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I. A. Richards

"Practical criticism" redirects here. For the variety of criticism, see Varieties of criticism § Practical criticism.

I. A. Richards
Born Ivor Armstrong Richards
(1893-02-26)26 February 1893
Sandbach, Cheshire
Died 7 September 1979(1979-09-07) (aged 86)
Pen name Richie
Occupation Educator
Nationality English

I. A. Richards (Ivor Armstrong Richards, 26 February 1893 – 7 September 1979) was an influential English literary critic and rhetorician. He was educated at Clifton College and Magdalene College, Cambridge,[1] where his love of English was nurtured by the scholar 'Cabby' Spence. His books, especially The Meaning of Meaning, Principles of Literary Criticism, Practical Criticism, and The Philosophy of Rhetoric, proved to be founding influences for the New Criticism. The concept of 'practical criticism' led in time to the practices of close reading, 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; he 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 specialisation 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 Ogden, 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 his 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 labelled 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, offering thirty-five insightful chapters regarding various topics relevant to literary criticism, including: 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 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 analysing 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.

I.A. Richards thought literary criticism was too abstract and ‘impressionistic’. He wanted to make literary criticism have precision like a science. Richards also wanted to examine the psychological process of writing and reading poetry

Richards believed that if we read poetry and can make sense of it “in the degree in which we can order ourselves, we need nothing more” Readers don’t have to fully believe the things they are reading to understand poetry, since poetry’s importance comes from the emotions it causes. [2]

New Rhetoric

Richards believed that the old form of rhetoric study was too much about arguments and conflicts. He thought Rhetoric should be a study of the meaning of parts of discourse, “a study of misunderstanding and its remedies”. He gave his idea the term New Rhetoric, which is about how language works. He said ambiguity is expected and meanings are not inherent to words, but in how they are perceived by others. Meanings are decided by “how words are used in a sentence”. [3]


At the age of 75, Richards was approached by the Saturday Review to write a piece for their "What I Have Learned" series. Richards surprisingly took this opportunity to expound upon his lesser known concept of "feedforward".[4] According to Richards, feedforward is the concept of anticipating the effect of one's words by acting as our own critic. It is thought to work in the opposite direction of feedback, though it works essentially towards the same goal: to clarify unclear concepts. Existing in all forms of communication,[5] feedforward acts as a pretest that any writer can use to anticipate the impact of their words on their audience. According to Richards, feedforward allows the writer to then engage with their text to make necessary changes to create a better effect. He believes that communicators who do not use feedforward will seem dogmatic. Richards wrote more in depth about the idea and importance of feedforward in communication in his book Speculative Instruments and has claimed that feedforward was his most important learned concept.[6]


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 the 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 both indebted to Richards's 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 Empson, Richards proved a difficult model for the New Critics, but his model of close reading provided the basis for their interpretive methodology.

According to the OED Richards coined the term feedforward in 1951 at the 8th annual Macy Conferences on cybernetics and hence Richards's influence extended to cybernetics which makes liberal use of the term feedforward. One of Richards's most famous students was Marshall McLuhan, who also made use of the notion of feedforward.

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 Bronisław 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.


  1. ^ Bizzell, Patricia; Herzberg, Bruce (2001). The Rhetorical Tradition: Reading From Classical Times to the Present (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Bedford/St. Matin's. p. 1270. ISBN 0312148399. 
  2. ^ Glicksberg, Charles I. "I. A. Richards and the Science of Criticism." The Sewanee Review 46.4 (1938). JSTOR. Web. <>.
  3. ^ Hochmuth, Marie. "I. A Richards And The 'New Rhetoric'." Quarterly Journal Of Speech 44.1 (1958): 1.Communication & Mass Media Complete.
  4. ^ "The Meaning of Meaning of I.A. RIchards," (PDF).  |chapter= ignored (help)
  5. ^ "The Communication Blog,".  |chapter= ignored (help)
  6. ^ "The Communication Blog,".  |chapter= ignored (help)

Further reading

  • Russo, John Paul (1989). I.A. Richards: His Life and Work. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0801834171. 

External links

  • Practical Criticism The Open Archive's copy of the first edition, 2nd impression, 1930; downloadable in DjVu, PDF and text formats.
  • I.A. Richards page from the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory (subscription required)
  • I.A. Richards capsule biography
  • The I.A. Richards Web Resource
  • I.A. Richards page from
  • Biography compiled by John Constable
  • Richard Storer, 'Richards, Ivor Armstrong (1893–1979)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 18 May 2007
  • Barbara Leonard Reynolds I.A. Richards' relationship with his American mentor, author and educator Sterling A. Leonard.
  • Jessica Renshaw, 'FAMILY: My Grandfather Sterling,'[1] I.A. Richards' visit to the United States in May 1931 to meet American literary critic and New Rhetoric proponent Sterling A. Leonard, who had arranged for him to speak at the University of Wisconsin, his shock at being present at Dr. Leonard's death the next day when the two men were canoeing together on Lake Mendota and the canoe overturned. 3 July 2013: NEW INFORMATION from Dr. Leonard's grandson Tim Reynolds just added to this link: "Dr. Richards said he saw Dr. Leonard lose his grip and start to sink and he instinctively dived down, reaching for him. His hand brushed Sterling's bald head. Dr. R. told Tim, 'For a long time afterwards I was haunted with bad dreams, dreaming that Sterling was trying to come up and that my hand brushing across his head kept him from being able to.' Dr. R. told Dr. Leonard's grandson that he and Sterling had had a productive afternoon together and he believed if Dr. Leonard had survived, they (together) would have 'revolutionized English teaching.' Tim says Dr. R. seemed more concerned about him (Tim) than the past events and "he reassured me my grandfather was a very important person."

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