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MLN 117.5 (2002) 1083-1097

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The History of Ideas At 80

Richard Macksey


This occasional section of MLN serves as an archive for critical documents—retrospective surveys, papers from symposia, rites of passage, and celebrations. In this issue we celebrate two 80th birthdays of more than casual critical interest.

The inceptions of intellectual movements are customarily marked by the publication of manifestoes, articles, or books, by the convening of conferences, salons, or the establishment of "programs," academic chairs, and such. In its modern incarnation, the History of Ideas can, however, be dated from an informal lunch meeting of three colleagues at the Johns Hopkins University—the philosophers Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas and the literary historian Gilbert Chinard—which led to the formation of a "club." (There was something of a local tradition for this slightly ironic use of the term club, since, with his arrival in Baltimore in 1879, Charles S. Peirce had reconstituted his "Metaphysical Club," the informal meetings that had flourished in Cambridge during the 1860s and are often seen as the "seedbed of American pragmatism.") The first meeting of the History of Ideas Club was duly convened on January 24, 1923. To celebrate the eightieth anniversary of its birthday a few remarks about the history of the history of ideas may be in order.* [End Page 1083]

Despite the specificity of this "birthday," construed most broadly history of ideas is at least as old as Aristotle's account, in the opening of the Metaphysics, of pre-Socratic speculation about "nature" (phusis). The historian of the history of ideas, in describing a conceptual approach to intellectual history, would have to review many subsequent developments, such as the rise and exfoliation of "universal histories" from Polybius to Vico, Kant, and F.W. Schelling. This inventory would also include various nineteenth-century discussions of Zeitgeist, Denkstil, and world-view, as well as the work of later historiographers, from Émile Meyerson, R.G. Collingwood, and Ernst Cassirer to the current Begriffisgeschichte tradition descending from Wilhelm Dilthey's historicism.

For the literary critic, however, the history of ideas is inevitably and most intimately associated with the movement initiated in the twentieth century by Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873-1962) and his associates at the Johns Hopkins University. Lovejoy was the dominant force in its early history and energetically raised in his writings most of the methodological issues that have continued to inspire debate. His friend and colleague George Boas spoke of him as "Reason-in-Action." Very briefly put, the history of ideas in the Lovejovian sense involves an interdisciplinary approach to the identification and tracing of certain "unit-ideas" as they find expression in a wide range of cultural fields from philosophic systems to literature, the other arts, the sciences, and social thought. Lovejoy, who combined the powers of critical philosophy with vast historical scholarship in a manner unrivaled in his generation, certainly never claimed to have a patent on the term "history of ideas" or its application, and he would have been the first to acknowledge that his own historiographic method depends in a specific way on his epistemological views, not shared by all of his fellow workers. While he could be a fierce controversialist and a great drawer of distinctions who never displayed any tolerance for imprecision, he did not pretend to have established a "school" in the sense of strict methodological rules or a canon of received texts. As noted above, the history of ideas as an institution is customarily dated from the organization of a "club for critical exchange," the History of Ideas Club, founded by Lovejoy, Boas, and Chinard in 1923. They were joined at monthly meetings by colleagues from the literary, classical studies, history of medicine, and history departments, as well as from political science, economics, biology, physics, chemistry, and medicine. The club sponsored occasional publications, notably Lovejoy's Essays in the History of Ideas; a Festschrift [End Page 1084] [Begin Page 1086] collection, Studies in Intellectual History; and the essay collection Forerunners of Darwin.

In 1940 Lovejoy and his associates founded the Journal of the...


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