Arthur Oncken Lovejoy (October 10, 1873, - December 30, 1962) was an influential American intellectual historian and philosopher, who founded the field known as the history of ideas. 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 advocated "critical realism," the theory that material objects exist independently of human perception of them, and promoted what he called “temporalistic realism,” the theory that reality is unfinished, constantly in transition and constantly adding to itself. The history of ideas is the study of these changes and developments. In The Great Chain of Being (1936) he introduced the concept of “unit-ideas,” single concepts which “influence the course of men’s reflection on almost any subject.” These unit-ideas are the building-blocks of the history of ideas; the historian of ideas studies how they recombine in new patterns and gain expression in new forms in different historical contexts.
Arthur Oncken Lovejoy was born in Berlin, Germany on October 10, 1873, the son of Wallace William Lovejoy, a Boston medical student doing research in Germany, and his German wife, Sara Oncken Lovejoy. The family moved to Boston in 1875, but Sara Lovejoy committed suicide soon afterward, whereupon his father gave up medicine and became a clergyman in the Episcopal church. In 1881, Wallace Lovejoy married Emmeline Dutton. Arthur Lovejoy received his early education at schools in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. After he graduated from the academy in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1891, his family moved to Oakland, California, where Lovejoy entered the University of California at Berkeley.
Under the influence of the philosopher George Homes Howison, Lovejoy’s interests changed from religion to philosophy. After graduating from the University of California in 1895, he studied philosophy at Harvard under William James and Josiah Royce. In 1897 he received his Masters degree, and then studied at the Sorbonne from 1898-1899. He became a teacher of philosophy at Stanford University, but resigned in 1901 to protest the dismissal of a colleague, the sociologist E. A Ross, who had offended a trustee. For the rest of his life he was a champion of academic freedom for university and college faculty. 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 (1901-1907), Columbia University (1907-1908), and the University of Missouri (1908-1910).
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, social historians, and literary critics, gathered. Lovejoy also helped found the American Association of University Professors and the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. During World War I he was active in the National Security League and the YMCA. After the war he concentrated on philosophy and the history of ideas. His 1933, his William James lectures were published as The Great Chain of Being (1936). In 1938 he retired from Johns Hopkins and devoted himself to research, becoming involved in the Journal of the History of Ideas, which began publication in 1940.
During World War II, Lovejoy served as administrator, editor, and writer for the Historical Service Board of the American Historical Association, and for the Universities Commission on Post-War International Problems. He was a member of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, set up to counter the threat of communism. Though he was a strong proponent of the freedom of faculty members to teach unencumbered by ideological restrictions, 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.
Lovejoy served as a member of the Maryland Board of Regents from 1951-1955, published numerous opinion pieces in The Baltimore Sun, and continued his scholarly work, until his death in Baltimore on December 30, 1962. He never married.
Arthur Oncken Lovejoy is credited with introducing the interdisciplinary academic field known as the "history of ideas." He advocated critical realism, the theory that material objects exist independently of human perception of them, and that content and object are epistemologically different. Revolt Against Dualism (1930) argued that, “there are changes in certain physical structures which generate existents that are not physical…and these non-physical particulars are indispensable means to any knowledge of physical realities.” Lovejoy also promoted what he called “temporalistic realism,” the theory that reality is unfinished, constantly in transition and constantly adding to itself. The history of ideas was the study of these changes and developments.
Aside from his students and colleagues engaged in related projects (such as René Wellek and Leo Spitzer, with whom Lovejoy engaged in extended debates), scholars such as Isaiah Berlin, Michel Foucault, Christopher Hill, J. G. A. Pocock and others have continued to work in a spirit close to that with which Lovejoy pursued the history of ideas.
Lovejoy’s 1933 William James lectures, published as The Great Chain of Being (1936) introduced an influential methodology for the study of the history of ideas: The concept of "unit-ideas." Unit-ideas are single concepts (often with a one-word name), which “influence the course of men’s reflection on almost any subject.” These unit-ideas work as the building-blocks of the history of ideas; though they remain relatively unchanged in themselves over the course of time, unit-ideas recombine in new patterns and gain expression in new forms in different historical eras. Lovejoy considered it the task of a historian of ideas to identify such “unit-ideas” and describe their historical emergence and recession in new forms and combinations. The Great Chain of Being used this method to follow the recurrence of the “principle of plenitude” in the history of Western philosophy. Aristotle originally articulated the Principle, that no possibilities which remain eternally possible will go unrealized. Lovejoy traced the concept through the following philosophical permutations:
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