Thomas Wormald (University of Western Ontario)

Project Research Abstract

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

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.

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