philosophy and ideas in the community.
As well as being entertaining, these events will be informative and draw directly on the materials we will be making available through the sourcebook.


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