Focal Ideas of Literature and Society by F.R. Leavis

Question: What are Leavis’s main contentions/arguments in the essay “Literature and Society”? Discuss. Or, Write about the focal points of Leavis’s essay “Literature and Society”. Focal Ideas: Literature and Society by F.R. Leavis. Focal Ideas of Literature and Society by F.R. Leavis.


“Literature and Society is a thought-provoking essay by F.R. Leavis (1895-1978), one of the influential figures in 20th-century literary criticism. The essay, originally a substance of an address given to the Students Union of the London School of Economics and Politics, appears in his book titled “The Common Pursuit”, published in 1964. In this essay, Leavis’s stress is on the social aspect of literary study.

Definition of literature

At the outset of the essay, Leavis talks about his purpose in presenting it. His aim is to try and define on what grounds and in what ways the study of literature-literature as it concerns me, who am avowedly in the first place a literary critic-should, I think, be seen as intimately relevant to what may be presumed to be the major interest of students at the London School of Economics. In doing so, he explores the social aspect of the study of literature and also unearths the relationship that literature has with individuals and, in turn, with society.

Social nature of the literary study

While addressing the students Leavis makes his point clear that the study of literature is a study of the complexities, potential and essential conditions of human nature, What Leavis insists throughout the essay is the social nature of the literary study and the social nature of artistic achievement. He talks about the role of Tradition, the idea expounded by the great critic T.S Eliot, in the production of literary works and illustrates that it is not economic and material determinants, but intellectual and spiritual, so implying a different conception from the Marxist of the relation between the present of society and the past, and a different conception of society.” Leavis points out the social nature of Eliot’s idea of Tradition. He also points out that creative individuals are indispensable in literature because human life lives only in individuals and finally remarks that it is only in individuals that society lives Thus Leavis establishes the intricate connection that exists between literature and society.

Tradition as a social collaborator

Leavis also explores the significant role that society plays in the making of successful writers. He is of the opinion that for the proper development of the artistic powers of a writer. He is in need of a positive tradition. With the presence of a positive tradition the writer “feels himself very much at one with society. Leavis sees tradition as a social collaborator in the creative process Because of the absence of adequate social collaboration, Blake’s powers failed to develop as they ought to have done. So, Leavis sees tradition as a creative collaborator.

The objective study of literature

Leavis is of the opinion that the study of literature should be objective. It should not be guided by any material considerations. He is against the ‘Marxizing or Wellsian’ view of literature and also the kind of relation to social, political, and economic problems it upholds. He rather goes to the extent of stating that “thinking about political and social matters ought to be done by minds of some real literary education, and done in an intellectual climate informed by a vital literary culture.” However, he stresses that literary study will produce desired results only when it is approached as literature only -“that literature will yield to the sociologist, or anyone else, what it has to give only if it is approached as literature. This truth, Leavis claims, is perceptible only to the reader capable of intelligent and sensitive criticism. The reader or the critic must have analytical ability and adequate knowledge for the analysis of a given work of art or literature. The common reader will miss the value-judgment embedded in literary works. So, it is important to be a critic sensitized by experience and the habit of critical analysis in order to have a full understanding of any text or author. Leavis writes:

“Nor, without being an original critic, adverted and sensitized by experience and the habit of critical analysis, can the social psychologist learn what Conrad has to teach about the social nature of the individual’s ‘reality.”

Thus, the critic’s experience and understanding have their essential role’.

Study of inherent human nature

In the essay “Literature and Society” Leavis is mainly concerned with the study of literature as literature. Besides upholding the importance of literary study he has also explored its social significance. Literary study is the study of ‘inherent human nature” because the real literary interest is “an interest in man, society and civilization, and its boundaries cannot be drawn.” And in order to explore the value-judgment, ‘the way of living’ or ‘the art of living critics should be endowed the penetrating insight into human experiences. This is what Leavis claims in his essay “Literature and Society”.

“Without the sensitizing familiarity with the subtleties of language, and the insight into the relations between abstract or generalizing thought and the concrete of human experience, that the trained frequentation of literature alone can bring, the thinking that attends social and political studies will not have the edge and force it should.”

And this is also the main contention of the essay. The ‘human’ has been prioritized in Leavis’s consideration.


From the light of the above discussion, Leavis has tried heart and soul to scatter the message that without prolific study of literature social and intellectual development is impossible, let alone national or international. So, it is as significant as oxygen to study literature by maintaining proper methods.

SR Sarker
SR Sarker
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