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Unit-Ideas Unleashed: A Reinterpretation and Reassessment of Lovejovian Methodology in the History of Ideas*

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Abstract This article argues for an unconventional interpretation of Arthur O. Lovejoy’s distinctive approach to method in the history of ideas. It is maintained that the value of the central concept of the ‘unit-idea’ has been misunderstood by friends and foes alike. The commonality of unit-ideas at different times and places is often defined in terms of familial resemblance. But such an approach must necessarily define unit-ideas as being something other than the smallest conceptual unit. It is therefore in tension with Lovejoy’s methodological prescription and, more importantly, disregards a potentially important aspect of intellectual history – the smaller conceptual units themselves. In response to this, an alternative interpretation of unit-ideas as ‘elemental’ – as the smallest identifiable conceptual components – is put forward. Unlike the familial resemblance approach, the elemental approach can provide a plausible explanation for changes in ideas. These are construed as being either the creation of new unit-ideas, the disappearance of existing ones, or alterations in the groups of unit-ideas that compose idea-complexes. The focus on the movement of unit-ideas and idea-complexes through history can also be sensitive to contextual issues, carefully distinguishing the different meanings that single words may have, in much the way that both Lovejoy and his influential critic Quentin Skinner suggest.

1. FN0*) I would like to thank Jon Parkin and anonymous referees for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.
2. FN11) Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936).
3. FN22) Kenneth Minogue, ‘Method in Intellectual History: Quentin Skinner’s Foundations’, in Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and his Critics, ed. James Tully (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 186. For the rise in popularity of contextualism see Robert Darnton, ‘Intellectual and Cultural History’, in The Past Before Us: Contemporary Historical Writing in the United States, ed. Michael Kammen (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980). For my own comments on the (supposed) conflict between contextualism and Lovejovianism see section IV below.
4. FN33) Francis Oakley, Natural Law, Laws of Nature, Natural Rights: Continuity and Discontinuity in the History of Ideas (New York: Continuum, 2005), p. 14.
5. FN44) Jaakko Hintikka, ‘Gaps in the Great Chain of Being: An Examination in the Methodology of the History of Ideas’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 49 (1976): 22–38.
6. FN55) Moltke S. Gram and Richard S. Martin, ‘The Perils of Plenitude: Hintikka contra Lovejoy’, Journal of the History of Ideas 41 (1980): 497–511, at 511.
7. FN66) Daniel J. Wilson, ‘Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being after Fifty Years’ in The History of Ideas: Canon and Variations, ed. D.R. Kelley (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1990), 175–6. Wilson’s analysis is accepted in Wouter J. Hanegraff, ‘Emprical Method in the Study of Esotericism’, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 7 (1995), 99–129.
8. FN77) Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 3.
9. FN88) To be qualitatively identical is to be exactly alike. The familial resemblance view posits that two ideas may be numerically identical, that is, one and the same idea, without being qualitatively identical. For the distinction between qualitative and numerical identity see Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 201–2.
10. FN99) Nils Bjorn Kvastad, ‘On Method in the History of Ideas’, International Logic Review 17–8 (1978): 96–110, at 101.
11. FN1010) See Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 3–4.
12. FN1111) Kvastad, 99.
13. FN1212) Philip P. Wiener, ‘Some Remarks on Professor Mink’s Views of Methodology in the History of Ideas’, Eighteenth Century Studies 2 (1969): 311–7, at 313.
14. FN1313) Kvastad, 99, emphasis suppressed.
15. FN1414) I do not mean to deny that it is impossible to reach the bedrock of true unit-ideas, just that it is very hard to know that it has been reached.
16. FN1515) Thomas Bredsdorff, ‘Lovejovianism – Or the Ideological Mechanism’, Orbis Litterarum 30 (1975): 1–27, at 10–12; ‘Lovejoy’s Idea of “Idea” ’, New Literary History 8 (1977): 195–211, at 199–200.
17. FN1616) Note that Kvastad views his family resemblance approach as an alternative to Lovejoy’s; see Kvastad, 101–4.
18. FN1717) Leo Catana, ‘Lovejoy’s Readings of Bruno: Or How Nineteenth-century History of Philosophy was “Transformed” into the History of Ideas’, Journal of the History of Ideas 71 (2010): 91–112, at 93.
19. FN1818) Arthur O. Lovejoy, ‘The Historiography of Ideas’ in Essays in the History of Ideas (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1948); see Anthony Grafton, ‘The History of Ideas: Precept and Practice, 1950–2000 and Beyond’, Journal of the History of Ideas 67 (2006): 1–32, at 7–8.
