...[Ralph] Cudworth [, the 17th century Cambridge Platonist] regarded all material individual things as mutable. Knowledge is not of such things. Knowledge is the active apprehension of that which has necessary identity with itself.
As we approach [any] particular triangle, its bluntness and its irregularity become
marked, we discover in it but a feeble resemblance to our intelligible idea...If all triangles were first from sense, we should possess no standard of perfection...There is no numerical relation impressed by sense. On the contrary, the intelligible idea of a triangle is peculiarly susceptible to computation...The mind...can understand a
triangle in general without determining the particular species.
Cudworth now enters into argument, more extensively than heretofore, to establish that the activity of outward objects has nothing of efficiency in the creation of rational ideas, even in reference to those individual things, color, sound, and light. We have
not a satisfactory comprehension of those things which make the strongest impression upon our senses. Mind asks even concerning the nature of color, sound, and light. It desires to conquer these most clear sense-perceptions by some of its own conceptions. If sense is not knowledge, then that which is derivative must be more obscure. If knowledge were
derivative from sense, it would be the weaker perception. Since the contrary is the case, the mind must exert active power upon that which is passively received. Besides sensible ideas there must be intelligible ideas, the product of the self-activity of mind, to understand the significance of the sensibles.
Sense, then, is simply the ectypal impress of the archetypal mind upon the finite mind, supplied as an occasion from which the finite mind by self-activity may become a perfect echo [or recollection] of the Perfect. "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect," is man's noble privilege. But to become so, man, by his own free activity, must put himself in harmony with God, with the universal brotherhood of humanity, and with himself.
A commonwealth is a creation of the mind. Even the most mechanical or outward relations owe their existence to the active principle of intelligence; e.g., a house is [i.e., exists], in the fact that it expresses a notion of fitness for its end, that it is a proper residence for man in the performance of the functions of his life. The true form of an animal, also, we do not derive from sense; we get no notion of a totum from sense.
We do not discard sense; it has its place. What we object to is, that it be made arbitrarily to change place with intellect. There is rather a nature or wisdom in all artificial things, and artifice in all natural things. Sense, however, touches as mind sees, and sees as mind comprehends the whole. Corporeal objects, therefore, are [i.e., exist] only as they include these relative conceptions of the mind's creation. If this is the case in reference to relative essences, much more is it true of goodness, justice, etc., that are modes of intelligent beings, or express relations between them.
So...in the contemplation of the material universe or cosmos, the mind has occasion to conceive that this is the passive impress or stamp of wisdom, and thus excites within itself the conception of the divine Wisdom. When it considers, further, that not only for the beauty [or elegance] of the whole, but also for the good of every living part, each part is contrived, the conception of goodness and that of morality are excited. When goodness and morality are regarded as modes of intelligent Being, we gain the idea of God as perfect. Sense could not have heard the least word concerning a Creator from the tumult of the numerous visible characters impressed upon it; but mind finds in sense an occasion to re-echo [or recollect] the name[, "Father"].
- The Cambridge Platonist Research Group
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- The Philosophy of Ralph Cudworth, by Charles E. Lowrey