pdf Download PDF

Rethinking Leavis

This essay seeks to establish the case for reading Leavis as a thinker and as one of the most impressive figures of modern intellectual history. Its aim is to shift the emphasis from the idea of Leavis as a “practical critic” or as a proponent of “minority culture” (although he was both) and place it on him as a conceptual reformer. The author suggests that Leavis’s work as a literary critic and teacher is inseparable from his thinking about the nature of language.

“What is a word?”1 The question (Leavis’s) was not asked in the expectation of a definitive answer, for words of their nature—as he saw—cannot readily provide one. It is of course a truism that all definitions are made of words (as ordinarily defined), but Leavis was apt to point out that the meanings of many important words resist full lexical definition (“meaning” being a case in point). Their being thus resistant is often a mark of their importance.2 By a very different route, Wittgenstein (his “friend forty years ago”3) arrived at an “answer” akin to that which Leavis himself tacitly proposed: “Die Bedeutung des Wortes is das, was die Erklärung der Bedeutung erklärt.”4

The meaning of a word is what the explanation of its meaning explains; a tautology, as plainly intended (or, if not, then a damp squib after thirty years of hard philosophical labor). Another characteristic and well-known aphorism appears in Philosophical Investigations, §560: “Die Bedeutung eines Wortes ist sein Gebrauch in der Sprache” (The meaning of a word is its use in the language). Trickier, however, is this:

Diese [philosophische Probleme] sind freilich keine empirischen, sondern sie werden durch eine Einsicht in das Arbeiten unserer Sprache gelöst, und zwar so, daß dieses [End Page 137] erkannt wird: entgegen einem Trieb, es mißzuverstehen. … Die Philosophie ist ein Kampf gegen die Verhexung unseres Verstandes durch die Mittel unserer Sprache.

These [philosophical problems] are, of course, not empirical problems; they will be solved, rather, by looking into the way our language works, and in such a way as to make us recognize how it works, despite an urge to misunderstand it. … Philosophy is a struggle against the bewitchment of our understanding by means of our language.

(PI §109)

Anthony Kenny has glossed this aspect in Wittgenstein thus: “the aim of philosophy is a therapeutic one, to cure us from talking nonsense and being tormented by problems for which there is no solution.”5 That is helpful so far as it goes, but we may well let Wittgenstein’s words slip past us without recognizing the full depth of his insight (as I think Kenny misses it) that lies in that “einem Trieb, es mißzuverstehen” (an urge to misunderstand it). Wittgenstein doesn’t enlarge on this remarkable statement in any sustained way (so far as I know) although analogous observations of startling originality in relation to epistemology appear throughout On Certainty.6

An urge (which leads us into bewitchment) suggests that our misunderstanding of what we are doing when we speak is habitual because intrinsic to our makeup. The notational form that utterances take on the page leads us to view these “words” as in some sense “out there,” as types of sense-data, when in reality they have no such existence. We cannot get between ourselves and our words (as it were) though we are habituated to feeling that we can and do (“bewitchment”). We cannot—to adopt Leavisian terms—trip over words or bring them into a laboratory (NS, p. 98).

If Wittgenstein is right (I believe he is), readers of this sentence—the one now being read—and perhaps the writer, though given what he is saying, he may be more than ordinarily vigilant—unconsciously risk misunderstanding what they are doing. This may sound faintly absurd, but it has profoundly serious implications. Wittgenstein tells us that when we talk about language, we don’t know what we’re talking about. Leavis’s alertness to this paradoxical situation, his “sense of pregnant arrest” (NS, p. 90), lies behind his question with which we opened. But, in contemporary parlance, we tend not to “do arrest.” We feel there aren’t any meanings we can’t confidently grasp and repackage. We know what words “mean”—what “means” means, for example—without need to articulate our sense of this, or to think about it much at all. [End Page 138]

Leavis undermines this confidence. And he had asked three previous questions: “What and where is English literature and how is it there?”7 For “literature” we might substitute “language” (“or let us rather say a language, for there is no such thing as language in general” [LP, p. 58]). “Where is English literature?” We find ourselves needing to answer Eliotically: it is there, but we cannot say where. Leavis saw, as few others have, that “language” is conceptually elusive. It cannot be the object of definitive inquiry into its own nature, of which it would itself be the instrument; but in its “thereness” it is incontrovertibly real.

Leavis was, as I hope I have begun to suggest, a more cogent—a more radical—thinker than has been commonly recognized, and very far indeed from exhibiting the kind of pretheoretical innocence often attributed to him. Neither austerely proscriptive (as in popular misconception) nor disablingly restricted to the “text” conceived as an autonomous entity (whatever that might mean), he had (I shall argue) thought his way through many of the theoretical issues that have been presented in recent decades as if newly discovered; they have perhaps been newly formulated. This exploratory essay, a contribution to a wider revisionist project, seeks to establish the case for reading Leavis as a thinker and, as such, one of the most impressive figures of modern intellectual history.8

An aim of the project, as I have termed it, is to shift the emphasis from the idea of Leavis as a “practical critic” or as a proponent of “minority culture” (although he was both) and place it on him as a conceptual reformer, one who—like Marjorie Grene—believed that the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview, under which we still live, is ultimately empty of life. (So deep-seated are the consequences of such “empty” science, Grene affirms, that recovery will be long and difficult.9) It is also, I think, at least as true of Leavis (as Peter Hacker suggests of Wittgenstein10) that he dug down to our most fundamental presuppositions regarding the nature of language: assumptions so basic they escape our day-to-day recognition. The critic who asked, “What is a word?” would unlikely have been impressed by adverse comments concerning his alleged confinement to the words on the page: he would have considered the supposed thought behind such comment a phantom.