20. FN1919) Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 16.
21. FN2020) Maurice Mandelbaum, ‘On Lovejoy’s Historiography’, in The History of Ideas: An Introduction to Method, ed. Preston King (London: Croom Helm, 1983), 202.
22. FN2121) Mark Bevir, The Logic of the History of Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 202.
23. FN2222) Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 4.
24. FN2323) They are obviously qualitatively different, and they also seem to be clearly numerically different (for the distinction see above, note 8). A person might undergo a process of change of beliefs and other psychology, while remaining numerically identical with their prior self, as continuity of psychology might be enough to support identity (see Parfit, part III). For instance, a 20 year old would often be thought of as the same person as her future 60 year old self, even though they had little psychology in common, provided that this divergence will come about in a continuous way – for instance, the twenty year old’s beliefs today are almost the same as her beliefs tomorrow, which are almost the same as her beliefs the next day, and so on. But continuity is clearly not enough for identity of ideas. If we start off with the idea that God is good, and through a series of small changes arrive at the view that God is bad, it clearly does not follow that, in this case, God is good is numerically identical to God is bad. Someone who, when they were twenty, thought that God was (without qualification) good, and when they were sixty thought that God was (without qualification) bad, is not endorsing one and the same idea at these two points.
25. FN2424) Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen, ‘Making Sense of Conceptual Change’, History and Theory 47 (2008): 351–372, at 365.
26. FN2525) Mink, 210–2.
27. FN2626) Arthur O. Lovejoy, ‘The Meaning of “Romantic” in Early German Romanticism’, in Essays in the History of Ideas.
28. FN2727) Mink, 212.
29. FN2828) Philip P. Wiener, ‘The Central Role of Time in Lovejoy’s Philosophy’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 23 (1963): 480–92, at 491.
30. FN2929) Louis Mink, ‘Change and Causality in the History of Ideas’ in his Historical Understanding, ed. B. Fay, E.O. Golob and R.T. Vann (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987).
31. FN3030) Mink, 206.
32. FN3131) Mink, 210.
33. FN3232) Mink, 206, original emphasis.
34. FN3333) Wiener, ‘Some Remarks on Professor Mink’s Views’.
35. FN3434) Kathleen E. Duffin, ‘Arthur O. Lovejoy and the Emergence of Novelty’, Journal of the History of Ideas 41 (1980): 267–81.
36. FN3535) Deborah J. Coon, ‘Of Gold and Pyrite’, Biology and Philosophy 5 (1990): 493–501, at p. 497.
37. FN3636) Bevir, 61.
38. FN3737) Gottlob Frege, ‘Thought’, in The Frege Reader, ed. Michael Beaney (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 335.
39. FN3838) Here and elsewhere in this paragraph I draw on Richard L. Mendelsohn, The Philosophy of Gottlob Frege (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
40. FN3939) Mink, 220–2.
41. FN4040) Wiener, ‘Some Remarks on Professor Mink’s Views’, 316.
42. FN4141) Mink, 212.
43. FN4242) Leo Spitzer, ‘Geistesgeschichte vs. History of Ideas as Applied to Hitlerism’, in The History of Ideas, ed. Kelley, 35; see also Nel Grillaert, What the God-Seekers Found In Nietzsche: The Reception of Nietzsche’s Übermensche by the Philosophers of the Russian Religious Renaissance (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008), pp. 10–11.
44. FN4343) Mandelbaum, 200.
45. FN4444) Quentin Skinner, ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, History and Theory 8 (1969): 3–53, at 31.
46. FN4545) Skinner, ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, 36.
47. FN4646) Skinner, ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, 37.
48. FN4747) Skinner, ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, 37.
49. FN4848) See Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen, ‘Towards a Philosophy of the History of Thought’, Journal of the Philosophy of History 3 (2009), 25–54, at 34–5.
50. FN4949) Skinner, ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, 36, emphasis added.
51. FN5050) Arthur O. Lovejoy, ‘Present Standpoints and Past History’, in The Philosophy of History in Our Time, ed. H. Meyerhoff (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959), 179; see also Reflections on Human Nature (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1961), especially 67–9.
52. FN5151) Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 20; ‘The Historiography of Ideas’; ‘Reflections on the History of Ideas’ in The History of Ideas, ed. Kelley, 11–2.
53. FN5252) Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 7–15.
54. FN5353) Skinner, ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, 39.
55. FN5454) Kvastad, 105–6; Richard Macksey, ‘The History of Ideas at 80’, MLN 117 (2002): 1083–97, at 1089–90.
56. FN5555) See Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 4–5.
57. FN5656) Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 6; ‘On the Discrimination of Romanticisms’, in Essays in the History of Ideas.
