Joseph Raphson


By Gary Suttle

Cambridge intellectual Joseph Raphson holds a special place among the lodestars of Pantheism--recent scholarship credits him with originating the terms “pantheist” and “pantheism.”  

Historians know little of Raphson’s life; not even an obituary has been found. Born in Middlesex, England, he attended Jesus College Cambridge and graduated with a Masters degree in 1692.  Raphson gained membership in the prestigious Royal Society in 1691 on the strength of his first book, “Analysis Aequationurn Universalis” (1690).

The book described a method for approximating the roots of an equation. Unknown to Raphson, Isaac Newton had earlier devised the same process (now known as the Newton-Raphson Method) but not published it.  Raphson later worked with the renowned physicist and translated some of Newton’s material from Latin to English.  Raphson was one of the few people with whom Newton shared his mathematical writings.

Raphson wrote his own mathematical dictionary (1702), as well as other works,  including “De Spatio Reali seu Ente Infinito” (1697) and “Demonstratio de Deo” (1710).

He penned the words “pantheos” and “pantheismus" in “De Spatio Reali.”

Many commentators name John Toland as the originator of the word “pantheist.”  But Raphson’s citation predates Toland’s first recorded use of the term by eight years. Toland had read Raphson’s “De Spatio Reali,” and  commented upon “the ingenious Mr. Ralphson's (sic) Book of Real Space,” which strongly suggests he picked up the word from Raphson.   (Toland still deserves notice for the first use of “pantheist” in an English language publication, his 1705 book "Socinianism truly stated...").

Scholar Stephen H. Daniel, Professor of Philosophy at Texas A&M University, discovered Raphson's terms and made the connection between Raphson and Toland in 1994.  According to Professor Daniel, “it is now clear that Raphson, not Toland is the person who coined the terms pantheist and pantheism; he just happens to have been writing in Latin at the time.”

“De Spatio Reali” delineates two pantheistic outlooks:

In one, God comprises nature, the material cosmos, as ultimate reality. Raphson labels adherents of this view ‘panhylists’ (from the Greek ‘pan’ = all + ‘hyle’ = wood, matter) because they believe everything derives from matter.  He equates panhylism with atheism.

In the other, God comprises space, the overarching element, as ultimate reality.  Raphson calls followers of this view ‘pantheists’ (from the Greek ‘pan’ = all + theos = god) because they believe in “a certain universal substance, material as well as intelligent, that fashions all things that exist out of its own essence” (De Spatio Reali,” page 2).

“Space is this necessary, eternal, infinite and omnipresent being...” says Jonathan Edwards, a like-minded thinker of that time,  “... we can with ease conceive how all other beings should not be.  We can remove them out of our minds, and place some other in the room of them; but space is the very thing we can never remove and conceive of its not being. ...But I had as good speak plain: I have already said as much as that space is God.”

Raphson’s idea of God shows the influence of fellow Cambridge philosopher Henry More (1614-1687).  More wrote that God is “antecedent to all matter, forasmuch as not matter nor any being else can be conceived to be but in this.  In this are all things necessarily apprehended ‘to live and move and have their being.’”

(Interestingly, More’s use of the well known biblical phrase from Acts 17-28 reflects the lines Saint Paul took from ancient Stoic philosophy.  Familiar to Raphson, the pantheistic Stoics, around 300 B.C.E., identified God with Nature and saw everything composed of one substance, [fire or energy] condensed into the various elements of the physical world.  The universe formed the condensation of God “in whom we live and move and have our being”).

Kabbalah (alternately spelled Kabala or Cabala, from the Hebrew ‘cabla’ = tradition) also inspired Raphson.   The mystical teachings held that Jewish scriptures contained words, letters and numbers--congenial to Raphson’s mathematical mind--with secret meanings interpretable to knowing persons.

A University of St. Andrews biography states  “Cabala developed several basic doctrines which were strong influences on Raphson's philosophical thinking. The doctrines included the withdrawal of the divine light, thereby creating primordial space, (and) the sinking of luminous particles into matter.”

Kabbalists “asserted a  certain oneness between God and the universe,” according to Kabbalah scholar Ken Hanson.  Kabbalistic ideas  stimulated Jewish philosopher Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677). Raphson knew of Spinoza, who wrote perhaps the most rigorous exposition of Pantheism in all philosophic literature.

But Spinoza never employed the terms ‘pantheism’ and ‘pantheist’ because they had yet to be conceived. He died just twenty years before Joseph Raphson contributed these valuable and now universally used words to posterity.


Daniel, Stephen H. “Toland’s Semantic Pantheism,” in John Toland’s Christianity not Mysterious, Text, Associated Works and Critical Essays. Edited by Philip McGuinness, Alan Harrison, and Richard Kearney.  Dublin, Ireland: The Lilliput Press, 1997.

____________.  Personal Communication, October, 28, 2002 and November 18, 2002. Dr. Daniel relates  "When I ran across Raphson's Latin use of pantheos and pantheismus in 1994, I think I was simply following up on a reference to Raphson by Berkeley (in his "Philosophical Commentaries"). Most Berkeley scholars are not as familiar with Toland as I probably am, so the appearance of the terms struck me (since I, like everyone else, had thought that Toland was the first to use them). Probably people knew of Raphson's use of the terms but had not made the connection about who used them first. At least in 1994 I was still under the impression that Toland had used the term first. When I mentioned
it to (a fellow scholar), he suggested that I contact the folks at the Oxford English Dictionary to update their entry. But since the OED deals with English  uses, I did not because Toland still would have been the first to use the English versions.  However, as Toland notes in "Serena," Raphson seems to have come up with the concepts of pantheism and pantheist in 1697.  I guess I may have been the first to have seen that, primarily in the Toland-Berkeley context (of which latter relation there is a lot more to say--and I am currently working on it for a book on Berkeley)." 

Hanson, Ken.  Kabbalah, Three Thousand Years of Mystic Tradition.   Council Oaks Distributors, 1998.

O’Conner, J. J. and Robertson, E.F. “Joseph Raphson,” On-line Biographies, University of St Andrews, Scotland. 1996.

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Copyright © 2002 Gary Suttle