Nor is the foregoing incompatible with his well-known early statement, “In dealing with individual poets the rule of the critic is, or should (I think) be, to work as much as possible in terms of particular analysis—analysis of poems or passages, and to say nothing that cannot be related immediately to judgments about producible texts”—to which he added, highly significantly: [End Page 139]

Observing this rule and practising this self-denial the critic limits, of course, his freedom; but there are kinds of freedom he should not aspire to, and the discipline, while not preventing his saying anything that he should in the end find himself needing to say, enables him to say it with a force of relevance and an edged economy not otherwise attainable.11

(my italics)

Leavis was always concerned with what in the end he found himself needing to say. Donald Davie noted, “Some of the most powerful and earnest minds of our time—rather hesitantly I would elevate Lionel Trilling to parity with Leavis and Winters—have used literary criticism to advance judgments and arguments which go far beyond the judicious assessment of works of literature.”12 In thus “going beyond,” however, Leavis did not relegate the significance of context, sociohistorical and even biographical.13 There is no inconsistency between his analytical practice and the interests exemplified in Scrutiny in the sociological and anthropological dimensions of literary study (the work of his wife, Q. D. Leavis, is especially notable in this respect). Yvor Winters’s Maule’s Curse, for example, he commends for its illustrating how “the understanding of literature stands to gain much from sociological interests” and how “by relating the key American authors with the New England background, [he] throws a truly revealing light on their work and on the evolution of American literature” (CP, p. 200). Again, “to insist that literary criticism is, or should be, a specific discipline of intelligence is not to suggest that a serious interest in literature can confine itself to the kind of intensive local analysis associated with ‘practical criticism.’”14

But whatever he found himself needing to say—and he found himself needing to say a good many things, about contemporary literary culture, the academic world, and the inflated valuations incident to both—he would say free from the constraints of any organized ideology: such freedom being, he believed, an essential condition of that “meeting in meaning” upon which the critical dialogue and the possibility of disinterested intellectual inquiry itself depend:15

In my Richmond Lecture, recalling a formulation I had been prompted to in the old days, when the Marxising expositors of human affairs thronged the arena, I remarked that there is a certain autonomy of the human spirit. I didn’t mean by that to suggest that the higher non-material achievements of human culture … were to be thought of as spontaneous, unconditioned expressions of an intrinsic human nature sprouting or creating gratuitously, in a realm of pure spirit. I was merely insisting that there is an intrinsic human nature, with needs and latent potentialities the most brilliant scientist may very well be blank about.16 [End Page 140]

But we left “words” hanging. “Words in poetry [Leavis told René Wellek in 1937] invite us not to ‘think about’ … but to … realize a complex experience. … They demand … a completer responsiveness [than an abstracting process can provide]. The critic … is indeed concerned with evaluation, but to figure him as measuring with a norm which he brings up to the object from the outside is to misrepresent the process” (CP, p. 213). Wellek had said he shared a number of Leavis’s assumptions, but would have wished them to be stated more explicitly and defended systematically.

The misconception—as I believe it to be—about the nature of value judgment and, therefore, about how words mean, which underlay Wellek’s demand, has dogged subsequent representation of Leavis’s work; the more so in recent decades when “theory” has been ascendant. What could be gained, Leavis essentially asks, by moving not from the general to the particular but in the reverse direction, replacing substance with shadow? But he went on pondering these difficulties. “Where is the English language?” he asks, answering, “It is … concretely ‘there’, only in so far as I utter the words … charged with the meanings and impulsions that put them in my mouth, and you take them,” or “I might… say: ‘It was there, in the criss-cross of utterance between us’” (VC, p. 131, and LP, p. 37).

And we find him returning to the matter of that much earlier exchange:

[W]ords “mean” because individual human beings have meant the meaning, [but] … there is no meaning unless individual beings can meet in it. Individual human beings can meet in a meaning because language—or let us rather say a language … (for there is no such thing as language in general)—is for them in any present a living actuality that is organically one with the “human world” they, in growing up into it, have naturally taken for granted. There is in the language a central core in which for generations individual speakers have met, so that the meeting takes place as something inevitable and immediate in relation to which it would seem gratuitous to think of “meeting.”

(LP, p. 58)17

Recent writing on Leavis, with such passages in view, has revealed the extent to which he had thought out his own position on issues that have presented themselves as new to more recent generations of literary students.18 The extract continues: [End Page 141]

At the other extreme there is the specialist intellectual’s successful attempt… to attach a definite and limiting force to a term for its use in the given field. But both this simple kind of convention-fixing and the achieved linguistic originalities entailed in the thinking of profound philosophers depend on the central core. …

(LP, p. 58)

We can now follow this kind of “thinking out” virtually from the start of his career, and trace its evolution. There had been, for example, much earlier pointers, as in the original introduction to Towards Standards of Criticism:

Literary criticism provides the test for life and concreteness; where it degenerates the instruments of thought degenerate too, and thinking, released from the testing and energizing contact with the full living consciousness, is debilitated, and betrayed to the academic, the abstract and the verbal. It is of little use to discuss values if the sense for value—the experience and perception of value—is absent.19

And earlier still:

“The critic,” he [Eliot] concludes, … must have “a very highly developed sense of fact.” … [He] must cultivate this sense of fact in regions where there are no facts that can be handed round or brought into the laboratory. He must aim, in so far as he is a critic, to establish the work of art as a fact, an object existing outside of and apart from, himself. Actually, of course, this cannot be done, and there is no one demonstrably right judgment. … [But] “for the kinds of critical work we have admitted,” writes Mr. Eliot, “there is the possibility of co-operative activity, with the further possibility of arriving at something outside of ourselves, which may provisionally be called truth.”20

(my italics)

There would be many subsequent forays into the problem of valuation in criticism. But here already, overt or implicit, are the preoccupying themes of his long career: the concrete and uniquely specific character of individual human experience; the necessarily incorporated nature of life, which has no abstractable form; the relationship (for which “relationship” is a necessary but misleading term) between life and language. To these he would later add (from Polanyi) the idea of “tacit knowing” and (via Polanyi’s—and Heidegger’s—pupil Marjorie Grene) the crucial insight that all conceptual knowledge, however abstract, exists only “within the fundamental evaluation” of human society (KK, p. 180). His belief in literature as an art form (“Art-speech is the only truth”—his [End Page 142] oft-quoted aphorism from Lawrence21) indicates deep water between his thinking and that of most cultural materialists. Whether it can be forded is a question. A work of literature, considered as literature, is for Leavis a living creation requiring a re-creative response from the reader, not a historical artifact. The work, Leavis affirmed, “is there; but there is nothing … that can be set over against [it], or induced to re-establish itself round it as a kind of framework or completion.”22

Whether he was or was not himself a philosopher—and this depends on one’s definition of philosophy—his thoughts in this field, including his formulation of the idea of “anti-philosophy,”23 have important bearings on philosophical problems, most obviously in the fields of ontology and language. His observations in, for instance, the long section on “Thought, Language and Objectivity,” the commentary on “The Dry Salvages” in The Living Principle (pp. 19–69 and 216–49), and the posthumously published essay “Thought, Meaning and Sensibility”24 suggest (by internal evidence) a sustained interest in philosophical, linguistic, and aesthetic issues going back at least as far as his friendship with Wittgenstein in the late nineteen twenties and early thirties.25 He bought Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World when it came out in 1925 (VC, p. 290). He evidently considered carefully Collingwood’s lectures on The Idea of Nature, given in 1934–35, published in 1945 (drawing the term nisus from it for his own later use26), and Collingwood’s comments on Alexander and Whitehead. Later he adduced an intense interest in Polanyi. But he wanted to find a means of calling attention to the reality of great literary works (works of literary art) as exemplifying a nonphilosophical but heuristic mode of thought: a mode of thought that shows a way out of the impasse of scientism and philosophical positivism. He found himself increasingly driven to illustrate the nature of such works through the paradigm case of language.

One might note also the striking resemblances between Leavis’s “philosophy” and Hans-Georg Gadamer’s (who had, as it were, Wilhelm Dilthey and Heidegger behind him). I am thinking in particular of the anti-ideological stance of Gadamer’s work (akin in this to the “anti-theoretical” bent for which Wittgenstein has often been reproached), its “religious” dimension, his ardent interest in poetry, and his recognition of the ontological bearings of linguistic interpretation and of art as a “unique manifestation of truth whose particularity cannot be surpassed.”27 Leavisian too is the following: “The miracle of understanding is the sharing in a common meaning.”28 [End Page 143]

If words “signify” for Leavis, they do not do so in any customary semiotic sense. Even by reference to a full linguistic context, to the “completed” whole—clause, sentence, or language—of which words are in some sense the disaggregated units, meanings cannot be made coterminously explicit. But nor are they purely “subjective” and private. Their “meaning” is “in me but outward bound”—but “there is no meaning unless individual beings can meet in it” (LP, p. 58). Leavis’s “use” of language in the difficult effort to suggest its own nature is both subtle and sensitive: “the upshot or precipitate of immemorial human living,” it “embodies values, distinctions, identifications, conclusions, promptings, cartographical hints and tested potentialities” (LP, p. 49).

Just as Leavis is (misleadingly) associated with the early development of “practical criticism,” so the Scrutiny movement, which he founded, in its concern with “mass civilization and minority culture,” is sometimes seen to bear some resemblance to the early Frankfurt School. But what principally distinguishes Leavis’s ideas from theirs, apart from his broadly apolitical stance—a radical choice in the nineteen thirties—is his rigorous aversion to the abstracting tendency in philosophy even when grounded, as in the case of Adorno, in empirical or quasi-empirical data.29 Like Adorno, he is passionate in his defense of the imagination. But his aim is not to furnish a discursive explanatory theory of this or that literary assessment but to reveal the nature of a judgment or valuation, to show how judgments are formed, and to make an active difference in his chosen field of practice: the university as a living idea and actuality in “this concrete historical England” (EU, p. 19).

As we have seen, Leavis was far from hostile to philosophical inquiry; on the contrary, he viewed it as an important copresence in the intellectual life of a developed community and therefore of any university that deserved the name. But he believed that a great literary work was a work of original thought, thought of the most important kind, and unamenable to recognition by philosophic method in the analytical tradition. Adorno’s concept of “negative dialectics”30 does not sufficiently answer to Leavis’s sense of what we should mean by “thought” in such a context. As much as Adorno, he detested the debasing and homogenizing influences of the “culture industry,” but he could not have accepted Adorno’s view of modern society as having eliminated freedom of choice while paradoxically celebrating its achievement, though he would have appreciated the element of ironical truth it contains.31 For Leavis, life necessarily entailed a measure of faith in the creative human spirit; faith that in the interstices of institutional society—and in [End Page 144] the world at large—knowledge and perception were strong enough to sustain a community of sensibility, dispersed and small in number but disproportionately influential. Through such a community—a paradigm of human possibility itself—the standards of criticism might be fostered and renewed.

