I. A. Richards

I. A. Richards

, what is often thought of as the beginning of modern literary criticism. Richards is regularly considered one of the founders of the contemporary study of literature in English.

Biographical sketch


Richards began his career without formal training in literature at all; Richards studied philosophy ("moral sciences") at Cambridge University. This may have led to one of Richards' assertions for the shape of literary study in the 20th century — that literary study cannot and should not be undertaken as a specialization in itself, but instead studied alongside a cognate field (philosophy, psychology, rhetoric, etc.).

Richards' earliest teaching appointments were in the equivalent of what might be called "adjunct faculty" positions; Magdalene College at Cambridge would not pay a salary to Richards to teach the new and untested field of English literature. Instead, Richards collected tuition directly from the students as they entered the classroom each week. In 1926 he married Dorothy Pilley Richards, whom he had met on a climbing holiday in Wales.


Richards' life and influence can be divided into periods, which correspond roughly to his intellectual interests. In many of these achievements, Richards found a collaborator in C. K. Ogden.

Collaboration with Ogden

An assessment of Richards' work and biography requires mention of C. K. Ogden, Richards' collaborator on three of the most important projects of Richards' life and work.

In "Foundations of Aesthetics" (co-authored by Richards, Ogden & James Woods), Richards maps out the principles of aesthetic reception which lay at the root of Richards' literary theory (the principle of "harmony" or balance of competing psychological impulses). Additionally, the structure of the work (surveying multiple, competing definitions of the term "aesthetic") prefigures his work on multiple definition in "Coleridge on Imagination", in "Basic Rules of Reason" and in "Mencius on the Mind".

In "The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism", Richards and Odgen work out the triadic theory of semiotics which, in its dependence on psychological theories, prefigures the importance of psychology in Richards independently authored literary criticism. Additionally, many current semioticians (including Eco) salute this work as a vast improvement on the dyadic semiotics of Saussure.

Finally, in works like "The General Basic English Dictionary" and "Times of India Guide to Basic English", Richards and Ogden developed their most internationally influential project -- the Basic English program for the development of an international language based with an 850-word vocabulary. Richards' own travels, especially to China, made him an effective advocate for this international program. At Harvard, he took the next step, integrating new media (television, especially) into his international pedagogy.

Aesthetics and literary criticism


*"The Foundations of Aesthetics" (George Allen and Unwin: London, 1922). Co-authored with C. K. Ogden and James Wood. 2nd edition with revised preface, (Lear Publishers: New York 1925).

*"The Principles of Literary Criticism" (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner: London, 1924; New York, 1925). Subsequent editions: London 1926 (with two new appendices), New York 1926 (Same as London 1926, but with new preface, dated New York, April 1926), 1928 (with rev preface).

*"Science and Poetry" (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner: London, 1926). A reset edition was published in the same year in New York, by W. W. Norton, 1926. Second edition, revised and enlarged: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner: London, 1935. There is no known US publication of the 2nd Edition, however the text of the 1935 edition was reset, with a 'Preface', 'Commentary', and an additional essay, 'How Does a Poem Know When it is Finished' (1963), as "Poetries and Sciences" (W. W. Norton: New York and London, 1970).

*"Practical Criticism" (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner: London, 1929). Subsequent editions: 1930 (rev).

*"Coleridge on Imagination" (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner: London, 1934; New York, 1935). Later editions: NY and London 1950 (Revised with new preface), Bloomington 1960 (Reprints 1950, with new foreword by Richards and introduction by K. Raine).

*"Speculative Instruments": (Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, 1955).

*'So Much Nearer: Essays toward a World English" (Harcourt, Brace & World: New York, 1960, 1968). Includes the important essay, "The Future of Poetry."


Richards is often labeled, or mislabeled, as the father of the New Criticism, largely because of the influence of his first two books of critical theory, "The Principles of Literary Criticism" and of "Practical Criticism". "Principles" was a major critical breakthrough in having offered thirty-five insightful chapters regarding various topics relevant to literary criticism inclusive of such topics as form, value, rhythm, coenesthesia, literary infectiousness, allusiveness, divergent readings, and belief. His next book, "Practical Criticism", was just as influential as an empirical study of inferior literary response. Richards removed authorial and contextual information from thirteen poems, including one by Longfellow and four by decidedly marginal poets. Then he assigned their interpretation to undergraduates at Cambridge University in order to ascertain the most likely impediments to an adequate response. This approach had a startling impact at the time in demonstrating the depth and variety of misreadings to be expected of otherwise intelligent college students as well as the population at large.

In using this method, Richards did not advance a new hermeneutic. Instead, he was doing something unprecedented in the field of literary studies: he was interrogating the interpretive process itself by analyzing the self-reported interpretive work of students. To that end, his work necessitated a closer interpretation of the literary text in and of itself and provided what seems a historical opening to the work done in English Education and Composition [Flower & Hayes] as they engage empirical studies. Connected with this effort were his seminal theories of metaphor, value, tone, stock response, incipient action, pseudo-statement, and ambiguity, the latter as expounded by William Empson, his former graduate student.

