An Interview With I. A. Richards

"I think we have a better way of teaching English, but while you're teaching beginning English, you might as well teach everything else. That is to say, a world position, what's needed for living, a philosophy of religion, how to find things out and the whole works-mental and moral seed for the planet."

(Iver Armstrong Richards was born in Sandbach, Cheshire, England; he was educated in Cambridge where he also served as one of the first lecturers in English literature. Since 1939 Professor Richards has taught at Harvard, first as lecturer (1939-44) and then as University Professor (1944-63).

After 30 years in the Cambridge community. Richards and his wife plan to return to his old Cambridge next summer.

In his publications Richards employs psychological elements to study language; his theories have exerted immense influence on textual criticism. A concern for world literacy and the use of English as a basic implement of international technology and learning has led him in his more recent work away from literary criticism into the fields of education and semantic engineering.

The following are excerpts from an interview with Richards to be published at length this spring. The interview arose from a discussion of Richards' later work--especially Design for Escape, a study of world education through mass media, at the Dunster House Humanities Table last December.

John Paul Russo '65 is a resident tutor in English in Dunster House; B. Ambler Boucher '70 is an undergraduate in Classics and English.)

INTERVIEWER: At Dunster House last month, you mentioned that you were were going to Utopia in a short while.

RICHARDS: Well, I think I said a better world; we don't know yet how good it will be. Anguilla is an island which used to belong to a group--St. Kitts, Nevis, and Anguilla. Atyrannic type called Bradshaw on St. Kitts has been ruling there for donkey's years, and Nevis has voted unanimously against him but has not seceded. Anguilla has seceded and has applied to Britain for colonial status. It is very small, about five thousand native inhabitants. It had no luck at all--Whitehall in London wants to get rid of colonies, not acquire them. Also, no other power (they always talk about other powers meaning the U.S.) will do anything unless Britain says O.K. And Britain says nothing; so they've got to start again. Independence Day is January 8th, and I'm going to get there before the New Year.

I: Will you be their Minister of Culture?

R: I should hope not. I don't intend to be anything; just a visitor. It is apparently an island with perfect beaches and might be an ideal position for a gambling hell. . . .

I: One of the main premises in your recent Design for Escape is the population problem.

R: It is, and the fact that the gap between the rich section of the planet and the poor section is widening. Alas! the publisher has got it wrong on the cover. It isn't the case at all that world population is outstripping productivity. No, the point is that the poor parts of the world are getting poorer and the rich richer. That's one of the first premises--that things are getting worse.

I: What of the education on the planet?

R: Most things get worse as far as I can see. This shirt I'm wearing is not half as good as the ones I could buy years ago. The things that are getting better are cars and perhaps airplanes--I hope so, I'm going up in one Sunday. We only fly upon the crashes of former planes. It's the detailed reports on crashes that keep one in the air.

I: How did you get interested in Basic English?

R: I'm glad you asked me that because I can tell you. It happened exactly at eleven o'clock at night on November the eleventh, 1918, Armistice Day. Violence burst out in my Cambridge, the other Cambridge, medical students on the rampage. I renewed contact with C. K. Ogden late that night because he had suffered from damage anud I was a witness and could help him. We stopped at eleven o'clock half way down my little twisting stairs (I rented a couple of rooms from him in a decrepit old house next to the Cavendish Laboratory), somehow we stopped there and started talking about meaning.

There had been an article in Mind and another play-up in, I think, the Aristotelian Society Proceedings; people had been talking about meaning and making an awful mess of it, and we'd been reading them by accident--neither of us knew the other was interested at all--and we started making comments on them. We stood there two hours on the stairway 'till one o'clock. I can remember a bats-wing gas-burner above my head. This was out of kilter and every little while it squealed and I would reach up and try to adjust the tap of the burner. We went on and on, and the whole of our book, The Meaning of Meaning, was talked out clearly in two hours.

One of the chapters was on the theory of definition; we found we could agree. It's a most extraordinary experience, finding you can agree with someone. Decades later it wasn't the case that we could understand one another at all. That is a useful thing to think of, that a first intellectual encounter can result in almost complete malcomprehension on both sides and at every point.

Anyway that was the start of The Meaning of Meaning, and its definition chapter was to lead Ogden into inventing and working out Basic English. It is a curiously pin-pointed starting-point, a two hour conversation on definitions interrupted by a bats-wing gas-burner.