The discovery of intellectual affinities between Leavis’s work and that of a number of twentieth-century philosophers of antipositivist bent strengthens the case for looking again at his use of the term “anti-philosophy” in relation to his own work. To reassert, he was not antagonistic to philosophy, but he refused to be driven along the path of abstract formulation. Similarly, he was not uninterested in discussion of aesthetics32 but recognized that in the field of valuation in criticism, overt invocation of first principles, whether ideological or abstract, was likely to be fruitless or even countervailing. Only in his late work did he come, once or twice, close to an explicit statement of principle.

From the nineteen sixties onward, with great originality, Leavis ploughed up the field of contemporary theory without apparently being aware of the existence of its principal expositors. (There is little evidence as to how far he knew anything of the work of the emergent figures—Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, and the others—who would soon throng the arena.33) Such elusive questions—Where is English literature?—he answered by reference to the reader’s re-creative response to the notation on the page, a response that, though personal (you can’t directly experience another person’s), is unavoidably extrapersonal too, dependent on the continuous collaboration of the language community.

He makes the point cogently by reference to Shakespeare, who “could be at one and the same time the supreme Renaissance poet and draw as no-one else has ever done on the resources of human experience, the diverse continuities, behind and implicit in a rich and robustly creative vernacular” (VC, p. 134), and to Lawrence, who, “without the English language … couldn’t have communicated his thought … [and] couldn’t have thought it.” English as these writers found it was “a product of an immemorial and sui generis collaboration on the part of its speakers and writers” (TWC, pp. 26–27). But “philosophers,” he felt, were “always weak on language,” failing to see the significance of their having to “use” it to do philosophy; and he had found most of them (he told Eugenio Montale) “in the pejorative sense, academic.” He was therefore [End Page 145]

faced with having to state and justify—marginally to a work centred in literary-critical thought—that antipathy. I must do it, dauntingly to philosophers, without the impossible expenditure of time and energy that would be incurred in attempting to do it in a “philosophical” way. I must do it “finally” but not thoroughly. … [T]he Wittgensteinians … call the philosophy they are interested in “linguistic.” Actually they are naively fatuous about language …

(LB, p. 212)

By his own account, Leavis had (perhaps unfortunately) little direct acquaintance with Wittgenstein’s later work, which is where concurrences between them are most likely to be found.

Roger Poole has given us an absorbing account of a meeting with Leavis in 1971 at which the issues at stake were discussed.34 Poole was writing a long essay on Leavis’s use of the criterion “life” and preparing a chapter on Edmund Husserl for his book Towards Deep Subjectivity.35 He had come to suspect that Leavis was thinking along similar lines to Husserl’s. Husserl’s case, as Poole puts it, was that “philosophy had lost touch with its own telos”:

Through the abstraction and mathematization of the world carried out by Galileo and Descartes, the real world, the world of experience and meaning, what Husserl called the Lebenswelt, had been “reduced” to a mere Ideenkleid, a web of abstract notations. By thus reducing the world to a mathematical model of itself, philosophy had deprived itself of a sense of human responsibility for that world.

(CQ Poole, p. 392)

He wrote to Leavis, asking if he could come and put some questions to him, and they “spent the most part of a June afternoon … talking about the major reference-point, ‘life.’”

He mentioned Michael Polanyi as being significant. He said that he had not yet absorbed his “big book” [Personal Knowledge] but had been given access to the main ideas through reading Marjorie Grene’s The Knower and the Known. … He reacted with surprise and even a little displeasure to the question that I had brought along. {I}t seemed to me that there was … some form of ethical norm to which his work insistently pointed, some ethical constant … implied but never stated? No, he said, there is no such ethical reality; it is Life itself; one’s work is a stance; one’s stance is known, and people interpret it as they can.

(CQ Poole, p. 392)

Polanyi’s star is today in eclipse, but his ideas held major significance for Leavis. The following from Polanyi’s Knowing and Being has the closest bearing on the lines of thought Leavis was developing: [End Page 146]

The ideal of a strictly explicit knowledge is … self-contradictory; deprived of their tacit coefficients, all … words, all formulae … are strictly meaningless. An exact mathematical theory means nothing unless we recognise an inexact non-mathematical knowledge on which it bears and a person whose judgment upholds this bearing.36

“Tacit coefficients”—the theme of knowledge that defies fully explicit statement—is central to Polanyi’s work (reminding us, arguably, of Wittgenstein’s realization that a person who cannot define his terms is not necessarily convicted of not knowing what he is talking about37). It is but a step from this point to the complementary recognition of the intrinsic limitations of human understanding, conditioned as it is by the nature of human perception itself (Leavis speaks of the “creativity of perception,” in itself inexhaustible38). The business of “exorcising” the Cartesian ghost occupied Leavis’s mind ever more intensively in his later years (see, for instance, LP, p. 35). In linking Grene’s perception of the way we discover ourselves in relation to our fellow human beings with the practice of “meeting” in meaning, Leavis illuminates the nature of value judgment and of the “standards” it tacitly involves. The exorcism generated in him a deeply humane counteraffirmation (with Kantian allusion):

Mankind is incurably … anthropocentric. Pure reality an sich—reality not humanly created—is beyond our experience. … [I]n “meeting” [in meaning] we g[e]t beyond paradox, which is a word that belongs to the linguistic mode of la raison and the testable commonsense for which there are respectable criteria. The relation between life and the living individual (if it is properly called a relation, for it means that only in the individual can life be pointed to) is sui generis, and the importance of art-speech is that it establishes a recognized expressive relation—a relation belonging to a mode of articulate thought—between what can’t be stated directly and language.

