Living Ideas: Project Overview

Living Ideas: Dynamic Philosophies of Life and Matter, 1650–1850.


This project unites research in philosophy and literature with the history of biology to illuminate the idealist and dynamic theories of life and matter in Britain, Germany, France, and the Netherlands, 1650–1850. Not only an intellectual history, it will assess the philosophical value, past and present, of this lineage of the science and philosophy of life and matter. The methodology of the project will combine a diverse range of perspectives brought by the PI (Peter Cheyne) and Research Collaborators to examine, compare, and follow the influence of texts from the Cambridge Platonists in Britain, through British then German thinkers and their uptake in France and the Dutch Republic, and back to Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century. Further, it will evaluate various strands in idealist and dynamic philosophies of the life sciences of the period. This is a new, enlightening approach towards the meaning of ‘life’ in relation to ‘matter’, especially as artificial intelligence and material technologies have already taken over many roles of the human body and mind. The project will assemble the first ever international conference on the idealist and dynamic philosophies of the life sciences of the period, and its location at the University of Tokyo will help philosophical, historical, and literary studies in Japan as well as internationally. The conference will be followed up by workshops at Durham University and Cambridge University. The research will be disseminated through a series of peer-reviewed journal articles, synopses and discussion on the project website (if funding becomes available for an online forum), and a book co-authored by the PI and Research Collaborators.

(1.1) Objectives

The project aims to shed new light on the theory of life, and its roots in the theory of matter. This sharp focus on life and matter will constitute an innovative approach to the study of modern philosophical idealism. The focus will be historical in particular, examining evolving theories of the theory of life as they developed in, and arguably gave rise to, the main idealist schools of philosophy in Britain and Germany, and evolved through thinkers in France and the Dutch Republic.

During this two-hundred-year period, natural science and philosophy became increasingly empiricist, to which current the Cambridge Platonists, contemporary with John Locke, were already adapting; accepting some doctrines and opposing others. By the late stage of this period, Friedrich Schelling and the Naturphilosophen were combining rational and transcendental philosophy and ‘romantic science’ with empirical methodology, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge was synthesizing those ideas with physician and Kant scholar Thomas Beddoes’ similar German importations and Richard Saumarez’ new Hunterian theories on physiology and the ‘life principle’; closely following the chemical experiments of Humphry Davy; and theorizing about recent developments such as animal magnetism, while trying to fuse all of this within a rational-physical evolutionary schema that he, like Schelling, derived from the writings of the theosopher Jakob Böhme (1575–1624).

Three principal objectives stem from the central aim, and each concerns a distinct period in the development of the theory of life:

(i) to examine how early-modern thinkers, especially the Cambridge Platonists Henry More and Ralph Cudworth, their close acquaintance at Cambridge the physician Francis Glisson, and More’s student Isaac Newton, conceived of the relation between life and matter (the ‘early period’);

(ii) to trace that legacy in modern philosophy, especially Shaftesbury in England and J. G. Herder then Kant in Germany (the ‘middle period’); and

(iii) to explore the subsequent theories of life developed in Germany by J. G. Fichte (and Fichtean physicians such as Andreas Röschlaub and Adam Karl August von Eschenmayer) and especially Schelling and Naturphilosophen including the biologists Karl Kielmeyer, Lorenz Oken, and the Danish philosopher and geologist Henrik Steffens; and in England by Coleridge, and his philosophical, religious, and life-science circle (the ‘later period’). Hitherto, scholars have largely neglected Coleridge’s role in the development of the life sciences. One of the novel features of this project is that the Research Collaborators will therefore refer to Coleridge, as well as the Cambridge Platonists, Shaftesbury, Herder, Kant, Fichte, and Schelling and the Naturphilosophen, in their analyses of the development of the theory of life. In prevailing accounts of the significant epochal moments in German philosophy from Kant to Schelling or Hegel, the influence of Cudworth, More, and Shaftesbury have been starkly occluded, notwithstanding the decisive role ascribed to them by such respected historians of philosophy such as Ernst Cassirer (Philosophy of Enlightenment, Tübingen, 1932; and esp. Platonic Renaissance in England, Leipzig, 1932) .

