Arthur LovejoyArthur O. Lovejoy studied philosophy under William James at Harvard. Over two decades after James' death, in 1933 Lovejoy gave the second William James Lecture series at Harvard, which became his 1936 book, The Great Chain of Being. In 1940 he co-founded the Journal of the History of Ideas. He helped found the American Association of University Professors and the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Lovejoy's book was not the first "history of an idea." In English that was probably J.B.Bury's 1920 classic The Idea of Progress, with an important new introduction by historian Charles Beard in 1932. Works in Europe after the French revolution developed the idea of progress, especially Alexis de Tocqueville's two books on Democracy in America, where the United States are his model of progress.
The Great Chain of BeingLovejoy's most famous work is his 1936 history of an idea that began in the writings of the Greek philosophers Parmenides and Plato. It is the idea of "being" (Greek τὸ ὂν, the etymological root of ontology, the study of what is). For Parmenides, becoming (change) is an illusion. For Plato, being is the unchanging truth, the good, and the beautiful. Lovejoy shows how ideas of the neoplatonists became the basis for the theologians of the Christian church, who argued that God's creation must be perfect, complete, and a continuous "natural scale" (scala naturae) from the least living thing up to the ens perfectissimum, the most perfect Being, God himself. This natural scale became known in English as the "great chain of being." The continuity of the scale was the argument that there could be no gaps, that every possible being between two very similar beings must necessarily exist. In his book, The Great Chain of Being, Lovejoy traces the history of this idea from ancient philosophy through medieval theology to the science of the enlightenment and the "age of reason." Scholastics like Thomas Aquinas argued there could be no conflict between reason and revealed religion, though his contemporary Scholastic John Duns Scotus argued that reason alone can not determine what God created. God is not constrained by logic or by universal and eternal laws of nature, God is free, said Scotus. Lovejoy argues that God's perfection and the principles of plenitude (completeness) and continuity (no gaps) implies that truth and goodness are timeless. God's perfection also implies no possible change. There can never be any "progress."
When the principle of plenitude was construed either religiously, as an expression of the faith in the divine goodness, or philosophically, as an implicate of the principle of sufficient reason, it was, as usually understood, inconsistent with any belief in progress, or, indeed, in any sort of significant change in the universe as a whole. The Chain of Being, in so far as its continuity and completeness were affirmed on the customary grounds, was a perfect example of an absolutely rigid and static scheme of things. Rationality has nothing to do with dates. If the non-existence of one of the links in the chain would be proof of the arbitrariness of the constitution of the world today, it would have been so yesterday, and would be so tomorrow. As an early eighteenth-century English philosopher put the point:[God] always acts upon some ground or Reason, and from thence it follows that he had some Reason for Creation, otherwise he never would have created at all. If then he had any Reason, that Reason certainly was the same from all Eternity that it was at any particular time: For instance, suppose Goodness was the Ground of his Creation, it follows that if it was good at any particular time, it was equally so from all Eternity.1 This, a contemporary pointed out, if true, must be true not only of the creation in general, but of every kind of being: it implies that, “not only Angels and Men, but every other species of creatures, every Planet with all its Inhabitants, were eternal,” and, what is more, “ that God cannot hereafter create any new Species of Beings; because, whatever it is good for him to create in Time, it was equally good from all Eternity.”Lovejoy's adding time and change corresponds to the realization that science does not discover the "universal" laws of nature by reason and logic alone (in an ivory tower), but by observing the world and testing theories with experiments.
The Revolt Against DualismThis book is a difficult read, because Lovejoy employs a good deal of jargon that makes comparison with other philosophers a challenge. And he is critical of the methods of most other philosophers. He says...
The history of philosophy is strewn with the wrecks of supposedly self-evident truths which, when their full meaning was developed, proved to be in fact self-contradictory. The great trouble with philosophy has been that so many philosophers have been the sort of men who fall in love with an idea at first sight.The first few hundred pages of Lovejoy's book are filled with two kinds of dualism. He sometimes calls them epistemological dualism and psychophysical dualism. At other times they are natural dualism and Cartesian dualism. They also appear as a dualism of subject/object or of mind/body. Perhaps most important they seem to be the master idealism/materialism dualism at the top of our table of dualisms. This last dualism is most fitting for this great historian of ideas. Lovejoy's life work can be understood as determining the ontological status of ideas. The subtitle of The Revolt Against Dualism is "An Inquiry Concerning the Existence of Ideas." Information philosophy has solved this problem, viewing ideas as the purely abstract and immaterial information that can be (partially) instantiated in multiple physical structures, in "real" material objects and in our brains as knowledge or "ideas." Lovejoy struggles with his dualisms near the end of the book.
