Access to the full content is only available to members of institutions that have purchased access. If you belong to such an institution, please log in or find out more about how to order.



Cudworth, Ralph (1617–88)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA023-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved November 28, 2021, from

Article Summary

Ralph Cudworth was the leading philosopher of the group known as the Cambridge Platonists. In his lifetime he published only one work of philosophy, his True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678). This was intended as the first of a series of three volumes dealing with the general topic of liberty and necessity. Two further parts of this project were published posthumously, from the papers he left when he died: A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality (1731) and A Treatise of Freewill (1838).

Cudworth’s so-called Cambridge Platonism is broadly Neoplatonic, but he was receptive to other currents of thought, both ancient and modern. In philosophy he was an antideterminist who strove to defend theism in rational terms, and to establish the certainty of knowledge and the existence of unchangeable moral principles in the face of the challenge of Hobbes and Spinoza. He admired and borrowed from Descartes, but also criticized aspects of Cartesianism.

Cudworth’s starting point is his fundamental belief in the existence of God, conceived as a fully perfect being, infinitely powerful, wise and good. A major part of his True Intellectual System is taken up with the demonstration of the existence of God, largely through consensus gentium (universal consent) arguments and the argument from design. The intellect behind his ‘intellectual system’ is the divine understanding. Mind is antecedent to the world, which is intelligible by virtue of the fact that it bears the stamp of its wise creator. The human mind is capable of knowing the world since it participates in the wisdom of God, whence epistemological certainty derives. The created world is also the best possible world, although not bound by necessity. A central element of Cudworth’s philosophy is his defence of the freedom of will – a meaningful system of morals would be impossible without this freedom. Natural justice and morality are founded in the goodness and justice of God rather than in an arbitrary divine will. The principles of virtue and goodness, like the elements of truth, exist independently of human beings. A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality contains the most fully worked-out epistemology of any of the Cambridge Platonists and constitutes the most important statement of innate-idea epistemology by any British philosopher of the seventeenth century.

Citing this article:
Hutton, Sarah. Cudworth, Ralph (1617–88), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA023-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

Related Searches


Related Articles