(VC, p. 297)

Where epistomology is concerned, the knowing consciousness is its own putative object: “the brain is alive” (VC, p. 293).

How far can we travel with Leavis before we find our “Yes, but” (his avowedly preferred form of reply to his famously tacit question, “This is so, isn’t it?”)39 turning into a “No, but” or even a “No” tout court? The question is perhaps the wrong one, as I shall suggest in conclusion. His own most rigorous tests, and his most explicit statements of general principle, arise in the long and final commentary on Four Quartets. This is Leavis’s [End Page 147] “criticism in practice” (his appositional term for practical criticism) at full stretch. Leavis wrote more—and more forensically—on Eliot than on any other single author, preoccupied especially by the question of Christian affirmation in the later poetry (though being himself radically agnostic) and with the “limitation attendant on the achievement” (VC, p. 129). By this he meant the coexistence in Eliot of painful sincerity and capricious judgment, and—as Leavis diagnosed it—an inveterate and paradoxical will to discredit human creativity.

These successive critiques, the last especially, have something of the character of a quest. They enabled Leavis to confirm his own most fundamental attitudes and valuations; and they are marked in an exceptional degree by his “extraordinary and distinguished penmanship.”40 Their importance is twofold: they shed light on his own approach to literature and criticism, being himself one of the great literary teachers of the twentieth century; and they illuminate with unrivaled intensity Eliot’s conflicted genius. Exploring the nature of those “hints and guesses” in “The Dry Salvages,” with antennae sensitized to habitual self-refutation in the poet, he notes how

[t]hey suggest that “being” … means something positively other than the unlivingness of death. But they do that … by being essentially of the life that Eliot lives—lives purposefully and creatively in the way his undertaking commits him to, as he works at the poem, corrects his proofs, and remembers childhood in Missouri and holidays on the Massachusetts coast.

(LP, p. 247; my italics)

For Eliot’s name here substitute mutatis mutandis that of any poststructuralist critic, or indeed one’s own name—for to undertake a piece of writing is to write for others to read, and to assume unconsciously that for them too it embodies significant meaning in which reader and writer can meet, thus forming a critical community.

In the analysis of “Little Gidding,” which follows, Leavis turns to D. W. Harding’s account of the long narrative passage in unrhymed terza rima—a serious misreading, he argues, and Harding’s use of the term “humanist” an “indefensible misdirection”:

“Section II,” he [Harding] writes … “can be regarded as the logical starting point of the whole poem.” Well, in so far as it stresses the fear of death… as the essential impulsion that determines the nature of Eliot’s religious poetry, one can endorse this critical observation. But we are pulled up… when Harding goes on: “It deals with the desolation of death and the [End Page 148] futility of life for those who have had no conviction of spiritual values in their life’s work.”

(LP, p. 257)

Harding had written: “What the humanist’s ghost sees in his life are futility, isolation and guilt on account of his self-assertive prowess—“which once you took for exercise of virtue.’”41 Leavis asks: “Was Blake a humanist? He certainly had ‘no sense of spiritual values’ as Eliot conceived them. Yet I should have said that he pre-eminently stood for the spirit” (LP, p. 258). As MacKillop suggests, Leavis wanted to close off the conventionally accepted wisdom that took (and takes) Eliot as source of insight,42 not for the first time exposing his legerdemain in presenting ostensibly exhaustive alternatives (“to be redeemed from fire by fire”).43 Is there no third way, he asks, as between the empty modern humanism that Eliot scorns and his offered path—the Dantean disciplined steps—to redemption from original sin?44

No work of criticism is unassailable: Leavis, more than anyone, knew this (his most well-known representation of the critical exchange—“This is so, isn’t it?”—“Yes, but”—testifies to this); the commentary should be considered in the context of the whole body of his work on Eliot. But he is brought to an unusual explicativeness: “there is no acceptable religious position that is not a reinforcement of human responsibility” (LP, p. 236). Some may feel that Leavis’s target is at bottom “those doctrines, theological and religious, in which human nullity has been made a basic postulate” (LP, p. 214) (or even the underlying nature of Christian doctrine itself). But the critique is searching. Even if a persuasive argument could be brought to bear against its general diagnostic conclusions, it is hard to see how its informing idea could be refuted: “How could ‘spiritual reality,’ for the apprehending of which Eliot (thus involuntarily conceding the point) uses the word ‘conscious,’ be a reality for us … unless apprehended out of life …?” (LP, p. 181).

