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The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea [Paperback]

Arthur Lovejoy , Peter Stanlis
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

1 May 2009
This is arguably the seminal work in historical and philosophical analysis of the twentieth century. Originally delivered for the William James lecture series at Harvard University in 1932-33, it remains the cornerstone of the history of ideas. Lovejoy sees philosophy's history as one of confusion of ideas, a prime example of which is the idea of a "great chain of being" a universe linked in theology, science and values by pre-determined stages in all phases of life. Lovejoy's view is one of dualities in nature and society, with both error and truth as part of the natural order of things. The past reminds us that the ruling modes of thought of our own age, which we may view as clear, coherent and firmly grounded, are unlikely to be seen with such certainty by posterity. The Great Chain of Being is an excursion into the past, with a clear mission-to discourage the assumption that all is known, or that what is known is not subject to modification at a later time. Lovejoy reaffirms the "intrinsic worth of diversity," as a caution against certitude. By this he does not mean toleration of indifference, or relativity for its own sake, but an appreciation of mental and physical process of human beings. As Peter Stanlis notes in his introduction: "Faith in the great chain of being was finally largely extinguished by the combined influences of Romantic idealism, Darwin's theory of evolution, and Einstein's theory of relativity." Few books remain as alive to prospects for the future by reconsidering follies of the past as does Lovejoy's stunning work

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Product details

  • Paperback: 410 pages
  • Publisher: Transaction Publishers (1 May 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1412810264
  • ISBN-13: 978-1412810265
  • Product Dimensions: 22.9 x 15.2 x 2.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,042,497 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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The Great Chain of Being, employed as a title, would have suggested...what was 'probably the most widely familiar conception of the general scheme of things'--the idea of a world in which every being was related to every other in a continuously graded scale, with no possible form of diversity missing. Pursuing the biography of this idea through more than two thousand years, the distinguished author of these lectures makes clear its amazing influence on the thought and history of the Western World...Intellectual vigor, critical precision and an amazing knowledge of what mankind has thought and desired in other ages distinguishes this book. No student of the history of literature, science, or philosophy may well neglect it. -- Clifford Barrett New York Times Book Review One of the great books of our generation. -- Marjorie Nicolson American Scholar A fascinating and moving book...Everyone interested in the larger ironies of human history should read [it]. -- Ernest Nagel New Republic Men are galvanized by ideas and act as vehicles for them...Such a ruling idea is that of the great chain of being. Prof. Lovejoy's study records the birth, the growth, the vicissitudes, transformations, and finally the senility, and perhaps the death of this idea. The study is as fascinating as that of the rise and decay of an empire, and, in fact, it is the study of the empire of an idea over human minds throughout many centuries...Prof. Lovejoy's approach is fresh and different...The learning exhibited in this book is vast. -- Raphael Demos Modern Language Notes --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

