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This article is taken from PN Review 48, Volume 12 Number 4, March - April 1986.

Leavis and Language John Needham

Leavis, I hear from a recent reviewer in the THES, seems 'parochial'; he mattered once but not now; he 'cuts no ice' at Yale or the Sorbonne. Well, that last is true enough. But there are, after all, other criteria than the current academic ratings. Leavis matters because of his critical thought and because at its centre is a deeper insight into the nature of poetic language than is to be found in post-Saussurean criticism. And if the Sorbonne is as locked into Saussure as some publicists would have us believe, then the French need Leavis even more than we do. What follows is a development of those propositions.

Leavis - by 'Leavis', as I will explain, I don't mean just the man who lived in Cambridge, but the voice of a traditional approach to language and literature - wrote little directly about language, especially in the early work; but by the 1930s he obviously felt that he had linguistic insights that the philosophers, to their cost, did not. You can see this in his Scrutiny review of Richards's The Philosophy of Rhetoric. Leavis is critical, but he firmly dissociates himself from the philosophical critics, who simply failed to understand what Richards had to offer.

The ideas about language that Leavis shared with Richards - and with Ogden - are as elementary as they are important. Bear with me a moment while I recall the central emphases of The Meaning of Meaning; it may seem ...


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