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The Ivory Tower: the history of a figure of speech and its cultural uses

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 February 2012

Steven Shapin is Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University. Email:


This is a historical survey of how and why the notion of the Ivory Tower became part of twentieth- and twenty-first-century cultural vocabularies. It very briefly tracks the origins of the tag in antiquity, documents its nineteenth-century resurgence in literary and aesthetic culture, and more carefully assesses the political and intellectual circumstances, especially in the 1930s and 1940s, in which it became a common phrase attached to universities and to features of science and in which it became a way of criticizing practices and institutions deemed to be ‘irrelevant’. The paper concludes by reflecting on the tag's relationship to pervasive cultural tropes and how its modern history may be used to appreciate better where science and its academic setting now stand in the ancient debate between the active and contemplative lives.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2012

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1 Ziolkowski, Theodore, The View from the Tower: Origins of an Antimodernist Image, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998Google Scholar, surveys some early twentieth-century literary and intellectual usages of the Ivory Tower tag, with special reference to the poets W.B. Yeats, Robinson Jeffers and Rainer Maria Rilke, and the psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung.

2 Commentators dispute what kind of neck this is – the Messiah, the Temple, the Church or (not so popular) Solomon's lover.

3 Edgeworth, R.J., ‘The Ivory Gate and the Threshold of Apollo’, Classica et Mediaevalia (1986) 37, pp. 145160Google Scholar.

4 Cook, Eleanor, Enigmas and Riddles in Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 132Google Scholar; Brewer, E.C., Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: Giving the Derivation, Source, or Origin of Common Phrases, Allusions, and Words that Have a Tale to Tell, Philadelphia: H. Altemus, 1898, p. 622Google Scholar; also Harry Levin, ‘The Ivory Gate’, in John J. Enck (ed.), Academic Discourse, New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1964, pp. 172–185, 172–173.

5 Saint Josémaría Escrivá de Balaguer, Holy Rosary, Centennial Edition, Princeton: Scepter, 2002, p. 74Google Scholar.

6 Newman, John Henry, Meditations and Devotions of the Late Cardinal Newman, New York: Longmans, Green, 1893, p. 88Google Scholar.

7 Joyce, James, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1916, p. 36Google Scholar.

8 Sainte-Beuve, C.A., Poésies complètes de Sainte-Beuve, Paris: Charpentier, 1869, p. 374Google Scholar.

9 For example, Nitze, W.A. and Dargan, E.P., A History of French Literature: From the Earliest Times to the Great War, New York: Henry Holt, 1922, pp. 547548Google Scholar; see also Omond, T.S. and Saintsbury, George, The Romantic Triumph, New York: Charles Scribner's, 1900, p. 223Google Scholar; Pellissier, Georges, The Literary Movement in France during the Nineteenth Century, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1897, p. 184Google Scholar; Nichol, J. Pringle, Victor Hugo: A Sketch of His Life and Work, New York: Macmillan, 1893, p. 12Google Scholar. See also Robert Finch, ‘Ivory Tower’, in Enck, op. cit. (4), pp. 135–149 (for Vigny and Sainte-Beuve). The Sainte-Beuve story was in many English-language encyclopedias at the turn of the century. The Germans knew the figure and its source in Sainte-Beuve, but did not make much use of the tag Elfenbeinturm into the early twentieth century.

10 ‘A line o’ type or two’, Chicago Tribune, 5 July 1940, p. 10 (reminding readers of Sainte-Beuve).

11 Edman, Irwin, Philosopher's Holiday, New York: The Viking Press, 1938, pp. 250251Google Scholar; for discussion see Finch, op. cit. (9), pp. 135–136.

12 ‘Answers to questions’, El Heraldo de Brownsville, 28 July 1939, p. 4. The reply was that it ‘means a retreat or secluded place for mediation’, citing Henry James and a poem by Leonard Bacon.

13 King Edward's part in forming a new cabinet’, New York Times, 27 September 1903, p. 4Google Scholar.

14 For another impression of surging popularity of the tag in the 1930s and 1940s see Finch, op. cit. (9), p. 135.

15 James, Henry, The Ivory Tower, London: W. Collins, 1917, p. 142Google Scholar.

16 Gérard de Nerval, ‘Memories of the Valois’, in idem, Selected Writings (tr. Richard Sieburth), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999, p. 146.

17 Flaubert to Turgenev, 13 November 1872, in The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, 1857–1880 (tr. Francis Steegmuller), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982, p. 200.

