The term "ivory tower" refers to a metaphorical state in which people live without awareness of the facts and practicalities of the real world.
For instance, people of high social status – from academics and artists to politicians and celebrities – are often accused of “living in an ivory tower” when they lose touch with the realities faced by the public and futilely focus inwards on their own concerns.
Origin of the term "ivory tower"
Like many colloquial phrases, it has a fascinating, weaving backstory. The earliest-known use of the term “ivory tower” can be found in Biblical sources. The Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon, features the phrase “Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon”.
In this Biblical context, the term had little to do with how it is typically used in modern times. However, it appears that the concept of ivory was still associated with delusions and a world beyond everyday reality.
“Ivory seems classically to have been associated with the notion of fantasy, illusion, if not delusion – anyway, something closely linked to the idea of the imaginatively unreal – where classicists say that the Greek word for ivory (elephas) played upon the word meaning to cheat or deceive (elephairo). The artist deceives you, takes you away from the real, but that was not necessarily considered a bad thing,” Steven Shapin, a historian of science at Havard University, explains in a paper on the phrase’s origins.
Shapin believes the Biblical usage of the word came to inspire the modern phrase “ivory tower”, which truly took off in the early 19th century when it started to be used by several French Romantic thinkers.
In 1837, for example, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve wrote a poem that mocked another French poet, Alfred de Vigny, for becoming too aloof and retiring to his grand estate in Angoulême where he wrote self-reflective poems, totally divorced from the outside world. The poem reads: “And Vigny, more discreet, As if in his ivory tower, retired before noon.”
The "ivory tower" of academia
As the 19th century churned onwards, the phrase became increasingly more common in the French and English-speaking world, where it was most commonly used to describe self-obsessed poets and artists who had become impractical dreamers.
By the second half of the 20th century, the term “ivory tower” became increasingly associated with the worlds of academia, universities, and scientists. The phrase was essentially an insult thrown at academics to describe how they had become disengaged from the public, too concerned about lofty theories that have little relation to the everyday lives of people.
It is an accusation still thrown at scientists and academics today, but one that many are working hard to fight back against.
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