The Cambridge Platonists and the Pre-History of the English Enlightenment

Matthew Cosby, “The Cambridge Platonists and the Pre-History of the English Enlightenment,” Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Wisconsin – Madison, 2016.


This work examines the prehistory of the Enlightenment, as manifested in a group of five English thinkers customarily known as theCambridge Platonists”—Benjamin Whichcote, Ralph Cudworth, Henry More, Nathaniel Culverwell, and John Smith. Not normally associated with the Enlightenment, and writing a generation before the latter is normally regarded as beginning, the Cambridge Platonists, my research has found, evinced many ideas and attitudes that we now associate with the Enlightenment—such as religious toleration, rationalism, an interest in natural science, and a focus on the present life and the physical world rather than the afterlife and realm of spirit. The broader, meta-hypothesis is that the Enlightenment does not begin suddenly at the end of the seventeenth century, as it is often treated, but emerges much more gradually and organically out of earlier modes of thought.

Committee: Johann P. Sommerville, Charles L. Cohen, Karl Shoemaker, Daniel Ussishkin, and Steven Nadler.

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