I. A. Richards

B. 1893-D. 1979

From the Online Encycopedia Britannica Entry: b. Feb. 26, 1893, Sandbach, Cheshire, Eng.--d. Sept. 7, 1979, Cambridge, English critic, poet, and teacher who was highly influential in developing a new way of reading poetry that led to the New Criticism (q.v.). A student of psychology, he concluded that poetry performs a therapeutic function by coordinating a variety of human impulses into an aesthetic whole, helping both the writer and the reader maintain their psychological well-being. Richards was educated at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and was a lecturer in English and moral sciences there from 1922 to 1929. In that period he wrote three of his most influential books: The Meaning of Meaning (1923; with C.K. Ogden), a pioneer work on semantics; and Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and PracticalCriticism (1929), companion volumes developing his critical method. During the 1930s, Richards spent much of his time developing Basic English, a system originated by Ogden that employed only 850 words; Richards believed auniversally intelligible language would help to bring about international understanding.

first group of notes derived by students from Foss, Sonja, Karen Foss, and Robert Trapp (1991). Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric, 2nd edition (Waveland).

Formative "ah-hah": in college, many students struggled with understanding G.E. Moore. IA thought that something must be done to stop the leakage. Also, more often asked "What do we mean?" to which IA replied, in thought, people cannot possibly say what they meant.

Basic English was really the primary work of his life: 850 words were turned into numerous phrases in order to produce a "normative" and less cumbersome dictionary. This movement died out--as have most other attempts to standardize non-standardizable living language (except the continued influences of general semantics, limited continued efforts with Esperanza, and new work in computer languages).

Richards' Objections to Traditional Rhetoric

Richard's pre-figures the complaint offered by McGee: that classic attempts at prescription (do this, don't do that) don't make "philosophic inquiry into how words work in discourse."

Secondly, IA is unwilling to narrow rhetoric to persuasion--he argues that persuasion is only one of the functions of rhetoric.

Proposal for a New Rhetoric

1) Mastery of the fundamental laws of the use of language.

2) an art by which discourse is adapted to its end: a study of misunderstanding and its remedies. (read, a non-prescriptive equivalent to general semantics.

3) Proposes rhetoric as the center of a new understanding: how words work (or don't) as the central question in the order of knowledge.

Theoretical Aspects according to IA:


Meanings mediate our experience serve as a part of that experience. mediate among individuals by creating common worlds.

How do meanings come to be? Not merely by association of images with referents. Perception creates engrams (trace memories) and contexts (a cluster of relationships). The context then functions as a sign of that which is remembered: the meaning of a word is that which is missing from the context (since words serve as symbolic substitutions). The model for this idea, the semantic triangle of meaning, works best when describing referential meaning (it doesn't do a good job explaining some of the other uses for language). It shows why the proper meaning substitution (that words have single unique meanings) is a mistake.

Model for Communication

Unique element: "comparison fields." The varied contexts from which communicators draw meanings for symbols as they experience their use. "utterances within situations"--comprehension of utterances is guided by any number of partially similar situations in which partially similar utterances have occurred. A conscious OR unconscious (usually) process. An exceptional fund of common experiences are needed for communication (hearken back to the complex of associations which Cushman and Tompkins required in their rhetorical theory)


receivers affecting self: readiness, preparation, for one or another sort of outcome. Choice making entails constraining future choices: we have a prospective-retrospective sense of reality (Cicourel).

Functions of discourse

Language is constantly fulfilling at least four (4) functions for the speaker:

sense: to direct attention

feeling: emotions and attitude toward the referents

tone: the attitude of speaker toward the audience

intention: aim or outcome desired


seven functions for the listener

indicating: attention is focused

characterizing: something is said about the indicated items

realizing: degree and vividness invoked

valuing: "should this be so?"

influencing: change or not to change

controlling: management of other activities so as to not interfere with each other

purposing: intention is pursued.

Any full discourse will invoke all seven functions, although some discourses emphasize one or other. Any or all of these functions can fail.

Emotive versus referential language

noting references versus invoking emotions

For referential meaning: comprehension consists of factual accuracy

For emotive meaning: engagement of the will marks comprehension (proper attitude aroused).

Elimination of Misunderstanding

Use of metaphor:

a major technique for facilitating comprehension!!!


the use of one reference to a group of things that are related in a particular way in order to discover a similar relation in another group. Cognition includes linguistic sorting, categorization, comparison, contrast.


subject of the metaphor


means of conveying the tenor

Definition of words

List all possible definitions of/meanings for a word--not just the single "proper" one, so that the complex of possibilities can be worked through.

