pdf Download PDF

Leavisian Thinking

F. R. Leavis found that he could not do his work in literary and cultural criticism without clarifying and correcting some common notions about language, meaning, subjectivity, and objectivity. In the course of the struggle of this nonphilosopher with questions about judgment and truth, he came to an understanding of the place of nonscientific thinking in the world that should be considered by more orthodox philosophers.

Iknow that some people find that Leavis’s mode of thought and what he had to say about thinking are obscure or difficult. We are dealing with some profound matters, but some profundities can be elucidated as well in twenty minutes as twenty years. I think the subject can be treated briefly and lucidly, and the challenge to me is to do so.

What counts as thinking? What does it cover? Narrow the question immediately to thinking about, so as to avoid tricky questions concerning, for instance, prophecy, dreams, or the Delphic Oracle, and it may still include “Let’s sleep on it” (hardly a method, but sometimes an effective way of making a decision) or even my way of preparing these remarks, which was to try to define some questions, wait for answers to occur to me, then rush to the computer before I forgot them.

What about works of art: do they qualify as thinking? (Rush Rhees says somewhere that some meditations upon death can only be conducted in music. He may have had Schubert in mind. Is Schubert’s music thinking?) Leavis was convinced that works of literature are works of thought, though it would surely be mistaken to say that Donne’s Songs and Sonets think about love: no, they create love, in many modes. Are the New Testament parables works of thought? To show what forgiveness is, [End Page 127] there is not a definition or an argument but the parable of the Prodigal Son. A recent publication of my firm, in which therefore I suppose I’d better declare an interest, argues convincingly that Shakespeare and Dickens shed much light upon the meaning of forgiveness.1 Act 4, scene 7 of King Lear is a wonderful creation of forgiveness, in a Matthew Arnold phrase seeing “the object as in itself it really is,”2 though not by thinking “about” it.

Anyway, when we get to comment on the work of art, i.e., criticism, thought is often within the more conventional range of what is examinable at universities and expressed in propositional prose, though it’s true that effective criticism can sometimes be made by a movement of the eyebrows or Leavis’s habitual “Well, I mean!” When John Haddon points out what I have reported of Shakespeare on forgiveness he is thinking, but his thought is not in the same mode either as that of the work of art or of a scientific experiment or of a private diary. It is what Leavis, borrowing a phrase from T. S. Eliot, called “the common pursuit of true judgment.”3 My questions are how clear Leavis was about this mode of thought himself, and how much it matters.

Literary criticism, unlike verse, the novel, and stage drama, has no forms. Literary criticism is exactly as old as works of literary art, but the university study of our own vernacular literature, implying a coherent examinable academic subject, was new in Leavis’s time, and the challenge he faced, with increasing explicitness, was to say how literary criticism is not only a mode of thought but also one of particular importance in our own phase of history. From first to last in his career, Leavis insisted on recognizing university “English” as a discipline of, he often said, the intelligence, and he went on talking about “training.” (Neither intelligence nor training seems to me quite right, for reasons that I hope will emerge.)

So what does Leavis tell us about “English” as a real discipline of thought? And how does it differ from modes of thought more influential in Leavis’s day, such as the exact sciences and social sciences? I think the instinct of genuine literary critics is just to get on with it and do their stuff, and that there is always something wrong if critics spend most of their time theorizing. Leavis was forced into thinking about what kind of thinking literary criticism is. The definition of philosophy is notoriously various, but “thinking about thinking” seems to me (who am not a philosopher) as good a shot as any, at least about one important branch of philosophy. And so … willy-nilly, thinking about the kind of thinking literary criticism is, Leavis became a philosopher and, moreover, he had [End Page 128] to be a philosopher of language just at a moment when philosophy of language was particularly central to philosophy, especially in the work of his Cambridge contemporary and acquaintance, Wittgenstein.

