Tag Archives: History

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.

Ten Great Philosophical Questions: Competing Disciplines, Methods & Styles of Discourse


My last blog dealt with what Sam Keen calls the Questing or Spirited Self that explores the perennial human experiences and perennial mythic questions. Since many of my blogs ask the basic philosophical questions, I’d like to introduce Ten Great  Philosophical Questions for consideration. After introducing these questons I’ll have some comments to make about the widely different ways in which our philosophers, scientists, novelists and artists go about approaching these great questions of life. They may ask some of the same basic questions, but their approaches toward them are worlds apart. You may want to skip the ten questions and move on to the epistemological, disciplinary and methodological debate, which is a “meta-level” discussion beyond the ten great philosophical questions.

1. METAPHYSICS: What is the nature of prime reality and the physical world in which we live?

Secondary Questions: Are prime reality and the physical world one and the same thing, or is the prime reality deeper than the physical world? Is there a distinction between appearance and reality, or is it rather a matter of “what you see is what you get?” What is the relationship between spirit and nature, mind and matter? Are these two separate realities? Does Spirit create or emanate matter-energy or does matter-energy evolve life, sentience, intelligence and reflexive consciousness? Are mind and matter actually one integral reality that has both mental and physical characteristics? Are there metaphysical beings, entities, agencies or principles behind the physical world, or does the natural world encompass all of reality?

2. EPISTEMOLOGY: What can we know and how can we know it?

Secondary Questions: Our our ways of knowing limited to our five senses and reason, to empiricism and rationalism, or are there also other ways of knowing? What is the value and status of emotions, relationships, imagination, dreams, symbols, metaphors, volition, conscience, intuition, revelation and illumination as ways of knowing? How is knowledge related to the paradigms in which we contain our knowledge? How it knowledge related to being? How is it related to love?

3. IDENTITY: What is a human being? Who am I?

Secondary Questions: What does it mean to be a person? To what extent is our sense of identity shaped by nature vs. nurture? Do human being have free-will or are we essentially determined by natural and environmental forces? It is meaningful to distinguish between the false self and the true self? To what extent do we remain the same persons throughout our lives and to what extent do we many protean selves that adapt and change throughout our lives? Is the idea of the individual self an illusion? Can one develop a sense in isolation from other selves? To what extent is the self the product of a network of relationships?

4. COMMUNITY: Who are my people? Who do they include and exclude?

Secondary Questions: What does it mean to find one’s own tribe? What factors influence our natural attractions and cultural affinities? What happens when persons never find a community of belonging with whom they feel any mutual attraction and common affinity? What happens when persons live their whole lives within a single community of belonging and are frightened by, indifferent to or hostile toward those who live outside their community with its distinct “hermeneutical circle” of assumptions, values, beliefs, customs, traditions and commitments? How can one negotiate the post-modern challenge of living in and between multiple community of discourse?

5. AESTHETICS: What is the nature and meaning of beauty?

Secondary Questions: Why does beauty matter to us as human beings? Where do we find beauty? How do we create and celebrate beauty? What is the relationship between beauty and the sublime? Why do music and the arts matter to us? How is beauty related to truth and love? What happens when people become indifferent to or even contemptuous of beauty?

6. ETHICS: What is the basis for ethical values, decisions and choices? What are the cornerstones of an ethically responsible life? Are there ethical absolutes like Kant’s “categorical imperative” or are ethics utilitarian tools and socially constructed fictions? Does the ends ever justify the means? When, if ever, are lying, cheating, and killing ever morally justified? What qualities constitute ethical character and integrity? How are love and justice related to ethics?

7. SOCIETY: What is the ideal of the good society?

Secondary Questions: Is there one universal ideal of the good society or are there multiple competing, incompatible and incommensurable ideals of the good society? How do we live in a pluralistic society where different individuals and collectives have radically different ideas about what constitutes the good society? How can liberals, conservatives, communitarian and libertarians live together in a free democratic society? How can religious, spiritual (but not religious), humanistic (but not spiritual) and secular (but not humanistic) people , that is, egoistic hedonists, live together with their conflicting visions and values in a democratic society?

8. HISTORY: What is the meaning, purpose and direction of history, if it has any?

Secondary Questions: Does history have an overarching meaning, purpose and direction, or is it just “one damn thing after another?” To what extent is there moral and social as well as scientific and technological progress within history? To what extent does history repeat itself and to what extent is it composed of novelty, change and development? What, if anything, can we learn from history? Why does a knowledge of the historical past matter, if it does? What are the consequences of historical amnesia?

9. HAPPINESS: What is the meaning of and way to happiness and human flourishing?

Secondary Questions: To what extent is the “pursuit of happiness” a goal that can be actually achieved and to what extent is it an illusive target? What does it mean that some people claim to find happiness in contemplation while others claim to find it in activism? What does it mean that some people claim to find happiness in serving others while others claim to find it in pleasing themselves? What does it mean that some people prefer the way of asceticism while others prefer the way of hedonism? What is the middle way between excess and deficiency? How does one cultivate the middle way?

