The British Journal for the History of Science

Research Article

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


a1 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.