Leavis’s originality is in formulations about how judgment in literature is different from, but as valid as, reasoning in mathematics or the scientific procedures of hypothesis formation and testing. The central achievement is his concept of the third realm, “the realm of that which is neither merely private and personal nor public” to which “all that makes us human belongs.”4 “Third” because it is preceded in popular esteem by the two other realms, the objective and the subjective.

It seems fair to say that in the empiricist tradition of Western philosophy all real thinking is objective, aiming at public demonstration of what is the case, and anything else is subjective in the sense of private and personal. Even so subtle a mind as Coleridge was content with the subjective/objective division (which Carlyle parodies5). The third realm is neither subjective nor objective. Leavis’s first instance of what belongs to the third realm is of course a poem. A poem as poem has no physically demonstrable existence. Roland Barthes thought that the objective existence of the “text” was on bookshelves, where it became a “work”;6 but poems are neither works nor texts until they are read, and reading is not an object unless taken to be so because certain physical actions are a necessary condition. (This last has led some empiricists to the marvelous belief that we can really understand poems by fiercely concentrating on brain activity, and some linguists to the equally marvelous belief that the real way into language is by concentration on its sounds.) The poem, however, certainly does exist, as we know by the re-creation that is reading, and by the discussion of a common object that is literary criticism.

But at the other extreme, criticism is not a private “subjective” activity as some deconstructionists tried to argue, making their own contradiction of offering to common understanding what they assert to have no common meaning. When people say things like “I think this about the poem—but that’s only my personal opinion,” they are confused. What could be more individual than my reading of, and response to, a poem? But opinions are not only personal and are not private. A doctor who added, “But that is only my personal opinion” to a diagnosis would not last long. Poetry and the judgment of poetry can only exist in the making or remaking by an individual human being, but equally, because the making is in language, it can only exist as it is also available to other human beings. “A private literature” is a contradiction in terms. [End Page 129]

As far as university “English” had a central discipline that distinguished it as autonomous, something that didn’t go on in quite the same way anywhere else in the university, it was what used to be called “practical criticism”—which, I am told, is now in abeyance. The ideal practical-criticism exercise is of the sort Leavis reprinted in The Living Principle,7 the comparison and contrast of short pieces, with a rubric something like: “compare and contrast the following passages and say which is best.” In my active university days, when I joined in practical criticism with students, their likeliest early contribution was to ask how it is done; what are the methods. When I replied (as to my credit I always did), “There are no methods and there is no way of doing it,” they immediately began to wonder whether I was a fraud and/or whether the subject was genuine. But this is precisely the Leavisian claim: that it is possible, the possibility being demonstrated in practice, to engage in rigorous thinking that has no methods and where truth is the aim but proof impossible. Reasons are given for anything said, though there is no rule as to what counts as a reason. So the constant political reduction of all education to the acquiring of skills denies the possibility of the common pursuit of true judgment. If you once see the point of practical criticism, the whole “skillsology” pyramid collapses. The rigor in literary criticism consists of relevance and intelligence.

The activity is necessarily communal or, as Leavis used to say, collaborative. So Leavis steadily rejected the universally accepted assumption that universities exist for the sake of teaching and research. Neither teaching (a word Leavis rejected: “authoritative telling,” he somewhere glossed it) nor research adequately characterizes what goes on in a practical-criticism seminar. They were communal thinking. And it is possible to examine the subject in the Tripos: competent judges will be able to tell what criticism is well done and what isn’t, though there are no rules or methods for producing it. And the discussions on the examining board will be of the same kind: reasons will be given, but not (except in cases of illiteracy or disabling ignorance) proofs.

Leavis concentrated throughout his career on a concept essential to the third realm: the concept of tradition. The point here is that tradition is to be found only in communal judgment. It is not just what is handed down to us, like heirlooms or National Trust properties. Tradition in language can only have its existence as language is remade and modified in every single use. Every time we open our mouths and talk we engage with the tradition of the language by making something new within it. Chomsky, before he took off into would-be brain science, used to say [End Page 130] that most uses of language are new and unique.8 To the extent that this is true it is not a statistical claim, and no conceivable experiment could verify or refute it. It is a grammatical remark about the nature of language. New in the sense that we say what comes into our heads (appropriately or inappropriately) in a context not quite the same as any previously experienced in the history of the world, re-creating a bit of language that only exists in use; but at the same time that use is made possible and governed by the whole language as it is shared by others and which has been made and remade for many hundreds of years. In language I am myself but also part of a body that includes you. So: neither objective nor subjective, but real.

