Lovejoy, Arthur Oncken (1873–1962)

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Arthur Oncken Lovejoy, the American philosopher and historian of ideas, was born in Berlin, Germany, the son of the Reverend W. W. Lovejoy of Boston and Sara Oncken of Hamburg. Educated at the University of California (Berkeley) and at Harvard, where he received his MA, Lovejoy began his teaching career at Stanford University (18991901) and then taught for seven years at Washington University in St. Louis. After short periods at Columbia University and the University of Missouri, he went to Johns Hopkins in 1910 as professor of philosophy, remaining there until his retirement in 1938. In 1927 he gave the Carus Lectures, published as The Revolt against Dualism in 1930, and the William James Lectures, published as The Great Chain of Being in 1933. Lovejoy was widely known as an epistemologist, a philosophic critic, a historian of ideas, and a man of action. He helped to organize the Association of American University Professors, in which he served for many years as chairman of the group that investigated all charges of violation of academic freedom. In this connection he wrote the article "Academic Freedom" for the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences.

Lovejoy's works fall into two main groupsthose on epistemology and those on intellectual historyalthough he also wrote essays on ethics, religion, and social problems.

Philosophical Works

For many years Lovejoy confined his writings to articles, a great number of them critical. These were often directed against various forms of anti-intellectualism: "The Thirteen Pragmatisms" (1908), "Some Antecedents of the Philosophy of Bergson" (1913), and "The Paradox of the Thinking Behaviorist" (1922). These articles, however, were frequently examinations of certain contemporary movements in philosophy, such as the New Realism: "Reflections of a Temporalist on the New Realism" (1911) and "On Some Novelties of the New Realism" (1913). Some were even on the supposed philosophical implication of the theory of relativity: "The Travels of Peter, Paul and Zebedee" (1932) and "The Paradox of the Time-Retarding Journey" (1931).

It was not until 1930 that Lovejoy published his major work, The Revolt against Dualism, in which he attempted to defend epistemological dualism against the reigning modes of monism. He began by sketching what he called naive dualism, which assumes that (1) many possible objects of knowledge (cognoscenda ) are at places external to the body of the percipient; (2) man must have real traffic with things that existed in the past and may exist in the future; (3) man can have knowledge of things as they would be if they were not directly known; (4) other minds and experiences exist; and (5) cognoscenda in other places and at other times are apprehensible by other knowers. The book analyzed this naive dualism and defended a corrected form of it. On the whole, although not in detail, Lovejoy was more interested in the duality of two existents (of two five-cent stamps, for instance) than qualitative duality such as of red and green. The duality of two things is demonstrated, he wrote, by the fact that one of the supposed pair has a spatial, a temporal, or a spatiotemporal position that is inconsistent with that empirically exhibited by the other. If, then, it can be shown that our ideas of objects have positions that can be shown not to be those of the objects, then the two cannot rightly be believed to be one. Qualitative duality would be demonstrated in analogous fashion, but the inconsistency would lie between two sets of qualities.

In his autobiographical essay, "A Temporalistic Realism," in Volume II of Contemporary American Philosophy, edited by G. P. Adams and W. P. Montague (London and New York, 1930), Lovejoy pointed out that one of his earliest philosophical theses was that experience itself is temporal. Any philosophical position that overlooks or denies this, or conflicts with it, would, in his opinion, be condemned as contradicting a manifest truth. (This does not, of course, assert that any philosophysuch as that of Henri Bergsonthat admits the empirical reality of time is thereby proved.) The various forms of monism fail to evade, and cannot evade, the consequences of this fact. For instance, the date at which a visual datum occurs is not the date of the object that one is seeing. There is a time lag between the emission of light rays from a star and their arrival at the retina of a human eye, to say nothing of the arrival of the nerve current stimulated by them at the cerebral cortex, where it apparently causes a visual image to appear. Indeed, some stars that we perceive now may have become extinct many light-years ago. Analogous statements can be made about sound, odor, and taste.

Although Lovejoy also used other criteria, this criterion of duality suffices to establish existential duality between object and sensum. To deny the duality, Lovejoy asserted, would be equivalent to asserting that two particulars can each be in two places at the same time, that one particular has or consists of many shapes and other inconsistent qualities at the same time, that it has two dates in the same temporal order, that it can be at the same time both the beginning and the end of a causal series, and, finally, that error is impossible. Lovejoy discussed each of these theses in connection with epistemological positions widely held at the time the book was written: the New Realism, objective relativism, Alfred North Whitehead's denial of simple location, and Bertrand Russell's epistemology as given in The Analysis of Mind (London and New York, 1921) and The Analysis of Matter (London and New York, 1927).