In his third book, "Coleridge on Imagination", Richards summarized Coleridge's theory of poetry with an emphasis on the binarisms of fancy and imagination, connotation and denotation, the primary and secondary imagination, the projective and interpretive reading experience, etc. He explored in depth the coalescence of subject and object in poetry, the musical and mythical aspects of poetry, and the essence of words as fragments of the utterance of poetry. In his final book of criticism preceding World War II, "The Philosophy of Rhetoric", Richards explored the various contexts of discourse, the interanimation of words, and, most important, the relationship between the tenor and vehicle of poetry--that is, the metaphor's image (its vehicle) and the otherwise inexpressible idea represented by this image (its tenor). In his later years Richards primarily resided in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as an English professor at Harvard University, and here he fell under the influence of the Russian formalist Roman Jakobson. Most of Richards' criticism in later years was in essays with a decidedly formalistic emphasis as an elaboration of his earlier theory of communication.

Richards was primarily invested in understanding literary interpretation from an individual psychological perspective. He read deeply in psychological theory of the day, finding the psychological contributions of Ward, Puffer, and Urban the most useful for his own work. While his impulse theory of consciousness as well as his theories of poetic interpretation and poetic language have been surpassed many decades ago, his initial effort to ground a theory of interpretation in both aesthetic theory and the theoretical language of psychology shaped 20th century literary studies into what it is today.


Richards served as mentor and teacher to other prominent critics, most notably William Empson and F.R. Leavis. Other critics primarily influenced by his writings also included Cleanth Brooks and Allen Tate. Later critics who refined their formalist approach to New Criticism by actively rejecting his psychological emphasis included, besides Brooks and Tate, John Crowe Ransom, W.K. Wimsatt, R.P. Blackmur, and Murray Krieger. R.S. Crane of the Chicago school was also both indebted to Richards' theory and critical of its psychological assumptions. They all admitted the value of his seminal ideas but sought to salvage what they considered his most useful assumptions from the theoretical excesses they felt he brought to bear in his criticism. Like his student Empson, Richards proved a difficult model for the New Critics, but his model of close reading provided the basis for their interpretive methodology.

Rhetoric, semiotics and prose interpretation


*"The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism". Co-authored with C. K. Ogden. With an introduction by J. P. Postgate, and supplementary essays by Bronislaw Malinowski, 'The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages', and F. G. Crookshank, 'The Importance of a Theory of Signs and a Critique of Language in the Study of Medicine'. London and New York, 1923.:1st: 1923 (Preface Date: Jan. 1923):2nd: 1927 (Preface Date: June 1926):3rd: 1930 (Preface Date: Jan. 1930):4th: 1936 (Preface Date: May 1936):5th: 1938 (Preface Date: June 1938):8th: 1946 (Preface Date: May 1946):NY: 1989 (with a preface by Umberto Eco)

*"Mencius on the Mind: Experiments in Multiple Definition" (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.: London; Harcourt, Brace: New York, 1932).

*"Basic Rules of Reason (Paul Trench Trubner: London, 1933).

*"The Philosophy of Rhetoric" (Oxford University Press: New York and London, 1936).

*"Interpretation in Teaching" (Routledge & Kegan Paul: London; Harcourt, Brace: New York, 1938). Subsequent editions: 1973 (with 'Retrospect').

*"Basic in Teaching: East and West" (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner: London, 1935).

*"How To Read a Page: A Course in Effective Reading, With an Introduction to a Hundred Great Words" (W. W. Norton: New York, 1942; Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, 1943). Subsequent editions: 1959 (Beacon Press: Boston. With new 'Introduction').

*"The Wrath of Achilles: The Iliad of Homer, Shortened and in a New Translation" (W. W. Norton: New York, 1950; Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, 1951).

*'So Much Nearer: Essays toward a World English" (Harcourt, Brace & World: New York, 1960, 1968). Includes the important essay, "The Future of Poetry."

*"Complementarities: Uncollected Essays," ed. by John Paul Russo (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1976).

*"Times of India Guide to Basic English" (Bombay: The Times of India Press), 1938; Odgen, C.K. & Richards, I.A.

Further reading

* Russo, Jean Paul. (1989) "I.A. Richards: His Life and Work". Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

External links

* [http://www.archive.org/details/practicalcritici030142mbp "Practical Criticism"] The Open Archive's copy of the first edition, 2nd impression, 1930; downloadable in DjVu, PDF and text formats.

* [http://litguide.press.jhu.edu/cgi-bin/view.cgi?eid=289&query=richards I.A. Richards page from the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory]
* [http://www.lcc.gatech.edu/gallery/rhetoric/figures/richards.html I.A. Richards capsule biography]
* [http://mysite.freeserve.com/jbcpub/richards/iar.html The I.A. Richards Web Resource]
* [http://www.literarydictionary.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=5183 I.A. Richards page from LiteraryDictionary.com]
* [http://mysite.wanadoo-members.co.uk/jbcpub/richards/iarchron.html Biography compiled by John Constable]
* Richard Storer, ‘Richards, Ivor Armstrong (1893–1979)’, [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/31603 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography] , Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 18 May 2007

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