Any unit-idea which the historian thus isolates he next seeks to trace through more than one – ultimately, indeed, through all – of the provinces of history in which it figures in any important degree, whether those provinces are called philosophy, science, literature, art, religion, or politics. The postulate of such a study is that the working of a given conception, of an explicit or tacit presupposition, of a type of mental habit, or of a specific thesis or argument, needs, if its nature and its historic role are to be fully understood, to be traced connectedly through all the phases of men’s reflective life in which those workings manifest themselves.[1]

The previous statement should be regarded as the sum-up of this argumentation. Lovejoy’s thesis may be analysed in close connection to the shaping of the domain of cultural studies. In the introduction of his famous book, “The Great Chain of Being”, he begins by discussing the importance of acknowledging the possibility of breaking-up the history of ideas into unit-ideas. This concept of unit-ideas is relevant for the understanding of the domain of cultural studies, but we will come back to this later.

What Lovejoy suggests by using the notion of “unit-idea” is the fact that we should not analyse various domains of thought as being independent from one another. On the contrary, one should explore different paradigms, find the roots of distinct systems and break them up into basic ideas. Then trace these ideas in other domains by careful inquiry. Thus, one should notice that claims for originality inside various domains are uncalled for and futile. Every sphere of humanistic thought relates to another, paradigms are interwoven and attempts of isolation should not be pursued. The credo of the cultural studies domain falls back on inter-disciplinarily approaches: what would the history of ideas be without history, literature and philosophy, or post-colonialism without the post-modernist literary concepts, historical insight and ideological influence? Isolation would actually send knowledge into solitary confinement.

The –isms present throughout the history of ideas are not stand-alone movements, they draw their existence from the dynamics of the basic unit-ideas, be they imbedded in unconscious mental habits (beliefs that are so deeply rooted in an individual or a group’s mind that are tacitly presupposed than formally expressed and argued for), in “metaphysical pathos” (a description of the nature of things, any characterization of the world to which one belongs and the empathy which it engenders) or in philosophical semantics (a study of the sacred words and phrases of a period or movement, with a view to a clearing up of their ambiguities, and a listing of their shades and meanings; the “deep” meanings of words, however, depend on the standards of value and of taste of a given society, a given historical or cultural moment; e.g.: the word “nature”). We could state that these –isms are more actual that never. If our predecessors haven’t managed to define the era they were living in, from a cultural perspective (the modernists never named their époque “modernism”, the baroque style was referred to as “baroque” in those days etc.). We like taxonomies, the contemporary man likes to label things: we live in consumerism, we have become interdisciplinary beings, we embrace –isms.

The unit-ideas represent essences and their constant “migration” between various spheres of intellectual life produce –isms. One such example of “migration” is that of the “English garden” of the late 17th and 18th centuries, which contributed to the shaping of particular cultural and literary movements through a change in taste in arts. The question is how is this approach relevant for the study of cultural identity? My answer would be that it provides a way of analysis that suits the holistic view of cultural studies. When studying cultural identity, one does not limits himself or herself to a particular domain. “Culture” is a complex term that incorporates various paradigms. The “migration” of ideas between fields of work is inevitable. Lovejoy provides a way in which one can observe the presence of the same unit-ideas in different thought paradigms. Identifying these unit-ideas may prove useful for the understanding of one’s cultural identity. It is obvious that the identification of political concepts in one British novel is closely linked to the socio-political context of the British space, political concepts that may draw their inspiration from the works of a given British philosopher. The interaction between these unit-ideas provides a general cultural structure typical for a certain space, thus providing that space with a cultural identity. As Lovejoy points out, the unit-ideas all have a common, essential root which is universal. However, it is their manifestations, their alteration through the different formulations of unconscious mental habits or metaphysical pathos that ensure the existence of different cultural spaces and different cultural identities.

Cultural studies’ concern with history, literature, nationality, ethnicity etc. resembles Lovejoy’s concern with philosophy, history of ideas and literature, in the sense that they both can retrace their steps to a few general, basic unit-ideas and then observe and analyze the way in which these ideas manifest in different fields of study. This task may provide an insight into how cultural identity is created.

The commonality of unit-ideas at different times and places is often defined in terms of familial resemblance. But such an approach must necessarily define unit-ideas as being something other than the smallest conceptual unit. It is therefore in tension with Lovejoy’s methodological prescription and, more importantly, disregards a potentially important aspect of intellectual history – the smaller conceptual units themselves. In response to this, an alternative interpretation of unit-ideas as ‘elemental’ – as the smallest identifiable conceptual components – is put forward. Unlike the familial resemblance approach, the elemental approach can provide a plausible explanation for changes in ideas. These are construed as being either the creation of new unit-ideas, the disappearance of existing ones, or alterations in the groups of unit-ideas that compose idea-complexes. The focus on the movement of unit-ideas and idea-complexes through history can also be sensitive to contextual issues, carefully distinguishing the different meanings that single words may have, in (much) the way that Lovejoy suggests. (Carl Knight)


Bibliography: Lovejoy, Arthur O., The Great Chain of Being. Harvard University Press, Massachusetts, 1936; Knight, Carl. Unit-Ideas Unleashed: A Reinterpretation and Reassessment of Lovejovian Methodology in the History of Ideas in The Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (2):195-217: 2012; [1] Lovejoy, p. 15 photo source