58. FN5757) Arthur O. Lovejoy, ‘The Thirteen Pragmatisms’, in The Thirteen Pragmatisms and Other Essays (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1963); ‘Appendix’ to Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1935), 447–56. For a similar point in relation to Skinner’s (misplaced) criticism see Francis Oakley, Omnipotence, Covenant, and Order: An Excursion in the History of Ideas from Abelard to Leibniz (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984), 33.
59. FN5858) For instance, in his review of David Spadafora’s The Idea of Progress, David Rothstein remarks that it is ‘definitely the book to consult for an extremely thorough, Lovejovian survey of professed beliefs’; see Modern Philology 90 (1993): 544–48, at 544.
60. FN5959) For further evidence against this claim see John Patrick Diggins, ‘Arthur O. Lovejoy and the Challenge of Intellectual History’, Journal of the History of Ideas 67 (2006): 181–208.
61. FN6060) Arthur O. Lovejoy, ‘Author’s Preface’ to Essays in the History of Ideas.
62. FN6161) The tension is noted by Bevir, 104 and explicitly denied by Skinner in his Visions of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), I: 178. For discussion, and further doubts about the basis of Skinner’s early methodology, see Anthony Burns, ‘Conceptual History and the Philosophy of the Later Wittgenstein: A Critique of Quentin Skinner’s Contextualist Method’, Journal of the Philosophy of History 5 (2011): 54–83.
63. FN6262) For the related claim that Skinner himself uses the ‘influence model’ he so denigrates in early methodological papers, see David Boucher, ‘New Histories of Political Thought for Old’, Political Studies 31 (1984): 112–21, at 118–9; Francis Oakley, ‘ “Anxieties of Influence”: Skinner, Figgis, Conciliarism and Early Modern Constitutionalism’, Past and Present 151 (1996): 60–110, at 64. For the claim that another well-known contextualist work, J.G.A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), has a Lovejovian character, see Diggins, 185–6. Skinner’s early methodology seems to be largely accepted by Pocock; see the latter’s Political Thought and History: Essays on Theory and Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 128–9.
64. FN6363) Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), I: ix. See also Skinner’s similar, though much shorter, story about the ‘neo-roman understanding of civil liberty’, which ‘rose to prominence in the course of the English revolution of the mid-seventeenth century’ before disappearing under the liberal conception (Liberty before Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), ix).
65. FN6464) As Skinner, like Lovejoy, really seems to be concerned with the smaller idea-complexes that make up larger ones, rather than with elemental unit-ideas, the relationship of the elemental unit-ideas approach to Skinner’s historical studies is equivalent to its relationship to Lovejoy’s historical studies which I described in section II.
66. FN6565) Bevir, 27. For discussion see A.P. Martinich, ‘Four Senses of “Meaning” in the History of Ideas: Quentin Skinner’s Theory of Historical Interpretation’, Journal of the Philosophy of History 3 (2009): 225–45; Karsten R. Steuber, ‘Intentionalism, Intentional Realism, and Empathy’, Journal of the Philosophy of History 3 (2009): 290–307.
67. FN6666) See, for example, Tim Lacy, ‘The Lovejovian Roots of Adler’s Philosophy of History: Authority, Democracy, Irony, and Paradox in Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World’, Journal of the History of Ideas 71 (2010), 113–37, at 123.
68. FN6767) Cf. Donald R. Kelley, ‘Intellectual History in a Global Age’, Journal of the History of Ideas 66 (2005): 155–67, at 155–6, 162.
69. FN6868) Skinner, ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, 50.
70. FN6969) David E.G. Boucher, ‘On Shklar’s and Franklin’s Reviews of Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought’, Political Theory 8 (1980): 406–8.
71. FN7070) Gordon J. Schochet, ‘Quentin Skinner’s Method’, Political Theory 2 (1974): 261–76, at 269–71, 272–3; Joseph V. Femia, ‘An Historicist Critique of “Revisionist” Methods for Studying the History of Ideas’, in Meaning and Context, ed. Tully; John G. Gunnell, ‘Interpretation and the History of Political Theory: Apology and Epistemology’, American Political Science Review 76 (1982), 317–27, at 319.
72. FN7171) Skinner has more recently revised his methodology in certain regards, the details of which would take us too far from our topic. See especially ‘A Reply to my Critics’, in Meaning and Context, ed. Tully; and Visions of Politics, I. His criticism of Lovejoy has remained much the same; see Visions of Politics, I: 57–89, 176.

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Affiliations: 1: University of Johannesburg and University of Glasgow


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