The Cudworth, Shaftesbury, Herder, Kant, Hegel, Manabou Lineage of ‘Plastic Nature’

Thomas Wormald (University of Western Ontario)


Commencing with plasticity in Catherine Malabou, and her Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity ([2009] 2012), Wormald will show the value and viability of the philosophical  concept of ‘plasticity’ in contemporary thought. He will then describe Malabou’s genealogy of the concept to Hegel, who found it in Goethe. Wormald shows the clear derivation of ‘plasticity’ back to the Cambridge Platonists (which will be obvious to followers of this project). He then traces the German reception of the concept to J. G. Herder, whose Plastik: Einege Wahrnehmungen über Form und Gestalt (Riga, 1778), and Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menscheit (Riga and Leipzig, 1784–91) relied on the concept as developed by Shaftesbury. From Herder it was received by Kant and passed on to the Jena philosophers, Fichte, Schelling, and others. It can then be argued that the Cambridge Platonists’ idea of ‘plastic nature’  constituted a crucially formative yet unacknowledged conceptual infrastructure for German aesthetics and Naturphilosophie. The Jena philosophers owed to the Cambridge Platonists the idea of a nature that is plastic, that shapes itself independently of an ‘I’ or a ‘subject’ (contra Kant and Fichte), and which exceeds mere mechanism (contra the Hobbesian and Lockean schools), to describe a dynamic nature that has some form agency and thus its own kind of ‘history’. Thus plastic nature is essentially one of the defining motifs of philosophers like Herder, Schelling, and so on. This insight does not emerge ex nihilio but can be attributed to the influence of the Cudworth-Shaftesbury line of thinking.

Plastic Nature from Cudworth to Shaftesbury and Germany
The overarching aspiration of this contribution is to re-center the decisive role of Cambridge Platonist philosophy in the history of the development of eighteenth-century German thought, and, further, to establish that contemporary thought has an unacknowledged debt to Cambridge Platonism. While thinkers such as Spinoza and Leibniz have long been recognized as integral figures in the creative metamorphoses that occur in mid-to-late century German philosophy in aesthetics and Naturphilosophie, and subsequently, as decisive influences of and viable resources for post-Kantian continental thought, the legacy of Cambridge Platonism is neglected if not entirely occluded as a serious intellectual and theoretical inheritance in contemporary thought. To this end, this paper proposes an exploration of the connection of Ralph Cudworth’s concept of plastic nature and contemporary French philosopher Catherine Malabou’s notion of plasticity of which she uses as the conceptual fulcrum of a new materialism. Malabou extrapolates the concept of plasticity from Hegel, and attributes to him its development. While Malabou indicates that Hegel ultimately borrows and expands this concept from Goethe, she nonetheless does not pursue any further genealogical elaboration. There is, however, a deeper history that can be traced back to Cudworth. Cudworth’s idea of plastic nature is, in fact, the putative ‘embryo’ of what will become plasticity. This paper then will trace a kind of epigenesis of plastic nature and how it, in its mutations and modulations and different forms, ends up influencing Hegel in the late-eighteenth century. The genealogical line, in brief, runs from Cudworth to Shaftesbury and then the transmission of their thought in mid-to-late century Germany, principally through Herder. While Shaftesbury’s thought influences numerous important figures—Lessing and Mendelssohn, Moritz and Wieland, Kant and Schelling—it is Herder who recommends Shaftesbury to Goethe, allowing us to make the critical connection to Hegel who, Malabou says, takes the concept of plasticity from Goethe.
Pursuing this interpretive trajectory allows us to make a few critical arguments. First, in connecting plastic nature to plasticity, and in filling out the genealogical line which in Malabou’s account only starts with Hegel, we demonstrate that ‘plastic nature’ is the conceptual kernel of plasticity and that Cambridge Platonism consequently exerts an insufficiently acknowledged influence on contemporary thought, and, more specifically and paradoxically, contemporary materialism. This shows the idealist plastic ‘life’ at the heart materialist thought. Second, by reconstructing the migration and development of plastic nature from Cudworth to Shaftesbury and their influence on figures like Herder and Goethe, we can re-center the pivotal, and, again, insufficiently acknowledged role that the idea of plastic nature, and, more broadly, Cambridge Platonist thought, plays in late-eighteenth century German thought. More than this, I would suggest that any account or understanding of this period without the centering of plastic nature and the influence of Cudworth and Shaftesbury is incomplete and deficient, if not distorted. To the already well-recognized figures such as Leibniz and Spinoza, we should add Shaftesbury, and the philosophical lineage of Cambridge Platonism, as the third dominant influence which leads to subsequent conceptions of nature as dynamic, immanent, organic, and self-forming, that is, plastic. It is only by incorporating the formative role of the idea of plastic nature that the decisively aesthetic orientation various of late eighteenth-century German movements—Romanticism, Naturphilosophies, Idealism—is ultimately legible. To begin, we will briefly outline Malabou’s idea of plasticity and how it operates as the basis of her materialism, highlighting its central components, before moving backwards to examine Cudworth’s idea of plastic nature and reconstructing its development through Shaftesbury and its subsequent migration to Germany and influence on Herder and Goethe.
Malabou’s Plastic Materialism
In recent years the idea of plasticity has ascended to philosophical prominence through the work of contemporary French philosopher Catherine Malabou. Beginning with her The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality, Dialectic (1996; 2004), Malabou has successively developed plasticity as the conceptual and imaginative metabolic center of her ongoing attempt to elaborate a new materialist philosophy that is at once philosophical, biological, and political. Expressed in its simplest form, plasticity means at once, simply, the capacity to both give and receive form. Plasticity expresses at once something active or formative—in the sense of being a plastic artist like a sculptor—and passive or formable—in the sense of being like clay, the pliable or formable material on which the plastic artist works. From this seemingly modest kernel, Malabou has generated profoundly transformative re-interpretations of canonical thinkers like Hegel, Heidegger, and Kant, opened stimulating dialogues within diverse fields such as gender studies, psychoanalysis, and neuroscience, and repeatedly petitioned for renewed engagements between the continental tradition and the life sciences in works such as What Should We Do with Our Brain?—an entreaty to take seriously the philosophical and political possibilities revealed by neuroplasticity—and Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality, an exploration on the role of the biological theory of epigenesis in Kant’s conception of reason and the transcendental.