18 ‘Literature as an incident’, Kansas City Star, 4 November 1900, p. 6.

19 Murry, J. Middleton, ‘Gustave Flaubert’, The Dial, July–December 1921, p. 465Google Scholar.

20 Stevens, Wallace, ‘Preface’ to William Carlos Williams, Collected Poems, 1921–1931, New York: Objectivist Press, 1934, p. 3Google Scholar.

21 Among these, Yeats actually did spend time from 1919 living in a ‘tower’, a Norman castle in Ireland, while Ziolkowski, op. cit. (1), pp. 5–6, notes the popularity of tower-living among poets, artists and intellectuals in the post-First World War years – Robinson Jeffers, Rainer Maria Rilke, Carl Gustav Jung, Gerhart Hauptmann, Paul Hindemith and Bertrand Russell.

22 Wilson, Edmund, Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870–1930, New York: Charles Scribner's, 1931, p. 267Google Scholar. The ‘castle’ was a gesture towards Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's long dramatic poem Axel (1890), whose hero inhabits a remote castle in the Black Forest where he studies hermetic philosophy. See also Burke's, Kenneth criticism, in Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973 (1941), pp. 246247Google Scholar.

23 Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (tr. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell), New York: Macmillan, 1914, p. 135. The line was quoted in several professional reviews, and, while it found its way into later reference works, it did not leave much of a mark on early twentieth-century culture.

24 Calls New York City most civilized spot on globe’, Washington Post, 6 September 1925, p. SM5Google Scholar.

25 Callisthenes, ‘Ivory Towers’, The Times, 17 April 1926, p. 10. Later, the same figure was used, in the same context, to insist that the businessman should not keep himself in an Ivory Tower: idem, ‘I am a business man’, The Times, 11 May 1928, p. 14: ‘When a man says, “I am a business man,” that is usually the end of the matter. He has entered his ivory tower and locked the door.’

26 Wanamaker's advertisement in New York Times, 13 April 1938, p. 26.

27 New York Times, 7 July 1939, p. 18.

28 ‘Sues to oust Moses from Plan Board’, New York Times, 8 July 1942, p. 25.

29 ‘Moses opens fire on Regional Plan’, New York Times, 2 July 1938, p. 15.

30 Sinnott, Edmund W., ‘Morphology as a dynamic science’, Science (15 January 1937) 85(2194), pp. 6165CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 64.

31 Bliss, Arthur, ‘Aspects of contemporary music’, Musical Times (May 1934) 75(1095), pp. 401405CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 401, 403; idem, Bliss on Music: Selected Writings of Arthur Bliss, 1920–1975 (ed. Gregory Roscow), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 91. Bliss's contemporary Ralph Vaughan Williams was celebrated for his engagement; as The Times of London wrote in 1936, ‘Dr. Vaughan Williams has never been a composer of the Ivory Tower either by profession or practice, and his new work, Dona Nobis Pacem, is a tract for the time.’ ‘Huddersfield Choral Society. Dr. Vaughan Williams's new work’, The Times, London, 3 October 1936, p. 10.

32 Collingwood, R.G., Principles of Art, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938Google Scholar, sect. 6: ‘The Curse of the Ivory Tower’, pp. 119–121.

33 ‘Fascism will put art on an economic basis’, Washington Post, 29 May 1927, p. F8.

34 ‘Writers spurred to fight fascism’, New York Times, 6 June 1937, p. 50.

35 Stewart, Donald Ogden, ‘The League of American Writers marches on’, Direction (May–June 1939) 2(3), p. 2Google Scholar; Lapsley, Mary, ‘Ivory Tower’, Direction (May–June 1939) 2(3), pp. 1921Google Scholar. Supporting the Nazi–Soviet non-aggression pact, the League formed a Keep America Out of War Committee in 1940, but fell into a pro-war line after the German invasion of the Soviet Union.

36 Atkinson, Brooks, ‘Where the theatre stands’, New York Times, 9 June 1940, p. xiGoogle Scholar.

37 Banning, Margaret Culkin, ‘They've come out of their Ivory Towers’, Chicago Daily Tribune, 6 December 1942, p. G2Google Scholar.

38 ‘[Sinclair] Lewis makes a plea for “Ivory Tower” ’, New York Times, 31 March 1938, p. 21.