But for Leavis the central paradox of Eliot was that he remained in Four Quartets a poet—and a poet of the first importance. Leavis’s commentary constitutes one of the most cogent and illuminating philosophico-literary inquiries of the twentieth century. In both his “fiercely rebutting” anti-positivism and his repudiation of Eliot’s nullifying stance, he was, no less than Eliot himself, concerned for the spiritual and the real. In this too, though intractably agnostic, he shared something of Wittgenstein’s high regard for authentic religious conviction: [End Page 149]

At the surface level [as Raymond Williams observed of Leavis] there was a very strange mixture of the deliberate and the reckless, but below that again there was a condition I have only ever seen in one or two other men: a true sense of mystery, and of very painful exposure to mystery, which was even harder to understand because this was the man of so many confident and well-known beliefs and opinions.45

What, then, is the outcome of an intelligent rethinking of Leavis? The straw man of recent making, so readily set fire to, is no longer there. In no simple sense is he found to be a “new critic” or a “practical critic.” Rather, he points a way out of the wilderness of objections to which “Leavisian” criticism, for all its range and variety, is frequently subject—the disabling limitations imputed to the notion of the “text in itself.” Such criticisms (under the guise of theoretical indictment) turn out to be more often than not a way of substituting the antagonist’s (usually political) agenda for the one ostensibly displaced. He does this by eschewing such formulations altogether as illusory and self-refuting. (By the same token, his own work resists classification.) In so doing he greatly augments and enriches the range and possibilities of evaluative criticism as a new chapter opens in post-Cartesian humanism (as it does in our time).

As I have suggested, sustained focal attention to one’s own speech act is virtually impossible to achieve. The implications of this for the written exposition of theory are considerable. Yet such writing tends to rely crucially but unconsciously on terms that, if not entirely meaningless, possess value only as provisional devices for the management of discussion and serve no useful purpose beyond that.

“Subjective” and its derivative “intersubjectivity” are such terms. Leavis’s unique version of the hermeneutic circle—his practice of “defining” his criteria by reference to themselves in numerous variant forms, whether described as deixic or by any other technical term—is, au fond, invulnerable to theoretical controversion, poststructuralist or aesthetic. The dialectic or deconstructive process, which Leavis understood to be present in valuation, must remain unstated; to make it explicit or fully overt is reductivist of the concrete experience that authentic response entails: response that is both personal and collaborative.46 (“Collaboration, a matter of differences as well as agreements.”47) This does not require agreement with him on individual valuations nor does it invalidate the ideal of a “right” reading. His effort is always toward a central rather than a decentered perspective, an effort toward centrality.48 [End Page 150]

Leavis’s Socratic practice49 of seeking to show rather than to state, conjoined with a tacit appeal for concurrence, reflects his belief that major literary works enact or embody their valuations; but they do so only in and for the responding reader.50 In that sense they are nonjudgmental. Far from resulting in a rebarbative, atavistic formalism, this critical rootedness proves to be Leavis’s greatest strength. A valuation is personal or it is nothing; but valuation—like all exchange beyond the merely perfunctory—is grounded in appeal to others, who participate with us also in the living community to which we belong. The response to such appeal must always be largely affirmative in character, regardless of the specific instance, if human community is to be a possibility at all. In opening out the implications of Eliot’s “common pursuit” (less than fully understood by Eliot himself) with that “possibility of arriving at something outside of ourselves which may provisionally be called truth,” we fulfill the condition of human life itself, however far short of complete concurrence we inevitably fall.

Leavis’s deference to the principle of collaborative creativity, which must depend for its existence on something other than itself, and the repudiation of modern humanism that this entails, enables us to reconcile the search for the significance of life itself51 with the rejection (or suspension) of formal ideology, religious or other. It undermines too the recent precedence accorded to theory. It offers us a new, “anti-philosophical” way of doing philosophy that affirms literary art as a supreme mode of thought. The reality thus affirmed includes, and is itself the product and coordinate of, human perception. It incorporates all human ideas, including those whose character is lexical only—such as “pure reality”—behind which there is no expressible human experience.

One of Leavis’s most original insights was that the ability to use a natural language is cognate with the faculty of human mind, and mind is always unique, individual, embodied mind. But—an essential paradox—language cannot be the creation or possession of any individual: it is of its nature communal, continuously and collaboratively re-created and sustained. It is, thus conceived, the supreme manifestation of “the creative activity on the part of the mind, which could not so act if it were not incarnate in a living individual body” (VC, p. 293). This makes possible “the illimitably advancing discovery of the physicist’s reality” (NS, p. 22). And “I say ‘the physicist’s’ in order that I may go on to note… the complementary truth: the human mind can’t be less really real than inanimate nature” (NS, p. 22). The reality thus figured allows the seemingly impassable gulf between the solipsistic state of the isolated [End Page 151] individual and the otherwise merely abstract construct of collective human life to be bridged.

That there would be a revival of interest in Leavis the late Frank Kermode predicted. It would not, he believed, “have much to do with the sociological Leavis, the organic society and so forth”; but would instead “try to recover his feel for language.”52 The prediction turns out to have been far-sighted, but in the effort to recover Leavis’s “feel for language” we find much more than Kermode understood: that Leavis’s thinking is informed by the conception of language I have referred to, as a sustained and continuous collaborative achievement from its earliest origins, limitlessly resourceful and creative but elusive of ordinary understanding. In this dimension especially his ghost still has indeed “the power to disturb and challenge.”53

Chris Joyce
University of Surrey


1. F. R. Leavis, The Living Principle: English as a Discipline of Thought (London: Chatto and Windus, 1976), p. 57; hereafter abbreviated LP.

2. “In our time it is very necessary to insist that the most important words … are incapable of definition. You can’t by defining them fix and circumscribe their life—for in any vital use they will live, even disconcertingly: there lies their importance for thought” (F. R. Leavis, Nor Shall My Sword: Discourses on Pluralism, Compassion and Social Hope [London: Chatto and Windus, 1972], p. 163; hereafter abbreviated NS).

