Arthur O. Lovejoy

Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873-1962) was a leading philosopher, historian of ideas, and public intellectual in the first half of the twentieth century. He is perhaps best known today for his role in establishing the principles of academic freedom (through his work in founding the AAUP) and for founding the Journal of the History of Ideas. He was Professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins from 1910 to 1938, and continued to write and be active in the History of Ideas Club until his death in 1962. From 1915 to 1940 he was second in stature within American philosophy only to John Dewey, and while he is mainly studied today by intellectual historians, his early work on pragmatism and philosophy of mind follows an analytic method that has aged quite well. The Great Chain of Being (1936) remains an acknowledged classic in the history of ideas, and his hundreds of essays and articles, a sample of which we give here, offer a rich record of the time and a model of how interdisciplinary and public philosophy can be conducted. Lovejoy left all of his papers to Johns Hopkins, and the Lovejoy Archive at the Sheridan Libraries contains a wealth of letters and unpublished material spanning seven decades

A Man of Action

Lovejoy’s early social activism and his lifelong engagement with public affairs can be traced to his religious upbringing. When he left the church for philosophy – against the wishes of his minister father – he retained the sense of his calling to do good for his fellow human beings. He worked with settlements while a student at the University of California and with the North Broadway Social Settlement when he was teaching at Washington University. He was a key figure in the founding of the American Association of University Professors. Beyond his organizing role (and his efforts in convincing Dewey to be the first president), his specific contribution was to lay out the principles of academic freedom that we still live by today. Years before he helped craft the policy he made a stand in favor of academic freedom when he resigned from Stanford University. He advocated for a pension system for faculty and defended the view that University faculty should not be organized like a trade union (see below).

Lovejoy was an outspoken participant in debates over economic policy and international affairs. He was politically active during World War I, and even co-edited the Handbook of the War for Public Speakers. He wrote to object to the stance of conscientious objectors (see below), and publicly argued for the importance of the U.S. joining the League of Nations (disagreeing on this point with Dewey). His 1933 speech to the Baltimore branch of the American Jewish Congress on the threat of Hitler is prescient, and he was highly engaged as well in discussions about peace and the prospects for Europe following World War II. His position on communism after the war remains controversial, as he argued that membership in the communist party was incompatible with the duties of a University professor (see below).


Student and Critic of Pragmatism

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. Always a stickler for clear concepts, Lovejoy critiqued James’s Pragmatism in a famous essay, “The Thirteen Pragmatisms” (collected with most of the other major writings in The Thirteen Pragmatisms and Other Essays). He does not offer a “complete enumeration of the metamorphoses of so protean an entity,” nor does he take “the utmost advantage of this unassorted commingling of doctrinal sheep and doctrinal goats in the ample fold of pragmatic theory.” Rather, he patiently sorts out, with primary reference to James, some thirteen logically independent pragmatisms. Lovejoy and James kept up a lively correspondence for more than a decade; James’ letters to Lovejoy (in the Lovejoy Archive at JHU) are a model of good-humored engagement with criticism.

Lovejoy was no less critical of the pragmatism of John Dewey. The two 1920 essays “Pragmatism Vs. the Pragmatist” and “Pragmatism as Interactionism” both take Dewey’s instrumentalism as the main target. The contradiction Lovejoy sees in Dewey’s (and in G.H. Mead’s) emphasis on the creativity of action is that intelligence, planning, etc. are said to be a real force in the world, and yet the advocates of the theory are also inclined to accept a materialism that would seem to disallow the real efficacy of mental events. Lovejoy’s critiques of pragmatism have won him few friends in the field of American philosophy, but in the end they give us more rather than less reason to study pragmatism as America’s one and only original philosophical movement. It is also an open question how much Lovejoy’s original contributions in philosophy of mind are his own attempt to save some of the core insights of pragmatism.


