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A Study of the History of an Idea

This is not simple subject matter to unpack. As difficult as it may be to comprehend today, however, its important to understand that this chain-based idea of reality was considered axiomatic for much of human history. Traditional scientific endeavor was therefore never considered a demoralized, purely secular sphere of activity in the epistemology of Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Hindu philosophers, at least until the current era. It is easy to see how naturally accepting an idea like The Great Chain of Being would lend itself to accepting a hierarchically structured world with relation to not just plants and animals, but other human beings as well.

It is an idea that chafes against the modern notion of progress, which of course is resolutely egalitarian. Reading this book, I was struck by how familiar the concept of The Great Chain of Being was from religious philosophy. This includes not just the hierarchical structure of creation, both corporal and non-corporeal, but also the traditional interpretations of how a human being can gain knowledge within this chain.

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The idea of The Great Chain of Being fell out of favor in Western philosophy in the 19th century, seemingly for good. This came about less due to any scientific advancement than to philosophical conclusions which decided that certain components of the idea were irreconcilable. Lovejoy gives a detailed history of the breakdown, but essentially the idea achieved a peak of popularity again in the 18th century before the concepts of plenitude and continuity were decided to be mutually exclusive.

Since then society has largely stopped litigating the issue, as it has forgotten it ever existed in the first place. There may be lessons in the idea of The Great Chain of Being yet, however. According to the traditional belief, if any one link in the chain were to be severed and the gradation of the chain was thus rendered discontinuous and imperfect, all of creation would be collapse. This is a belief worth reflecting on in an era of mass extinction and environmental chaos.

It also bears notice that without a clearly accepted concept of how human beings relate to both the natural world and the metaphysical one, which the chain provided, many people have been set adrift spiritually and psychologically.

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It's no longer clear to anyone why human beings, plants or animals exist, or what they exist for. True or not, people in the time of The Great Chain of Being never experienced the pain of believing their own existence to be superfluous. Despite that, it is hampered by its extreme deficiencies when it comes to form. If I were not already familiar with the crux of what is discussed here through Islamic philosophy I would probably have been baffled by this book. View all 5 comments. Jul 16, Michael rated it it was amazing. The Great Chain of Being is one of the foremost books of intellectual history, which is, as the subtitle reads, the study of the history of an idea.

Here, in fact, the Great Chain of Being specifically refers to two complementary ideas first postulated by Plato and the Greeks, which the book then attempts to investigate over the succeeding millennia. The first idea the principle of plenitude stated that the Creator, being omnipotent, all-powerful, and faultless, could only create a world which The Great Chain of Being is one of the foremost books of intellectual history, which is, as the subtitle reads, the study of the history of an idea.

The first idea the principle of plenitude stated that the Creator, being omnipotent, all-powerful, and faultless, could only create a world which contained everything that could ever be conceived.

The second idea the principle of continuity was a deduction of the first: if everything that could ever be conceived was to actually exist, the steps between each thing would be absolutely miniscule Together the two ideas form a plan and structure of a world composed of an infinite number of links ranged in hierarchical order from the least to the greatest, eventually reaching to the point that infinity can be reached the Creator himself, wherein which each link differs from its neighbor above and its neighbor below by the least possible degree.

This is the Great Chain of Being. For most of its history, the idea of the Great Chain of Being was used to extol the virtue and greatness of the Judeo-Christian god, and its two constituent parts were seen as two sides of the same teleological argument in favor of the greatness of God. By the Enlightenment, however, some thinkers Liebniz first, but Schelling most explicitly recognized that, when extended to its logical end, the principle of continuity was incompatible with the principle of plentitude, as they resulted in two competing tenets: respectively, an admiration by man of God's creation for itself, and a constant striving by man to imitate God's goodness.

Yet, recognizing man's unique and wholly necessary placement in the universe is mutually exclusive from attempting to upend such a place by striving to ascend to the next place in the line of creation. Schelling noted that the Great Chain of Being required of man both a piety towards the God of things as they are [including] an adoring delight in the sensible universe so that man could better appreciate the fullness of life as created by God and also suppression of the natural interests and desires so that man could better prepare for whatever ascension he could attain , and Schelling's intellectual successors of the Romantic period concluded that the Great Chain of Being served as an argument against, and not for, the existence of God.

View 1 comment. Istorija ideja je sinteza, ne konglomerat — njeni okviri podrazumevaju odabrane i povezane procese izdvojene iz povesti kulture. Ili — kako je Bog stvorio idealni svet ako postoje fosili — vrste koje se menjaju?