The central example of that reality is literature as recognized by criticism—criticism being, in Arnold’s words, “a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world” (EC, p. 38). He also said that poetry is “a criticism of life.”9 Everybody has to remake the literature, individually, but at the same time the literature only exists as a common possession. I can only remake it to the extent that you too can remake it.

That remaking forms a kind of knowledge on which third-realm thinking can also shed light. The epistemologists are fond of dividing knowledge into two main kinds, knowing how and knowing that. I know how to ride a bike and I know that I can ride a bike, but I just know Northanger Abbey without knowing how or that anything, having read that novel a number of times with increasing admiration. This sort of knowing is not separable from judging. I can’t know the book well without judging how good and convincing it is—and in this case I would rise to literary criticism and offer you the “This is so, isn’t it?” (TC, p. 28) that Northanger Abbey has been underrated because, among other things, of a misunderstanding of its relation to the gothic horror novel, my knowledge of which helps me to enforce the judgment.

Physics, by the way, is as much a third-realm activity as literary criticism. The objective external world is the subject of physics, but physics is not itself part of the external world. This is also true, of course, of the essential conceptual tools, including the whole of mathematics. The Romans thought of numbers as adjectives, as having to qualify some thing, so they had no zero, and three neuter objects demanded a different form of the numeral from three masculine or feminine objects. A bit of this survives in some Romance languages. In French, for instance, one dog is un chien but one bitch une chienne, as if there could be masculine and feminine numbers. The natural numbers are [End Page 131] neither objects in the external world nor descriptions of objects in the external world, nor are they private possessions, but they are certainly real—in the third realm.

The objection to the central tradition of empiricist philosophy of language is that it tries to make some quite specialized uses of language ordinary, and says the rest are invalid. Empiricism has been the principal competitor to Leavis-like notions of third-realm thinking for several centuries. (Literary criticism is actually very empirical, though not empiricist: what could be more empirical than to see the thing as in itself it really is? Leavis’s formula “This is so, isn’t it?” must be a question about something really there.) It was surely the empiricist tradition Leavis had in mind when he used to say that philosophers are always weak on language.10 Leavis used “Cartesian dualism” as shorthand (LP, p. 44): the phrase was useful when he was proposing the third realm that dualism excluded. But it is a pity he didn’t do more with Locke, whose philosophy of language is the attempted imposition of a special case as ordinary. Locke really seems to have thought that the only proper use of language is to make true statements about the external world! (That exclamation would then itself be an improper use.)

What is more, even linguists and grammarians, who claim to be studying language directly, sometimes agree. If we assume only that one necessary characteristic of uses of language is that they have meaning, the resultant linguistics is fantastically unfit for purpose. Linguistics, any linguistics, is powerless to explain how any use of language comes to mean anything. All the practitioners of linguistics can do is refine the understanding of syntactical regularities first noticed by the grammarians of Port Royal (for classical grammar had no syntax: parts were parts of speech not parts of the sentence). So in linguistics “The cat sat on the mat” is a well-formed sentence making the proposition that the cat did something. This is untrue. The sentence is used almost exclusively as an example of a sentence or of rhyming. The sentence may or may not make a proposition; if it did, the proposition may or may not be true. Moreover, exactly the same sequence of phonemes may with different intonation ask a question, or with the right sarcastic emphasis deny that the cat sat on the mat. What the sentence means, if anything, will be determined by its context in a conversation or a book, and both of those by their context in language and life. And, by the way, if the sentence is used to make a proposition about the external world, that is not a sufficient condition for it to count as thinking. [End Page 132]