While Malabou originally discovers this idea in the margins of Hegelian thought, she amplifies it further, making it the basis of a wider ontology that integrates the insights of contemporary biology—such as neuroscience and epigenetics—for a materialist philosophy grounded in a cognizance of our material shaping of one another and the imperative to see all forms of life as engaged in practices and experiments of self-formation that should be preserved or guarded. Malabou’s philosophy of plasticity is representative of a wider trend in contemporary theory broadly characterized as new materialism, a philosophical and theoretical denomination describing perspectives that share the basic commitment to refute what are purportedly long-held reductive conceptions of matter as mechanistic, passive, and inert in favor of reconceptualizing matter as vital, active, and dynamic. It is precisely this “focus on activity” and “notions of dynamism, self-transformation, plasticity” which these new materialisms take, rightly or not, to be new. Materialism, for Malabou,
is the name for the nontranscendental status of form in general. Matter is what forms itself in producing the conditions of possibility of this formation itself. Any transcendental instance necessarily finds itself in a position of exteriority in relation to that which it organizes. By its nature, the condition of possibility is other than what it makes possible. Materialism affirms the opposite: the absence of any outside of the process of formation. Matter’s self-formation and self-information is then systematically nontranscendental.”
Plasticity is particularly apt to characterize Malabou’s vision of materialism then because of its unique ability to conceptually render the nature of something that is self-forming, both passive and active, relying on no exterior or transcendent source to give it shape or form. The crux of Malabou’s thinking resides in the conviction that any material or symbolic form—whether the ‘form’ is a brain or an organism, a self or collective—is ultimately self-forming and not subject or determined by a source transcendent or external to it. Perhaps we could say that the animating core of her thought is a staunch animus and rigorous dismissal of any and all (pre)determinisms. A cursory glance at the titles of her principal works reveals this thread of her theoretical preoccupations: The Future of Hegel, The Heidegger Change, What Should We Do with Our Brain? Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality. There is an emphasis on the future because it is not determined, and because it is not determined, the various forms of our life are things that we can change, that there is something for us to do—forms are not invented ‘before tomorrow,’ and therefore, they are not preformed but must be created. Against the idea that forms of life can be reduced to any kind of (pre)determinism—whether this is material or symbolic, genetic or cultural—Malabou finds that contemporary biology is particularly fruitful for offering conceptual resources to think a notion of plastic materiality that sees “life as possessing its own modes of self-transformation, self-organization, and self-directedness” and to think of life as being immanently sufficient to give shape or form to itself without the aid of or recourse to any exterior, “transcendental instance” which would organize, direct, and, ultimately, determine it. We do not, Malabou suggests, “need to affirm the existence of a beyond or an outside of the real to confer meaning to reality, as if a prior structure, necessarily nonmaterial, was requested to give sense to materiality itself.” Life is immanently sufficient to shape or form itself, there is a “transformative tendency internal to materiality, a “self-transformative tendency of life, ” that thereby precludes the need of any external or transcendental source to guide or command it. This materialism of plasticity that Malabou espouses then opposes all forms of mechanism and determinism consisting in the vision of forms of life as forming themselves “[w]ithout program, plan, determinism, schedule, design, or preschematization,” unbridled by any predeterminism or preformation that would “necessarily [orient] and [determine] every” development through means of “an internal tension toward a telos.” Malabou wishes to conceive matter as its own self-forming architect, capable of giving form to itself, a form which it itself produces that is not determined by something over and above it. If one of the organizing metaphors of Malabou’s is that of sculpture, what she envisages are self-sculpting sculptures or “statues” that are “alive,” plastic forms shaping themselves in constant mutual engagement with the world and others.
‘Plastic’ Prior to Hegel?
One of the essential pillars of Malabou’s account of plasticity is that she finds and extrapolates this concept from Hegel. “…The concept of plasticity,” Malabou writes, was “discovered for the first time in the preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit…discovered in the heart of Hegelian philosophy…” The second claim is that, according to Malabou, Hegel novelly enlarges plasticity’s scope of application by displacing it from its originary domain, amplifying and expanding it from a previous strictly aesthetic meaning to having a more comprehensive philosophical, ontological, or metaphysical operation and sense. Hegel is the first philosopher to authorize, elevate, and substantialize plasticity, to “accord it the value of a concept.” That is, we could say, where it operates philosophically or does some kind of ontological work. Malabou’s etymological argument goes that the substantive ‘plasticity’ enters the English, French (plasticité), and German (Plastizität) languages in the eighteenth-century, developing closely from two existing related words that shared the same root of the Greek plassein, meaning to model or to mold: the substantive ‘plastics’ (die Plastik), and the adjective ‘plastic’ (plastisch). The extant use of ‘plastics’ and ‘plastic’ were deployed, Malabou attests, in the “native land” or “original domain” of plasticity, “the field of the art,” with plastic arts characterizing “the art of ‘modelling’, and, in the first instance, the art of sculpture” while generally referring to or being inclusive of those arts “whose central aim is the articulation and development of forms” such as “architecture, drawing and painting.” According to Malabou, Hegel “rips [plasticity] away from” these traditional “strict aesthetic ties (or sculptural ties, to be precise), definitively conferring the metaphysical dignity of an essential characteristic of subjectivity upon it.” Specifically, Malabou claims that Hegel ontologizes the formative process of plastic ideal of Greek sculpture as the comprehensive modality of formation as such in the system, operating across registers that are aesthetic, ethical, political, and biological. A subject is not merely a passive recipient of predicates—like clay receiving shape from a sculptor—but gives form or shape to itself.
While Malabou’s idea of plasticity has been widely circulated and engaged with, there has been scant interest to scrutinize her claim that Hegel invents this concept or examine if there is any relevant conceptual prehistory. Is it true that prior to Hegel ‘plastics’ and ‘plasticity’ never had an ontological or philosophical meaning, or, operated in a conceptual register that exceeded aesthetics? And, if this is not true, that plastics has operated in a philosophically or ontologically significant way prior to Hegel, what is the relation, if any, between this previous use and plasticity in Hegel? Malabou herself provides a partial answer to the first question, revealing that, while Hegel is the first to substantially invest plasticity with a philosophical meaning by applying the aesthetic to the formation of subjectivity, Hegel himself borrows this term from Goethe. Hegel himself confirms the importance of Goethe in a letter,
When I survey my intellectual development, I find you everywhere interwoven therein and might well call myself one of your sons; from you my inner life acquired nourishment and the strength to resist abstraction and found its just course by keeping your constructs [Gebilden] in sight as if they were beacons.