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Sve u svemu — apsolutna preporuka za sve ljubitelje filozofije i istorije kulture. Jul 24, Franz rated it really liked it. He writes English prose as if it were bad German: a thicket of long sentences one must hack through, most of them containing numerous subordinate clauses, asides, and commas like this sentence, before finally reaching the reward of the main verb. But once I got used to his grammatical style, I became engrossed. Recommended for those with a interest in the history of ideas, a field that Lovejoy apparently did much to develop.

The great chain of being refers to the belief that there is a continuous series of creatures and objects with God at the top and rocks, maybe even atoms, at the bottom.

In between, in descending order, are spiritual creatures such as angels, humans, apes, lions, , spiders, tuna, worms, amoebas, seaweed, roses, and so on down to fossils and rocks. Not only is this chain continuous, meaning that there are no breaks or gaps in the series, but gradation is an important concept as well. What this means is that in each kind of creature or thing there are resemblances with the creature just above or below that kind of creature or thing in the chain.

Think of a real steel chain. Each link on the chain entwines with the links on either side of it. Of course this example is inadequate as all the chain links are identical. But if you think of humans, the epitome of mortal life on earth, it is the only earthly creature that shares a spiritual nature with the angels and a physical nature as well as other resemblances with the apes. This means that the lowest animal and the highest plant, whatever they are, must be linked. Along with continuity and gradation, the third key concept in the idea of the great chain of being is plenitude.

Plenitude refers to the fullness of reality, meaning that every possible creature or natural object that could possibly exist actually does exist. If there were gaps in which a possible creature did not exist in fact, that break in the chain would result in catastrophe. This idea of plenitude led many people to believe in the 17th century that there must be life on the other planets, even intelligent life, maybe even life forms more intelligent than humans. And that there must be planets orbiting the stars also filled with intelligent beings and other creatures and objects unimagined by us.

The sources of this idea of the chain of being were Plato and Aristotle.

The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea - Arthur Oncken Lovejoy - كتب Google

Plato came up with the idea of plenitude, Aristotle with the ideas of continuity and gradation. The Neoplatonist Plotinus further developed the ideas and the great chain of being eventually became an integral part of Christian theology. Lovejoy points out that rather than being rather close to God, we humans were really much closer to the bottom of the pile.

Rather than indicating that the Earth was the center of the cosmos and therefore in an exalted position, we learn from Lovejoy that we humans are much closer to Hell than the Empyrean residence of God and his favored angels. A Newton is closer to the centipedes than he is to God, although Newton was closer to the angels than to the rest us.

The notions of plenitude and continuity required that every slot in the chain must be occupied. This meant that the universe is static, never changing or developing. When the astronomers of the 17th century discovered the nature of the planets and the stars, the natural inclination of the educated public was to assume that those worlds were all filled with life. Lovejoy spends several chapters on the 18th century when thinking about the chain of being both culminated and began to break down.

He explains why not only Leibniz but many others argued that the world that exists must be the best of all possible worlds. At the same time, with the gradual development science and technology, and the challenge of brought to bear by the idea of progress, the idea of the great chain of being gradually changed to include some dynamic aspects until only vestiges of the original idea remained in the richness of nature as seen by the German romantics. Ideas of species evolution were already in the air several decades before Darwin proved it.

The idea of the chain of being embodied an ethic. The world is organized so that the place of every thing in it must occupy the place it is in and no other. That includes the human world. European men are at the top of the human heap, while sub-Saharan Africans populate the bottom. The rest of the races occupy the spots in between.

It becomes easier to understand, though no less loathsome, why slavery was justified in the eyes of many, and social improvement from the lower nether levels of society to the higher echelon was almost impossible. It also makes the divine right of kings easier to fathom. The way the world is, is the way the world should be. Lovejoy examines the writings of dozens of thinkers, especially the philosophical poets.

PLATO ON: The Allegory of the Cave

However, he spends almost no ink on the Scottish thinkers of the 18th century. He never even mentions Adam Smith. I imagine they had no sympathy for this idea. I doubt that many of us, at least in the economically advanced nations, would accept such a chain of being.

We are to enthralled with the idea of progress, which is the antithesis of the idea of the great chain of being.

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View all 3 comments. Nov 19, Mir rated it really liked it Shelves: ideas , non-fiction. Lovejoy essentially invented the field of "history of ideas" as something beyond the study of philosophy. Here he traces the transmission of the idea of the "Great Chain of Being" i. In America, intellectual history as a field derives from Lovejoy's tenure at Johns Hopkins and his Lovejoy essentially invented the field of "history of ideas" as something beyond the study of philosophy.


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In America, intellectual history as a field derives from Lovejoy's tenure at Johns Hopkins and his founding of the History of Ideas club there.