Study Guide

Principles of Literary Criticism

by I. A. Richards

Principles of Literary Criticism Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Ivor Armstrong Richards was born in Sandbach, England, on February 26, 1893. He received his formal education at Magdalene College of Cambridge University, where he received the degree of M.A. He became a teaching Fellow of Magdalene in 1926 and has also held positions as visiting professor at Tsing Hua University, Peking, from 1929 to 1930, visiting lecturer at Harvard in 1931, and Director of The Orthological Institute of China from 1936 to 1938. Throughout his life, he has been vitally interested in the Orient. While teaching in China, he studied Chinese philosophy and worked on his book MENCIUS ON THE MIND. He has had a special interest in the thought of Confucius. In 1964 he was made an Honorary Fellow of Magdalene College.

Although he has written poetry and drama, his major contributions have been in the fields of literary criticism and philology. His first book, THE FOUNDATIONS OF AESTHETICS, published in 1922 and written in collaboration with psychologist C. K. Ogden and art authority James Wood, examined the whole area of aesthetics in an attempt to arrive at the nature of beauty and to offer the authors’ own definition of aesthetics. In 1923, Richards and Ogden published THE MEANING OF MEANING, a psychologically oriented pursuit of “meaning” in the arts. But more significant critical pronouncements were made in the next three books: PRINCIPLES OF LITERARY CRITICISM in 1924, SCIENCE AND POETRY in 1926, and PRACTICAL CRITICISM in 1929. All three books treat the question of value in the arts, primarily poetry, and all are concerned with the problem of correct interpretation of art. Their aims are different, however: PRINCIPLES OF LITERARY CRITICISM spells out the theory; SCIENCE AND POETRY discusses the role and future of literature in life; and PRACTICAL CRITICISM applies theory to individual literary works. Richards’ last major critical book, COLERIDGE ON IMAGINATION, published in 1935, explores several meanings of the concept of imagination and singles out Coleridge’s definition as the one most accurate and applicable to twentieth century criticism.

From the early 1930’s, as the solution to problems in education and general communication, Richards has been interested in Basic English. In writing THE MEANING OF MEANING, he and Ogden realized that they repeatedly used certain key words which, they discovered, could form a basic language that would permit the expression of any idea. While it was Ogden who published the first Basic word list, Richards has actively pursued his own linguistic research in BASIC IN TEACHING: EAST AND WEST, INTERPRETATION IN TEACHING, HOW TO READ A PAGE, and BASIC ENGLISH AND ITS USES.

Among his critical books, PRINCIPLES OF LITERARY CRITICISM most directly concerns the deriving of value from the arts, especially the art of poetry. In many ways the basis of all Richards’ pronouncements on criticism, it sets forth his fundamental critical and artistic theories.

He begins this complex study by indicating several difficulties which often preclude valid criticism. First of all, there is too much of what Richards calls “experimental aesthetics” in the arts: futile attempts to make human tastes and actions amenable to laboratory examination. Moreover, criticism tends to concentrate on secondary aspects of the arts and thereby ignores the all-important subject of value. And at other times, the very language of criticism causes misunderstandings because of its vague, often deceiving vocabulary. For example, critics often speak of objects of art as if the objects themselves possess qualities, whereas what they should say is that the objects evoke effects in us.

To offset these impediments, Richards insists that valid criticism is contingent upon an understanding of the nature of experience and the formulating of an acceptable theory of valuation and communication in the arts. The first of these topics, experience, is approached purely psychologically. In fact, much of PRINCIPLES OF LITERARY CRITICISM is comprised of chapters which give the psychological background to particular facets of aesthetic appreciation and communication. In Chapter XI, “A Sketch for a Psychology,” Richards reminds us that the mind is the nervous system and is thus a...

(The entire section is 1795 words.)