Lovejoy's dualism differed from that of the naive dualist in that the latter is likely to believe that his objects are qualitatively, if not existentially, identical with the objects of others. Our ideas, Lovejoy held, do not necessarily have properties identical with the properties of anything in the physical world, but we are not therefore condemned to know nothing whatsoever of that world. We cannot prove beyond doubt that some of the properties of our ideas are also properties of the physical world, but such is "a natural assumption which no one can prove to be false" (Revolt against Dualism, p. 273). Qualities that vary with percipients must be held to be subjective, but there are certain residual propertiesextension, shape, relative position, temporal succession, and motionthat may reasonably be said to characterize both our ideas and their objects. The reasonableness of the hypothesis rests on its ability to give us grounds for framing a "coherent, simple, unifying, scientifically serviceable" set of hypotheses for explaining both the rise of our sensory data and their peculiar characteristics. It will, in short, account for a world that is causally efficacious, that exists between our perceptual moments, and that has a past and future independent of any percipients.

Intellectual History

To separate Lovejoy's philosophical views from his historical studies is artificial, for his philosophy is based on a wide knowledge of history, and his historiography is based on his belief in the existence and efficacy of ideas. However, such a distinction may be made for purposes of classification.

Lovejoy was the chief promoter in the United States of the historiography of ideas. His continuing interest in this area dated back at least to his monograph The Dialectic of Bruno and Spinoza (Berkeley, CA, 1904). He was the originator and first editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas. He studied such general ideas as romanticism, evolutionism, naturalism, and primitivism, showing the ambiguities resident in them and their ingression into fields that have no ostensible logical connection with them.

In the preface to Essays in the History of Ideas, Lovejoy defined his conception of the historiography of ideas: (1) It studies the presence and influence of the same ideas in very diverse provinces of thought and in different periods; thus, an idea that may have originated in logic may turn up in biology, or vice versa. (2) There are certain catchwords, such as nature, that have taken on new meanings over time, although the people using them are seldom aware of their ambiguities. The historian of ideas will analyze these various meanings as they occur. An example from fairly recent history (not one of Lovejoy's own) would be the eulogistic usage of the word organic. (3) It has also been noticed that a given author will prove susceptible to the emotional aura of certain terms and, probably because of this, will waver between a valid meaning of an idea and an incongruous meaning. It is usually assumed that the thought of a given writer must be consistent and unified; but by accepting this assumption, a historian may overlook precisely those thoughts expressed by a writer that were in fact influential. A fuller explanation of the program is given in Lovejoy's essay "The Historiography of Ideas," first published in 1938 and republished as the opening chapter in Essays in the History of Ideas.

the great chain of being

Lovejoy's most influential single contribution to the history of ideas is The Great Chain of Being. The idea whose fortunes he traced in this book was first expressed by Plato in the Timaeus. There Plato maintained that the Demiurge, being good, was not jealous and, not being jealous, wanted the world to lack nothing; therefore, if the world were to lack nothing, all possibilities must be realized. The realization of all possibilities is the great chain of being, and the principle it rests upon was called by Lovejoy the principle of plenitude.

This apparently simple idea, contained in a creation myth, was introduced into Christian theology through Neoplatonism and into cosmography by Hasdai Crescas with his supposition of many worlds, by Johannes Kepler, by Nicholas of Cusa with his theory of a boundless universe, and, above all, by Giordano Bruno with his open acceptance of the principle as it applies to stellar bodies. In Benedict de Spinoza it appeared as the doctrine that all ideas of God must be realized, and in Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz as the principle of sufficient reason. Lovejoy showed how the principle entered into biological speculations in the eighteenth century and how it was "temporalized." In the idea of the great chain of being, which he presented with a richness of erudition, Lovejoy found one of the most fertile yet neglected ideas in Western philosophy and masterfully traced its ramifications and subsequent history.