10. IMMORTALITY: What are we to make of the perennial human longing for immortality?

Secondary Questions: Is the perennial human longing for immortality a childish and romantic form of wishful-thinking, or it is a spiritual intuition of our true condition? What are the ways that different religious traditions have envisioned immortality or eternal life? Why do Hinduism and Buddhism envision ultimate human fulfillment respectively as (1) absorption of the self (Atman) into the Transpersonal Absolute (Brahman) or as the extinction of the illusion of the self in Emptiness or Nirvana?  In the modern secular age, what are some of our “immortality projects?” In what ways do people seek apotheosis, to immortalize themselves symbolically if not literally? What are some different ways that people want to be remembered and immortalized by posterity? Why are some people OK with being quickly forgotten after they are dead, while other people find that idea intolerable? Why do we idolize and immortalize our media celebrities, movie stars and sports figures? How do you wish to be remembered? If you are able to leave any legacy, what might that be?


What are we to make of the Philosophical Life beyond the asking of questions? For some people finding the answers to these questions is of paramount importance. For others it will be enough to “live the questions” in the hope that someday when there are not particularly thinking about it a few new insights will come their way. For some people the philosophical life leads to a Grand Metaphysical or Anti-Metaphysical Theory of Everything, whether that Grand Theory happens to be dualist, non-dualist, idealist, naturalist, panpsychist, panentheist, or what have you. For others, typically the literary, lyrical,  metaphorical, mythical and poetic types rather than the philosophical, prosaic, metaphysical, literal and scientific types, it is enough to live in the “imaginative and conceptual multiverse” of Mystery, Ambiguity, Narrative, Irony, Plurality and Paradox. Richard Rorty is the poster child for a philosopher who ditched philosophy for literary and cultural critical. He calls himself an ironist, which means that he is suspicious toward all Grand Narratives, including his own…if he has one.

While I don’t buy everything Rorty has to say, he may be onto something. Novelists , Poets, Musicians and Artists approach the Great Questions of Life in a way that is fundamentally different from both our rationalistic philosophers and our positivistic scientists. Each of these disciplines assumes that it has found the Royal Road to the Rational-Empirical Truth about Objective Reality. Literary Ironists have given up on the idea that the human mind is equipped to discover the authoritative answers to the Great Philosophical Questions. Ironists prefer to tell stories and use metaphors, never forgetting that these are simply evocative and suggestive, but that other stories and metaphors may also be useful in different ways.

The Perennial Philosophical Questions remain, but philosophy, science, literature and the arts employ their own assumptions and methods in an attempt to get others to adopt its “language game” as its “final vocabulary.” Philosophy wants abstract what does it mean questions.” Science wants concrete answers to “how does it work” questions. Literature and the arts are asking “what it feels like” in the depth of our subjectivity and inter-subjectivity to be a unique, differentiated human being in our multiplex culture and diverse relationships. The meta-question is this: “What questions are truly worth asking and why do they matter deeply to us?” It is one thing to “live the questions” and another to realize that we do not all “live the same questions.” That realization is the beginning of a new kind of dialogue.

Integral philosophers will go on slicing and dicing reality into an endless taxonomy of levels, holons, stages, paradigm shifts, quadrants, centers, spheres and fulcrums that they assemble into a non-dualist whole. Material scientists will go on reducing reality to its mathematical, algorithmic, physical, chemical, geological, biological and neurological parts. These two types will go on talking past each other and firing shots over each other’s bow or trying a broad-side from time to time. Meanwhile, the novelists and artists are attempting “to tell all the truth but tell it slant.” You gotta love it!

On Connecting the Transcendental, Humanistic & Natural Horizons of Experience


Intuition, Sensation, Thinking and Feeling are the four basic Jungian types.  The mental map of consciousness at the bottom of this page expands upon and integrates the Jungian concept of eight complementary psychological elements with George Santayana‘s idea of the transcendental, humanistic and naturalistic perspectives (See Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe). Religion and Spirituality belong to the transcendental perspective. Literature, Philosophy, Psychology, Sociology, Art and History  all belong to the Humanistic PerspectiveNature and Science belong to the Naturalistic Perspective.

There is an affinity between those who are drawn to the left side of the mental map, especially the INFPs, just as there is an affinity between those who are drawn to the right side of the mental map, especially the ESTJ. These two “pure types” are psychological opposites and will have the most difficult time understanding and appreciating each other.

Religion and Spirituality have an intuitive, imaginative, emotive and aesthetic affinity with Literature, Psychology and the Arts. Nature and Science have a  sensory, rational, temporal-spatial and empirical affinity with Philosophy, History and Science . It is not difficult to see why “sense and sensibility” talk past each other. The tough-minded clinically detached objectivist and the tender-minded relational inter-subjectivist are two halves of a whole person, but each side attempts to absolutize or at least privilege its authority as the final vocabulary and voice of commanding conviction. Now do you negotiate between the transcendental, humanistic and naturalistic perspectives? Do you see any realistic possibility of integration, or are they non-overlapping, incompatible, contradictory or incommensurable?


Intuitive Function (N):


“The Transcendental Perspective”


Intuitive Feeling Function (NF) & Intuitive Thinking (NT) Function


“The Humanistic Perspective A”


Introversion Function (I) & Extroversion Function (E)


“The Humanistic Perspective B”


Perceptive Function (P) & Judging Function (J)


“The Humanistic Perspective C”


Sensation Function (S):


“The Naturalistic Perspective”