The Living Principle

by F. R. Leavis
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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1449

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 what occurs in practical criticism or judgment and analysis. He emphasizes that the standards by which the creative writer and the literary critic judge are established by a “given culture” or community and achieved through collaboration:The stand, though personal, . . . is not merely personal; it is a product of immemorially collaborative creativity, . . . created and renewed in day-by-day human collaboration through the ages.

This collaborative, communal origin of standards allows literature and literary studies to have a cohesive, integral view of society, unlike the social sciences, which embrace not “the whole thought” but fragmentary knowledge.

He underscores the idea that in literary analysis minds meet in a work of literature. There is a “measure of concurrence” between the reader and the writer and among the various readers. He calls this meeting place a “Third Realm,” the realm which is “neither public in the ordinary sense nor merely private.”

To support further his rejection of the dualities of fact and judgment, logic and emotionality, Leavis directs the reader to the ideas of Michael Polanyi in Knowing and Being (1969). Polanyi, he points out, was a professor who at his own request had his post in chemistry converted into a chair of social studies. Leavis states that with “a training very different from that of which I make myself an advocate in this book, and with an approach very different from mine,” Polanyi sanctions Leavis’ view that the mind and the body are one, and that, furthermore, the “mind is always an individual mind”; this individual mind is always that of a person who has a body and a history which is communal as well as individual.

The critical judgment of a literary scholar, then, Leavis concludes, could be seen as factual and judgmental, as individualistic but with a responsibility to be universally valid, as entailing a “complexity of necessarily collaborative frequentation.” This collaborative creativity makes for “continued and advancing collaborative thought.” There are no absolutes; “collaboration entails, vitally and essentially, disagreements. Finality is unattainable.”

As a discipline of thought, the study of literature serves to instill in the individual and society what Leavis calls “the living principle.” This end (the living principle) is as elusive to define as the means (the exact intellectual nature of the discipline of English). Nevertheless, it involves the individual’s totality of apprehension and concern for his community, a bond or “nisus” and an energy that “maintains a creative continuity from human beginnings.” It draws on “a consciousness of one’s full human responsibility, purpose, and the whole range of human valuations.” The living principle instills in the individual “human responsibility” and “manifest potency of life.” Leavis rejects nihilistic and nugatory works, but he does not expect the great work of art to be always positive and optimistic; it could have “a positive ahnung,” the German word he found necessary to employ for a sense of “anticipatory apprehension.”

In presenting this philosophical analysis of literature, Leavis, who takes pride in perceiving himself as a literary critic with a training different from that of a philosopher, struggles to find the right vocabulary. He states in his preface that to define precisely the nature of the discipline is a difficult task. It is easier to discuss it in a descriptive way with practical demonstration of what it does; thus, more than two-thirds of the book is given over to judgment and analysis of particular literary works. He cautions the reader that there will be “no neat and final account of the distinctive discipline, but the need and the challenge to define and re-define will always be there.” To elucidate his ideas, he found it necessary constantly to put inverted commas around lay words to suggest particular meanings, such as “spontaneous,” “logic,” “thought,” “standard,” “value,” and to introduce such terms as “nisus” and ahnung, which some of his critics view as jargon.

His characteristic vitriolic style is evident in his repudiation of the ideas of Andreski, Russell, and the Wittgensteinians. Some readers believe him too dogmatic when he warns that ignoring literature as a discipline in academe will wreck universities and consequently society. He asserts that rescuing Great Britain “from its plight and curing its malady” is not merely “a matter of ensuring good percentage growth-rate, fair distribution and industrial peace.” These are sentiments with which many agree, but Leavis tends to overstate his case in a Jeremiah-like tone when he maintains that ignoring literature and the discipline of English “will most certainly ensure a major human disaster.” He appears to be xenophobic in insisting without evidence or analysis that American society militates against the living principle since it does not possess the required ahnung, memory, faith, and “living intuitive faculty”: “America has long been menacing our future, and the complete triumph of Americanization there accelerates the progress of the disease in this country.”

The two sections of the book in which Leavis judges and analyzes various literary works illustrate through practice how literary criticism is a discipline of thought and how major creative writers are concerned with “a necessary kind of thought” and do not indulge in thoughtless emotions, “sentimental debauch,” and “emotional wallowing.” He shows that imagery is not introduced in creative writing for pictorial effect or to create “the equivalent of seeing a little picture”; its function is “to convey an attitude towards the object contemplated.” The most substantial extended illustration of his philosophical thesis is his analysis of Eliot’s Four Quartets, which literary critics regard as one of the finest studies of the poem.

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