While a philosophically creative reading of Hegel, the claim that Hegel has the exclusive merit or propriety over the ontological application of the aesthetic idea of plastic arts, requires some qualification and revision. The fact of the matter is that ‘plastic’ has a long history, one which has, since its inception, evinced the intertwining of the aesthetic, biological, and ontological. From Greek antiquity in Galen, through to the Latin-Arabic world of Avicenna and Averroes, to Ficino and Leoniceno and the Italian Renaissance, through figures like Jacob Shhegk, Daniel Sennert, and William Harvey, the idea of a plastic force in nature has itself changed shape or form many times being called, variously, dunamis diaplastike, virtus formativa, vis conformans, and vis plastica. However, this idea gains a unique kind of conceptual consistency in the seventeenth century in the work of Ralph Cudworth and the idea of plastic nature. The question is what does the concept of plastic nature have to do with plasticity, if anything at all, and, second, if there is a meaningful connection between plastic nature and plasticity, how do we chart a path from Cudworth to Hegel? Let us first assess the concept of plastic nature, and then determine how it arrives in Hegel, becoming the plasticity that Malabou uses as the key notion in the elaboration of her contemporary materialist philosophy.
Cudworth’s ‘Plastic Nature’
Advocates of the previously described new materialism will be surprised to learn that they have an unlikely predecessor and partial ally in the figure of Cudworth. Cudworth is one of our earliest and insightful modern theorists of materialism and one of the staunchest critics of determinism in both material and theological forms. While mostly neglected or not taken seriously by all but scholars and specialists of early modern British thought, Cudworth’s theoretical analytics in True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678), though shrouded by unwieldy presentation, arguably merit the attention of and to be read as closely as much more classical and heralded modern philosophical works such as the Meditations, the Ethics, and the Leviathan.
Cudworth develops the concept of plastic nature in True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678) in his now infamous “Digression on Plastic Nature,” a digression which has paradoxically become one of his central and definitive philosophical contributions. Stemming from a dissatisfaction from what he considered to be overly mechanical and deterministic explanations of the natural world that excised vitality from nature, Cudworth seeks to forge a middle way between ontological conceptions of nature that either ascribe the formation of the world entirely to matter—whether this matter is ‘passive’ and fortuitously moved as in Epicurean physics, represented in Cudworth’s time by Hobbes, or whether this matter is conceived hylozoically, a term Cudworth invents, being ‘active’ in the sense that it is self-moving or self-forming —or entirely to God. The problem each materialism shares is that they omit a transcendent creator—Epicurean materialism eschews a creator and any active or formative principle all together, ascribing everything to chance or ‘fortuitous mechanism,’ thereby denying any “Final and Intending Causality in Nature” or a divine order and purpose governing the world, while the active materialism of hylozoism rightly admits a vital principle, but eschews a transcendent creator by ascribing this formative or “Self-active power” power to matter itself. According to Cudworth, this materialism slightly improves on the former atomistic materialism insofar as it admits the existence of life and vitality in the world, a ‘self-active’ or ‘plastic power,’ but it errs in its omission of a transcendent creator, “adulterat[ing] the notion of matter” by “…blending and confounding it with life,” their “Fundamental Error” being a belief in the “Life of Matter.” While Cudworth’s opposition to atheistic materialisms is hardly unsurprising, Cudworth found equally objectionable predominant ‘theistic’ explanations for natural generation, whether this was of the variety that saw God designing a mechanical universe which he monitored at a distance (say, in Descartes) or a stronger version of voluntarism that sees God everything every thing in Nature should be done Immediately by God himself.” This idea is as untenable as the notion that the world is the result of pure chance or fortuitous mechanism as it ultimately compromises God’s omnipotence. First, if God is so powerful, so much exertion, effort, and attention to assure the functioning of mundane and minute operations should be unnecessary. Second, that God “should…set his own Hand, as it were to every Work, and immediately do all the Meanest and Triflingest things himself Drudgingly, without making use of any Inferior and Subordinate Instruments” is indecorous, demeaning or debasing God to imply that God should “condescend to do all the meanest Offices himself.” Further, the formation of living beings “would seem to be but a Vain and Idle Pomp, or a Trifling Formality, if the Agent were omnipotent,” and this leaves the both the gradual development of organic beings and the “Errors and Bungles” that populate nature without adequate explanation. While one would consider Epicurean materialism and theological voluntarism to be antimonious positions, Cudworth shows that they are actually, in their implications, speculatively identical in that, whether the world is determined immediately by God or by chance, both deprive nature of its vitality. Cudworth argues that this kind of thinking, whether purely material or theological mechanism, in language that anticipates Schelling’s criticism of thinkers like Descartes, Fichte and Kant who effectively, according to Schelling, do away with or murder nature, depriving it of a living ground, reduces the “whole World” to “…nothing else, but a mere Heap of Dust, Fortuitously agitated…a Dead Cadaverous thing, that hath no…Vitality acting in it…” To construe life in this fashion is to think “a kind of Dead and Wooden World, as it were a Carved Statue, that hath nothing…Vital…” To each of the materialist and theological positions Cudworth mounts each a philosophical objection—how does the random interaction of atoms generate such a high degree of order—an admittedly anemic, theological objection—this perspective omits God, therefore it is wrong—and a resonant moral objection: the idea of pure mechanism, with no other organizing catalyst other than chance or fortuity, evacuates the world of the very life and complexity that it everywhere appears to teem with. Cudworth then rejected that nature was fortuitously formed by chance (Epicureanism, Hobbes), that it was formed by self-forming matter (Hylozoism), or that it was a mechanical creation of God, whether preestablished and superintended from a distance or formed and maintained directly by God’s hand (variations of voluntarism such as Descartes, Malebranche, and Leibniz). To ameliorate this impasse, Cudworth invokes the notion of plastic nature.