About the Author

Mr. Lovejoy taught philosophy for nearly forty years at the Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of numerous work, including Essays in the History of Ideas and Revolt against Dualism. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great essay about the history of ideas 18 Mar 2002
One of the best biologists of our times, Ernst Mayr, said about this book: "I learned more from the Great Chain of Being than from any other book I have ever read". Lovejoy follows the idea of 'scala naturae' from the beginning to the XVIII Century, when it faded in the birth of evolutionism. His book is one of the best essays about the history of the ideas. The concept of a great chain of being is one of the most famous ideas of Occidental philosophy, science and poetry, and it has been one of the most widely familiar conception of the general scheme of things, of the constitutive pattern of the universe.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.7 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
120 of 123 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A classic discussion of the influence of Platonic thought 11 May 1999
By A Customer - Published on
Lovejoy was a professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. This book represents an expanded version of a series of lectures given by Lovejoy at Harvard during the second half of the academic year 1932-33. The fact that this book remains in print over 60 years later is testimony to the fact that it has become a classic.
The book concerns the Great Chain of Being, a way of looking at reality that can be traced to Plato and Aristotle. We begin with the supposition that existence is superior to non-existence. A good God, Plato argues, would allow any non-contradictory being to exist. God thus created a Universe full of all possible things. This Lovejoy calls the principle of plenitude, the maximally full World. From Aristotle later writers evolved the idea that changes in Nature were continuous; that "Nature makes no leaps." This became the principle of continuity. Eventually, philsophers would postulate a vast chain of Beings stretching from the perfect (God) to the nearly non-existent (lifeless matter). Mankind was somewhere in the middle of the chain - above the animals (specifically the Ape), but below the Angels.
The principles of continuity and plenitude were integral to the thinking of many philosophers and scientists. Lovejoy traces how numerous thinkers - St. Thomas, Liebniz, and Schelling figure most prominently - wrestled with the implications of plenitude and continuity. Could plenitude explain evil? How could one account for change if God had created the chain at the beginning of History? Lovejoy also traces the fate of two contradictory Platonic conceptions of God. Plato had painted God as an Other-Worldly and self-sufficient being on one hand while also describing how God had manifested his thought in the real world. The chain was God's thought concretely expressed.
This is not a book for someone who is a neophyte to philosophy. However it is an important book, particularly for understanding the intellectual foundations of much scientific and philosophical speculation of the past several hundred years. Lovejoy succeeds in showing how the Great Chain of Being lead to a number of surprising intellectual developments including Romanticism's appreciation for diversity. His writing is very clear. At times the book is amusing and it is always pleasurable to read.
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lovejoy's epic. 5 Dec 2002
By Stanley Allen - Published on
This is the landmark book of the field Lovejoy single-handedly invented (and of which perhaps he is still the sole master): the history of ideas. He wrote some other essays about different ideas and their histories (one of my favorites is about the concept of the "fortunate fall"), but this is his magnum opus and it reads like a thrilling detective story. He's a sleuth looking underneath the various intellectual currents over a 1500 year period in western thought, finding a culprit lurking in many of the failed philosophies and fashions we think we know -- the idea of the "great chain of being" foisted on us by Plato and his heirs.
The book is worth the first two exhilarating chapters alone. After that, the book can get pretty heavy at times; and Lovejoy's long-thought-train, multi-disciplinary, multi-lingual approach can leave one a little lost in some passages. Keep going to the end, though -- the book gradually builds up to an amazing set of climaxes in the last few chapters. He shows how the various thinkers draw out all of the contradictory implications of the the original idea until the thing peters out into a strewn splatter of waste.
It's funny and thought-provoking, and it will peel your mind like an onion.
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Classic study in the history of ideas 28 Feb 2007
By filmnoirfan - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I'm not going to review this work as much as recommend it. They simply don't make scholars like Lovejoy anymore. I remember reading this as an undergrad in the 80s (bought to supplement my summer reading) and found it a most refreshing read compared to most of the trendy post-modernist "see-how-clever-I-am" works a la DeMan, Foucault, Derrida and their epigones that were de rigeur at the time. Read this to see how one can be a great thinker and write lucidly all at the same time. Amazing!
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Great Chain of Being. 2 Dec 2006
By New Age of Barbarism - Published on
_The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea_ is a publication of the William James Lectures delivered at Harvard in 1933 by philosopher and historian of ideas Arthur O. Lovejoy, by Harvard University Press. Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873-1962) was a professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University who had studied under William James and Josiah Royce. He developed the study of the history of ideas, which study he outlines and explains in the first lecture presented in this volume. The lectures presented here develop the history of an idea ("the great chain of being") which played a central role in the development of Occidental philosophy. Lovejoy explains in his preface to these lectures that the use of the phrase "the great chain of being" to describe the universe was used to refer to three characteristics of the constitution of the world: that these characteristics implied a certain conception of the nature of God, that this conception was conjoined with another to which it was in latent opposition to itself, and that most of the religious thought of the West has thus been at variance with itself. Lovejoy further maintains that the "great chain of being" was used to supply the basis for resolving the problem of evil and showing that the scheme of things was both intelligent and rational. Two further principles play a central role in Lovejoy's explication of the "great chain of being": "the principle of plenitude" and "the principle of continuity". The principle of plenitude may be traced back to Aristotle and simply states that all things that are possible will be, and it lies behind the ontological proof for the existence of God of Saint Anselm. The principle of continuity maintains that the qualitative differences of things must constitute a linear or continuous series. In providing a history of this central concept, Lovejoy traces the development of Western philosophy from the ancient Greeks (Plato and Aristotle), through the medieval period, to the rationalists (Leibniz and Spinoza), through some Eighteenth Century attempts to understand the universe, to the Romantic period (the German romantics and the metaphysical poets), to the modern day (in which the "great chain of being" was overturned and temporality came to play a unique role in the philosophies of individuals such as Bergson, Whitehead, and James). Lovejoy's lectures are very learned and show an incredible depth of philosophical understanding, as he traces the history of this idea. At the end, Lovejoy is to maintain that the idea eventually was overcome because it involved a static picture of the universe, and new philosophical systems (mentioning those of Schelling and Whitehead for example) came to allow for a temporal understanding of the universe and a God that evolves with it. (While his rejection of the notion of the "great chain of being" is perhaps over-hasty, particularly in light of what we now know about the "Big Bang" and the creation of the universe, these lectures nevertheless provide an enlightening tour through the history of ideas.)

