Sunday, September 09, 2007

"History of Ideas at 80"

By Richard Macksey in MLN 117.5 (2002) 1083-1097

Modern American History of Ideas born at lunch w Arthur Lovejoy, George Boas, and Gilbert Chinard when a club was proposed. It was formed on January 24, 1923.

Pre-history w Aristotle, "universal histories" by Polybius, Vico, Kant and Schelling, discussions of Zeitgeist, Denkstil, and world-view, as well as e.g. cassirer and begriffsgeschichte.

Lovejovian history of ideas "involves an interdisciplinary approach to the indetification 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." (1084)

In 1940 they founded the Journal of the History of Ideas. Isaiah Berlin, Rene Wellek and others have been on the board, a number of academic programs have been founded as history of ideas programs, and the Dictionary of the History of Ideas was published to spread the ideas.

The paradigm work is of course "The Great Chain of Being: A Study in the History of Ideas" (1933). The unit ideas of plenitude, continuity, and gradation were followed from Plato to the early nineteenth century on the trail of the "single pervasive complex of ideas" embodied in the title. I guess here the idea of the great chain is that it encompasses everything, that it gives continuity over time and that it provides a hierarchy for the world? - at least this is the idea until the enlightenment and romanticism kills the unity of the universe.

Lovejoy says HOI is more specific and less restricted than history of philosophy, coz the units studied are different. He wants to study unit-ideas, the constitutive element of all the larger systems, creeds, and -isms. Macksey says Lovejoy believes the unit-ideas are finite in number and persistent through time - which makes it questionable whether an actual unit-idea has any history at all?

According to Macksey - Lovejoy's emphasis on this anatomizing process tends to foreground continuity over discontinuity, since "the seeming novelty of many a system is due solely to the novelty of application or arrangement of the old elements which enter into it" (4). (Macksey page 1089)

According to Macksey - Lovejoy then describes some unit-ideas - most are of the following types: implicit or incompletely explicit assumptions, or "more or less unconscious mental habits" , "dialectical motives", "types of metaphysical pathos", "sacred words or phrases of a period or movement" and, more explicitly, specific propositions or principles (eg the Great Chain)

TWO OF THESE TYPES DESCRIBED BY LOVEJOY ARE ESPECIALLY USEFUL TO ANYONE ATTEMPTING TO ACCOUNT FOR THE NON-RATIONAL SUBSTRATE IN INTELLECTUAL HISTORY; the "dialectical motives", which are the mental tics that form the characteristic turns of reasoning or assumptions of an individual, school, or even generation; and "metaphysical pathos" which is Lovejoy's term for the emotional 'charge' of certain words or phrases (Macksey page 1089)

Then three important aspects of the recurrent phenomena -
1) same presuppositions or operative ideas in diverse provinces of thought and different periods
2) the role of the semantic transitions and confusions
3) the internal tensions or waverings of the mind of almost every individual writer

Innovation is to Lovejoy a matter of recombination of the basic elements of thought

Development in France - histoire des idees much like academic source study but also the Geneva School. Georges Poulet - is more concerned with the concepts we think with than the things we think about.

Development in Germany - "several rival versions of conceptional history in the generation after Dilthey, notably Friedrich Mienecke's Ideengeschichte" and eg Gadamer. Also , the exploration of commonplaces, "sacred words and phrases" in Ernst Robert Curtius' European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1953)

Development in Britain - Isaiah Berlin. Where Lovejoy stresses continuity of unit-ideas, Berlin "is characteristically drawn to new or emergent ideas" (1092)
Next generation in Britain were Quentin Skinner and John Dunn. Skinner says neither context nor the total insistence on the autonomy of the text is enough. And compare this to the scholars (old-school history of literature folks) v critics (new school new criticism folks) debate.

Then we get to practical applications which have been various. Lit scholars have learned to be cautious about periods, many confusions have been cleared up and disambiguations taken place.

Many second generation studies have wandered beyond particular eras looking at such things as progess, primitivism, biblical covenant, etc

Then we get to fruitful objections such as are described in eg Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being after Fifty Years by Daniel Wilson (1987).
Spitzer who wanted a synthetic method that allows the historian to comprehend the 'totality of features of a given period or movement' " (1094)
Mandelbaum who wanted to distinguish between continuing ideas and recurrent ideas.
Mink who ?
Foucault who was tireless in his attacks (no, it is not that I don't describe what they are, it is that Macksey doesn't - silly man), but had certain similarities:
a) committed to a vigorously cross-disciplinary approach
b) identified and studied the profound break in thought separating the E from Romanticism
c) more interested in the CONSTRAINTS on thought at any given period than in its flow
d) anti-formalists

General problems:
what is an idea?
define causality and influence?
discontinuities or paradigm shifts?
meaning and value?

This really is not a very good article - there are many claims and very few examples to support them. There is no way to figure out from this how different scholars see the history of ideas as a discipline and what it is supposed to be doing. For instance, at the end Macksey says that the linguistic turn has significantly altered the way in which readers how approach the conceptual formulations in Lovejoy's narrative - no shit, Sherlock - but he says not a word about HOW the approaches have been altered. GRRRRRRRRRRRRRR.

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