The three objectives will be fulfilled by answering the following three questions through historical, textual, and philosophical analysis:

i. Early Period: How did early-modern thinkers like More, Cudworth, and Newton conceive the relation between life and matter? More and Cudworth were Cambridge Platonists, and Newton was More’s student at Cambridge. More’s theory of a ‘hylarchic principle’ and Cudworth’s of a universal ‘Plastick Life of Nature’ (True Intellectual System, London, 1678, 137) conceived their respective universal principles to be more fundamental than the material substrate. Their principles were similar ways of representing a living power that they both argued leads inevitably to manifestations of life and mind, due to its rational, ‘spermatic’ power. Thus while they held a modern, atomic theory of matter, they argued, from a Platonic perspective, that mind was necessarily prior to this matter. Newton, influenced by More, his tutor at Cambridge, revealed important idealist elements in his thinking through such ideas as his concept of absolute space being the ‘sensorium of God’ (Newton, Opticks, qs 28, 31; in Opera qua exstant Omnia, vol 4, London, 1782); his distinction between matter and gravitation; and his theory, proposed at the end of his Principia(1687), that ‘a … most subtle’, ‘electric and elastic Spirit’ excites ‘all sensation’ and movement in human and ‘animal bodies’. Previous studies have researched how these thinkers conceived the relation between metaphysically non-material, non-corpuscular entities, powers, or forces, and matter (e.g. John Henry, ‘A Cambridge Platonist’s Materialism’, 1986; John Henry, ‘Henry More and Newton’s Gravity’, 1993; Jasper Reid, ‘Henry More on Material and Spiritual Extension’, 2003; and Douglas Hedley and Sarah Hutton, eds, Platonism at the Origins of Modernity, Dordrecht, 2008). For Newton such non-materiality includes absolute space and gravitation, and for all three thinkers it includes the laws of motion as distinct from the matter in motion, the former being the plastic, formative, rational principle of the universe that unfolds intellect and meaning throughout material existence. It remains to be examined, however, how these thinkers related the theory of life to that of matter, and where Newton agreed and disagreed with the Cambridge Platonists.

ii. Middle period: How did the related theories of the Cambridge Platonists influence and become modified by later British and German idealists, specifically in relation to the philosophical conception of life and matter? The project will investigate the Cambridge Platonists’ development through Shaftesbury, whose adapted form of plastic nature is taken up by Herder in two books, Plastik (Riga, 1778) and Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menscheit (Riga and Leipzig, 1784–91), then received by Kant.We shall also investigate how, arguably, Cudworth suggested some of Kant’s most important advances in philosophy. Recent work at the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Platonism has suggested that Kant’s Copernican revolution in epistemology may have been, in part, anticipated by Cudworth’s True Intellectual System (730–1), a Latin translation of which Kant owned, where he argues that the objects of knowledge are in fact modifications of mind, as Kant would later argue (Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1787, Vorrede, B xvii–iii), such that knowledge requires objects to conform to our mode of cognition rather than our cognition to empirical reality.

*An historically interesting counter-claim is that Coleridge saw the Cambridge Platonists as lacking the initial inquiry into, nor having felt the need for, the ‘pre-ponderative inquisition of the weights & measures of the human mind’ (Notebooks, 5: §5080, December 1823) that was Kant’s first  great critical achievement. Thus Coleridge would not have endorsed the view that the Cambridge Platonists anticipated Kant’s ‘Copernican revolution’ (see esp. Marginalia, 3: 918–21), though Coleridge did think that Francis Bacon and Edward Herbert partly anticipated Kant (Marginalia, 5: 81–2).

Also, insofar as the Cambridge Platonists were objective idealists who held all forms, laws, order, and so on in the world to derive from, or be grounded in, the absolute divine mind and its ideas or archetypes, it might not make sense to attribute to them any position comparable to the specifically Kantian view of objects conforming to human cognition, which view is partly premised on the impossibility of human knowledge of divine ideas, archetypes, etc.

Still, Coleridge’s objection gives support to the argument that the philosophical influence of the Cambridge Platonists on Kant and other German idealists has been overlooked, if one takes Coleridge’s comments in Marginalia, 3: 918–21 to imply that he did not think such influence probable or even possible.

iii. Later period: How did Cambridge Platonism influence late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century German philosophy? J. L. Mosheim’s Latin translation of Cudworth’s True Intellectual Systemwas a set text at the Tübinger Stift, where Schelling, Hegel, and Hölderlin were nurtured, and at the University of Jena,where Fichte then Schelling then Hegel taught, as noted of the Tübinger Stift by Michael Franz (Schellings Tübinger Platon-Studien, Göttingen,1996, Ch. 3), and of the University of Jenaby Jonathan Israel (Enlightenment Contested, Oxford, 2001, 446). We shall investigate these connections and the return of this current back to Britain in the work of Coleridge, who recognizes its Cambridge Platonist roots, and who passes it on through his circle and his writings.