Literary Context

interinanimation of words, phrases, parts of discourse in concert.

Marking system

Similar to systems proposed by general semanticists to indicate special meanings. Works ok in writing--not in orality.

Golden et al. on I.A. Richards

Takes Bacon's Idols of the Marketplace as the fundamental assumption of language usage in that "ill and unfit choice of words obstructs the understanding," ALWAYS in ALL WAYS.

Misunderstanding and its remedies.

Remember: we cannot but misunderstand. The use of language to establish meaning is inferential in its very essence.

Context Theory of Meaning

our treatment of input is always reliant on experiences with past, similar, stimuli. So meaning has not only LOCAL context (interinanimation) but historic and personal context, and these all interrelate in a saying. This also means, however, that we do have access to the strands which contribute to meaning, based often in historical examination (hearken back to Vico's call for history as a way to be scientific about communication!!) Further, the part remembered has a chance of activating the whole past association, or any aspect of it. (the engram activates the original stimulus) Words are symbols and are unique in that they are substitutes exerting the powers of what is not there. Words and symbols transcend the here and now and stand for that which is missing. His theory is overly referential; leaving the power of emotive language to others.

The proper meaning superstition

IA attacks the notion that every word has a correct/proper use/meaning of its own. The stability in words comes only from the constancy in some contexts. Contexts are ever changing and they always determine and shape word meanings.


literary and historic context acticate work meanings.

Triangle of Meaning

even in referential uses of language, the relationship between the word and the thing is arbitrary. However, as a sidelight, this doesn't consider non-referential uses of words in which the word is the thing (for instance, various speech acts in which the saying is the doing "I know pronounce you man and wife," or emotive language where the word's real meaning is the reponse that it causes: you slut!!


since meaning is that which is left out--symbols must serve as metaphors!!! So in order to be properly understood, words must be properly used metaphors. Language is metaphor: abstraction for the purpose of clear and vivid communication.

"Emotive Language Still"

Language use has emotive and referential value simultaneously. Emotive language seems to resist adequate paraphrase (the scatter of meaning seems to be great) He notes that the functions of indicating/characterizing/realizing/appraising/ and influencing are turned on their head between the emphasis placed on them by science (indicating first) and poetry (influence first)

I. A. Richards. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. New York: Oxford UP, 1936,1950.

The lectures were delivered at Bryn Mawr College, February and March 1936 on a fund established by Bernard Flexner in honor of his sister, Mary.

Introductory: Lecture I

1. Suggests that rhetoric's "present" state has sunk so low "that we would be better just to dismiss it . . . unless we can find reason for believing that it can become a study that will minister successfully to important needs." (3) Suggests, especially, 18th and 19th century "rhetoric" has been of little use.

2."Rhetoric, I shall urge, should be a study of misunderstanding and its remedies." (3)

3. In communication, we cannot "lay aside the words" to consider "the bare notions themselves." Ideas or notions cannot be communicated "bare": "apart from its dress or other signs, it is not identifiable." (5)

4. "A chief cause of misunderstanding, I shall argue later, is the Proper Meaning Superstition (my emphasis). That is, the common belief- -encouraged officially by what lingers on in the school manuals as Rhetoric--that a word has a meaning of its own (ideally, only one) independent of and controlling its use and the purpose for which is should be uttered. This superstition is a recognition of a certain kind of stability in the meanings of certain words. It is only a superstition when it forgets (as it commonly does) that the stability of the meaning of a word comes from the constancy of the contexts that give it its meaning. Stability in a word's meaning is not something to be assumed, but always something to be explained." (11)

5. We should not think of meaning as a dress which thought puts on. Rather we should think of it as "though it were a plant that has grown--not a can that has been filled or a lump of clay that has been moulded." (11)

Lecture II: The Aims of Discourse and Types of Context

1. The context theorem of meaning (my emphasis) "holds that we begin with the general abstract anything, split it, as the world makes us, into sorts and then arrive at concrete particulars by the overlapping or common membership of these sorts." (31) a. meaning is delegated efficacy (32)

2. "what a word means is the missing parts of the contexts from which it draws its delegaged efficacy." (35) "Now for the sense of `context.' Most generally, it is a name for a whole cluster of events that recur together--including the required conditions as well as whatever we may pick out as cause or effect. But the modes of causal recurrence on which meaning depends are particular through that delegated efficay I have been talking about. In these contexts on item--typically a word--takes over the duties of parts which can then be omitted from the recurrence. There is thus an abridgement of the context only shown in the behavior of living things, and most extensively and drastically shown by man. When this abridgment happens, what the sign or word--the item with these delegated powers--means is the missing parts of the context." (34)