I: Were you then a tutor in Cambridge?

R: No, I was only doing what a lot of people do at universities, hanging about, hoping for a job. And I was suffering from what Ogden used to call "hand-to-mouth disease." For a nominal sum, he had rented me an attic and it was on the way down from this attic that we suddenly got together and went on having the most enormous fun, I believe, two people have ever had--writing The Meaning of Meaning. It doesn't perhaps look as though it was such fun, but it was much of it written in the spirit of "Here's a nice half-brick, whom shall we throw it at?"

I: Do you find you intellectual origins back in the philosophical radical tradition of the nineteenth century? Out of Mill's critique of Bentham and his study of Coleridge?

R: Well-well, yes, but most eclecticly. I turned by accident to philosophy because I couldn't bear history. Then, what I read in philosophy was a matter of chance. In those days at Cambridge, you had no assigned reading. You had no apparent awareness--quite contrary to the fact--no apparent awareness in lectures that others had ever thought about these matters before. Whitehead, Russell, Moore, MacTaggart and the rest were all prophets, as it were, of various kinds. They would occasionally make a reference to someone--but it was in order to controvert. . . .

I: Did you begin your studies in Coleridge then?

R: Not until years later, not until I had published at least The Principles of Literary Criticism and Practical Criticism. If anyone looked carefully, they could see I didn't--then--know anything about Coleridge. I wrote about him here and there, but I obviously didn't know him. But after that I really did get down to that, largely from having to give a course on Coleridge. Lots of things happen to people from having to give a course.

I: Where did you teach Coleridge?

R: Oh, Cambridge. I accidentally began to teach at Cambridge early. In fact I taught the next year, and I was giving a course on "The Principles of Literary Criticism" and another course on "The Contemporary Novel" to make at little money. Between the two I could survive. In those days and "on approval" in my status could collect fifteen shillings a course from any who came three times. It is not so now.

I: About what time was this?

R: Began about the eighth of October, 1919. That year was quite beyond anything you could imagine. It was World War I survivors come back to college. Not a bit like the end of World War II. There was an atmosphere, such a dream, such a hope. They were just too good to be true; it was a joy to deal with those people; those who got back to Cambridge from all that slaughter were back for reasons. . . .

I: How did you develop your famous distinction between referential and emotive language?

R: Well, I suppose in the old days (in the time of The Meaning of Meaning) one was concerned to modernize the theory of knowledge, and we (Ogden and I) outraged everybody by saying that really what you were talking about was only connected with what you said by a complex casual relation. That was scandalous in 1919. It became commonplace as time went on. . . .

So much for the referential use of language. Against it in those days we set up a thing called the emotive use of language. (We inherited the word "emotive;" I think it was Marty who launched it.) What we tried to say has often been misunderstood. . . . The referential use of language is the job of leading people to think about certain things--about this rather than about that--and to think in this sort of way rather than in that way. Reference is your main instrument for influencing people. You can also do it other ways. . . .

I: How did Basic English get started?

R: It was an extraordinary piece of virtuosity on the part of Ogden. I can't imagine Basic English or any of its derivatives having come into existence without this peculiar thing. Ogden was a very good scholar, good enough for a chair in the classics and destined for one--but he was interested in too many other things, in everything else, in fact.

One of the magical gifts he had was his capacity to rephrase almost anything. At one time he thought of launching himself as a sort of Universal Re-phraser for anyone who found difficulty in putting his ideas into words. The draft Prospectus ran: "You have the Ideas," "We have the Words." It wouldn't have been true that they had the ideas, but certainly Ogden had enough of both. And he created Basic English by interrogating his intelligent friends; he had hundreds of them; he belonged to seven Clubs, at least, and could contrive not to be a club bore.

He was very, very witty, a most unexpected, surprising man. He'd take off with anyone he thought knew all about X and keep him up to three o'clock in the morning. By that time he'd found out what he wanted to know about X and he could use it. What he was finding out was which words one couldn't do without, and he worked away on which words one can do without. If you can substitute a phrase of ten words for a given word, however technical and abstruse, then you can do without it. That was one of his rough working rules.

There's a wonderful book called the General Basic English Dictionary in which more than 20,000 words are defined in Ogden's Basic 850. The definitions, if anyone compares them with the pocket Oxford dictionary, are of about the same scope. They had to beat the pocket Oxford. That was his test.