Grasp what Leavis was on to with the third realm and tradition, and his further claim about its peculiar importance at the center of education in our phase of history follows irresistibly. Judgment is a word not much used in talk of mathematics or the exact sciences. You don’t judge a theorem, you prove it. In literary criticism proof is never possible. I can prove that Shakespeare’s sonnets are in such-and-such a form, but that is not literary criticism. I can’t prove that they are very good, though that is certainly true: something I know as well as I know that (with one exception) they have fourteen lines each. Literary criticism does seek truth, not just the expression of private feelings (why do that anyway?) but the truth possible to true judgment, in the third realm.

So Leavis’s other lifelong insistence on “English” as central to education claims that the subject forms judgment and necessarily the character at the same time. Judgment in literature (not “literary judgment”) can’t work if it is specialized. It has to be the whole man, the whole woman judging; and every judgment judges the judge as well as the judged. The educational aim of an English degree is an educated man, an educated woman, capable of common nonspecialist judgment. Literary criticism is a concentration of the kind of judgments we have to make all the time just by living in a human culture. And this is part of the importance of literature for Leavis. Nobody could have focused more purely on works of literature, but judgment in literature is just the central example of human judgment tout court. For Leavis the constant re-creation of the literature and the state of the whole culture are not separable, and both are formed, maintained, renewed by third-realm judgment. So right from the beginning Leavis was as much concerned with culture and environment11 as with new bearings in English poetry.12 Critical thought could engage with the mass media as much as with Donne and Shakespeare. (This has only ceased to be true because of the fading of Leavisian criticism. Now that the dodges of the advertising trade are routine in communications from banks and even on government forms, as well as from politicians’ spin doctors, now that the intellectual standards of the supposedly heavyweight press have collapsed, the need for the Leavisian kind of common judgment is more acute than ever.)

Common judgment is at the center of living in a culture, i.e., the center of human life. Just take the one case of appointment and election. Is this the right man or woman for the job? If the question could be reduced to anything scientific or objective there would be no need for interviewing panels, nor yet for elections. If it could be demonstrated scientifically who would make the best prime minister, prime ministers [End Page 133] could be appointed accordingly. At the other extreme, and despite some appointments that may suggest the contrary, appointments are not made at the private and personal whim of a potentate. A vote in an election is a judgment coming from knowledge of life.

Bear in mind that Matthew Arnold was by profession a school inspector. Ever since the Forster education act of 1870, the effort (if any) of education has been to help the electorate to make themselves capable judges. But not equal—except insofar as, God help us! we all have the vote. Opinions are not equally good. Hence Leavis’s logic of the necessity of what Coleridge called the clerisy, an educated class capable of guiding the judgments of the whole society, including judgments as to what is right and what is wrong—about what matters.13 Antidemocratic and elitist if you want to say so: as some of the Scrutiny school did want, for instance G. H. Bantock. The natural home of such judgment is the university Arts faculty; and any subject can go toward forming it, but especially, Leavis thought, “English.” This is why he always rejected the notion of “literary values” or “aesthetic judgment.”14

My case for Northanger Abbey would be literary in the sense of noticing that Jane Austen makes brilliant use of some literary conventions. Leavis was very good at showing how some movements of verse come from the poet’s use of metrical possibilities. So far, so literary: but that doesn’t explain how Austen managed to use parody of the gothic novel to show a human possibility rather close to tragedy, or how Donne used iambic measures to make various kinds of love. That can only be seen by a reader capable of judgment of life.