Much remains to be done to uncover the Cambridge Platonist influence on German idealism. This project aims to reveal many of those connections that relate specifically to idealist theories of life and of matter. Further, the project will investigate how Coleridge recognized the marks of Cambridge Platonism in the new transcendental idealist philosophy, and how he modified it in formulating his own dynamic theory of life. Later, Coleridge participated in the vitalist debate, in the Royal College of Surgeons lectures and surrounding discourse, between his medical friend John Abernethy with his vitalist, more religiously compatible Hunterian theory of life, and William Lawrence’s materialist account. He also collaborated closely on the theory of life with his surgeon friends James Gillman and J. H. Green (Neil Vickers, Coleridge and the Doctors, Oxford, 2004), the latter publishing his Coleridgean Vital Dynamics in 1840. This work has been neglected, yet is important for understanding the nineteenth-century developments of idealism in Britain. This project will provide a uniquely rich historical perspective on the recent turn in the humanities to questions of matter and life (such as new materialism and environmental humanities), and draws on the revival of interest in the Cambridge Platonists. Our result will be an original and interdisciplinary analysis of the theory of life and matter that evolved from More, Cudworth, and to some extent Newton.

A further question concerns critical evaluation of the dynamic theory of life: What is the lasting theoretical and philosophical value in Cambridge Platonist and transcendental idealist theories of life and matter? This question constitutes the key scientific question of the project, and it is to be approached after uncovering evidence, positions, etc. found during this research. The overall objective of this project is not merely to conduct an historical study of transmission and influence, although that inquiry is necessary, but rather to furnish the relevant material and points of view from which we may assess what of philosophical value is still valid today in this Platonist approach. The project will therefore illuminate the impact and significance not only of the outlined c.160-year trajectory of the theories of ‘plastic life’ and of matter, but also its impact on the later Hegelianism and British idealism that persisted through the nineteenth century; on vitalist theories of life, such as Henri Bergson’s (L’Évolution créatrice, Paris, 1907), and philosopher and physician Georges Canguilhem’s (La Connaissance de la vie, Paris, 1965), in twentieth-century thought; and will assess the remaining potential of the dynamic theory of life to impact positively twenty-first-century concerns such as post-humanism; the Anthropocene problem and environmental issues; post-secularism; contemporary idealist–physicalist debate; and the ontology of powers (Anna Marmodoro, ed., The Metaphysics of Powers, London, 2010).

(1.2) Methodology

The methodology of the project is primarily historical. Principally, it will follow a newly opened, bifurcated genealogy of influence concerning the diffusion of texts from the Cambridge Platonists in Britain, through British then German thinkers, and the branching of this line through the uptake of these texts in France and the Dutch Republic, and back to Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century. The examination of this lineage will focus on the following three points:

(i) The influence of Cudworth’s True Intellectual System of the Universe. In particular, the project will explore the impact of Cudworth on Shaftesbury, Herder, Kant, the philosophers at Jena (where the True Intellectual System was a set text), and the Naturphilosophen. The post-Kantian influence on Coleridge brought the circle back to Britain, where Coleridge promulgated a mixture of Cambridge Platonism and German transcendental idealism and influenced the philosophical, medical, and biological theories of, among others, members of the Royal College of Surgeons. Bringing in experts in Cambridge Platonism to consider German idealism, and vice versa, will add methodological novelty and a longer ranging scope to the project.

(ii) The influence of Cudworth’s True Intellectual System on the empiricist tradition that runs from More to Newton; then through Hartley, developing from Newton’s aforementioned theory of an ‘electric and elastic Spirit’ that excites all sensation and movement in living creatures; to Coleridge.

(iii) Coleridge’s theory of life and his two-level theory of the ‘living ideas’ of reason versus the inert ideas of association. Examining Coleridge through these history of life sciences approaches stemming from Cambridge Platonism is novel, further making this project methodologically significant. Crucially, Coleridge understood both life and matter from an idealist perspective as arising in a dynamic of powers and forces which I argue he developed by synthesizing Cambridge Platonism and transcendental idealism within a dialectical logic of physical and metaphysical powers derived from Fichte, Schelling, and the Naturphilosophen, and by incorporating a modified Hartleian associationism.

The project will receive considerable collaborative input from researchers in the 1650–1850 European history and philosophy of the life sciences, German and British idealism, and literature, ensuring methodological plurality from a host of different perspectives and paradigms. Research Collaborators from Canada, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Mexico, UK, and the USA will focus on the various areas (especially Cambridge Platonism, Shaftesbury, Herder, Kant, Schelling, and Coleridge studies) needed for this historically wide-reaching project. The project will progress through:

(i) a major international conference at the University of Tokyo, 1–4 November 2019, allowing historians of philosophy and of life science, intellectual historians, and literary scholars to encounter each other’s perspectives, and will enhance cross-disciplinary and cross-national studies in those disciplines in Japan and abroad, with follow-up workshops in Durham in August 2020 and Cambridge in August 2021;

(ii) journal articles written individually by thePrincipal Investigator and Research Collaborators;

(iii) a website (you’re here!) disseminating synopses and discussion of the research; and

(iv) a book disseminating the results in a series of chapters written by the Principal Investigator and the Research Collaborators, and edited by the PI, giving a plurality of perspectives in the research outputs.


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