I. A. Richards
I. A. Richards; drawing by David Levine

When, like other civilizations, ours has become a matter for archeology, we can be sure that decipherment will identify a large group of writings given up to warnings of disaster and urging action before too late. If Design for Escape turns up, a glance at the Preface will put it in this class, but instead of the political, economic, moral, or scientific remedies he expects, the archeologist will note that this unusual example begins with a typographical exercise, a set of nine variants of our usual quotation marks. Dr. Richards offers them as means of distinguishing among the different uses to which the ordinary marks are now put: to suggest, for instance, that the word so marked is nonsense, or that it must be taken in some specially defined sense, or that we are discussing the word itself rather than using it for what it means.

But nine! Will this degree of ingenious discrimination justify itself in what follows? And can such an exercise genuinely contribute toward man’s escape from “a world situation he has, for lack of design, allowed to entrap him” and which may “destroy or maim him unless he can free himself in time”? When Richards estimates at only fifteen years the time left before violence takes over in a world of increasingly disproportionate distribution of wealth to population numbers, his approach by way of specialized quotation marks is a still more challenging eccentricity.

His mind is original and independent. Practical Criticism has probably had greater influence on the teaching of English literature at universities than any other book of the half century following the war of 1914-18. Many who admired that book have been sorry that he turned in other directions; but it is just because he is so original and inventive that he turned away to follow his own unpredictable route. Now, looking back over his work, much of which is represented on a small scale in these essays, we are likely to seek (and with Richards’s implicit encouragement) some unifying principle bringing together the work of the literary critic, the philosopher of language, the educational theorist, the exponent of ancient Chinese thought, the advocate of Basic English, and the teacher who has a warm welcome for computerized programmed instruction.

It was a feature of his work from the first that he refused to separate his specialized scholarship from the main line of current events. Science and Poetry as a title and an indication of outlook in a Cambridge don was more striking in the Twenties than it would be now. And when, in an excellent essay in So Much Nearer, he examines problems of translating Mencius, he is concerned not just with a teacher of the fourth century B.C. but with ways of thinking that are fundamentally different in China and the West and constitute, as he shows in another essay, part of the appalling difficulty of communication between the two cultures at the present time. Words conveying key political principles in the West—he mentions State, Constitution, Rights, Freedom, Liberty—have proved untranslatable in Chinese. It is not that each language has no ready terms for the other’s concepts but that the very ideas are difficult to grasp without a dislocation in established patterns of thinking. Thus a Japanese quoted in Design for Escape connects the great difference between oriental and occidental concepts of “freedom” with a difference in human relationships, which, he says,

…in Japan have always been first and foremost in a vertical direction, from superior to inferior, from the ruler to the ruled, from the master to the disciple. Even inside the family: from father to son, from man to wife, from elder brother to younger brother. Now, this kind of vertical relationship between ruler and ruled implies that social order and even morality are based on the ruling member of the two parties, and that docility is the highest virtue in the ruled. In such a context, freedom can only mean unruliness and wickedness.

Even without political tension and misrepresentation the possibilities of mutual incomprehension are enormous.

At the other end of the scale from these difficulties over complex concepts stands Richards’s chief preoccupation in these two books: the need for communicating the simpler factual and technical thinking of the West to the underdeveloped countries. Meeting that need is the main feature of his design for escape. In the underdeveloped areas, he believes, “the gravest of all threats is from the growing lack of effective capability and not least of effectively capable teaching.” Effective education depends on the effective learning of a language, by implication one that will give access to the technical resources of the West, and the best language for this purpose is Basic English (with some modifications), to be taught by the most effective modern means, which include computerized programmed instruction. Richards puts the argument less baldly, but these seem to be its essential steps.


With his optimistic reliance on techniques and machinery he is not disturbed by reflecting on such things as corruption, oppression, cruelty, and destructive nationalism among those who are already literate and effectively capable in the underdeveloped countries. True, he recognizes that however much may be done by modern techniques such as data-processing, moral decisions have in the end to be made. True, too, he recognizes that danger attends advances in technology, but he speaks as if that were an impersonal process, something to be guarded against in the way that man as a fire-user has always had to guard against accidental conflagrations—not the sort of process that arises when man as a gunpowder-user has to decide which and how many of his companions to kill. Radio, he notes,

has already been a chief instrument in cultivating those sentiments—of exclusive loyalty to the group, of disloyalty to the planet—which plunge us into wars. It is indeed technological innovations, or rather their misuse, which we are chiefly suffering from. These new inventions have not been balanced by equal development in the means of mental transport—and thereby in the spreading of the common truths which would make antagonism and disloyalty harder to cultivate. But these other discoveries are ready to hand

—and he plunges into his account of Basic. If he regards Basic as an innovation that would not be subject to misuse by politicians and propagandists his optimism is incorrigible. His view of mankind is in fact a lenient one: “Men have, I suppose, on the whole used and spent their energies well (as compared with what the ants and the octopi have done).” That bears reflecting on. It is difficult to see by what criterion the comparison is made, and substituting “ill” for “well” might make an equally convincing remark. But always, however much alarmed by the situation he sees us in, Richards is an alarmed optimist.