In plastic nature, Cudworth resolves this impasse by effectively providing a kind of proto-Hegelian Aufhebung that both synthesizes the partial ‘truths’ and compensates for the faults he identifies in both material and theological positions. It is principally through the aesthetic metaphors of the architect and artisan that Cudworth makes his concept of plastic nature legible—God is the head, and plastic nature the ‘hands.’ Cudworth writes: “Nature may be called the…Manuary Opificer that Acts subserviently under the Architectonical Art and Wisdom of the Divine Understanding.” God is “Supreme Architect and Master-builder of the World” and plastic nature is the “Immediate Workman and Operator.” This ‘workman’ or ‘operator’ is to be conceived as “Art itself, acting immediately on the Matter, as an Inward Principle,” as if the “Art of the Shipwright, were in the Timber it self…the Mind of the Architect…transfused into the Stones, Bricks and Mortar.” Plastic nature is not “Art Acting…from without and at a distance but Immediately upon the thing it self which is Formed by it.” Similar to Kant’s description later in the third Critique, Cudworth does not want us to conceive of an artist “outside” of nature, but rather immanent to nature that shapes, forms, or “organizes itself.” Cudworth then articulates an ontological economy of production: God provides an ideal design and blueprint, plastic nature works to materialize it. However, imperatively, plastic nature only follows directives and orders and never supplies its own. Plastic nature “does Do without Knowing the Reason of what it Doth.” This, Cudworth writes, explains the possible “Imperfections and Defects” of the art of plastic nature: that “though it Act Artificially for the Sake of Ends…it self doth neither Intend those Ends, nor Understand the Reason of that it doth.” Nature, Cudworth observes, “is not Master of that Consummate Art and Wisdom according to which it acts, but only a Servant to it, and a Drudging Executioner of the Dictates of it.” In this manner, plastic nature is ‘alive’ or active enough that it can shape and form, but it is nonetheless passive in that it is merely executing the design or plan of a supervising architect, God. Plastic nature “…act[s] for the sake of those Ends, that are not intended by it self, but some Higher Being,” like a “Saw or Hatchet in the hand of the Architect or Mechanick doth…” Essentially, plastic nature operates as an intermediary force between matter and God. It is more than matter because it is active—it shapes or forms the world—but it is passive, so it is like matter, in that it is subordinate to God, but it only shapes or forms according to God’s plan. By conceptualizing plastic nature as a formative or shaping power both distinct from God and matter but immanent to matter that forms or shapes the world according to and on God’s behalf, Cudworth believes he has sufficiently accounted for the fact that nature is granted some kind of life—that it exceeds mechanism or dead materialism in that it is formative, plastic, self-shaping—while avoiding the pitfalls of hylozoism by stipulating that while it is formative it is nonetheless passive or subordinate and teleologically oriented in that it follows dictates or orders supplied by a transcendent origin or mind. This consequently satisfies Cudworth’s theological problem as God obtains an alibi as nature is conceived as being minimally autonomous, being able to act independently of God enough to shoulder responsibility for ‘errors and bungles’ that occur in nature and the world. Plastic nature is conceived ideally as a mimetic or reproductive formative power—formative but formed, plastic nature exercises their creative power to follow the instructions and design the superintending architect of God.
In plastic nature, Cudworth develops ideas that prove historically significant, if not paradigmatic, for future thought: nature as aesthetic, independent but teleologically oriented, and self-forming. Further, in rebutting mechanistic or reductive materialism evacuated of any living or vital principle, Cudworth uncannily resonates with consequent developments in German thought and more recent contemporary sensibilities. The animating thrust of Cudworth’s contribution to natural philosophy appears profoundly prescient: that is, the contention that any account of the natural world cannot entirely deprive nature of vitality or life, that is, be entirely mechanistic and founded on mere chance, and, secondarily, that, for any account of the world to be intelligible, we must grant nature a minimal amount of autonomy. Cudworth’s insistence that there must be more to the natural or material world than mere-matter, that there must be life or something spiritual to nature, resonate through contemporary petitions to re-enchant nature or to see nature as vital and agentive, with its own life. Beyond the notions of nature conceived as aesthetic, vital, and as self-forming, Cudworth arguably formulates in rudiment the conceptual infrastructure, in ways that are fundamentally unaltered in the next century, of the problems of teleology and biological generation in eighteenth-century debates of preformationism, spontaneous generation, and epigenesis. Cudworth’s expression of the need to think a formative or plastic force in nature that ‘does but does not know,’ that acts for the sake of ends that it itself does not understand, that is not merely mechanical or divine, of nature that unconsciously pursues ‘conscious’ or ‘intelligent’ ends, these contorted formulations of the specific kind of nature that are necessary to intelligibly think life in ways that escape the pitfalls of both materialist and divine positions are uncannily similar to the one’s Kant employs later on teleology, art, and the living being in the Critique of Judgment. And, in Cudworth’s critique of both mechanical and divine natural generation, we have prefigurations of what would later become critiques of preformationism and spontaneous generation: natural forms cannot be randomly produced by material causation, unfold a divinely predetermined seed, or be shaped directly or miraculously by a divine hand. Instead, we have to think of life as have its own formative force—it is more than mere matter, but not God—that is not predetermined but is teleologically oriented. In this manner, Cudworth arguably sketches the conceptual parameters of what will become a defense of the epigenesis of natural forms.
From Cudworth to Shaftesbury to Germany
Cudworth’s notion of plastic nature continues through Shaftesbury, obtaining a more refined and aesthetically pleasing form. In his canonical interpretation of Cudworth, J.A. Passmore contends that “[t]his much at least we can assert without qualification, that Shaftesbury was fundamentally a Cambridge Platonist.” While not quite as forcefully as Passmore, Michael Gill similarly observes that Cudworth and the Cambridge Platonists “so molded the general shape of Shaftesbury’s thought that it is fitting to think of his philosophy as a continuous outgrowth of Cambridge Platonism itself.” It is “Shaftesbury principally,” Cassirer writes, “who saves the Cambridge School from the fate of a learned curiosity and makes it a philosophic force in the centuries to come.”
