Literary and Critical Theory I. A. Richards
John Paul Russo
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0083


Ivor Armstrong Richards (b. 26 February 1893; d. 7 September 1979) is among the most and influential theorists and critics of literature in the 20th century. A student of Moral Science at Cambridge University (1911–1915), he was the intellectual offspring of the Age of Principia. Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, and Alfred North Whitehead, among others, were completing a philosophical revolution by rejecting varieties of 19th-century idealism, seeking to ground philosophy in first principles, and reasserting a native empiricism with an emphasis on language, logic, and analysis. The Newtonian term is apropos because there had been nothing so sweeping in British philosophy since the 17th century. Richards taught in the new English School at Cambridge from 1919 to 1939, where he developed his ideas and conducted his famous experiments in reading, resulting in Practical Criticism, thereby becoming one of the founders of New Criticism. The interdisciplinary play of his writings has led to his being labeled a linguist, a psychologist, or a philosopher. Yet the deepest vein of his interest lay in the theory and practice of criticism. He best belongs in an anthology together with Coleridge, Arnold, and Eliot; not in one with De Saussure, Jakobson, or Chomsky; nor in one with Skinner, Piaget, and Allport; nor in one with Dewey, Ayer, and Quine. The peaks of his achievement in the 1920s are The Meaning of Meaning (with C. K. Ogden) (1923), Principles of Literary Criticism (1924), and Practical Criticism (1929). His ideas were widely disseminated in his compendium Science and Poetry (1926). Richards’s involvement with Basic English, which was the creation of C. K. Ogden, grew throughout the 1930s, becoming almost a second career. Basic English is a technique of learning the language based on 850 key words, the ones that could do the most work with the least effort (there are only sixteen verbs). He wrote four books on Basic in the 1930s alone, spending three years in China in the hope of creating a national experiment. Meanwhile, these studies in language learning (and second-language learning) alternated with theory of criticism: Coleridge on Imagination; The Philosophy of Rhetoric, with its revolutionary theory of metaphor; and Interpretation in Teaching, which attempted to perform for prose what he had done with poetry in Practical Criticism. Thus, there were the two careers, like parallel corridors, at times crossing each other’s path, or at the least with windows open between them. From 1939 to 1974 he taught at Harvard University, becoming University Professor in 1944. Basic English and Its Uses (1943) remains his most useful introduction to the subject. The Pocket Book of Basic English: A Self-Teaching Way into English (1945), coauthored by Christine M. Gibson, led to his Language through Pictures series, eventually including eight languages, some of which went into film-strip and other media as the technology became available. He was made a Companion of Honour in 1964 and was awarded the Emerson-Thoreau Medal in 1971. His testamentary Beyond (1974) explores the Book of Job, Plato, Dante, and Shelley.

General Overviews

For book-length studies of Richards’s writings in linguistics, Hotopf 1965 (cited under Linguistic Theory) was among the earliest and remains among the finest general discussions; he takes the subject up to 1945. Schiller 1969 provides a succinct critical interpretation of the theory of literature. Needham 1982 links Richards to the fundamental preoccupations of English criticism in Johnson, Coleridge, and Eliot. Russo 1989 examines the biographical, intellectual, and historical contexts of his career; Russo 1982 is a compendium. Constable 2001—John Constable’s magisterial ten-volume edition—contains the major works from 1919 to 1938; the prefaces to these volumes, comprehensive and richly suggestive, would alone constitute a well-themed book. For Richards on linguistics and semantic theory, as well as on his relations with Ogden, Gordon 1994–2011—W. Terrence Gordon’s five-volume edition of C. K. Ogden—is wide-ranging and indispensable; Volume 5 reprints twelve essays on the critical history of The Meaning of Meaning, from Russell’s important 1926 review of The Meaning of Meaning to Russo 1989. More recent studies, enabled by the opening of the Richards archive at Magdalene, Cambridge, focus upon particular aspects of his work: Koeneke 2004, cited under Basic English; West 2013, cited under Critical Theory and Practice; and McElvenny 2017, cited under Linguistic Theory.

  • Brower, Reuben, Helen Vendler, and John Hollander, eds. I.A. Richards: Essays in His Honor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

    A Festschrift containing essays on all phases of Richards’s career, including personal reminiscences by Joan Bennett, M. C. Bradbrook, and William Empson.

  • Constable, John, ed. I. A. Richards: Selected Works, 1922–1938. 10 vols. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

    This set contains introductions and the text of Richards’s major books and a well-chosen, very ample collection of shorter writings, as well as reviews and articles on Richards to 1938.

  • Gordon, W. Terrence. C. K. Ogden and Linguistics. 5 vols. London: Routledge/Thoemmes, 1994–2011.

    The most authoritative introduction to and critique of The Meaning of Meaning. Volume 5, From Russell to Russo: Reviews and Commentaries, contains twelve essays, beginning with Russell’s famous review in 1926.

  • McCallum, Pamela. Literature and Method: Towards a Critique of I. A. Richards, T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1983.

    Richards inherits the liberal tradition of social utility balanced by individual capacity for innovation, and of materialist determinism countered by the creative, self-directed impulse. He casts his early model in the psychological terms of stimulus-response behaviorism and philosophical introspection. Through his experimental, transitional Practical Criticism, and especially his studies in Mencius and Coleridge, he overcame earlier rigid binaries and argued, against “external conditioning,” that “human consciousness contained an impulse toward self-completion.”

  • Needham, John. The Completest Mode: I. A. Richards and the Continuity of English Literary Criticism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1982.

    The book draws a line of criticism in English literature from Johnson and Coleridge down to Eliot and Richards through such leitmotifs as the power of feeling, empathy, and “interinanimation” (where all parts participate organically in the making of a coherent whole). Richards translates Coleridge’s religious and philosophical language into modern psychological terms.

  • Russo, John Paul. “I. A. Richards in Retrospect.” Critical Inquiry 8.1 (Summer 1982): 743–760.

    DOI: 10.1086/448179

    Written following Richards’s death, the essay attempts to see the career as a single evolving whole, drawing upon the sciences, without ceding the essentiality of literature in the tradition of Western humanism.

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

    A biographical and critical approach, examining each phase of Richards’s long career, beginning with his intellectual preparation in Cambridge Moral Science. Topics include semantics, psychological models, the relation of poetry to science, practical criticism, Coleridge, Basic English and China, the American years of experiment with Basic and new media, the “lure of high mountaineering,” late poetry and drama, and his last critical study Beyond. Three central chapters concern “How a Poem Works.”

  • Schiller, Jerome P. I.A. Richards’ Theory of Literature. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1969.

    A lucid presentation of Richards’s theory, exposing inconsistencies and contradictions, and questioning his sometimes overly optimistic tone.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.