Lovejoy begins his lectures by defining what he means by the "history of ideas" (the framework which he will use in his presentation of this particular concept). Lovejoy maintains that the "history of ideas" is both more specific and less restricted than the history of philosophy. Lovejoy suggests that the "history of ideas" is much like analytical chemistry and that "Though it deals in great part with the same material as the other branches of the history of thought and depends greatly upon their prior labors, it divides that material in a special way, brings the parts of it into new groupings and relations, views it from the standpoint of a distinctive purpose." Lovejoy then proceeds to further explicate what he means by the "history of ideas" and the role that the concept of the "great chain of being" plays in that history. In his next lecture, Lovejoy focuses on the genesis of the idea in ancient Greek philosophy. Lovejoy begins by noting that Whitehead regarded Western philosophy as "consist[ing] of a series of footnotes to Plato", and thus he begins by explaining the role of "otherworldiness" in Western philosophy and the philosophy of Plato and the Platonists. Lovejoy mentions Plato's _Dialogues_, Plato's notion of "the Good" and "Absolute Being" (comparing this to the Vedanta), and the NeoPlatonists such as Plotinus. Lovejoy also examines the thought of Aristotle and explains the development of the principles of plenitude and continuity from his philosophy in the _Metaphysics_. Lovejoy also explains the role of "the One" in Plotinus, and then turns his attention to the medieval thought in the subsequent lecture. Here, Lovejoy mentions the writings of the Pseudo-Dionysius, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. Lovejoy explains the role of the principle of plenitude in the thought of Saint Thomas (noting the tendency of Thomism towards "illusionism" or otherworldliness, similar to the Vedanta) and the other Schoolmen. Lovejoy also mentions Jewish sources, the philosophy of Robert Fludd, and the role of Christian heresies (Gnosticism and Manicheanism). Lovejoy's next lecture deals with plenitude and the new cosmography. Here, Lovejoy explains the Copernican hypothesis (and how it would lead to subsequent attempts to rectify the notion of the "great chain of being"), the beginnings of modern science in Roger Bacon, and mentions Bruno and Galileo. Lovejoy also mentions the philosophies of Descartes and Pascal and the beginning of the modern era. Lovejoy next turns his attention to the principle of plenitude and the "principle of sufficient reason". The principle of sufficient reason (which was to play a role in both the philosophies of Spinoza and Leibniz) states that everything that happens does so for a definite reason. Lovejoy expounds upon the philosophies of Spinoza (mentioning his pantheism) and Leibniz (mentioning his _Theodicy_ and attempt to solve the problem of evil). The next lecture consists of Lovejoy's reflections on the "great chain of being" in Eighteenth Century thought. Lovejoy explains the subsequent attempts to maintain the concept of the "great chain of being" among the philosophers of the Eighteenth Century, noting attempts to rectify religion with science, the philosophy of optimism (that this is the best of all possible worlds), and the role of Eighteenth Century biology (mentioning the concept of design as seen in the writings of Paley for example and contrasting this to Darwinism). Lovejoy next turns his attention to temporalizing the chain of being. Here, Lovejoy mentions the thinking of Kant, Bergson, and others and their attempts to provide a temporal understanding for this concept. Lovejoy next turns his attention to Romanticism and the priniciple of plenitude. Lovejoy notes the role of this concept in the Romantic poets as well as in the philosophy of German idealism. Finally Lovejoy ends by noting the culmination of this concept and its eventual overcoming by modern philosophers. Lovejoy mentions for example the concept of God (as evolving) as seen by thinkers such as Schelling and Whitehead.

This book provides an excellent introduction to an important concept in the history of ideas in Western thought. Lovejoy was to found this study and his thinking is both profound and unique. Lovejoy's learning is very impressive and his references are sure to provide much source material for further reading in philosophy.
14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A pioneering work that created a new field of study 18 Dec 2004
By Shalom Freedman - Published on
With this book Lovejoy invented the area of study called ' The History of Ideas'. His tracing of a single idea through all its historical transformations gave a new interpretation to the concept of ' idea itself'. Ideas were not 'eternal unchanging concepts' but were evolving forms who took on new meanings in new situations.
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