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Arthur Oncken Lovejoy

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Arthur Oncken Lovejoy
Born(1873-10-10)October 10, 1873
DiedDecember 30, 1962(1962-12-30) (aged 89)
Academic advisorsWilliam James
Josiah Royce
Notable ideas
History of ideas

Arthur Oncken Lovejoy (October 10, 1873 – December 30, 1962) was an American philosopher and intellectual historian, who founded the discipline known as the history of ideas with his book The Great Chain of Being (1936), on the topic of that name, which is regarded as 'probably the single most influential work in the history of ideas in the United States during the last half century'.[1] He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1932.[2] In 1940, he founded the Journal of the History of Ideas.


Lovejoy was born in Berlin, Germany, while his father was doing medical research there. Eighteen months later, his mother, a daughter of Johann Gerhard Oncken, committed suicide, whereupon his father gave up medicine and became a clergyman. Lovejoy studied philosophy, first at the University of California at Berkeley, then at Harvard[3] under William James and Josiah Royce.[4] He did not earn a Ph.D.[5] 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 in St. Louis, Columbia University, and the University of Missouri.

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 co-founded the Journal of the History of Ideas with Philip P. Wiener.[6] Lovejoy insisted that the history of ideas should focus on "unit ideas," single concepts (namely simple concepts sharing an abstract name with other concepts that were to be conceptually distinguished).

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.[7] Abstract nouns like 'pragmatism' 'idealism', 'rationalism' and the like were, in Lovejoy's view, constituted by distinct, analytically separate ideas, which the historian of the genealogy of ideas had to thresh out, and show how the basic unit ideas combine and recombine with each other over time.[8] The idea has, according to Simo Knuuttila, exercised a greater attraction on literary critics than on philosophers.[citation needed] Lovejoy was also an opponent of Albert Einstein's theory of relativity.[9] In 1930, he published a paper criticizing Einstein's relativistic concept of simultaneity as arbitrary.[10][11]


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".[12]


  • Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, (1935). (with George Boas). Johns Hopkins U. Press. 1997 edition: ISBN 0-8018-5611-6
  • The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (1936). Harvard University Press. Reprinted by Harper & Row, ISBN 0-674-36150-4, 2005 paperback: ISBN 0-674-36153-9.
  • Essays in the History of Ideas (1948). Johns Hopkins U. Press.
  • The Revolt Against Dualism (1960). Open Court Publishing. ISBN 0-87548-107-8
  • The Reason, the Understanding, and Time (1961). Johns Hopkins U. Press. ISBN 0-8018-0393-4
  • Reflections on Human Nature (1961). Johns Hopkins U. Press. ISBN 0-8018-0395-0
  • The Thirteen Pragmatisms and Other Essays (1963). Johns Hopkins U. Press. ISBN 0-8018-0396-9




  1. ^ Simo Knuuttila (ed.) Reforging the Great Chain of Being: Studies of the History of Modal Theories, Springer Science & Business Media, 2013 p.3
  2. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved 2023-06-30.
  3. ^ Reese, William (1996). Dictionary of philosophy and religion: Eastern and Western thought. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press. p. 428. ISBN 0391038648. OCLC 33983842.
  4. ^ "Arthur O. Lovejoy". Johns Hopkins University. 28 June 2016. Retrieved 16 November 2020. Lovejoy studied at Harvard under William James and Josiah Royce, the empiricist and idealist antipodes of turn of the century American philosophy. Though his philosophical sympathies were closer to James', Lovejoy carried out a sustained critique of pragmatism that reverberates to this day.
  5. ^ Feuer, Lewis S. (1977). "Arthur O. Lovejoy". The American Scholar. 46 (3): 358–366.
  6. ^ Sidney Axinn, "Wiener, Philip Paul (1905-92)", in: John R. Shook, ed., Dictionary Of Modern American Philosophers, Bristol: Thoemmes, 2005. Retrieved 17 July 2005.
  7. ^ "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
  8. ^ Arthur O. Lovejoy, [The Great Chain of Being,] (1936) Harper & Row 1960 pp.5ff.
  9. ^ Sevick, Charles E. (1936). The Development of a Perceptual Realism. University of Wisconsin-Madison. p. 51. "Lovejoy retains what is essentially the view of space and time of nineteenth Century physics, and has been a vigorous opponent of the theory of relativity."
  10. ^ Pace, Edward Aloysius; Ryan, James Hugh. (1931). The New Scholasticism. American Catholic Philosophical Association. p. 87, p. 185
  11. ^ Turner, Dean; Hazelett, Richard. (1979). The Einstein Myth and the Ives Papers. Hope Publishing House. pp. 4-5. ISBN 9781932717051
  12. ^ 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,", in: 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,", in: Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 67, Number 1, January 2006.
  • Duffin, Kathleen E. "Arthur O. Lovejoy and the Emergence of Novelty," in: 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," in: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 23, No. 4, Jun., 1963.
  • Feuer, Lewis S. "Arthur O. Lovejoy," in: The American Scholar, Vol. 46, No. 3, Summer 1977.
  • Mandelbaum, Maurice. "Arthur O. Lovejoy and the Theory of Historiography," in: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 9, No. 4, Oct., 1948.
  • Moran, Seán Farrell, "A.O. Lovejoy", in: Kelly Boyd, ed., The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, Routledge, 1999.
  • Randall Jr., John Herman, "Arthur O. Lovejoy and the History of Ideas," in: 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.

External links[edit]