Arthur Oncken Lovejoy

Arthur Oncken Lovejoy, historian and philosopher

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), 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]


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 (namely simple concepts sharing an abstract name with other concepts that were to be conceptually distinguished). 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.[2] The idea has, according to Simo Knuuttila, exercised a greater attraction on literary critics than on philosophers.

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.[3]

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".[4]





  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. Arthur O. Lovejoy, [The Great Chain of Being,] (1936) Harper & Row 1960 pp.5ff.
  3. "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
  4. William F. Bynum: "The Great Chain of Being after Forty Years: An Appraisal", History of Science 13 (1975): 1-28
  5. Lovejoy, Arthur Oncken; Boas, George; Albright, William Foxwell; Dumont, P. E. (1997-01-01). Primitivism and related ideas in antiquity. Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 9780801856112.
  6. Lovejoy, Arthur Oncken (1966-01-01). The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea. The William James Lectures Delivered at Harvard University, 1933. Harvard University Press.
  7. Lovejoy, Arthur Oncken (1948-07-01). Essays in the history of ideas. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  8. Lovejoy, Arthur Oncken (1996-01-01). Revolt Against Dualism. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 9781412838726.
  9. Lovejoy, Arthur Oncken (1961-01-01). The reason, the understanding, and time. Johns Hopkins Press.
  10. Lovejoy, Arthur Oncken (1961-01-01). Reflections on Human Nature. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  11. Lovejoy, Arthur Oncken (1963-01-01). The Thirteen Pragmatisms, and Other Essays. Johns Hopkins University Press.

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