39 Lewis, Sinclair, It Can't Happen Here: A Novel, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1935, p. 124Google Scholar. Lewis was well aware of the Christian usage; see, for example, Elmer Gantry, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927, p. 185; idem, Bethel Merriday, New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1940, p. 42: ‘Bethel felt that she was acting an actress in the dressing-room rather competently – the pleased modesty, the clinging smile. In the midst of people she could make out her family, and see Charley Hatch looking at her as wistfully as a lost lone dog, Miss Bickling coming down from her synthetic ivory tower to say firmly, “You did splendidly, and I was very angry with Gale for clowning, and I'm going in and tell her so”, and a whole puppy-rollick of classmates, mocking, “You certainly showed up the husbands, Beth!”.’

40 Poore, Charles, ‘Books of the times’, New York Times, 29 April 1938, p. 19Google Scholar.

41 ‘Posterity's view of literature. Too much politics. Propaganda a danger to letters’, The Times, 9 June 1939, p. 9. The speaker was Vincent Massey, diplomat, Canadian high commissioner to the United Kingdom, and an associate of the Cliveden set of appeasers and anti-Semites.

42 Forster, E.M., ‘The Ivory Tower’, London Mercury (1938), 39, pp. 119130Google Scholar; also in Atlantic Monthly (January 1939), 163, pp. 51–58. Forster's interpretation of Sainte-Beuve's gesture is criticized in Finch, op. cit. (9), pp. 136–137.

43 Goldberg, Isaac, ‘From a free lance in the arts’, Hispania (May 1936), 19(2), pp. 241244CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 241.

44 Harold Child, ‘Of Ivory Towers’ (1940), in idem, Essays and Reflections (ed. S.C. Roberts), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948, pp. 133–139, 138–139.

45 ‘Conant asks freedom of discussion, Inquiry for U.S. universities’, The [Harvard] Crimson, 28 April 1947, available at, accessed 25 April 2011. See also Sonnert, Gerhard, Ivory Bridges: Connecting Science and Society, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002Google Scholar; Kerr, Clark, The Gold and the Blue: A Personal Memoir of the University of California, 1949–1967, vol. 2, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003, p. 3Google Scholar; idem, The Great Transformation in Higher Education, 1869–1960, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991, p. 48Google Scholar; Henry Rosovsky, ‘No Ivory Tower: university and society in the twenty-first century’, in Werner Z. Hirsch and Luc E. Weber (eds.) As the Walls of Academia Are Tumbling Down, London: Economica, 2002, pp. 13–30, esp. 13–14.

46 ‘Text of the President's Address at the University of Pennsylvania’, New York Times, 21 September 1940, p. 8; see also ‘Democrats: no Ivory Tower’, Time (30 September 1940), available at,9171,764725,00.html, accessed 25 April 2011.

47 In 1940, the President of Swarthmore College insisted that its Quaker ideals propelled students into socially relevant worldly involvement, and that the college would do them an injury if it sought ‘to amuse them in some ivory tower remote from the world they will shortly encounter’. John W. Nason, ‘Social need met by Swarthmore in Quaker ideal’, New York Times, 14 July 1940, p. 38. In 1942 the President of Sarah Lawrence College defended its supposedly ‘ivory tower’ liberal-arts curriculum against the charge of irrelevance: Constance Warren, ‘Gives support to liberal arts’, New York Times, 7 June 1942. Both of these usages were coloured by wartime circumstances.

48 Edman, op. cit. (11), p. 249; see also idem, ‘The campus stirs to a changing world’, New York Times, 14 April 1935, p. SM3. Rosovsky, op. cit. (45), p. 14, thinks that the first application of the term ‘ivory tower’ to ‘universities or scholars’ was that of H.G. Wells in 1940, but, as indicated here, there were earlier usages emerging from Rosovsky's own Harvard.

49 ‘$4,128,686 is given to Harvard in year’, New York Times, 23 June 1939, p. 19.

50 See also Barzun, Jacques, The American University: How It Runs, Where It Is Going, 2nd edn, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993 (first published 1968), p. xxiGoogle Scholar.

51 Dwight D. Eisenhower, ‘Address at the Columbia University National Bicentennial Dinner, New York City. May 31, 1954’, available at, accessed 10 March 2010.

52 U. of C. abandons its Ivory Tower and goes to war’, Chicago Daily Tribune, 8 January 1942, p. 6Google Scholar.

53 Kerr, Clark, The Uses of the University, 5th edn, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001 (1963), p. 214Google Scholar. The section from which this is quoted was added in the 2001 edition.

