NOTE ON LEAVIS'S (META) CRITICAL POSITION
judgements, whether evaluative or interpretative, have a praraoxial
nature—they are specific and subjective, but at the same time they
will be mere impressions rather than judgements proper unless they
work their way towards critical positions,
are inevitably comparative and intersubjective.
Leavis’s is a classic case of an author of explicit literary
judgements whose writings very much point towards a critical position
by consciously refrain form giving an explicit account of it.
This creates false opportunities to his detractors or true
difficulties for his admirers, (During his life-time you had to be
one or the other.)
This note offers an explicit but schematic account of his critical
position. This should be of help both in saying which
elements in Leavis’s critical position one would endorse and which
elements in his critical position one would have serious reservations
aobut, so that one need not be an undiluted admirer or an undiluted
detractor. To begin with, there is a set of nine variables
each of which can be present or absent.
inherited organic community; if not, then at least a self-constituted
the values of the organic community; not necessarily through continuing
inheritance or influence
one’s own language; especially, remaining close to its spoken form
in contemporary sensibility and so being representative in a rich
sharing the strength and adult standards of a tradition
expression of individual sensibility
(c1) critical , discriminating intelligence
(c2) concrete, enactive realization of intensity of emotion and
thought in fusion in sensuous or concrete terms
(c3) critical, discriminating intelligence
next, we can take up the
network of relationships; the network could b4e set out as follows. (Note the overall progression from a1 to c3
in the network.)
a3 b2 c1
The arrows in the diagram could be read in either of two ways: 'x y' is
read either as ' x accounts for the occurrence
(x explains y, in short) or as ' x accounts
for the worth of y'
(x enhances y, in short). This
ambivalence of the relationship in a special and unusual feature of
this critical position.
Finally, we flesh out this network with some characteristic evaluate
literary judgements of Leavis. (Naturally,
the following two accounting relations are not open to being fleshed
out by literary judgements as such namely, a1
a2 and a2 a3. Leavis on Mill on Bentham and coleridge and Tonnies on Gemeinchaft
and Gesellschaft will be more to
the point.) The judgements
may offer examples of concurrent presence or concurrent absence: the
presence of x the
presence of y; the absence of
absence of y. literary judgements, positive or negative,
thus support the critical position rather than the other way round.
A1 b1 : positively, Elizabethans; negatively, Eighteenth Century English writers
A2 b2 : positively, Ben Jonson; negatively, Dryden
A3 b3 : positively, Milton’s
Milton ‘grand style’
B1 b2 : We need to look further
B2 b3 :
positively, we need to look further for examples; negatively, Auden
B1 c1 : we need to look further for examples
B2 c2 : positively, Pope, Johnson; negatively, Swift, the later
B3 c3 : positively, Shakespeare; negatively , we need to look further
C2 c3 : positively Blake;
Presenting Leavis position
in this manner should make us realize that he was no mere camp-follower
of Richards or Eliot (as he is sometimes made out to be), what is
more to the point, it also permits us to interrogate Levis a little
more fruitfully. For example, one could ask whether a1 ‘explains’
b1 because a1 is a necessary condition of b1 or because a1 is a sufficient
condition of b1; whether a1 may explain b1 without enhancing it or
whether a1 may enhance b1 without explaining it; whether certain specific
judgements (thus, the highly positive judgement of Lawrence) support
something extraneous to critical judgement (as , bias for the masculine
gender); whether certain specific revisions in judgement (thus, Dickens
the ‘great entertainer’, except for Hard Times; was later evaluated
more positively) reveal some weakness in the network; and so forth.
If literary judgements work their way towards critical positions,
debates between critical positions (also of the ‘Yes but’ variety),
when they don’t lead to persuasion or consensus, are defined within
some meta-critical position on the part of the critic.
The possibilities at this point are the following:
Absolutism (literary judgements work their way to universality and
Objective relativism (critical positions are relative to shared specificity
such as genre, period)
Subjective relativism (critical positions are relative to shared specificity
such as ‘Englishness’, Romanticism)
Anarchism (literary judgements are irreducibly specific and subjective)
be borne in mind that one’s meta- critical position is logically independent
of one’s critical position. In
Leavis’s case, his meta-critical position happened to be Absolutism. But it is open for one to subscribe to Leavis’s critical position
without sharing his meta-critical position.
L.C. Knights is probably a case in point: he largely holds
by the foregoing network, but at the meta-critical level his position
is probably one of objective relativism.
At least some detractors of Leavis are in reality detractors
of his Absolutism.
the more extreme aspects of his Absolutism (the more extreme aspects
of currently fashionable Nietzschean Anarchism are just as distasteful)
and shorn of certain extraneous aspects of his critical position (as,
bias for the masculine gender, the romantic medievalist aspects of
his ‘organic community’), Leavis is of continued ‘relevance’.
(If he is not invoked very often today this is in part because
many of his ideas now represent accepted wisdom.)
Written around 1984, this has remained unpublished.
Professor C. D. Narasimaiah (Mysore) once said to the author
that F.R. Leavis once said to him in conversion that his reluctance
to spell out a critical position had probably been a mistake on his