Yet whatever questions there may be about his arguments and his hopes, most people would agree that a widespread command of some language that made advanced techniques accessible in the underdeveloped countries would be an important step forward. In both these collections of essays some of the best material is the discussion of Basic English and its possibilities. Here Richards’s writing is free from the rather excessive play of mind over small points by which in other parts of his work he safeguards himself from seeming simple and being simply understood. He contents himself here with straightforward and very competent advocacy. If you think of Basic as a Cambridge eccentricity of the Twenties and Thirties, forced into momentary prominence by Roosevelt and Churchill on an impulse of political opportunism that misfired, it is time to read Richards’s arguments and look at Basic again.

Perhaps its most vulnerable feature was and still is the hope of its becoming the world language, a hope not likely to rouse much enthusiasm in Russian, Chinese, and French politicians, least of all in view of any top-level American and British political backing. And yet English of some sort is undeniably the most widely accepted auxiliary language already, used so extensively in the Pacific, Africa and India, despite shortsighted nationalist legislation, that something based on it has an immense initial advantage.

The fizzling out of the Basic English program initiated by Roosevelt and Churchill is a revealing example of how little power such people have if they fail to carry the faceless men with them. Churchill wrote of being shocked that three months after it was set up his Cabinet committee on Basic had never once met; and Roosevelt nearly a year later went straight to the point in writing to Cordell Hull, “If in regard to basic English we get the views of ‘competent government specialists’ we shall certainly sound the death knell of Basic English or anything like it. I never knew any group of such people to agree to anything really different from the existing system or for that matter anything new.” It is only too easy—and easily defensible—for reluctant officials to delay everything by consulting everyone, including academics happy to disparage and misrepresent the work of an outsider like C. K. Ogden. Toward the end of his life Ogden at last consented, Richards records, to have an entry in Who’s Who, for the sake of noting for the years 1944-46, “bedevilled by officials.”

One of the arguments for Basic is that besides providing an auxiliary language for people who will never need to go beyond it, it can for those who wish serve as the first step into full English. It is good English, with natural constructions, and none of it need be unlearned as full English is taken over. But it is not ordinary English, and to be an effective auxiliary it would have to be learned by native English speakers. And this Richards sees as having advantages for their eventual control of the full language.


In both these books he includes an account, unfortunately brief and inadequate, of an experiment in schools in Delmar, N.Y., which showed that children who in the first grade began on a language course derived from Basic were, in their first year at junior high school, getting better grades in school subjects as a whole than students from a matched control group who had been taught reading in the ordinary way. Although this is promising, the report is too scrappy to allow the experiment to be assessed. In general the experimental backing for Basic is thin, seemingly on account of relative neglect, not adverse results. Richards, despite his constant talk of science, has shown little interest in experiment as one of its tools; argument, analysis, and illustration from systematically gathered material have been his preferred methods.

The usefulness of Basic to the native English speaker is not limited to the beginning of reading. Richards offers it, and most convincingly, as a tool in the accurate comprehension of complex writing in full English. At this point Basic becomes a bridge between his anxious concern with the underdeveloped countries and his early and continuing exploration of failures in comprehension by the highly literate. In Practical Criticism he demonstrated beyond question that much of the subtle, sensitive, far-ranging interpretation and criticism of literature offered by university courses in English devotes itself to texts of which the bare sense is beyond the ability of very many of the students to construe. What he found among honors students of English at Cambridge he confirmed at Harvard among graduate students who were preparing for their careers as teachers of English. He gives brief but staggering examples in So Much Nearer. Interpretation in Teaching, 1938, attempted for prose what Practical Criticism had done for poetry, though it is a much more labored book and has never had the same impact. But these two books together, as Richards claims in the introductory essay of So Much Nearer, did demonstrate the unacknowledged difficulty of reading or, as he usually puts it, the deficiencies of readers:

In England and America alike people selected by the current system as those most qualified, those who had benefited most from the most expensive literary educations obtainable, were, it had to be recognized, far too often incompetent—deficient in ability to comprehend. Later experience has confirmed this finding. Literary studies, as at present conducted, do not produce enough capable people.

But “enough capable people”? That phrase, with its echo of the “effectively capable people” whose dearth Basic will help to remedy in the underdeveloped countries, tempts us—perhaps tempted Richards—to see a much closer connection than really exists between the two levels of reading: these Western students, however disappointing their grasp of complex passages of prose and poetry, are much more “effectively capable” in English than former preliterates who have mastered Basic. Their mistakes occur where very complex communication is being attempted.