54 A fascinating outlier is a 1933 essay by the sociologist Read Bain – an idiosyncratic forerunner of 1960s critiques of demonic, dehumanizing science. Bain condemned Weberian scientific amorality and detachment: ‘The “pure” scientist has to be a moral eunuch or a civic hermit. So it happens that the logical prophet of an age whose religion is science and whose ritual is the machine process sits aloof in his endowed Ivory Tower and pursues science for the sake of science’ – though Bain here was evidently ignoring the American craze for industrial science which reached its heights in the late 1920s. Bain, Read, ‘Scientist as citizen’, Social Forces (1933) 11, pp. 412415CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 414.

55 For example, Hawkins, L.A., ‘Does patent consciousness interfere with cooperation between industrial and university research laboratories?’, Science (28 March 1947) 105(2726), pp. 326327CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, 326: ‘There may be some industrialists’ – though not, Hawkins thought, many – ‘who would prefer to confine their research men in an ivory tower’ (Hawkins was a consultant to the GE Research Laboratory). See also Shapin, Steven, The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008, Chapters 4–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Murphy, W.J., ‘Can we afford the Ivory Tower?Industrial and Engineering Chemistry (1946), 38(5), p. 461CrossRefGoogle Scholar; ‘Topics of the times’, New York Times, 28 February 1939, p. 15: ‘devotion to pure science, and to art, comes in for increasing denunciation from earnest persons who hold that nobody has a right nowadays to retire to the ivory tower. We must all be world-conscious, socially minded, actively aware of what is going on and trying to do something about it’. But the writer insisted that good work does go on in the Ivory Tower and ‘those who retire to it are often more usefully employed there than anywhere else’.

56 ‘The relations of science to society’, Science (29 September 1939) 90(2335), p. 294; also Kuznick, Peter J., Beyond the Laboratory: Scientists as Political Activists in 1930s America, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 78Google Scholar.

57 Kinsley, Philip, ‘Scientists move to clip fetters of free thought: declaration of intellectual independence issued’, Chicago Daily Tribune, 31 December 1937, p. 2Google Scholar.

58 Wilson, Jane, ‘The end of youth and innocence’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (June 1975) 31(6), pp. 1214CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 13. The author was the wife of the experimental physicist Robert R. Wilson.

59 Russell, Bertrand, ‘The social responsibilities of scientists’, Science (12 February 1960) 131(3398), pp. 391392CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, 392. This was a 1959 address to a Pugwash conference.

60 Bertrand Russell, ‘Adaptation: an autobiographical epitome’, in idem, Portraits from Memory and Other Essays, London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1956, pp. 1–12, 12.

61 Schilpp, Paul Arthur, ‘The abdication of philosophy’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Society (1958–1959) 32, pp. 1939Google Scholar, 20, 22, 24. Exceptions to the norm of modern philosophical irrelevance were said to include Russell, John Dewey and Benedetto Croce. And see Agar, Jon, ‘What happened in the Sixties?’, BJHS (2008) 41, pp. 567600CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. 579–580.

62 Conant, James B., ‘The advancement of learning in the United States in the post-war World’, Science (4 February 1944) 99(2562), pp. 8794CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, 89–90. On his return to Harvard after the war, Conant inspired the university's General Education programme, in which the history of science was meant to play a central role.

63 John von Neumann, ‘Impact of atomic energy on the physical and chemical sciences’, in idem, The Neumann Compendium (ed. F. Bródy and T. Vámos), Singapore: World Scientific, 1995, pp. 635–637, 637. The speech from which this article was compiled was delivered at MIT in June 1955.

64 Teller, Edward, ‘John von Neumann’ (obituary), Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (April 1957) 13(4), pp. 150151CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 151.

65 Bethe, Hans, ‘Brighter than a thousand suns’ (review of Robert Jungk's book of that title), Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (December 1958) 14(10), pp. 426428CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 428. Note the early use of the notion of ‘big science’.

66 Wylie, Philip, ‘Knowledge for Man's sake’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (November 1953) 9(9), pp. 330331CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 330.

67 Advertisement for journal in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (June 1947), 3(6), p. 169; also Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (July 1947), 3(7), p. 201.

68 Erwin Chargaff, ‘A few remarks on nucleic acids, decoding, and the rest of the world’, in idem, Essays on Nucleic Acids, Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1963, pp. 161–173, 161.