I: When did television become an important part of your design for escape?

R: About the middle of the war, '42 or '43. It looked like the heaven-sent instrument. You could put pictures along with words and sentences. If you can get the eye and ear cooperating, you can do anything, I think. Television looked like the divinely appointed medium. So I got a little grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and I went to Walt Disney's studio to learn how to make cartoons.

I had taken to drawing before that and their artists were very helpful. The great thing to do is to develop a kind of universal simplified pictorial script in which you can express situations. And then you must put sentences and pictures that correspond to their meanings in certain sequences together.

I still think that T.V. or satellite-distributed sentence-situation-depiction games are going to be the way to educate the planet. There's more power to the eye and ear together than to either of them apart. . . .

I: Do you foresee any means of overcoming the intransigence of the communications media, especially considering the critical need for mass education in Africa and India?

R: Much can be done if things get bad enough. Things are going to get really bad rather soon, and so I'm hopeful. It's just like a war. When you get a really bad war (I don't mean a remote war, I mean a home-threat war) people start doing things they had said were impossible. I think there's going to be a world crisis quite soon: we must hope it won't take the from of mutual murder all 'round the planet, but there's going to be a crisis.

There are local crises almost everywhere you look and getting worse all the time. When things are bad enough you have to do the impossible or be fired and have another man come in. Impossible had to be done all through both the Wars. The great thing during those Wars was to get rid of the people who were supposed to know better.

I: You spent a number of years teaching in China. In view of your experiences there and the current anti-Western attitude of the Chinese, do you think a concept like Basic English would be tolerated by them?

R: It could happen; it did happen once in fact. The Nanking government, just at the moment the Japanese invaded and put an end to everything, had set up--with the Minister of Education as Chairman--a committee to put my recommendations based on Basic English into China wherever the authority of the government could be enforced.

It was too good to be true, and I couldn't believe it had happened. By the time I got back to Peking--this all happened in Nanking--I found the Japanese had invaded in strength and all that sort of thing was over. Something like it could happen again given the right government set-up. The Chinese could be very flexible indeed, as flexible as the Japanese have been. . . .

I: To widen the scope a bit, I've heard you say previously that you question the efficacy of the study of English by undergraduates. Could you elaborate on this?

R: It's hard on the poets to make everybody study them like this. I think that's the main thing I had in mind: that literature, one's own literature, is for enjoyment. As far as I can see, making it into an academic subject has not increased the amount of enjoyment taken in the poems, or the novels or the plays or anything. No, I'm against it.

I think it's all right that a very small special crew should study the works and battle with one another. I'm very doubtful whether we want a great number of biographies or studies in detail. You see, what is a man who's done English as an academic, literary subject, what's he to do the rest of his life, except to write books-about-books-about-books and reviews of them? I'm agin' it on the whole; I think we're burying the valuables under loads of derivatives. . . .

I: So many of the Cambridge dons between 1900 and 1935, yourself included, ended up discussing language. What prompted this, and how would you evaluate the results?

R: I'm very glad they did because sooner or later enough discussion of language--it's a very queer kind of pursuit, you know, using language to discuss language--should mean improvements. What worries me about so much of these discussions is that they're not practically oriented. My own peculiar slant on language, I think, is that I regard studies in language as, for me, preludes to linguistic engineering.

I: Did Russell play any role in this development of yours and have you had any contact with him since on this point?

R: Oh, some. Russell always to me was too much of a logician on this. His interest in language has been a logician's interest. That again is another queer thing. Mathematics and logics lead people away from the actualities into, well, surprising generalities.

There's a story, probably apocryphal, that I'm fond of about the great mathematician Hilbert. He was attending a conference in Copenhagen, and they took him to see the very celebrated bridge they have there. He admired it duly and then said, "It's astonishing! Wonderful! It's Exactly like the bridge at Hamburg." At which the local Danes, his hosts, were much affronted because there's no bridge at all like that in Hamburg. They said, "How is it like a bridge at Hamburg?" Hilbert answered, "Why it goes from this side to that side and the river goes under it." I feel that a great many of the perceptions about language that logicians develop are rather Hilbertian. Just a shade too abstract. . . .