Mind and Epistemology

“How can a being whose activities are all in a fleeting present, and the entire sum of whose knowings falls temporally within a brief span of years, really behold that which was ages before it, or shall be decades, possibly centuries, after it?” – The Anomaly of Knowlegde (1923)

Arthur Lovejoy was, above all, a philosopher of the given. “One has a universe of some sort on one’s hands”, he wrote in an early paper on F.H. Bradley, “however one define it, there it is, as an immediate fact – something actually exists”. This universe, he maintained resolutely, is given as a universe full of differences requiring to be united and harmonized in thought. But, it is thought itself that lays the strongest claim to immediacy. Nothing is less amenable to doubt than the fact that this world includes self-conscious beings like us, beings that have ideas, experiences, sensations and, above all, knowledge.

The indubitability of this fact does not make it less baffling. How can we, stuck in “a fleeting present”, contemplate the spatiotemporal vastness of the universe? How can we “reach beyond, to transcend, both the place and the date of [our] own existence”? Lovejoy’s solution – epistemological and psychophysical dualism – was, as he was fond of pointing out, a simple refinement of the strategy common sense has traditionally relied on in dealing with the puzzle. Self-conscious beings are, above all, stewards of ideas, and it is these ideas – the irreducible, but reliable ‘understudies’ of objects – that make our familiar transcendence possible. Lovejoy honed his arguments for dualism for many years, from his early treatments of pragmatism and “new realism” to the ardent and sophisticated defense of the view put forward in The Revolt Against Dualism (1930).


Time and Evolution

How can we, asks the 29 year old Arthur Lovejoy in his essay “Religion and the Time- Process” (1902), “assign any worth or any rational meaning to the fact that this world exists under the form of time; that is it a scene where “man is hurled, from change to change unceasingly”?”. The concept of time, Lovejoy believed in 1902 and throughout his life, was the greatest stumbling block of Western metaphysics. Can reason and time coexist? Is avowing the ultimate rationality of the universe tantamount to denying the reality of the temporal? And, conversely, does affirming the incessant ‘flux’ of time translate into making reason, along with Plato’s ‘otherworldly’ realm, obsolescent? From his insightful forays into Neo-Platonist thought to his exchanges with James and Bergson, Lovejoy sought a conception of the universe as both essentially temporal and ultimately intelligible.

Nowhere is this pursuit more obvious than in his recurrent treatment of the theory of organic evolution and its emergence in the 18th century. For Lovejoy, evolutionary thought was the most formidable attempt to introduce time into the universe. It was not just a transformation of the “great chain of Being” into a Becoming; it was also a radical experiment in conceptualizing the emergence of the new and the unpredictable. Lovejoy’s evolution is not the bricoleur’s rearrangement of given units. It is the act of the capricious creatrice: it has gaps, breaks and chasms, “it exhibits the emergence from time to time of absolute novelties, discontinuous variations in no way deducible from, or explicable by, any character of the prior members of the series”. The big question still noticeably lurks in the background: is there method in the creatrice’s madness?


History of Ideas

The historical method was always Lovejoy’s weapon of choice. If time and the existence of ideas are the givens a philosopher must work with, then studying the development of ideas in time is one of the philosopher’s primary tasks. Lovejoy developed his conception of the ‘unitidea’ very early (as early as 1902) and spent his academic career refining it, never distancing himself from the careful, analytic approach that was to become his trademark. Guided by his conviction that the number of basic unit-ideas is “vastly less than the unsophisticated reader of that kaleidoscopic record usually supposes”, he catalogued the staggering variety of forms their combinations took. He wrote essays on Thomas Aquinas, on Spinoza and Leibniz, Rousseau and Kant, and – of course – on the Romantics with whom he found so much in common.

There is something fractal-like in these historical investigations. Regardless of where one looks, one finds the same Lovejoy-an themes: time, diversity, self-consciousness, pride. Exploring the numerous, and often surprising, historical appearances of these themes, Lovejoy hoped to unearth the hidden undercurrents of Western thought, connecting philosophical developments that seem distant and disparate to the untrained eye. The fruits of this approach are most obvious in The Great Chain of Being (1936) and the unheralded gem Reflections of Human Nature (1961). But, as one looks at this essays – from the earliest reflection on Lord Monboddo to the seminal “Terminal and Adjectival Values” (1950) – one realizes what Lovejoy knew all along: there is pleasure in the process. Here, it is the pleasure of seeing how Lovejoy’s ideas changed over time, often developing from unexpected and inchoate unitideas.