Shaftesbury further develops Cudworth’s plastic nature, that is, nature as a plastic power or capacity that should be imagined as “Art itself, acting immediately on the Matter, as an Inward Principle.” Two interrelated features of plastic nature particularly inform and are emphasized in Shaftesbury’s own development of this idea: first, the aesthetic notion of nature as plastic, as a self-forming ‘artist’ or agent, and, second, the connected aesthetic notion of plastic arts as consisting in the harmonious relation of parts and whole. The most influential aspect of Shaftesbury’s thought “‘lay in Shaftesbury’s concept of nature under the standpoint of artistic capability’” and his vision of an “artistically productive force” as immanent to every form of nature. While Shaftesbury “looks upon the world as a work of art,” Shaftesbury’s paradigm-shifting insight resides in the claim that the essence of aesthetic activity, and hence, nature, consists not in the product or the work—it “is not exhausted in any particular work, nor in the infinite profusion of its works”—but rather that “it manifests itself solely in the creating and forming process.” In Shaftesbury’s own powerfully felicitous phrase, “the beautifying, not the beautified, is the really beautiful.” Nature is not a collection of things, a product or a ‘dead form’—nature is not a ‘Dead Statue’—but, in Shaftesbury’s words, nature is a “form which forms,” or a forming form. To play off Cudworth’s phrase, nature must be understood ¬¬self-forming sculpture, not as a ‘Dead’ but as a living statue that is seen as self-shaping and self-forming. Through his own theory of forms in the Moralists, Shaftesbury then supplies his own modulation of Spinoza’s distinction between natura naturata and natura natarans, or, what Schelling will later characterize as nature as object (or product) and nature as subject (or productivity). As opposed to forms which are incapable of self-formation and must be shaped externally—what Shaftesbury calls dead forms, pure objects or products—nature itself has ‘inner form’: the capacity to shape or form is immanent or internal to nature itself. Nature itself is thus “in its deeper sense is not the sum total of created things but the creative power from which the form and order of the universe are derived.” The essence of nature is its capacity to give form, and moreover, give form to itself. In other words, the essence of nature is its plasticity. Thus, when Shaftesbury petitions us to follow nature or to look at nature as a model, he is enjoining us to see ourselves as self-forming artists, and that we should aspire to emulate the plasticity of nature itself.
One of the most powerful ways that Shaftesbury expresses his vision of nature as plastic is through the infamous declaration is that we should each become a “Second Maker, a just Prometheus under Jove,” allying the figure of Prometheus with that of the “sovereign artist or universal plastic nature.” Nature is analogized as a Promethean figure, a self-forming artist who exerts its creative capacities in a manner that is ‘just to Jove.’ We are ourselves “notable architects” who, like Prometheus or a sovereign artist, are capable of self-formation—we then should be like plastic nature and shape and form ourselves so that our individual self, like a microcosm of nature, “forms a whole, coherent and proportioned in itself, with due subjection and subordinacy of constituent parts.” Here, the critical modification Shaftesbury makes with respect to Cudworth’s plastic nature is that Shaftesbury explicitly solicits us to emulate it. The paradigmatic shift between Cudworth and Shaftesbury with respect to plastic nature is that Shaftesbury claims something that one could never imagine Cudworth deigning to: plastic nature is something not only to be celebrated, but actively emulated. One could scarcely imagine Cudworth rhapsodically encouraging his readers to become like that “Drudging Executioner,” hailing us to assume our work as servants and manual labourers mindlessly following the orders of God. This differs palpably from Shaftesbury’s many breathless exultations of an “O glorious nature! Supremely fair and sovereignly good!…O mighty nature! Wise substitute of Providence! Empowered creatress!” that he petitions us to emulate. Whereas Cudworth consistently asserts plastic nature’s as a lowly subordinate and subservient unconscious formative agent, Shaftesbury petitions us to be like that “universal plastic nature,” that is, to become conscious of ourselves as formative agents. Shaftesbury enjoins us to become a conscious plastic nature, to deliberately emulate the formative and productive plastic powers of nature to fashion ourselves and to recognize our role in shaping or forming the world as a formative agent contributing to its ongoing development. Whereas Cudworth’s plastic nature is a ‘manual labourer,’ a ‘drudging executioner,’ Shaftesbury’s plastic nature is much more venerably rendered as a poet and artist. Thus, “…the conception of Nature as a model for the creative artist of genius,” as a Promethean figure who shapes themselves as a plastic artist, that becomes so transformative for thinkers like Herder and Goethe, and major currents flowing through Germany in latter stages of the eighteenth-century “is traceable to Shaftesbury.”
The second important feature that Shaftesbury introduces is an incipient organicism developed from plastic aesthetics: like the plastic artwork, nature is a system of coordinating parts that work together to form a larger harmonious totality. The interrelation of microcosm and microcosm is, again, an integral part of Cudworth’s natural theology, but Shaftesbury renders it even more explicit. All art should express what Shaftesbury calls “plastic truth” which consists in “the proper or due subjection or subordination of parts to a whole,” where “particulars…yield to the general design and all things be subservient to that which is principal.” This is what the genuine artist achieves, and why “that sovereign artist or universal plastic nature” is our best aesthetic model because nature rightly “forms a whole, coherent and proportioned in itself, with due subjection and subordinacy of constituent parts.” For Shaftesbury, the virtues of proportion, harmony, and order are just as much natural and biological as they are aesthetic. The organic system of nature is tantamount to a living, self-forming plastic artwork. The natural world as a “mighty union” of which there are a numerous nested parts, a multitude of “private systems” which ultimately conspire to form “one universal system.” Just as individual or particular facets of a plastic work must be conceptualized not as isolated but as fundamentally related for the intelligibility of the total work, so to in nature we must constantly understand the interrelation of the individual and the whole; there is no creature that “could be understood to be absolute and complete in [themselves], without any real relation to anything in the universe besides.” In this way, “Shaftesbury prophetically anticipated the later recognition that the cosmos and every particular organism is a system, in which the parts are coordinated into a whole by the unity of purpose.’” Because of this unique character of Shaftesbury’s conceptualization of nature—as one natural system or whole comprised of interdependent and subserving parts—Shaftesbury can be considered “among the first important upholders of an organicist approach to the world.” Indeed, an “organic doctrine appears fully explicitly in Shaftesbury,” providing the guiding principle of “whole that precedes its parts and makes them possible.” The portrait of being that Shaftesbury offers is of a creative, organic nature, a nature conceived as an interdependent, living totality of forming forms which mutually shape and form one another. All forms are formed but forming, drawing their plastic possibility from a “single One,” that is a “mighty Genius,” a “Sole animating and inspiring power,” an “original soul, diffusive, vital in all, inspiriting the whole” in which they participate. Shaftesbury’ universe is a “living thing” comprised of coordinating and mutually constitutive self-forming or plastic beings; not a random ricocheting of atoms, nor that of a “machine run by an absentee machinic.”
