Finding Feelings in Intellectual History

by guest contributor Michael Duffy

One of the consequences of advances in historical writing and theorization, at least in my neck of the woods, has been that we write about institutions as if feelings did not exist in them. Cambridge, to historians interested in the development of literature and philosophy, had a distinct character in the early part of the twentieth century. It was the home of Russell, G.E. Moore, eventually of Wittgenstein, and of I.A. Richards, who revolutionized the study of literature with his techniques of “close reading.” Analysis—that modern and Modernist tool of planned destruction and reconstruction, of shoring fragments against ruins—was its pastime, and this left its mark on many at the place. But no one had any feelings about this.

Richards—the stringy-haired sometime mountaineer, Platonist, technocrat, early Modernist and good friend of T.S. Eliot—developed as an undergraduate and then as lecturer at Cambridge the concept of “practical criticism”: the idea that criticism was not a vague method of appreciation but a precise technique of semantic decomposition, basing its authority in the facts of linguistics and psychology rather than in any nebulous sense of the value of art.

This had momentous effects on the discipline of literary studies and the theorization of culture in Britain and beyond in the first half of the century. It is responsible for the mid-century consensus among educators that works of literature are studied because of their “meaning” and not their verbal pyrotechnics or fantastic plot twists alone, and is about as clear an instance of the effect of an institution on history as you could imagine. But to assert this, you look at Cambridge discourse. You consider how Moore insisted that the misapplication of words was responsible for moral dilemmas. You look at C.K. Ogden, semiotics, Basic English. You even consider the eccentric lectures of Mansfield Forbes, who insisted that the meaning of each unit of a poem mattered.

What you do not do is assert that Richards knew A.C. Benson. Benson, sometime author of books with titles like Le Cahier Jaune: Poems, From a College Window, The Upton Letters, Beside Still Waters, The Thread of Gold. Editor of Queen Victoria’s letters. Lyricist of “Land of Hope and Glory.” Victorian at his core, aesthete in his tastes, and beloved popular essayist of Edwardian ladies—and men, too.

Benson was adviser to Richards at Magdalene College when the latter was an undergraduate, and a permanent fixture there when Richards became a lecturer in English (Benson eventually became Master in 1918). In 1913 over dinner, the young Richards could even brag to Benson about his experiments in close reading. And Benson could, that night, note in his copious diary that he found this all utterly fascinating and promising.

Benson had nothing to do with analysis. But that incidents like the one in 1913 occurred suggests there are places in institutions not just for the convergence of thoughts but for concrete moments of sympathy between thinkers. Benson could see something in what Richards was doing, even though he had no serious influence over him (Richards considered him merely a great conversationalist), and really inhabited a different universe altogether.

And this should count for something, since the sympathy itself was not without reason. Benson was critical of Britain’s educational system and the trading in platitudes passing for artistic “enjoyment.” Teaching at Eton for two decades before getting to Magdalene made him that way, and gave him the conviction that the semi-literate jocks Eton turned out would only continue talking bosh at Oxbridge. While he did not exactly lead the charge to create an “English School” to replace philology at Cambridge with the study of modern poetry (as indeed happened), he also did not hesitate to lecture on Milton and write books for the popular “English Men of Letters” series.

Benson was committed to his own appreciative mode of criticism because it opposed superficial expression. His books, like many late-Victorian aestheticist efforts, appreciate the beauties of an author’s style, but also insist that an author’s achievement is a matter of uniting these beauties in a persona. Ruskin’s effect on the world, Benson said in his book on him, was the effect of “a personality.” Not even the purplest passage in Pater, Benson also says, can compare with the moments when his prose “strikes a firm note of personality.” Vague conversational traffic in “beauties” was, to Benson, actually a way of suppressing this note.

Benson, then, might have seen Richards’ work as relevant to his own aestheticist proclivities and methods of critique. Perhaps the destruction of easy appreciative reading patterns could allow educational reforms could be carried out. And perhaps a closer look at forms of expression, not an acceptance of clichés, could allow for an appreciation of personality. This was reason enough to encourage it.

If these are merely vague agreements, expressions of a feeling of sympathy and support, possible thoughts that carry, ultimately, no immediate consequences for Richards or for the eventual dominance of analysis as a technique, they also provide a different view of Richards: one that makes him more than another Cambridge crusader wielding the discourse of analysis and laying low all the stiffs.

Eventually a wider institutional narrative might be able to include this, and perhaps all this consideration of feelings is simply preparatory work. But what interests me is how easy it is, even with the tools of discourse analysis, to think these things are not part of the record. How, that is, we look to an institutional context only to overlook most of its members, making Richards a lump of techniques he shares with other thinkers, and Benson nonexistent. And how easily traversing institutional networks of sympathy like this undermines the sense that ideas form even incoherent ensembles, while showing that they were actually entertained by many more members of the institution.

History, of course, is not entirely what people felt. But agreements, affiliations, affections matter, and they are quite complicated, taking place despite differences in intellectual temper and vocabulary. The coherence gained by identifying instances of some kind of larger discourse or “discussion” sometimes has to give way to the world created by people’s coexistence. Which, ironically, may bring more historical actors into dialogue.

Michael Duffy received his M.A. in English Literature from Princeton University. He researches British intellectual life at the turn of the twentieth century and is writing a history of British and American literary criticism.


  1. Mike, I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to comment here! I did want to say, though, that I’m still left wondering whether what we’re left with is -some historical insight into the workings of early-twentieth-century Cambridge-, or -a method for how to understand the history of institutions-. Does that make any sense? If you know Cambridge (and Oxford), it’s very easy to see how it matters whether Richards and Benson dined together; mealtimes are basically the basis of all social relations there, and this was even more the case a hundred years ago. But is this true for other, less bizarre (or less elite institutions)? I hope so–it seems to me that it’s possible to talk about different kinds of connections given the spatial constraints of institutions, the ways that they mean seeing the same people, or the same kinds of people, every day in chance encounters (I mean, just yesterday I went on a walk round Morningside Heights and ran into no less than five department colleagues).

    Anyway, this was wonderful, and I hope there’s more to come!


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