3. Letter to Eugenio Montale, 1973, quoted in G. Singh, F. R. Leavis: A Literary Biography (London: Duckworth, 1995), p. 212.

4. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), §43; hereafter abbreviated PI.

5. Anthony Kenny, Wittgenstein (Harmondsworth: Allen Lane, 1973), p. 18. I am aware that in the work of Rush Rees, D. Z. Phillips, and others we find an interpretation of Wittgenstein as more deeply concerned with the nature of reality than Kenny’s book may suggest.

6. Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright (Oxford: Blackwell, 1969): “Moore says he knows that the earth existed long before his birth. And put like that it seems to be a personal statement about him, even if it is in addition a statement about the physical world. Now it is philosophically uninteresting whether Moore knows this or that, but it is interesting that, and how, it can be known. If Moore had informed us that he knew the distance separating certain stars, we might conclude from that that he had made some special investigations, and we shall want to [End Page 152] know what these were. But Moore chooses precisely a case in which we all seem to know the same as he, and without being able to say how” (§84). (See also note 37 below.) “If someone were to look at an English pillar-box and say ‘I am sure that it’s red,’ we should have to suppose that he was colour-blind, or believe he had no mastery of English and knew the correct name for the colour in some other language. If neither was the case, we should not quite understand him” (§526).

7. F. R. Leavis, Valuation in Criticism, ed. G. Singh (Cambridge University Press, 1986), p.129; hereafter abbreviated VC.

8. The work of Michael Bell is especially notable in this context. See, for example, Literature, Education and Authority from J-J. Rousseau to J. M. Coetzee (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), and his chapter on Leavis in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. 7, Modernism and the New Criticism, ed. A. Walton Litz, Louis Menand, and Lawrence Rainey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); hereafter abbreviated MNC.

9. Marjorie Grene, The Knower and the Known (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), p. 14; hereafter abbreviated KK.

10. “He was able to dig down to the most fundamental, and typically unnoticed, presuppositions of thought” (P. M. S. Hacker, Wittgenstein: Connections and Controversies [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001], p. 2).

11. F. R. Leavis, Revaluation: Tradition and Development in English Poetry (London: Chatto and Windus, 1936), p. 10.

12. Donald Davie, These the Companions (Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 169. Consider also Leavis’s remarks in the late essay on Yeats: “The most resolutely literary-critical study of his poetic career entails biography, personalities, public affairs and history” (F. R. Leavis, Lectures in America [London: Chatto and Windus, 1969], p. 80).

13. F. R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit (London: Chatto and Windus, 1952), p. 203; hereafter abbreviated CP.

14. F. R. Leavis, Education and the University (1943; repr., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 19–20; hereafter abbreviated EU.

15. See VC, pp. 288, 294, and the surrounding context of the essay “Thought, Meaning, and Sensibility.”

16. NS, p. 94. See also, for example, EU, p. 24: “It was a romantic and irresponsible vision that, in the Marxising days, acclaimed a human triumph that was to emerge out of catastrophe, and it is a philistine obtuseness that … sees a human triumph in any Utopian consummation of the process of the capitalist era. The problem is to avoid both a breakdown of the machinery and its triumph.”

17. It might be noted that the German Bedeutung (as at note 4 above) does not carry the same degree of intention as is suggested in Leavis’s references to “meaning.”

18. See, for instance, MNC and Richard Storer, F. R. Leavis (London: Routledge, 2009); hereafter abbreviated Storer. [End Page 153]

19. F. R. Leavis, Towards Standards of Criticism, new ed. with additional introduction by F. R. Leavis (1933; repr., London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1976), p. 9.

20. In “T. S. Eliot: A Reply to the Condescending,” Cambridge Review, February 8, 1929; reprinted in VC, pp. 13–14.

21. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, ed. E. Greenspan, L. Vasey, and J. Worthen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 14.

22. A Selection from “Scrutiny,” vol. 2, compiled by F. R. Leavis (1968; repr., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p.293.

23. See, F. R. Leavis, Thought, Words and Creativity (London: Chatto and Windus, 1976), p. 34; hereafter abbreviated TWC; and VC, p. 292.

24. VC, pp. 285–97.

25. See F. R. Leavis, “Memories of Wittgenstein,” in The Critic as Anti-Philosopher: Essays and Papers by F. R. Leavis, ed. G. Singh (Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 129–45; hereafter abbreviated CAP. The original manuscript was heavily edited for publication in The Human World (February 1973). The whereabouts of the original manuscript are not known.

26. R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature (1945; repr., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), examples at pp. 83 and 161.

27. Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 37.

28. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Seabury Press, 1989), p. 292.

29. See, for example (apart from for its general interest), Theodor W. Adorno, “Scientific Experiences of a European Scholar in America,” in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).

30. The most well-known general exposition of this idea appears in Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (Stanford University Press, 2002). See also “The Culture Industry Reconsidered,” in Theodor W. Adorno, The Culture Industry: Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J. M. Bernstein (London: Routledge, 1991).

31. “The antagonism within the concept of free expression boils down to the fact that the concept posits society as composed of free, equal, and emancipated people, whereas society’s actual organization hinders all of that and produces and reproduces a condition of permanent regression among its subjects” (Adorno, Critical Models, p. 119).

32. Leavis’s personal library contained numbers of books on aesthetics; see Q. D. Leavis’s memoir in G. Singh, F. R. Leavis: A Literary Biography (London: Duckworth, 1995); hereafter abbreviated LB.

