Thursday, September 07, 2006

Review of A. O. Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being

Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being is a classic work, actually the one that founded the discipline we now call the "history of ideas". It is kind of like the history of philosophy, but it is more about tracing an idea through history than critically evaluating an argument, even via its historical chain.

There are two ideas that Lovejoy finds in about 2000 years of history. The first is the Principle of Plentitude. That principle is one that states that everything that is not a patent irrational contradiction actually exists - was created in the world. The second idea is the Principle of Continuity - the thesis that nature makes no leaps. That is for every set of things where there can be an intermediate thing between two objects, the intermediate thing exists too. Between the two of these we can account for, for example, why there are so many species, and why there are so many similarities among and between species.

This idea manifests itself over and over and over in history from its origins in Plato and Aristotle to the romantics in the 18th century.

Thogh the idea is important and in and of itself interesting, the book is often tedious. It is not a quick or easy or fascinating read. If you are really interested in the history of ideas, and have some real experience with primary texts in philosophy, you should get to know this. I am sure there is more up-to-date literature on this, and I am sure that Lovejoy has been criticized a lot since this came out in 1936, but the book remains a valuable part (or starting point) for the discussion of many of the ideas that he brings down.

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