Plastic Principle

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The Plastic Principle is an idea introduced into Western thought by the English philosopher Ralph Cudworth (1617–1689) to explain the function of nature and life in the face of both the mechanism and materialism of the Enlightenment. It is a dynamic functional power that contains all of natural law, and is both sustentative and generative, organizing matter according to Platonic Ideas, that is, archetypes that lie beyond the physical realm coming from the Mind of God or Deity, the ground of Being.


The role of nature was one faced by philosophers in the Age of Reason or Enlightenment. The prevailing view was either that of the Church of a personal deity intervening in his creation, producing miracles, or an ancient pantheism (atheism relative to theism) – deity pervading all things and existing in all things. However, the "ideas of an all-embracing providential care of the world and of one universal vital force capable of organizing the world from within."[1] presented difficulties for philosophers of a spiritual as well as materialistic bent.

Cambridge Platonists[edit]

The Cartesian idea of nature as mechanical, and Hobbes' materialistic views were countered by the English philosopher, Ralph Cudworth (1617–1689), who, in his True intellectual system of the universe (1678), addressing the tension between theism and atheism, took both the Stoic idea of Divine Reason poured into the world, and the Platonic idea of the world soul (anima mundi) to posit a power that was polaric – "either as a ruling but separate mind or as an informing vital principle – either nous hypercosmios or nous enkosmios.[1]

Cudworth was a member of the Cambridge Platonists, a group of English seventeenth-century thinkers associated with the University of Cambridge who were stimulated by Plato's teachings but also were aware or and influenced by Descartes, Hobbes, Bacon, Boyle and Spinoza. The other important philosopher of this group was Henry More (1614–1687). More held that spiritual substance or mind controlled inert matter. Out of his correspondence with Descartes, he developed the idea that everything, whether material or non, had extension, an example of the latter being space, which is infinite (Newton) and which then is correlative to the idea of God (set out in his Enchiridion metaphysicum 1667). In developing this idea, More also introduced a causal agent between God and substance, or Nature in his Hylarchic Principle, derived from Plato's anima mundi or world soul, and the Stoic's pneuma, which encapsulates the laws of nature, both for inert and vital nature, and involves a sympathetic resonance between soul (psyche) and soma.[2]

Cudworth's idea of 'the Plastick Life of Nature'[edit]

Like More, Cudworth put forward the idea of 'the Plastick Life of Nature', a formative principle that contains both substance and the laws of motion, as well as a nisus or direction that accounts for design and goal in the natural world. He was stimulated by the Cartesian idea of the mind as self-consciousness to see God as consciousness. He first analysed four forms of atheism from ancient times to present, and showed that all misunderstood the principle of life and knowledge, which involved unsentient activity and self-consciousness.

It is in connection with the refutation of hylozoic atheism that he brings forward the celebrated hypothesis, which he held in common with More, of a plastic nature,—a substance intermediate between matter and spirit,—a power which prosecutes certain ends but not freely or intelligently,—an instrument by which laws are able to act without the immediate agency of God...[3]

All of the atheistic approaches posted nature as unconscious, which for Cudworth was ontologically unsupportable, as a principle that was supposed to be the ultimate source of life and meaning could only be itself self-conscious and knowledgeable, that is, rational, otherwise creation or nature degenerates into inert matter set in motion by random external forces (Coleridge's 'chance whirlings of unproductive particles'). Cudworth saw nature as a vegetative power endowed with plastic (forming) and spermatic (generative) forces, but one with Mind, or a self-conscious knowledge. This idea would later emerge in the Romantic period in German science as Blumenbach's Bildungstreib (generative power) and the Lebenskraft (or Bildungskraft).

...the life of the universe splits into two principles – the one transcendent and intellectual (« an animalish, sentient and intellectual nature, or a conscious soul and mind, that presided over the whole world »), the other immanent and devoid of perception (« a certain plastic nature, or spermatic principle which was properly the fate of all things »)[1]

The essence of atheism for Cudworth was the view that matter was self-active and self-sufficient, whereas for Cudworth the plastic power was unsentient and under the direct control of the universal Mind or Logos. For him atheism, whether mechanical or material could not solve the "phenomenon of nature." Henry More argued that atheism made each substance independent and self-acting such that it 'deified' matter. Cudworth argued that materialism/mechanism reduced "substance to a corporeal entity, its activity to causal determinism, and each single thing to fleeting appearances in a system dominated by material necessity."[1]

Cudworth had the idea of a general plastic nature of the world, containing natural laws to keep all of nature, inert and vital in orderly motion, and particular plastic natures in particular entities, which serve as 'Inward Principles' of growth and motion, but ascribes it to the Platonic tradition:

The Platonists seem to affirm both these together, namely that there is a Plastick Nature lodged in all particular Souls of Animals, Brutes, and Men, and also that there is a Plastick or Spermatick Principle of the whole Universe distinct from the Higher Mundane Soul, though subordinate to it.(Cudworth, TIS, p. 165)[4]

Further, Cudsworth's plastic principle was also a functional polarity. As he wrote:

