Arthur Oncken Lovejoy

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Arthur Oncken Lovejoy, historian and philosopher

Arthur Oncken Lovejoy (October 10, 1873 – December 30, 1962) was an influential American philosopher and intellectual historian, who founded the discipline known as the history of ideas.


Lovejoy was born in Berlin, Germany while his father was doing medical research there. Eighteen months later, his mother committed suicide, whereupon his father gave up medicine and became a clergyman. Lovejoy studied philosophy, first at the University of California, then at Harvard under William James and Josiah Royce. In 1901, he resigned from his first job, at Stanford University, to protest the dismissal of a colleague who had offended a trustee. The President of Harvard then vetoed hiring Lovejoy on the grounds that he was a known troublemaker. Over the subsequent decade, he taught at Washington University, Columbia University, and the University of Missouri. He never married.

As a professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University from 1910 to 1938, Lovejoy founded and long presided over that university's History of Ideas Club, where many prominent and budding intellectual and social historians, as well as literary critics, gathered. In 1940, he founded the Journal of the History of Ideas. Lovejoy insisted that the history of ideas should focus on "unit ideas," single concepts (often with a one-word name), and study how unit ideas combine and recombine with each other over time.

Lovejoy was active in the public arena. He helped found the American Association of University Professors and the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. However, he qualified his belief in civil liberties to exclude what he considered threats to a free system. Thus, at the height of the McCarthy Era (in the February 14, 1952 edition of the Journal of Philosophy) Lovejoy stated that, since it was a "matter of empirical fact" that membership in the Communist Party contributed "to the triumph of a world-wide organization" which was opposed to "freedom of inquiry, of opinion and of teaching," membership in the party constituted grounds for dismissal from academic positions. He also published numerous opinion pieces in the Baltimore press. He died in Baltimore on December 30, 1962.


In the domain of epistemology, Lovejoy is remembered for an influential critique of the pragmatic movement, especially in the essay "The Thirteen Pragmatisms", written in 1908.[1]

William F. Bynum, looking back at Lovejoy's Great Chain of Being after 40 years, describes it as "a familiar feature of the intellectual landscape", indicating its great influence and "brisk" ongoing sales. Bynum argues that much more research is needed into how the concept of the great chain of being was replaced, but he agrees that Lovejoy was right that the crucial period was the end of the 18th century when "the Enlightenment's chain of being was dismantled".[2]





  1. ^ "The Thirteen Pragmatisms, The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, nowThe Journal of Philosophy, Part I, 2 January 1908 p. 5-12. Part II, 16 January 1908, p. 29-39
  2. ^ William F. Bynum: "The Great Chain of Being after Forty Years: An Appraisal", History of Science 13 (1975): 1-28

Further reading[edit]

  • Campbell, James. "Arthur Lovejoy and the Progress of Philosophy," Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 39, No. 4, Fall, 2003.
  • Diggins, John P. "Arthur O. Lovejoy and the Challenge of Intellectual History," Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 67, Number 1, January 2006.
  • Duffin, Kathleen E. "Arthur O. Lovejoy and the Emergence of Novelty," Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 41, No. 2, Apr./Jun., 1980.
  • Feuer, Lewis S. "The Philosophical Method of Arthur O. Lovejoy: Critical Realism and Psychoanalytical Realism," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 23, No. 4, Jun., 1963.
  • Feuer, Lewis S. "Arthur O. Lovejoy," The American Scholar, Vol. 46, No. 3, Summer 1977.
  • Mandelbaum, Maurice. "Arthur O. Lovejoy and the Theory of Historiography," Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 9, No. 4, Oct., 1948.
  • Randall, Jr., John Herman. "Arthur O. Lovejoy and the History of Ideas," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 23, No. 4, Jun., 1963.
  • Wilson, Daniel J. Arthur O. Lovejoy and the Quest for Intelligibility, University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

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