From Cudworth and Shaftesbury to Germany
This conception of nature as aesthetic and self-forming, as dynamic, organic, and vital, in short, as plastic, is transmitted to Germany through both Cudworth and Shaftesbury’s work. Cudworth’s primary work migrates to Germany through the Latin translation of True Intellectual System of the Universe in 1733 by J.L. Mosheim, eventually finding its way onto Kant’s bookshelf and into the curriculum at Tubingen where Hegel, Schelling, and Hölderlin were students. While there have been some attempts to affirm a direct connection between Cudworth and Kant, most suggestions are somewhat reticent or diffidently made. However, we have previously adumbrated, there is perhaps a stronger case to be made that Cudworth’s influence on Kant is more significant and formative than traditionally thought. Beyond the evidence of having Cudworth’s book in his library, or the use of hylozoism in the Critique of Judgment, there are substantive grounds on which to build a compelling argument for more prominently centering Cudworth’s influence on Kant. There are striking similarities between Cudworth and Kant’s conceptual frameworks regarding nature: nature cannot be purely governed by chance or motive power, nor can it be governed or commanded immediately by God; rather, there must be some intermediate principle or conception of causality. This is because one cannot ascribe the formative power solely to nature alone—this again, would be hylozoism, a term that Cudworth himself invents—so we have to conceptualize nature as independent but subordinate to, that is, acting in accordance with some end or purpose that is given to it. Nature is teleological, but not self-determining. Nature is active or independent enough to shoulder responsibility for errors or bungles in terms of formation/generation but is passive because it nonetheless is trying to execute or follow ends, a telos, prescribed or ordained for it. Cudworth framing of the conceptual space is essentially unchanged in Kant’s own struggle to define the being that exhibits not motive power but their own formative power, albeit, a formative power that acts for the sake of ends or purposes that are already given or assigned. That is, to mix these philosophical registers, both Cudworth and Kant are concerned with intelligibly articulating how an immaterial plastic nature or formative power acts in ways that patently exceed and cannot be reduced to mechanism while still operating lawfully, functioning according to the dictates of the understanding or God. In closely reading Cudworth, it fails to be apparent how Kant’s vaunted formulation of the living being in Critique of Judgment appreciably differs from Cudworth’s own conceptual framework and conclusions regarding plastic nature. While readers have long expressed perplexity at the intrication of art and biological life in Kant’s Critique of Judgment, this only appears strange and inexplicable with Cudworth, Shaftesbury, and the philosophical legacy of Cambridge Platonist thought out of the frame. Another source of evidence of Cudworth’s direct influence is cited to be the adoption of the motto hen kai pan, or, “One-and-All,” by Lessing in his confession of Spinozism to Jacobi. While traditionally understood to be an expression of Spinozism, the phrase at the heart of the Pantheism Controversy purportedly derives not from Spinoza but can be attributed to Mosheim’s translation of Cudworth’s True Intellectual System—in which the phrase appears verbatim amidst discussions of pantheism—from which the phrase “entered the philosophical vocabulary and become[s] a fundamental metaphysical stance.” However, while the primary dissemination of Cudworth’s certainly contributed to the diffusion of his thought, the text over which Lessing and Jacobi meet to discuss is more potentially more instructive: Goethe’s Prometheus. While it has long been recognized that Goethe’s works on Prometheus were immensely influential, it is hardly emphasized that it is from Shaftesbury that this figure enters into German thought. Bringing Shaftesbury into the picture, who Herder says, writing to Jacobi, has his “own hen kai pan,” will allow us to give due recognition to both Shaftesbury and the idea of plastic nature’s integral role in constituting the profound creative metamorphoses in German thought that uniquely synthesized Spinoza, Leibniz, and Shaftesbury to develop a dynamic and creative philosophy grounded in an aesthetic, organic, and vital conception of nature and human existence.
While efforts can be made to track the direct influence of Cudworth on developments in German thought in the mid-to-late century, Shaftesbury presents a potentially more viable path as the main conduit of transmission for plastic nature, Cudworth, and Cambridge Platonism in Germany. The evidence for Shaftesbury’s importance to mid-to-late century German thought is ample and overwhelming, with “hardly any philosophy or poet of any standing in the movements of Enlightenment, Sturm and Drang and early Romanticism who did not react in one way or another to Shaftesbury’s work.” Heralded as a “prophet” of Romanticism, there is an “unmistakable line” that runs straight through the eighteenth-century” from “Shaftesbury to Romanticism as a whole.” Indeed, Shaftesbury’s injunction that we each become our own “Second Makers,” “self-improving Artists,” and “the architect[s]” of our own “life and fortune,” epitomizes the ‘romantic imperative’ that one should approach one’s life and the world as a work of art. In fact, this might be said to be Shaftesbury’s cardinal contribution to modern thought. Shaftesbury’s major works were circulating in Germany already by the mid-century, J.J. Spalding having translated Shaftesbury’s central pieces the Moralists in 1745 and the Inquiry in 1747, while Hamann finished a translation of the Characteristics in its entirety in 1755. As early as 1754, Lessing and Mendelssohn, in their anonymous pamphlet Pope, A Metaphysician!: An Anonymous Pamphlet in Defense of Leibniz, were celebrating Shaftesbury as a philosophical equal of Leibniz. He is an integral figure for both Christoph Wieland and Karl Phillip Moritz’s aesthetics, and historians such as Dilthey, Cassirer, Berlin and Beiser each single out Shaftesbury’s priority as an influence on a luminous coterie of names such as Hamann, Herder, Moser, and Jacobi, Lessing, Goethe, Kant, Moritz, Schiller, and Schelling. Shaftesbury was recognized and celebrated by Leibniz, and almost “universally revered” by all significant figures of the time. Calling him the ‘beloved Plato of Europe,’ Herder himself writes that Shaftesbury, ‘this virtuoso of humanity,’ had a profound influence on the best minds of his century. Indeed, as one commentator observes, “[t]he roster of those who were influenced by Shaftesbury’s philosophy in word and in spirit reads like a list of the literary and philosophic greats of the Enlightenment.” The most important figure for tracking Shaftesbury’s impact, however, is Herder, as it is Herder who is perhaps one of Shaftesbury’s most vocal advocates and it is Herder who introduces Shaftesbury to Goethe.
