I. A. Richards, 1893--1979

27 Feb 2017 16:30

British literary critic, theorist of literature and education, and (so to speak) "pre-cognitivist", someone who would have embraced cognitive science had it only been around at the time. He was certainly familiar with psychology, neurology and the Russell-Whitehead type of analytical philosophy which helped give birth to cognitivism, lacking acquaintance essentially only with the theory of automata and computation, which didn't yet exist. What we do have from him is a study of the mind on the "functional" level, and on communication; a classic empirical study of "complex information processing" in Practical Criticism (on which, see below); and any number of anticipations, some quite uncanny, e.g., pp. 104--106 of Principles of Literary Criticism, which read like a sketch for a Hopfield network, or the proto-neural-net on p. 116 of the same book, or his analogue of Ashby's homeostat in Science and Poetry. (Did Richards take any interest in computers? He lived long enough to do so, though he'd have been in his declining, Coleridgean phase by then.)

His greatest work, I think, and certainly his most disturbing, was Practical Criticism. This describes his experiment --- which no one has yet, I think, had the courage to repeat* --- of presenting a class of advance undergraduates at Cambridge in English literature with a series of poems, one a week, without the authors' names, uniformly typed and with anachronisms, if any, removed, and took "protocols" from them, i.e. had them write down fully and frankly the thoughts the poems led to, their interpretations of it, evaluation, etc. The results almost exactly reverse the usual evaluations of the poets concerned. But this is almost certainly not because the class was full of literary mavericks, since (1) the protocols were full of cliches themselves, and (2) many of them exhibited an inability to grasp the literal sense of the poems, never mind any deeper meanings or interpretations. It is, altogether, quite the most shocking piece of literary scholarship I have ever seen, and I think it ought to be absolutely required reading for anyone intending to become a humanist, or even a book reviewer.

*: Update, 10 May 2007: Aaron Swartz has kindly pointed me to two papers from 1977 which attempt complete or partial replications of the experiment; links and citations below. I haven't had a chance to read them yet.

Update to the update, 25 July 2007: If those papers are accurate, while specific tastes in poems changed somewhat, the over-all problems of not being able to grasp the meaning of poems, reliance on stock responses, and using criticism to rationalize initial, superficial emotional reactions remained unchanged. This was not exactly surprising, but still faintly depressing.

(06/28/2001 19:08:26) (Apr 22 18:37 1998)