69 Franck, James, ‘The social task of the scientist’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (March 1947) 3(3), p. 70CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Franck had already warned of a ‘retreat to the ivory tower’ in an April 1945 memorandum to Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace: Brian Loring Villa, ‘A confusion of signals: Franck, James, the Chicago scientists, and early efforts to stop the Bomb’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (December 1975) 31(10), pp. 3642, 37Google Scholar, 42; also Smith, Alice Kimball, ‘Behind the decision to use the atomic bomb: Chicago 1944–45’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (October 1957) 14(8), pp. 288312CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 294.

70 Shapin, op. cit. (55), pp. 89–91; idem, ‘Who is the industrial scientist? Commentary from academic sociology and from the shop floor in the United States, ca. 1900–ca. 1970’, in idem, Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010, pp. 212–233, esp. 229–233.

71 Barzun, op. cit. (50), pp. 165–166: ‘For the institution [a university], the penalty of not agreeing with the assumption that it is an undischarged debtor to the public is abuse cast in ready-made phrases – ivory tower, lack of relevance, traditionalist views, indifference to consumers, ingratitude for public support, and (supreme insult) elitism’.

72 Watson-Watt, Robert, ‘Physicist and politician’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (September 1959) 15(7), pp. 298301CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 298. Watson-Watt was here quoting remarks which he said he made about ten years earlier, though I have not been able to locate the original source.

73 Robert K. Merton, ‘The normative structure of science’ (1942), in idem, The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations (ed. Norman W. Storer), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973, pp. 267–278, 268.

74 Bok, Bart J., ‘Freedom of science and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (August 1949) 5(8–9), pp. 211217CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 213.

75 Whyte, William H. Jr, The Organization Man, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956, p. 206Google Scholar; see also Shapin, op. cit. (55), Chapter 6 (for contemporary views of scientific teamwork).

76 Wells, H.G., The New World Order, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940, p. 133Google Scholar.

77 See, among very many examples, Baron, Nancy, Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter, Washington, DC: Island Press, 2010Google Scholar; Lasson, Kenneth, Trembling in the Ivory Tower: Excesses in the Pursuit of Truth and Tenure, Baltimore: Bancroft Press, 2003Google Scholar; Campbell, John R., Dry Rot in the Ivory Tower: A Case for Fumigation, Ventilation, and Renewal of the Academic Sanctuary, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000Google Scholar; Russo, Rosemary, Jumping from the Ivory Tower: Weaving Environmental Leadership and Sustainable Communities, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2009Google Scholar.

78 Polly Curtis, ‘Mandelson to announce plans to modernise “ivory tower” universities: Business Secretary wants students and parents to be treated more like customers in proposals to overhaul higher education’, available at, accessed 10 March 2010.

79 Lita Nelson (director of MIT's Technology Licensing Office),, accessed 10 March 2010.

80 Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn, ‘The kept university,’ Atlantic Monthly (March 2000), available at, accessed 20 November 2010.

81 Examples of such usages in recent book and paper titles are too many to list, but see, for example, Soley, Lawrence C., Leasing the Ivory Tower: The Corporate Takeover of Academia, Boston: South End Press, 1985Google Scholar; Bok, Derek, Beyond the Ivory Tower: Social Responsibilities of the Modern University, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982Google Scholar; Miyoshi, Masao, ‘Ivory Tower in escrow’, Boundary 2 (2000), 27, pp. 750CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

82 For example, Vickers, Brian (ed.), Arbeit, Musse, Meditation: Betrachtungen zur Vita Activa und Vita Contemplativa, Zürich: Verlag der Fachvereine Zürich, 1985Google Scholar; idem (ed.), Public and Private Life in the Seventeenth Century: The Mackenzie–Evelyn Debate, Delmar: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1986Google Scholar. By situating Ivory Tower invocations in this wide-ranging cultural historical context, I diverge from the opinion of Ziolkowski (op. cit. (1)) that the tag is a specifically ‘antimodernist’ gesture. Criticizing the Ivory Tower as a place of disengagement is, I think, neither ‘modernist’ nor ‘antimodernist’, though it does specifically express growing twentieth- and twenty-first-century condemnations of knowledge supposedly unresponsive to the market and to approved political goals. Since Ziolkowski is mainly concerned with a small group of poets, he may well be right about them, but his interest does not extend to the range of usages surveyed here.