The Living Principle Essay - Critical Essays

F. R. Leavis


It is Leavis’ contention in The Living Principle that literature is a demanding intellectual discipline. The form of literary study he advocates—that is, practical criticism (which he prefers to call “judgment and analysis”)—is not simply “a specialized kind of gymnastic skill” to be practiced apart from intelligent thought. Literary exercises in judgment and analysis and tests of perception and sensibility should be regarded as fostering the kind of intelligence and academic training for which a university English school or department deserves to be respected.

Leavis objects strenuously to Lord Robbins’ dismissal of the arts and literature in his 1963 report on the needs of British education at the university level. Lord Robbins recognizes that the natural sciences must be complemented by the study of human nature, which he sees as the role of psychology and the social sciences. He considers these to be mental disciplines. Literature and the arts are regarded as “pleasing adjuncts” to what matters; they are “graces and adornments in the margin of life that shouldn’t be discouraged: they contribute dignity and amenity.”

According to Leavis, literary studies are as intellectually rigorous as philosophy, which he perceives as a rival discipline but one that deals with largely the same problems and issues of human life as does literature. In The Living Principle, he occasionally directs his comments to members of this rival discipline and is particularly keen on having them recognize that literature also is a discipline of thought, although a different one.

In attempting to establish the particular nature of his discipline, Leavis begins by rejecting the Cartesian duality of mind and body. He discounts as well the distinction between clear, logical thinking (which is commonly perceived as “real thought”) on the one hand and undisciplined self-indulgence or emotionality on the other. He refers disparagingly to Stanislav Andreski’s attempt (in Social Sciences as Sorcery, 1972) to set judgment of fact apart from judgment of value. While Andreski invokes the philosophical authority of Bertrand Russell to support his belief in the antithetical relationship of fact and value, Leavis posits Marjorie Grene’s rejection of this antithesis in The Knower and the Known (1966). Leavis quotes her as saying that in contemporary philosophy, “the purity of science” depends on keeping statements of fact “uncontaminated” by statements of value. She questions the distinction made between “cognitive” and “emotive” meaning, that is, between the statements of science, which purvey information, and poetry, which makes pseudostatements, between the wholly objective, “value-free” statements of science and the impassioned utterances and values of creative writing.

Grene shows that no discipline “however factual” or “detached” can exist without “the fundamental evaluative acts of the individuals belonging to a given culture.” Leavis quotes an extended passage in which Grene illustrates her point. She shows that a factual word such as “cat” or “red” is abstracted from immediate relational perception. To establish that the creature “cat” is a cat or the color “red” is red, the individual must have “the power of bringing each new particular to the bar of judgment according to a principle, a standard” by which he judges it. What appears to be factual, then, is judgmental as well.

This, Leavis suggests, is...

(The entire section is 1449 words.)