Purpose: To interpret and explain evolution in entrepreneurial thought, using the application of history to unify the extant and wide-ranging concepts underlying the field to detect a conceptual foundation. Design/methodology/approach: A conceptual approach is taken, the paper undertaking a delineation of how past theory has brought about the field's current state and an identification of some conceptual areas for future advancement. Findings: The importance and impact of the entrepreneurship field is increasing in academic and practical settings. A historical view on the conceptual development of entrepreneurial thought provides a lens for scholars as well as practitioners to interpret and explain their own entrepreneurial activity or research and formulate new questions. Originality/value: The paper aids scholars and researchers to interpret and explain entrepreneurial activity. © Emerald Group Publishing Limited.