3."This theorem goes further, and regards all discourse--outside the technicalities of science--as over-determined, as having multiplicity of meaning." (39) The "new" Rhetoric empowers language rather than confining or eliminating it. (40)

Lecture III: The Interinanimation of Words

1. Questions the "Usage doctrine," uses the four great general principles of word choice (correctness, precision, appropriateness, and expressiveness) as examples by proposing that this supposed "good usage" is a matter of falling prey to the Proper Meaning Superstition-- that since words are (wrongly) thought to have a particular meaning/usage, there is a best word for use. He argues the opposite.

2. Words interact with those present in the passage and those in the background. Words work with each other, and with the context, to establish meanings. "I conclude then that these expressive or symbolic words get their feeling of being peculiarly fitting from the other words sharing the morpheme which support them in the background of the mind." (62)

Lecture IV: Some Criteria of Words

1) Reviews III: that words do not have meanings without a setting of other words, uttered or supplied in the background. (71)

2) There is a "Club Spirit" which goes into arguments that words have proper meanings or usages. Most of that is a bad case of the Proper Meaning Superstition--evidenced through bigotry, class struggle, and obsession over grammar. Some of it, however, can (has) lead (led) to good breeding when it has been used as an impetus to bring culture (education) to those with potential for learning (children of the cultured rich).

3) Defends the coinage of new words, especially of technical terminology, even if it leaks into general use.

Lecture V: Metaphor

1) Two bad assumptions from Aristotle's Poetics: One, that metaphor takes an "eye for resemblances," and that some men have that gift while others do not. Second, that such work cannot be taught.

2) "Throughout the history of Rhetoric, metaphor has been treated as a sort of happy extra tick with words . . . a grace or ornament or added power of language, not its constitutive form. (90) "That metaphor is the omnipresent principle of language can be shown by mere observation." (92)

3)"In the simplest formulation, when we use a metaphor we have two thoughts of different things active together and supported by a single word, or phrase, whose meaning is the resultant of their interaction." (93)

4)"The traditional theory noticed only a few of the modes of metaphor; and limited its application of the term metaphor to a few of them only. And thereby it made metaphor seem to be a verbal matter, a shifting and displacement of words, whereas fundamentally it is a borrowing between and intercourse of thoughts, a transaction between contexts. Thought is metaphoric, and proceeds by comparison, and the metaphors of language derive therefrom." (94)

5) Tenor, "the underlying idea or principle subject which the vehicle or figure means," and vehicle, the saying we use to communicate that idea." (96-97)

6) metaphors work for a number of reasons, not simply because the tenor and vehicle construct resemblances. Sometimes they work due to disparities, sometimes through ambiguities, sometimes by creating new forms.

Lecture VI: Command of the Metaphor

1) "Our skill with metaphor, with thought, is one thing--prodigious and inexplicable; our reflective awareness of that skill is quite another thing--very incomplete, distored, fallacious, over-simplifying. (116) Our reflective awareness should not seek to protect (unnecessarily) our natural practice from 'decay,' it should seek to assist the imparting, from mind to mind, of the metaphorical skill. (116)

2) Refers to Mr. Empson in his Seven Types of Ambiguity (p. 32) "Statements are made as if they were connected, and the reader is forced to consider their relations for himself. The reason why these statements should have been selected is left for him to invent; he will invent a variety of reasons and order them in his own mind. This is the essential fact about the poetic use of language." (125) "The mind will always try to find connections and will be guided in its search by the rest of the utterance and its occasion." (126)

3) Words are much more than modes of direct reference, handing over sensations of the body to the mind. "Words are the meeting points at which regions of experience which can never combine in sensation or intuition, come together. They are the occasion and the means of that growth which is the mind's endless endeavor to order itself. That is why we have language. It is no mere signalling system. It is the instrument of all our distinctively human development, of everything in which we go beyond the other animals." (131) "Thus, to present language as working only through the sensations it reinstates, is to turn the whole process upside down . . . They think the image fills in the meaning of the word; it is rather the other way about and it is the word which brings in the meaning which the image and its original perception lack." (131) "Words are not a medium in which to copy life. Their true work is to restore life itself to order." (134)

back to lecture note index