I agree with Leavis’s definition and defense of the third realm, and that what he said is of essential significance for life in modern Western democracies if they are to be more than systems for keeping us in wealth and comfort and delaying death. And as regards the subject “English,” it is clear that Leavis has been proved right. When it jettisoned the Leavisian understanding of the discipline of literary criticism within the third realm there was nothing coherent to replace it with, and “English” has become a sort of higher geography, made of bits and pieces of other disciplines and nondisciplines. Freudianism, feminism, postcolonialism, new historicism, ecocriticism, and so on have in common that their intellectual center (if any) is not in study of the literature. That is used as material illustrative of other matters. The reinstatement of something like Leavis’s position and practice is absolutely necessary if “English” is to have any respectable future. [End Page 134]

I think one major limitation of Leavis’s was his belief that “we can … count on a sufficient measure of agreement, overt and implicit, about essential values, to make it unnecessary to discuss ultimate sanctions.”15 Even in the 1940s this was hard to take—did Leavis agree with the essential values of Bloomsbury?—but harder by the 1970s, when Leavis was doing his work on and in the third realm, and impossible now, when perhaps the only universal belief is in universal human rights. (I notice this because, like Matthew Arnold, I happen not to believe in universal human rights as listed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.)

The twin tragedies of Leavis’s later thinking were his relations with Wittgenstein and Eliot. He could have got so much more help from both of them! In “Memories of Wittgenstein,” Leavis records that Wittgenstein told him to “Give up literary criticism!” (MW, pp. 72, 77). What did he mean? Give up the idea of training, a word Leavis habitually used? Leavis also records that Wittgenstein thought him a man of character rather than of intelligence (MW, p. 78). Should that have made Leavis reconsider intelligence as one of his central value terms? Did Wittgenstein profit more from those talks? When Wittgenstein did something very like practical criticism on a poem of Empson’s (MW, p. 78), was he showing Leavis that practical criticism isn’t an exercise for training the intelligence—by really doing it?

As Leavis willy-nilly found himself doing philosophy, though he never admitted it, he also found himself obliged to have a position in ethics and theology, though he never admitted that either. Arnold took the opposite route: confronting the matter head-on and being as explicit as he could, though not, I think, satisfactorily. Leavis told us that in the great works of literature “we discover what at bottom we really believe. What for—what ultimately for? What do men live by—the questions work and tell at what I can only call a religious depth of thought and feeling” (TC, p. 23). Yes! But about this religious depth he could only fall back, again and again, on that moment in The Rainbow when Tom Brangwen looks up at the night sky and “knew he did not belong to himself.”16 That is not enough. We need more than a gesture in the right direction. [End Page 135]

Ian Robinson
University of Wales, Swansea


1. J. Haddon, The Comedy of Forgiveness (Newark: Brynmill, 2012).

2. Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism (London: Macmillan, 1865), p. 1; hereafter abbreviated EC.

3. F. R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit (London: Chatto and Windus, 1952), p. v.

4. F. R. Leavis, Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow (London: Chatto and Windus, 1962), p. 28; hereafter abbreviated TC.

5. Thomas Carlyle, The Life of John Sterling (London: Chapman and Hall, 1851), chap. 8.

6. Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text,” in Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), p. 156.

7. F. R. Leavis, The Living Principle: “English” as a Discipline of Thought (London: Chatto and Windus, 1975); hereafter abbreviated LP.

8. Noam Chomsky, Language and Mind, 2nd ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), p. 171.

9. Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism, 2nd series (London, Macmillan, 1888), p. 5.

10. F. R. Leavis, “Justifying One’s Valuation of Blake,” The Human World 7 (1972): 62; “Memories of Wittgenstein,” The Human World 10 (1973): 78; hereafter abbreviated MW.

11. F. R. Leavis and D. Thompson, Culture and Environment: The Training of Critical Awareness (London: Chatto and Windus, 1933).

12. F. R. Leavis, New Bearings in English Poetry (London: Chatto and Windus, 1932).

13. S. T. Coleridge, On the Constitution of the Church and State According to the Idea of Each (London: Hurst, Chance, and Co., 1830).

14. See, for example, F. R. Leavis, Nor Shall My Sword (London: Chatto and Windus, 1972), p. 97.

15. F. R. Leavis, Education and the University, 2nd ed. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1948), p. 18.

16. D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow, ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes (1915; repr., London: Penguin, 1995), p. 40. [End Page 136]