Shaftesbury’s influence on Herder was pervasive and persistent. Hamann introduces Herder to Shaftesbury in 1767, with Shaftesbury appearing that year in the “Fragments on Recent German Literature” and being defended by Herder in 1770 correspondences. Herder included a poetic translation of the Moralists in the second edition of God: Some Conversations, specifically the section known as the ‘Hymn to Nature,’ as well as appending another in the third collection of his Letters for the Advancement of Humanity (1794). Herder hails Shaftesbury as one of his central influences, citing him as his ‘favourite companion’ and naming Shaftesbury as a philosophical peer of Spinoza and Leibniz. Herder’s yearning for a philosophical framework adequate to this unique vision of nature alchemized in an inspired synthesis of Spinoza, Leibniz, and Shaftesbury. When Herder’s son approached him for counsel as to how he should best learn the philosophy of Spinoza and Leibniz, Herder responded that Shaftesbury was “the author who contained the Spinoza-Leibniz philosophy in the most beautiful and select form.” For Herder, Shaftesbury’s thought distills and represents in best summary form what Herder saw as the core truths of Spinoza and Leibniz’s philosophy.
These core truths are Spinoza’s famed stipulation of the identity of God and being—the idea of pantheistic immanence—and Leibniz’s notions of dynamic force, individuality, and plurality. This synthesizing of Leibniz and Spinoza represents one of the most generative and profound hallmarks of this moment in German thought: the suffocating determinism of Spinoza’s immanent monism is alleviated by the introduction of Leibnizian principles of dynamism, individuality, and plurality. However, this traditional account seemingly elides the fact that while Leibniz certainly provides a resource to dynamically infuse Spinoza, the two thinkers still nonetheless both espouse at bottom two kinds of geometrically indebted rationalisms. The pathos or affect that perfuses the work of late eighteenth-century German thought is inexplicable if the sole reference points are the work of Spinoza and Leibniz: how do vital and aesthetic philosophies of nature emerge from the affective aridity of rationalism? Herder himself admits as much, stating that Leibniz ultimately spoke to his head, proclaiming “Leibniz, Leibniz! Where is thy spirit?” So while integrating Leibniz into Spinoza’s mechanical system dynamized it, the system remained to be vivified as such. This is the critical role that Shaftesbury, plastic nature, and the legacy of Cambridge Platonism play.
As one commentator pithily renders it, “[i]f Leibniz spoke to Herder’s head, Shaftesbury spoke to his heart” and instilled in him “an appreciation of the importance of the aesthetic.” While appealing to different aspects of Herder’s sensibilities, Leibniz’s and Shaftesbury’s thought dovetails in significant respects, with Leibniz himself saying that Shaftesbury’s Moralists, composed in 1709, contained almost “all” of his Theodicy (1710). Leibniz reflects on their shared thematics, writing of the Moralists:
…[t]he universe all of one piece, its beauty, its universal harmony, the disappearance of real evil, especially in relation to the whole, the unity of true substances, and the great unity of the supreme substance of which all other things are merely emanations and imitations are here put in the most beautiful daylight.
Moreover, while Shaftesbury and Spinoza mutually affirm a one-and-all, it is, as Dilthey argues, not Spinoza’s “rationalist-mechanist” pantheism but Shaftesbury’s uniquely “aesthetic-vitalist” vision that provides the critical affective stimulus that energizes the imagination of the late eighteenth century and provides it with its aesthetic, creative, and vital inflection. John Zammito corroborates, observing that it is this “‘new conception’ of nature articulated by Shaftesbury that proves to be ‘the decisive stimulus to the later pantheism of Goethe and Herder,” and, Cassirer, writing earlier, concurs, stating that Shaftesbury is the fundament of a “powerful current of new feeling for nature” and it is “Shaftesbury’s apostrophes to nature” which “exert a decisive influence,” giving expression to those fundamental forces which shaped the philosophy of nature of Herder and the young Goethe.” This organic, aesthetic conception of nature is the lens through which Herder ultimately re-interprets and re-shapes the philosophies of Spinoza and Leibniz. Zammito articulates perfectly how Herder uses Spinoza and Leibniz to mutually re-shape one another:
Herder read Leibniz through Spinoza and Spinoza through Leibniz to find a philosophical mode for articulating his consistently naturalist insight. Force and dynamism were essential for the new natural philosophy, but it was equally essential that these be seen as immanent in nature. Leibniz was important for Herder because he dynamized the natural order…Herder sought to revise Leibnizian dynamism from a transcendent to an immanent monadology. Just this inspired his reinterpretation of Spinoza to balance Leibniz.”
To this superlative encapsulation we only add the decisive role that Shaftesbury and the idea of a plastic nature plays as the third member of Herder’s formative triumvirate. Herder imagines not just an immanent monadology where forms do not interact—whether, respectively, by being parallel or in a preestablished harmony—but an immanent monadology of plastic forms which give shape and form to one another in a way that is not preestablished or determined in advance but, as Herder was to argue, in the uniquely organic way of developing or becoming. The “mathematical reasoning of Spinoza finds an aesthetic form in Shaftesbury,” substance is re-imagined as a fundament of creativity and mutability and nature a theatre of transformations, and the Leibnizian monad is no longer imagined as ‘windowless’ but fundamentally ‘windowed,’ open to, affected by and affecting, the world. To the monism and monad of Spinoza and Leibniz—to the notion of an immanent world consisting of a dynamic plurality of individual actants—Herder creatively incorporates a historicized and biologized interpretation of Shaftesbury’s aesthetic-vital notion of a plastic nature, meaning, one that both gives and receives form and one that is conceived organically, in which plurality and unity co-exist. It is then through Shaftesbury that Herder develops the profound importance of the plastic idea of the giving and receiving of form, that is, of a fundamental plasticity that is the essence of both symbolic (the self-development and cultural self-formation expressed in aesthetic activity and notions such as tradition and Bildung ) and biological (epigenesis, organic forces or Kräfte ) life that manifest powerfully in key texts such as the Outlines and God: Some Conversations.