A second dominant idea, the study of whose history Lovejoy initiated, is that cluster of notions known as primitivism. Primitivism has two formsa chronological form, exemplified in the myth of the Golden Age, and a cultural form, best exemplified in cynicism and in all attempts to rediscover the so-called natural life. Each of these forms has two subspecies, "hard" primitivism and "soft" primitivism. Hard primitivism maintains that the state of nature (man's primordial condition) was rugged and unencumbered with superfluities, a state very close to that of the legendary noble savage. Soft primitivism, on the contrary, maintains that the state of nature was agreeably gentle, that earth gave man her fruits spontaneously without any labor on his part, and that there was no private property and hence no covetousness, no war, no foreign trade, none of the complications that the arts and sciences introduce.

Lovejoy urged as early as 1917 that there would be more progress in philosophical studies if there were more cooperation among philosophers ("On Some Conditions of Progress in Philosophical Inquiry"). A documentary history of primitivism provided, it seemed, an ideal opportunity for such cooperation. Lovejoy and three other scholars formed a team and agreed to publish a four-volume work, to be titled A Documentary History of Primitivism and Related Ideas, covering the ground from early Greek times to the recent past. Of this projected work only one volume, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, written by Lovejoy with George Boas, was completed, although a number of smaller works by various scholars came out as contributions to the subject. The published volume contained, along with documents and commentaries, two supplementary essays"Primitivism in Ancient Western Asia," by W. F. Albright, and "Primitivism in Indian Literature," by P.-E. Dumontand an appendix by Lovejoy"Some Meanings of 'Nature.'" Although the original four-volume plan was never carried out, what did appear may have shown historians of philosophy that primitivism was a philosophic theme neglected by the historical tradition that had nevertheless permeated Occidental thought.

See also Bruno, Giordano; Crescas, Hasdai; History and Historiography of Philosophy; Kepler, Johannes; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Neoplatonism; Nicholas of Cusa; New Realism; Realism; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Whitehead, Alfred North.


works by lovejoy

"The Thirteen Pragmatisms." Journal of Philosophy 5 (1908): 112, 2939.

"Reflections of a Temporalist on the New Realism." Journal of Philosophy 8 (1911): 589599.

"Some Antecedents of the Philosophy of Bergson." Mind, n.s. 22 (1913): 465483.

"On Some Novelties of the New Realism." Journal of Philosophy 10 (1913): 2943.

Bergson and Romantic Evolutionism. Berkeley, CA, 1914.

"On Some Conditions of Progress in Philosophical Inquiry." Philosophical Review 26 (1917): 123163.

"The Paradox of the Thinking Behaviorist." Philosophical Review 31 (1922): 135147.

The Revolt against Dualism: An Inquiry concerning the Existence of Ideas. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1930.

"The Paradox of the Time-Retarding Journey." Philosophical Review 40 (1931): 4868, 152167.

"The Travels of Peter, Paul and Zebedee." Philosophical Review 41 (1932): 498517.

Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity. Written with G. Boas. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1935.

The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936.

Essays in the History of Ideas. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1948. Contains a list of Lovejoy's articles up to and including 1947.

Reflections on Human Nature. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1961.

The Reason, the Understanding, and Time. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1961. Deals with the Romantic theory of knowledge.

Essays in the History of Ideas. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins Press, 1970.

works on lovejoy

Boas, George. "A. O. Lovejoy as Historian of Philosophy." Journal of the History of Ideas 9 (4) (October 1948): 404411.

Mandelbaum, Maurice. "Arthur O. Lovejoy and the Theory of Historiography." Journal of the History of Ideas 9 (4) (October 1948): 412423.

Montague, W. P. "My Friend Lovejoy." Journal of the History of Ideas 9 (4) (October 1948): 424427.

Montague, W. P. "Professor Lovejoy's Carus Lectures." Journal of Philosophy 25 (11) (May 24, 1928): 293296.

Murphy, Arthur E. "Mr. Lovejoy's Counter-revolution." Journal of Philosophy 28 (1931): 2942, 5771.

Nicholson, Marjorie. "A. O. Lovejoy as Teacher." Journal of the History of Ideas 9 (4) (October 1948): 428438.

Spencer, Theodore. "Lovejoy's Essays in the History of Ideas." Journal of the History of Ideas 9 (4) (October 1948): 439446.

Taylor, H. A. "Further Reflections on the History of Ideas: An Examination of A. O. Lovejoy's Program." Journal of Philosophy 40 (May 27, 1943): 281299.

Wiener, Philip P. "Lovejoy's Rôle in American Philosophy." In Studies in Intellectual History, 161173. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1953. A collection of essays by a group of Lovejoy's colleagues.

George Boas (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)