The Seminary Reason or Plastick Nature of the Universe opposing the Parts to one another and making them severally Indigent, produces by that means War and Contention. And therefore though it be One, yet notwithstanding it consists of Different and Contrary things. For there being Hostility in its Parts, it is nevertheless Friendly and Agreeable in the Whole; after the same manner as in a Dramatick Poem, Clashings and Contentions are reconciled into one Harmony. And therefore the Seminary or Plastick Nature of the World, may fitly be resembled to the Harmony of Disagreeing things.[5]

As another historian notes in conclusion, "Cudworth’s theory of plastic natures is offered as an alternative to the interpretation of all of nature as either governed by blind chance, or, on his understanding of the Malebranchean view, as micro-managed by God."[4]

Plastic Principle and mind[edit]

Cudworth's plastic principle also involves a theory of mind that is active, that is, God or the Supreme Mind is "the spermatic reason" which gives rise to individual mind and reason. Human mind can also create, and has access to spiritual or super-sensible 'Ideas' in the Platonic sense.[2] Cudworth challenged Hobbesian determinism in arguing that will is not distinct from reason, but a power to act that is internal, and therefore, the voluntary will function involves self-determination, not external compulsion, though we have the power to act either in accordance with God's will or not. Cudworth's 'hegemonikon' (taken from Stoicism) is a function within the soul that combines the higher functions of the soul (voluntary will and reason) on the one hand with the lower animal functions (instinct), and also constitutes the whole person, thus bridging the Cartesian dualism of body and soul or psyche and soma. This idea provided the basis for a concept of self-awareness and identity of an individual that is self-directed and autonomous, an idea that anticipates John Locke.

Influence on Locke[edit]

Locke examined how man came to knowledge via stimulus (rather than seeing ideas as inherent), which approach led to his idea of the 'thinking' mind, which is both receptive and pro-active. The first involves receiving sensations ('simple ideas') and the second by reflection – "observation of its own inner operations" (inner sense which leads to complex ideas), with the second activity acting upon the first. Thought is set in motion by outer stimuli which 'simple ideas' are taken up by the mind's self-activity, an "active power" such that the outer world can only be real-ized as action (natural cause) by the activity of consciousness. Locke also took the issue of life as lying not in substance but in the capacity of the self for consciousness, to be able to organize (associate) disparate events, that is to participate life by means of the sense experiences, which have the capacity to produce every kind of experience in consciousness. These ideas of Locke were taken over by Fichte and influenced German Romantic science and medicine. (See Romantic medicine and Brunonian system of medicine). Thomas Reid and his "Common Sense" philosophy, was also influenced by Cudworth, taking his influence into the Scottish Enlightenment.[2]

Berkeley later developed the idea of a plastic life principle with his idea of an 'aether' or 'aetherial medium' that causes 'vibrations' that animate all living beings. For Berkeley, it is the very nature of this medium that generates the 'attractions' of entities to each other.

The refraction of light is also thought to proceed from the different density and elastic force of this æthereal medium in different places. The vibrations of this medium, alternately concurring with or obstructing the motions of the rays of light, are supposed to produce the fits of easy reflection and transmission. Light by the vibrations of this medium is thought to communicate heat to bodies. Animal motion and sensation are also accounted for by the vibrating motions of this æthereal medium, propagated through the solid capillaments of the nerves. In a word, all the phenomena and properties of bodies that were before attributed to attraction, upon later thoughts seem ascribed to this æther, together with the various attractions themselves. (Berkeley V 107–8)[5]

Berkeley meant this 'aether' to supplant Newton's gravity as the cause of motion (neither seeing the polarity involved between two forces, as Cudworth had in his plastic principle). However, in Berkeley's conception, aether is both the movement of spirit and the motion of nature.

Both Cudworth's views and those of Berkeley were taken up by Coleridge in his metaphor of the eolian harp in his 'Effusion XXXV' as one commentator noted: "what we see in the first manuscript is the articulation of Cudworth’s principle of plastic nature, which is then transformed in the published version into a Berkeleyan expression of the causal agency of motion performed by God’s immanent activity."[5]

Cudworth's idea of the plastic principle and that of mind will also be taken up in a new way in the idea of emergent evolution.


  1. ^ a b c d Giglioni, Guido (2008/2). "The cosmoplastic system of the universe: Ralph Cudworth on Stoic naturalism". Revue d'histoire des sciences. Tome 61: 313–331. Check date values in: |year= (help)
  2. ^ a b c Stanford U. Encyc. of Philosophy. "The Cambridge Platonists". Retrieved 1 August 2012.
  3. ^ "Ralph Cudworth". Encyclopædia Britannica. 1902. Retrieved 1 August 2012.
  4. ^ a b Smith, Justin E. H. "The Leibnizian Organism Between Cudworth's Plastic Natures and Locke's Thinking Matter" (PDF). Concordia University, Montreal. Retrieved 1 August 2012.
  5. ^ a b c Raiger, Michael (Winter 2002). "The Intellectual Breeze, the Corporeality of Thought, and the Eolian Harp". Coleridge Bulletin. New Series (20): 76–84. Retrieved 1 August 2012.