I'm a linguistic engineer. And an educational engineer. I'm looking for new and better ways of making many more capable and useful people through verbal means. Everyone's got that view, I'm sure, but I'm perhaps a bit impatient. There is the disaster that I'm always aware is coming on us. It may not be the third world war as we have been dreaming of it; it may be a general crumbling, a general inability to staff our ventures and to follow through. All partly because of the enormous increasse of wealth that the rich communities are undergoing and the contrast with the ever increasing poverty of poor regions.

I: If the rich nations are not able, as it seems that they are not, to construct a generally competent educational system for themselves, do you foresee any hopes of such a system created in Africa or Asia--in view of the crisis facing both in the next twenty years?

R: I believe we can construct a world-wide educational system which will teach better than we have ever imagined. I could offer you evidence on that. Organizing it would be easy compared with swinging people round the moon. It would be much less costly and far more repaying. And sounder as a defense investment too. The program would be for: 1) teaching English very, very smoothly and easily and 2) at the earliest possible point, not teaching it as English, but teaching it as the necessary vehicle of modern world views! That's the thing I care about most. You don't want to teach a language just as a language (except to linguisticians). You should use it as a means for letting people learn what they most need to learn, which is how to run a sane state and how to run an educational system which will keep the state sane and in being. And cope too with the frustrations and tensions which are causing such terrible trouble on our home front. There isn't an advanced society today, the United States, the United Kingdom, or France, that isn't in a terrible mess.

I: It seems that in the past sixty years our culture has taken such a sharp turn that the problem in England and the United States lies in a re-interpretation of our own culture--Milton's milieu or earlier--a culture almost as foreign to us as the Greeks or Romans were to our literary fore-bearers.

R: A good point, that--Milton being at about the turning point. After Milton, I think you'd agree, things became more intelligible. Professional instruction, as it were in English Literature, might very well stop soon after Milton. There's obviously a case for people being taught how to read Chaucer; people don't get into Chaucer just by the light of nature, not as well as they do into Tennyson. I see no excuse for tremendous courses on Tennyson. I'm a great admirer of Tennyson, but I think courses haven't helped him and won't. Milton's the turning point. What most people need, though, with Milton more than anything else is to hear him really well read aloud. He's the most readable-aloud poet there is, magnificent beyond description. . . .

I: Have we developed to a point in our own culture where we only need to study in schools those who would be totally inaccessible, much as the Classics were to a man of Milton's time?

A: That's right, and then after that, let people enjoy what they care to enjoy, what they find within their own range of taste. . . .

I: You've visited China many times in the past. Do you think China is closer to achieving "the good life" on earth than we are?

R: Yes, I've spent years of my life in China. They have some enormous assets, and one is that they have had a deep, ingrained horror of violence. When violence occurs, it's recognized in their culture as a breakdown. Certain people in our community no doubt do feel like that, but too many don't think that carrying a gun is a sign of inferiority. The Chinese have felt very deeply that people who will resort to violence on ordinary civil and other occasions are out. That's a tremendous protection for a counttry; and it is one, we may hope, they still have. When you think of the number of people, the amount of moving about, and the amount of tension inside that great community, it's amazing how little loss of life their revolution has caused. Very economical.

I: So you think Chairman Mao has come closer to a utopia than any Western nation?

R: He has a long way to go, and we have a long way to go. No, I'm not going to speculate; actually, the terrible truth is that no one, from John Fairbank here on down, knows nearly enough about what is happening in China. Our sources aren't good enough.

I: Turning back to Design for Escape, one finds reference to a plan for world education. How do you set up an administrative authority to run a thing like this?

R: I don't think you can; at least they would all be as bad one as another. What I feel is that if there is a way of doing things which is obviously much better than what anyone else has to offer them, in a bad enough emergency, everyone will jump at it. I've been only concerned to produce something really better than anyone else has. It's the old mousetrap story, you see; the better mousetrap story. Only, the mice have to become insufferable first. Until then we all stick to our old ineffective mousetraps. I think we have a better way of teaching English, but while you're teaching English, you might as well teach everything else. That is to say, a world position, what's needed for living, a philosophy of religion, how to find things out and the whole works -- mental and moral seed for the planet. In this way the two-thirds of the planet that doesn't yet know how to read and write would learn in learning how to read and write English, the things that would help them find their answers to "Where should man go?