F.R. Leavis: The Literary Critic As Anti-Philosopher

F.R. Leavis

Thesis: The various academic disciplines of the university world are each “jealous gods” who proclaim, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” This is true whether we are speaking of philosophy, history, literature, arts or sciences. Each would be the Master Discipline, the organizing center of intellectual and cultural life. Each one may develop a natural antipathy to its competitors. Each one may create a vortex of knowledge that becomes a silo of power. But there are better options.

I hold in my hands a collection of essays and papers by the great English literary critic F.R. Leavis entitled “The Critic as Anti-Philosopher.” The companions to this book include Dickens the Novelist, Nor Shall My Sword, The Living Principle: “English” as a Discipline of Thought, and Thought, Words, and Creativity: Art and Thought in D.H. Lawrence. Leavis was invited to deliver the prestigious Clark Lectures at Cambridge in 1965 that was later published as “English Literature in Our Time and the University (1967). Leavis’ subjects of literary criticism included Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Conrad, Coleridge, Arnold, James, Hopkins, Hardy, Joyce, and Dickens, among others. Leavis did admire the philosophical writings of Michael Polanyi, author of “Knowing and Being,” and so his “anti-philosopher” stance was selective rather than universal.

Leavis was a friend of the philosopher Wittgenstein who also taught at Cambridge and on one occasion playfully (but seriously) urged him to “give up philosophy.” This is ironic because in fact Wittgenstein did give up teaching philosophy for a while to go teach school children, something for which he was singularly unsuited. Leavis describes Wittgenstein as an intellectual genius of remarkable intensity who was fascinating to watch at he wrestled in a sustained spontaneous effort to resolve self-imposed problems of his intellectual discipline. Leavis writes, “Wittgenstein has an intensity of a concentration that impressed itself on one as disinterestedness.” But the same could be said of Leavis. There is something obsessive in each of these men’s intellectual passion. Maybe there is something “obsessive” in the temperament of all intellectuals who enjoy working tirelessly on various thought-problems they assign themselves to work on.

And yet it must also be said that there was an intellectual incompatibility, “an antipathy of temperament” between these two men of genius. Leavis puts it this way, “Wittgenstein couldn’t in any case imagine that literary criticism might matter intellectually. Even at that time I had the opposing conviction: it was, as it is, that the fullest use of language is to be found in creative literature, and that a great creative work is a work of original exploratory thought.”

Another literary critic who shares Leavis’ sensibility is Michael Wood, author of “Literature and the Taste of Knowledge.” Wood is the Charles Barnwell Straut Professor of English and Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University, and from 1995 to 2001 he was the Director of Gauss Seminars in Criticism at Princeton. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. But here’s his difference from Leavis. He is also a member of the American Philosophical Society. His works include books on Stendhal, Garcia Marquez, Nabokov, Kafka, and films. In addition, he is a widely published essayist and book reviewer. And so we can deduce that Michael Wood is a secular henotheist who is able to render some limited devotion to the god of Philosophy but his supreme devotion belongs to the god of Literature.

Several blogs ago I wrote about the binary nature of intellectual discourse within the various intellectual disciplines of the university world. But it is also true that there is a binary fixation between the liberal disciplines as well. For some that binary tension between Literature and Philosophy. For others it will be a binary tension between Philosophy and Science, or say philosophy and Religion. Any combination of intellectual disciplines can become a binary fixation and focus of dialogue, discourse, dialectic and debate.

What happens rather spontaneously in the complex mental lives of intellectually inclined individuals in general and of professional academics in particular is a gradual concentration and intensification of knowledge and reflection that consolidates principally around one “master discipline.” Its scholarly body of knowledge, assumptions, methods and styles become normative. The deeper one goes into that intellectual discipline and critical domain the more it becomes a creative vortex that gathers up and organizes one’s thought until we see the world almost entirely through its lens. Of course this same process is what creates academic silos from which the intellectual partisans come to view each other across disciplines with growing suspicion.

Occasionally something surprising will happen. A few “organic free-range” intellectuals and “home-grown polymaths” will adopt a radically pluralistic and pragmatic approach to intellectual and cultural inquiry. Such a pluralistic and diversified approach is characterized by “interdisciplinary complementarity” in which no single academic discipline or ideology of any discipline “captures the flag” or “gets to have the last word.” It is a continuing and open dialogue between multiple modes, methods and styles of discourse, like learning to fluently speak multiple languages and dialects. This, of course, is extremely rare. Most domesticated and sequestered academics believe, whether they will publicly admit it or not, that only one intellectual discipline can serve as the master discipline that explains (at the most fundamental level) what is really going on, and it just happens to be the one they have devoted their lives to studying with almost religiously passionate intensity of sustained devotion.

Occasionally something perhaps even curious will happen. An intellectual who had devoted his life to the primary study of one academic discipline, for example natural science, decides that his time would be better spent in the study of philosophy or literature, music or art, and so he switches horses. One can become disillusioned or weary of one’s own intellectual discipline. It may lose its magical luster and persuasive power. And of course this switching of horses may happen in any direction.

In addition, let us admit that we are each naturally influenced by the people around us and by the interests of others. Academic types figure out what seems to have intellectual pizzaz and cultural cache. Let us say one is studying and teaching the humanistic disciplines such as philosophy, religion, history, literature or the arts in an academic community that is overwhelming dominated by the prestigious and well-funded disciplines of science, technology, business and economics. In such an institution professors of the humanities and the arts are likely to feel marginalized and irrelevant to the serious business of the increasingly corporate university, which is, well, business. Colleges and universities that can’t generate income, compensate their faculty, staff the administration and pay their bills go out of business. Let’s be realists here.

One “realist” approach to teaching follows the principle: “If you can’t beat them join them.” Let’s say one is teaching philosophy, an intellectual discipline that some utilitarian cynics question as being relevant, since it is unlikely that one will ever be able to use it to make a living or become a success in the world. The sensible way for a politically astute professor of philosophy to attain at least a measure of status, relevance and respect in a science and technology-driven institution is to teach courses in “Philosophy of Science” and “Ethics of Technology.” Likewise, if theoretical and practical studies in “Economics, Finance, Business and Management” have become the academic center of university  then one hones his liberal academic discipline to address the philosophical and ethical problems of those domains. The ways in which the liberal disciplines of history, linguistic, literature and the arts justify their existence in such a utilitarian academic institution remain deeply problematic.

In any case, it is not only the specialized literary critic like Leavis who is the anti-philosopher. Every intellectual specialization will breed disciplinary elitists who can at best tolerate the distracting presence of the competing intellectual disciplines. They will assume that what is “explained” or left “unexplained” by other disciplines is “fully explained” by their discipline. After all, we only have so much physical and mental energy to spread out and use up.

Here’s my pitch: The great benefit of a true liberal arts education is that we “learn how to learn” through broad and in-depth encounters with multiple disciplines and perspectives that continuously engage each other in critically reflective and constructive dialogue. We learn how to question, compare, contrast, communicatecooperate and collaborate. We learn from others who have “casts of mind” and “styles of temperament” that are quite different from our own. We learn that philosophers, theologians, historians, scientists, literati and artists, among others, can be friends and colleagues without succumbing to suspicion, contempt, alienation or reproach. And this knowledge is precious in any progressive society that values the importance of cultural literacy, intellectual discourse, human solidarity and civil society.

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