Whatever the truth or falsity of these incidental observations about the method of philosophical inquiry...We have not, so far, been asking whether dualism of the one sort or the other is true; we have been asking only whether, when the existence of a real and at least in some measure knowable physical world is postulated, either sort of dualism can be avoided without contradiction either of the implications of realism itself or of admitted facts. Can — we have been inquiring — all or any of the content actually and indubitably given in perception or other forms of supposedly cognitive experience be believed to be identical with the independently existing realities with which, upon the realistic hypothesis, these data enable us to become to some extent acquainted; and, if the notion of a physical order is defined in certain very general terms which seem to express the essentials of the common conception of physical reality, can these data, and all the rest of the content of experience, be conceived to find a place in that order? In short, can a realistic philosophy dispense with the hypothesis of the existence of ideas — in approximately though not quite precisely the sense in which that term was commonly used by the philosophers of the seventeenth century? The hypothetical character of this question does not, of course, mean that it is artificial, arbitrary, or unimportant. It happens that the greater part of mankind, and, in particular, most men of science, are still believers in a physical world; it is therefore not superfluous to inquire upon what terms that belief may consistently be held. And if a negative answer to the question propounded is reached — if it can be shown that a non-dualistic realism is an impossible kind of realism —this is manifestly equivalent to proof of a far-reaching conclusion, transcending the scope of the hypothetical question — a proof, namely, that the proposition "ideas (in this sense) exist” is a necessary part of nearly every possible sort of philosophy. For it is, of course, only from the standpoint of realism that that proposition is likely to be challenged, since the idealist is convinced ab initio that ideas, together with minds and their acts, make up the whole sum of existence. To make it evident to everybody that "ideas” are in fact indispensable in the realist’s world as well as the idealist’s would be to reestablish peace over a considerable part of the troubled domain of philosophy — a part in which peace had reigned, with but one or two slight interruptions, from the beginning of modern philosophy until the present century."Ideas" are of course a vital part of a realist's world but they have an immaterial abstract (almost metaphysical) existence just as Aristotle said about his master Plato's ideas. They are abstractions from the physical objects that they represent in language and thought. Lovejoy fails to see that "ideas" are still in the physical world, they are simply immaterial, the arrangements of the matter so as to be partially isomorphic with the information in the idea. He finally concludes that revolts against psychophysical (mind/body) dualism and epistemological dualism (subjective knowledge vs. the objective world) have both failed.
In arriving, by means of this review, at a reasoned conclusion with respect to these questions, we have reached the principal objective proposed at the beginning of these lectures. The revolt — within the realistic provinces of philosophical opinion — against dualism, both psychophysical and epistemological, has failed. The content of our actual experience does not consist wholly, and it is unprovable and improbable that any part of it consists, of entities which, upon any plausible theory of the constitution of the physical world, can be supposed to be members of that world; it consists of particulars which arise through the functioning of percipient organisms, are present only within the private fields of awareness of such organisms, are destitute of certain of the essential properties and relations implied either by the historic concept of the "physical” or by the contemporary physicist’s concept of it, and possess properties which physical things lack. They are, in short, essentially of the nature of "ideas,” as Descartes and Locke (for the most part) used that term. And it is through these entities that any knowledge which we may attain of the concrete characters of the physical world, and of any other realities extraneous to our several private fields of awareness, must be mediated; so that we are brought back to Locke’s conclusion, despite the heroic efforts of so many philosophers of our age to escape from it: "it is evident that the mind knows not things immediately, but by the intervention of the ideas it has of them.” If the word "nature” is used — though I think it is unhappily so used — to mean exclusively the world as it is, or may conceivably be, apart from all experience, i. e., apart from the processes of conscious perception and thought and phantasy and feeling, then between "nature” and experience there is a radical discontinuity; for the occurrence of those processes adds to the sum of reality not only particular existents, but kinds of existents, which "nature” — if so defined — though it engenders them, cannot plausibly be supposed to contain,Information philosophy disagrees with Lovejoy in that the mind is clearly a part of "nature" and in the physical world. The "ideas" in minds are significantly correlated with the information content of material objects and immaterial concepts to the extent that they represent knowledge of nature and the physical world. Check out our I-Phi lecture on The Ontological Status of Ideas as a central problem in metaphysics. Normal | Teacher | Scholar