The Living Principle Essay - Critical Context

F. R. Leavis

Critical Context

Leavis is considered by many to be the most influential British critic of the twentieth century. Through his teaching at Cambridge from 1937 to 1962 and his numerous critical studies of writers whom he considered to have a place in the “great tradition” of English literature, he drastically changed the approach to literary studies that was current in universities when he began to teach. He directed attention to practical criticism, to close analysis and judgment of the text, away from literary history and biography. Up to the 1970’s, his approach was dominant in many universities.

The defense of his discipline in The Living Principle is his most extended attempt at a philosophical discourse. Many believe that in the literary section of this book Leavis is an excellent critic; William Walsh considers the volume “one of the greatest of his books.” At the level of theoretical and philosophical generalization, however, Leavis is not at his best. He tends to depend too much on the works of other philosophers; quoting passages from their works is not a substitute for convincingly stating his own arguments. As Leavis observes in Thoughts, Words, and Creativity, however, he thinks of himself “as an anti-philosopher, which is what a literary critic ought to be—and every intelligent reader of creative literature is a literary critic.” In his preface, he insists that he is not a philosopher, though his philosophical preoccupation with the nature of literature and literary analysis has led philosophers to receive him as one. Michael Tanner, in “Literature and Philosophy,” criticizes him for believing that Polanyi resolved the Cartesian dualism by denying its existence, but he states that Leavis’ instincts and ideas for dealing with “the relations between thought, language and objectivity are those of a first-rate philosophic intelligence.” Leavis’ attempts to explore philosophically the nature of the mind that produces creative writing and literary criticism have encouraged later literary theorists and critics to perceive literature as a demanding intellectual discipline, and his ideas can be seen as a precursor to the phenomenological and epistemological approaches to literary studies.