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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.

Affiliations: 1: University of Johannesburg and University of Glasgow


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