33. But “you don’t need philosophy to dispose of Chomsky and linguistics: there’s a better kind of thought” (F. R. Leavis, letter to a private correspondent, 1973).

34. The Cambridge Quarterly 25, no. 4 (1996): 393; hereafter abbreviated CQ Poole. The published essay, which is of great value, is an abbreviated text. The complete text is in the possession of this writer. [End Page 154]

35. Roger Poole, Towards Deep Subjectivity (Harmondsworth: Allen Lane, 1972).

36. Knowing and Being: Essays by Michael Polanyi (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969), p. 195; hereafter abbreviated Polanyi.

37.Wenn ich die Beschreibung gebe: ‘Der Boden war ganz mit Pflanzen bedeckt’,—willst du sagen, ich weiß nicht, wovon ich rede, ehe ich nicht eine Definition der Pflanze geben kann?” (PI §70) (If I gave the description: “The ground was completely covered with plants”—would you say I didn’t know what I was talking about if I could not give a definition of a plant?).

38. “When, in 1975, the University of Leeds awarded honorary degrees to F. R. Leavis and E. H. J. Gombrich, Gombrich said to Leavis, ‘We have much in common,’ and Leavis responded, ‘Yes—tradition and the creativity of perception’” (Philip Brockbank, The Creativity of Perception [Oxford: Blackwell, 1991], p. ix).

39. “For although my judgment asks to be confirmed and appeals for agreement that the thing is so; the response I expect at best will be of the form, ‘Yes, but—,’ the ‘but’ standing for qualifications, corrections, shifts of emphasis, additions, refinements” (F. R. Leavis, English Literature in Our Time and the University [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979], p. 47). He himself arrives at a “no” in the critique of Four Quartets—see notes 42 and 43 below.

40. In “Dr. F. R. Leavis,” obituary notice, The Times, April 18, 1978.

41. Leavis quoting from D. W. Harding, Experience into Words (London: Chatto and Windus, 1963), pp. 122–23.

42. Ian MacKillop, F. R. Leavis: A Life in Criticism (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1996), p. 390; hereafter abbreviated MacKillop.

43. “Compare the very much not-impersonal treatment of Harry’s guilt [in The Family Reunion] with the way in which, in the ‘terza rima,’ Eliot pulls up on the edge of full confessional explicitness about the guilt and plunges instead, holily, to be consumed by either ‘fire or fire’—neither of which is burning shame (the shame of motives late revealed)” (Leavis, letter to a private correspondent, 1975).

44. “Of course, Eliot doesn’t take over Dante’s purgatorial steps, but the idea of a disciplined advance by stages is there” (Leavis, letter to a private correspondent, 1969). “Acceptance is more important than anything that can be called belief” (T. S. Eliot, “Dante,” in Selected Essays [1929; repr., London: Faber, 1969], p. 277).

45. From “Seeing a Man Running,” in The Leavises: Recollections and Impressions, ed. Denys Thompson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 121; reprinted in What I Came to Say (London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989).

46. This is Leavis’s implicit answer equally to Wellek and Adorno: the critical exchange should be as little reductivist as possible, neither theoretically contingent nor politically propagandist: “our understanding of living beings involves at all levels a measure of indwelling; our interest in life is always convivial. There is no break … in passing from biology to the acceptance of our cultural calling in which we share the life of a human society, including the life of its ancestors, the authors of our cultural heritage” (Polanyi, pp. 136–37).

47. EU, dedication page. [End Page 155]

48. “Centrality”—an idea that figures frequently in Leavis’s work, as for instance when he refers to Lawrence’s “centrality of judgement” (F. R. Leavis, D. H. Lawrence: Novelist [London: Chatto and Windus, 1955], p. 325).

49. Leavis eschewed the term “teacher” for himself. His model seminar is essentially Socratic: “Putting a finger on this and that in the text, and moving tactically from point to point, you make at each a critical observation that hardly anyone in whom the power of critical perception exists … wouldn’t endorse. … The ideal is … that when this tactical process has reached its final stage, there is no need for assertion; this ‘placing’ judgment is left as established” (CAP, p. 190). “While to some he seemed a rare talent grown painfully awry, to others he assumed almost Socratic powers” (Times obituary); “Leavis chatted courteously, seating himself on the library steps. Clive Parry, professor of international law … , emerged into the sunlight. ‘Ah, Leavis, like Socrates with his pupils,’ he remarked. ‘Socrates was not a very handsome man, Parry,’ replied Leavis” (MacKillop, p. 10).

50. An idea frequently adduced by Leavis; for instance, “Johnson cannot understand that works of art enact their moral valuations. … [F]or Johnson a moral judgment that isn’t stated isn’t there” (CP, p. 111). A valuable discussion of the idea appears in Heward Wilkinson’s at present unpublished papers, “Leavis’s Concept of Enactment as a Multidisciplinary Paradigm,” given at the 2009 Leavis conference in Cambridge, and “The Later Leavis on Yeats: Why He Chooses ‘Among School Children’ and Omits ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion,’” given at the 2010 Leavis conference at York (both in the possession of the present writer).

51. William Walsh, quoted in Three Honest Men: Edmund Wilson, F. R. Leavis, Lionel Trilling, ed. Philip French (Manchester: Carcanet, 1980), p. 46.

52. Review of MacKillop in London Review of Books, August 24, 1995.

53. Storer, p. 125. [End Page 156]