U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reinterpreting and Rethinking Lovejoy’s Unit Ideas

Dan Wickberg has been rethinking Arthur O. Lovejoy’s vision of the history of ideas for some time (as partially evidenced here). But now we have another contributor to that effort—from a philosopher, Carl Knight. Through my regular PhilPapers update I received the following a few weeks ago:


Carl Knight (2012). “Unit-Ideas Unleashed: A Reinterpretation and Reassessment of Lovejovian Methodology in the History of Ideas.” Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (2):195-217.

This article argues for an unconventional interpretation of Arthur O. Lovejoy’s distinctive approach to method in the history of ideas. It is maintained that the value of the central concept of the ‘unit-idea’ has been misunderstood by friends and foes alike. 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 both Lovejoy and his influential critic Quentin Skinner suggest.


Given Dr. Knight’s prior work on luck, justice, and egalitarianism, this seems like an unusual, or at least new, research path for him. I wonder what prompted this new line of work?

That aside, based on the abstract, this elemental (over a familial resemblance) approach doesn’t seem to have a ready application to the work of intellectual historians. But maybe I’m not looking at this in an optimal way? – TL