It is through Herder that Shaftesbury’s aesthetic conception of nature reaches Goethe, with it being Herder who recommended Shaftesbury’s work to Goethe. Through Herder, Shaftesbury’s Prometheus “began to take possession” of Goethe’s imagination, with Herder employing the term ‘a second Prometheus’ already in 1769. As a figure who famously gives shape or form, Prometheus is a model of plasticity and the plastic artist par excellence, shaping human beings out of clay in his image. The titan is typically invoked as a symbol or image of creative rebellion: Prometheus represents the formative power to create against and independently of the authority of the Gods. Following Shaftesbury allying of ‘plastic nature’ and Prometheus, Prometheus should be read as a figure of the creativity of both the artist and nature: a Promethean nature, or a Promethean artist, is one which would not be determined or constrained by limits, models, or designs, but capable of genuine self-formation. Shaftesbury’s impact on Goethe appears immediately after Goethe’s meeting Herder in 1770, manifesting in the early work on Shakespeare and genius, “On German Architecture” (1772) and the Prometheus pieces over the years 1773-1775. Texts from this period all bear the unique hallmarks of Shaftesbury’s influence in their themes of self-formation, creativity, and nature, and more broadly evince Shaftesbury’s formative role in the Storm and Stress period. Classic studies by Dilthey, Walzel, and Weiser all strongly contend for the impact of Shaftesbury on Goethe, arguing especially for the resonances between Shaftesbury’s ‘Hymn to Nature’ in the Moralists and the Goethe-Tobler fragment “Die Natur” where “[t]he contemplation of Nature as a dynamic, all-pervading force occurs repeatedly in almost literal agreement.” It is Shaftesbury’s “conception of nature as an artist,” and the allying of nature and art that particularly struck Goethe, remaining constantly with him. After Goethe’s study of Shaftesbury begins in the early 1770’s, with “serious study” commencing in 1776, his thinking of nature was “less naïve and assumed more aesthetic and pantheistic implications,” continuing on through to the years of his Italian journey (1786-88) and the development of his morphology. The effect of Shaftesbury’s thinking on Goethe appears to be long-lasting, as Goethe gives prominent place to Shaftesbury in commemorating Wieland in 1813, and writes in 1817 that: “[w]hat has been formed is immediately transformed again, and if we would succeed, to some degree, to a living view of Nature, we must attempt to remain as active and as plastic as the example she sets for us.” “To the end of his life,” Goethe’s philosophy was “fundamentally, though not exclusively, Shaftesburian.”
In tracing out the development of plastic nature in Cudworth, through to its influence on Shaftesbury, and, subsequently, its formative role in shaping the thought of Herder and Goethe, we have been able to establish two principal aims. The first is that in tracing out the lineage of this concept from Cudworth to Shaftesbury and then to their reception in Germany, we are able to emphasize the decisive contributions of Cambridge Platonist thinking to in excavating and reconstructing this genealogy from Cudworth to Goethe, we are able to flesh out the conceptual epigenesis of Malabou’s contemporary notion of plasticity, which she ascribes to Hegel. By tracing the development of plastic nature in Cudworth to Goethe, we are able to link Cambridge Platonism to Hegel, filling out this prehistory or backstory, we are able to further texture and enrich the concept by reconnecting it with its hitherto unacknowledged heritage. This reintroduction of its philosophical ancestry further serves to demonstrate the, again, unacknowledged influence that Cambridge Platonist thought exerts on contemporary thought and, moreover, the paradoxical life that Cudworth’s plastic nature has had. The importance of Cudworth’s concept of plastic nature is that it arguably establishes some of the fundamental problems, categories, and contours that shape decisive developments in thinking about nature, matter, and life over the course of the next century, up to the present moment in concepts like Malabou’s elaboration of plasticity. In his conceptual articulation of plastic nature—in its basic idea, and the reasons for which it is developed—Cudworth wrestles with a quandary that preoccupies both thinkers like Kant, Goethe, Herder, and Schelling in the next century and, as contemporary elaborations of new materialisms evince, our own: how do we conceive of a non-deterministic conception of nature that exceeds mechanistic materialism, which at the same time sufficiently acknowledges nature’s self-activity, vitality, and life, but does not fall into what Cudworth names hylozoism, the putatively uncritical or unscientific idea that matter is fully alive? In response to this conceptual dilemma, Cudworth furnishes intellectual history with his specific articulation of an entity that is independent of God and more-than-mere-matter that he characterizes as plastic, that is, that is both active and passive: plastic nature is capable of self-shaping and self-formation, but which ultimately acts in accordance with prescribed laws or design. This idea proves paradigmatic for subsequent thought, inspiring and organizing subsequent thinking that attempts to resist or offer alternatives to mechanism or mechanistic theories of matter, life, and nature. While Cudworth argues that we must grant a formative power or plasticity to nature, Cudworth quickly restricts the purview of this plasticity, arguing the plastic power of nature can and must only be exercised in a subordinate or subservient capacity to execute the plan or vision of a presiding agent, God. In Kant’s terms, nature is ‘formative’ and acts for the sake of ends, but these ends are already given or assigned: nature is ‘plastic’ but operates within a transcendental framework, according to determinative contours outlined or prescribed by, in Cudworth’s terms, a presiding architectural mind. Cudworth’s plastic nature arguably should be read as significantly prefiguring such concepts as the Bildungstrieb or formative drive, the genetic force of Herder, Kant’s teleological judgment in the third Critique, and Schelling’s World-Soul. Moreover, in his critiques of various kinds of materialism—the idea of an unbridled plasticity of nature that shapes or forms itself without the direction or guidance of an ultimate telos—Cudworth eschews but conceptually articulates what will become a generally influential idea in later vital materialist conceptions of nature: that it has a life; that it is self-organizing, self-forming, self-determining; that it is plastic. In this manner, Malabou’s contemporary plastic materialism is precisely what Cudworth rejected the most: the idea of self-forming or plastic matter that shaped itself independently of the guide of any transcendent architect. There is, then, paradoxically, an idealist conception of life at the heart of contemporary materialist thought. In this way, Pierre Bayle was eminently correct in his debate with Le Clerc in 1704: Cudworth’s articulation of atheistic hylozoism ultimately undermined the protective, apologetic edifice Cudworth wanted to construct. Against all Cudworth’s most fervent protestations, it turns out that what he feared and abjured most came to be true: plastic nature came to have a life of its own, escaping the hands of its creator.

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