To reveal and check these high level errors Richards again turns to Basic, not only as a foundation method in early reading but as the medium of paraphrase, paraphrase being the best remedy for unwitting incomprehension. In poetry, he agrees, it is only the sense or senses, not subtle shades of feeling, that can be put into Basic. We could not expect Basic to convey anything like the integral effect of Shakespeare’s line

The multitudinous Seas incar- nadine.

But, says Richards,

Though it cannot reproduce the total effect, it can, item by item, display as many of the ingredients of sense which go into producing that total effect as any other analytic medium, and as clearly. The space, the motion, the expansion, the coming on of the waves without number and without end; the shock when the idea of blood is joined with that of water, “water, water, everywhere,” and the way the Seas seem not only to be colored with the blood but themselves to become Seas of blood; all this with the suggestion in incarnadine, so full of fear and so deep-rooted in the part of the mind which is not conscious, of a living existence that is suddenly given to the waste of blood; all this may be put (I have been writing in Basic since the word medium) as completely, if not as delicately, as in any other language.

And Richard’s Basic version of a passage of inflated political journalism reveals at once that it says next to nothing with confused verbosity. Other forms of paraphrase could achieve the same end but would not provide the same built-in safeguards against self-deception by pseudo-statement. The great disciplinary value of Basic English is that its use demands basic thinking. A wider currency of this discipline of precise statement in a simple form might do more to overcome differences between the “science” and the “arts” outlook than any spread of numeracy. The extent of confused, ambiguous utterance and slovenly half-comprehension in what passes for communication in politics, social science, and the criticism of literature and the arts can hardly be exaggerated, and it is one of Richards’s chief services, perhaps his greatest, to have demonstrated it and at least gained some attention for the problem.

His practical remedies have not been so convincing. At the end of Interpretation in Teaching he offers some lamentably cumbrous and confusing exercises under the cautiously defensive heading, “Some Suggestions Towards Classroom Exercises.” He remarks that “they are evidently of University, rather than of School or College order, though a good teacher would manage to scale the best of them down to near the Kindergarten level.” He would have to be a very good teacher indeed. No doubt Richards is, but for the reader of these new books there is time and again a disconcerting switch from work that would extend the most capable graduate student, and one with a philosophical bent, to exercises suitable for a preliterate African taking his first steps in English; and the difficulty is increased by the implication that the two levels form part of the same practical program. The sympathetic reader is only too willing to believe that they may, but he gets precious little help from Richards in bringing them together.

Somewhat similar in effect is Richards’s fondness for seeking a minute and manageable paradigm of the complex situations he wants to illuminate or the complex abilities he wants to train. Thus Design for Escape offers exercises designed to give insight into processes of visual perception, exercises, for instance, such as observing a piece of bent wire first in one position and again after partial rotation and then trying to indicate what degree of rotation has occurred to produce the new appearance. This sort of work, he says, “proves suggestive of analogous problems and processes in other fields—not least as to the ways in which readers interpret sentences,” and he goes straight on to the familiar topic of misreading, with the suggestion that better initial training in reading is the cure and that this can be aided by pictorial sequences. That may all be true, but the movement to this position from the observation of bent wire is a skid. The work in visual perception may (if we take the phrase very cautiously) be “suggestive of analogous problems and processes” in reading. But the incautious reader, whom Richards knows so well, will almost certainly think it means that the visual processes on which so much time has been spent are related to reading much more closely than by being suggestive of an analogy; he might suppose that they involve the same processes or even contribute to skill in sentence reading, for which there is no shred of evidence.

To seek a close unity in Richards’s work leads to disappointment: its various parts are not so articulated with one another as he sometimes implies. Nor need they be. His contributions in broadly related fields can stand by themselves. In the philosophy of language the challenging force of his work can be gauged from W. H. N. Hotopf’s Language, Thought and Comprehension: A Case Study of the Writings of I. A. Richards (1965), a monumental and inexorably thorough study which, though by no means uncritical, yet conveys the scope and depth of Richards’s undertaking and the greatness of his achievement.

In the field of literary studies and university work more generally his explorations of misreading by highly literate people are still far from getting the serious attention they call for, mainly because the problems they expose are appallingly difficult to solve and, unsolved, extremely disturbing. His studies of Mencius and the implications for East-West relations of the profound differences in thinking which attempts at translation bring to light would by themselves be enough for one academic reputation. His advocacy of Basic, with his development of teaching programs for beginners at a language, may yet save a remarkable tool from being neglected at a time when its use could be vital. And, backing all this, the subtlety and delicate exactness of his criticism of poetry give his views on communication a relevance and cogency for literary people that abstract formulations seldom possess.

This Issue

May 8, 1969