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Arthur O. Lovejoy and the Challenge of Intellectual History

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 67, Number 1, January 2006
pp. 181-208 | 10.1353/jhi.2006.0003

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Journal of the History of Ideas 67.1 (2006) 181-208

John Patrick Diggins

Graduate Center, City University of New York
Men and ideas advance by parricide, by which the children kill, if not their fathers, at least the beliefs of their fathers, and arrive at new beliefs.
Sir Isaiah Berlin
I was supposed to wind up the study of mine, and become the Lovejoy of my generation—that's the silly talk of scholarly people.
Saul Bellow

To become "the Lovejoy," with the implication that each generation could only have one, was the ambition of Moses Herzog in Saul Bellow's novel, written a few years after he had won the Nobel Award for literature. Herzog presents the life of a professor who has as many sexual escapades and as much personal angst as he has scholarly interests, too unfocused to be another Lovejoy. Bellow's novel is full of letters to Nietzsche, Heidegger, and other modernist minds who brought Western intellectual life to a standstill, posing a lasting question mark about the possibilities of knowledge. Bellow taught in the program of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His colleague and close friend Allan Bloom also taught in that program. But when Bloom wrote the best seller, The Closing of the American Mind, he cited Nietzsche and Heidegger as part of the "German disease" that did so much to subvert academic thought, supposedly turning students into zombies, walking air heads responding only to vacuous visual stimuli and mind-numbing music, with Rock n' Roll blasting through a Walkman and having the effect of a "masturbational fantasy."

While Bellow's epistolary novel interrogated modernist thinkers, Bloom's popular tract of the times cited many classical thinkers as a countervoice to the modernists—Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Hobbes, Kant, Lessing, Schiller, Locke, and Rousseau. Such minds also figured prominently in the works of Arthur O. Lovejoy. But the recitation of such names leaves the impression that Lovejoy concerned himself only with the main currents of European intellectual history. On the contrary, two of his most important and often neglected books are The Thirteen Pragmatisms and Reflections on Human Nature. There one finds profound meditations on two vital episodes in the history of ideas in America: the Enlightenment and the philosophy of pragmatism. Perry Miller, arguably America's greatest intellectual historian, skipped over the Enlightenment as he proceeded to study the Puritans and then the transcendentalists, and he never seemed to have much interest in the pragmatists. But what Lovejoy had to write on the Enlightenment and pragmatism is richly ironic.

The pragmatists claimed to have liberated modern thought from the easy assumptions of the "Age of Reason," and today's poststructuralists charge that eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers deceived themselves in looking to the advent of knowledge as an answer to the presence of power. Lovejoy's books offer a different take entirely, making us aware that it is the modernist thinkers who may be deceiving themselves with the dubious promises of pragmatism and the arrogant conceits of poststructuralism and deconstruction, whose proponents claim to be the first "masters of suspicion." In many of Lovejoy's works, nothing is resolved and everything is left suspended in a state of honest suspicion.

Lovejoy was comfortable with contradiction, and hence more in tune with Augustine, who looked to the depths of human consciousness for spiritual knowledge, than with Aquinas, who believed evidence for God and human freedom could be found in reason alone. Nowhere is Lovejoy's affinity for the emotions of consciousness better seen than in his several essays on romanticism, both English, French, German, and even its origins in Chinese aesthetics and Confucian ethics. It was not reason and the notion of order and regulation that appealed to Lovejoy but the spontaneous promptings of nature springing forth without reflection or design. He delighted in quoting Voltaire against classicists and scholastics. "Worship God and practice justice—this is the sole religion of the Chinese literati. . . . O Thomas Aquinas, Scotus, Bonaventure, Francis, Dominic, Luther, Calvin, canons of Westminister, have you anything better? For four thousand years this religion, so simple and so noble, has endured in absolute integrity...



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