Platonic Idealism in Modern Philosophy from Malebranche to Berkeley

  • Stuart Brown
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 150)


The revival of Platonism associated with Cambridge philosophers such as Henry More and Ralph Cudworth was in part a reaction against Calvinism with its stress on faith rather than reason and its pessimistic view of human nature. It was not, however, the only revival of Platonism in England in the late seventeenth century. There was another more broadly European revival that lasted well into the eighteenth century. This new Platonism was in some respects significantly different, both in its inspiration and in its nature, from that of Henry More and his associates. The Cambridge Platonists largely regarded Descartes and the mechanical philosophy as a challenge and even a threat to religious faith. The new Platonism, by contrast, had its beginnings in a new perspective on Descartes and the mechanical view of nature in which they came to be regarded as actually conducive to piety. This new perspective came to be quite widely shared thanks to the popularity of the writings of Malebranche in whose thought Cartesianism was harmonised with an Augustinian Christian philosophy and theology.


Material Body Modern Philosophy Absolute Space Ancient Philosopher Early Eighteenth Century 
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  1. 1.
    I owe a general debt to the work of André Robinet for a sense of the importance of Malebranche for Leibniz’s philosophy. I am also indebted to Charles McCracken’s Malebranche and British Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983). Sarah Hutton has encouraged me to expect that Platonism continued to flourish in early eighteenth century England more than historians of the philosophy of that period have recognised. I am indebted for the discussion of an earlier draft of the paper at the Nantes Conference on “Le Monde des Platoniciens de Cambridge” in 1993, particularly to the contribution from Roselyne Degremont.Google Scholar
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  5. 5.
    See Sect. IV below.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Acts 17: 18. As Stoic philosophers were listed among Paul’s audience the author of Acts of the Apostles may be presumed to have intended the phrase to be taken in a Stoic way. But Berkeley clearly interpreted the phrase in a Platonic way, assuming God to be a pure Spirit. See below, Section IV.Google Scholar
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    In the case of Collier some of the evidence is probably lost, but according to Robert Benson, who had access to the lost manuscripts, this was one of Collier’s “favourite maxims”. (Robert Benson, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Reverend Arthur Collier, (London: Lumley, 1837, reprinted Bristol: Thoemmes Antiquarian Books, 1990), pp. 54f.) One citation, from Collier’s Logology of 1832, is quoted by Benson (ibid., p. 76). Collier seems to have interpreted the “Platonic” passages of the Bible in the light of one another and took the early verses of John 1 to mean that God made all things by, through and in the Son. (Clavis, p. 104). He may have used Acts 17: 18 to support his unusual view that the whole creation existed not only by and through but in the Son of God.Google Scholar
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    “ ... à quoi peut servir tout ce grand artifice dans les substances, si non pour faire croire que les unes agissent sur les autres, quoique cela ne soit pas? En vérité, il me semble que ce système n’est guères plus avantageux que celui des Cartésiens; et si on a raison de rejetter le leur, parce qu’il suppose inutilement que Dieu considérent les mouvements qu’il produit lui-même dans le corps, produit aussi dans l’âme des pensées qui correspondent a ces movemens; comme s’il n’étoit pas plus digne que lui de produire tout d’un coup les pensées et les modifications de l’âme, sans qu’il y ait des corps qui lui servent comme de règle, et pour ainsi dire, lui aprennent ce qu’il doit faire; n’aura-t-on pas sujet de vous demander pourquoi Dieu ne se contente point de produire toutes les pensées et modifications de l’ame, soit qu’il le fasse immédiatement ou par artifice, comme vous voudriez, sans qu’il y ait des corps inutiles que 1”esprit ne sçauroit ni remuer ni connoistre?” (Leibniz, Philosophische Schriften, Vol. IV), p. 489.Google Scholar
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    Partly for reasons of space I shall not attempt to bring this out in detail here. Nor can I hope to review the not inconsiderable literature on this topic. But in any case I believe the presumption of plagiarism is based on a mistake and there is no need to undertake to prove that Collier did not benefit from reading Berkeley’s Principles. It is sufficient to show, as I attempt to do, how their philosophies could have converged to the extent that they did.Google Scholar
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    Collier’s purpose is not to attack scepticism, but he is anxious to defend himself against the charge of scepticism which it could be Norris made against him personally and which is represented as if it were an objection coming from Norris (Clavis, pp. 110ff.).Google Scholar
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    Collier, by contrast, regards it as a variation on a familiar (Augustinian) doctrine: “Everyone, I suppose, has heard of the doctrine of seeing the divine ideas, or (as Mr Malebranche expresses it), seeing all things in God”. (Clavis, p. 38f.).Google Scholar
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  • Stuart Brown

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