In this article I reconsider the significance of F. R. Leavis’s critical and theoretical efforts in the context of the current theory-oriented trend in literary criticism. Leavis is usually described as a pre-theory or anti-theory figure; he has even gone so far as to describe himself as an “anti-philosopher.” Nevertheless, as I note in this article, Leavis’s critical comments have theoretical implications because they address fundamental questions concerning language, self, and the world.
My focus is on two texts that represent “early” and “late” Leavis—“Literary Criticism and Philosophy: A Reply” (1937) and Thought, Words, and Creativity: Art and Thought in Lawrence (1976)—with the goal to clarify specific messages embedded in Leavis’s work on literature and criticism that have significance in this age of theory. These include the importance of relevance in criticism, the place of value judgment in every aspect of literary practice from writing to reading. These emphases—which go against the grain of prevailing theoretical presuppositions—are based on his view that literature, and criticism of it, represent an arena of indispensible thinking about life that cannot be replaced by abstract philosophical thought, and that recognizing and preserving this kind of thinking is crucial for maintaining creativity and changing the direction of what Leavis describes as “technologico-Benthamite civilization.”