Liberal Humanism

Liberal Humanism as a specific movement grew out of the Engish Literature course offered at Cambridge University in the 1920s by three great critics: F.R. Leavis, I.A. Richards and William Empson. The Cambridge English course had only been founded in 1911 and therefore did not have the depth of tradition of courses offered elsewhere. This allowed it to innovate and experiment more freely than the London Universities which had been teaching the subject for eighty years or more. Richards founded the method of studying literature known as Practical Criticism, which focuses solely on the text of a work, rather than its biographical and historical context. This enabled literature to assert its place as a subject of equal empirical value to the other humanities, since it meant focussing on the quantifiable details of the text rather than any wishy-washy speculation about artistic intention or vague contemplation of malapropos contextual evidence. William Empson was Richards' star pupil at Cambridge and continued his close reading methods in his Seven Types of Ambiguity, a key work which is still enlightening. Whilst critics from the old school, such as T.S. Eliot, found this close reading "like squeezing lemons", F.R. Leavis marked it out for guarded praise since it manages to "use intelligence on poetry as seriously as if it were mathematics."

Leavis is a critic who manages to inspire reverence and loathing in equal measure. At his best he provides the link between the emotional reaction of Eliot's criticism and the removed intellectual appreciation which characterises the work of Empson and Richards. At his worst he presupposes an unrealistic level of insight of his readers, refusing to sufficiently analyse the passages he takes as examples.

To briefly summarise the key ideas behind Liberal Humanism (although the term has become so negative and overused this is becoming difficult):

1) The text, rather than context, is supreme.>

2) Human existence is based around a series of eternal and unchanging truths which make works of literature morally and philosophically apposite to all ages.

3) Literature is essential to quality of life and is necessary in order to improve one's own existence.

4) Form and content must be one, rather than separate bodies.

5) Criticism should provide a link between the text and the reader, allowing the uninitiated to understand that which previously they did not.

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