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Thursday, April 21, 2022

The Four Kinds of Meaning- I.A. Richards-Detailed Note

I.A. Richards concept of “The Four Kinds of Meaning” was expressed in his famous seminal work “Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgement” which appeared on the literary scene in 1929. His famous work “Practical Criticism’ deals with the four kinds of meaning. I.A. Richards borrowed the phrase ‘practical criticism’ from the great critic and poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

According to I.A. Richards, the primary function of literature is to help us to integrate activities and resolve conflicts. He was one of the renowned critics and eminent professors of English at Cambridge University. He distinguished between the two uses of language: the referential and the emotive. He brought a scientific accuracy and objectivity to the arena of English criticism.

The Four Kinds of Meaning- I.A. Richards-Detailed Note
The Four Kinds of Meaning- I.A. Richards


Harry Blamires rightly comments of I.A. Richards' theory and states “Many have criticised Richards for his tendency to isolate the poem from its background and the philosophical framework on which his psychology is founded has come under fire from many sides. But he did much to discredit the kind of nebulous sentimentality and lax rhetoric which disfigures minor Georgian Poetry and a good deal of the fashionable literary history and biography. His encouragement to students to tussle with subtleties and complexities of style and meaning played its part in the shift from the age of Tennyson to the age of T.S. Eliot

Three Objectives of Analysis

In his work Practical Criticism, I.A. Richards has elucidated three objectives in a poetical research. The first objective in a research is to record the contemporary state of culture. The other two objectives are to create a new kind of reading habit and to bring reform in the teaching of literature.

I.A. Richards, with these three objectives in his mind distributed copies of unseen and unfamiliar poems to his Cambridge students. He wanted them to study the poems and make critical judgements on them. The students knew nothing about the chronology and the authors of the poems. I

n his experiment, I.A, Richards observed that most of the students while dealing with the unfamiliar poems find lot of difficulty in making a judgement on given poems. Some of the students make funny judgements while the others are fantastic in their responses. The experiment made I.A. Richards think of practical criticism as a course or as a method of analysis of the literary work. 

Defects and Hindrances in Making Critical Judgement: 

I.A. Richards has mentioned several defects and hindrances which the student has to face in understanding a passage or a poem before him. The students faced the problem such as: the difficulty in making out the plain sense of the poem. Secondly their tendency to read between the lines of the poem, what the poet was likely to say if they knew the author of the poem. The third difficulty is their nescience of the nature and function of imagery in poetry. Lastly, the students’ stock responses, the adherence to the theories propounded by some specific school, or sentimentality, preconceptions and irrelevances set many hurdles in the path to make a critical judgement regarding the given poems.


I.A. Richards' Concept of the Four Kinds of Meaning

In his concept or theory of the ‘four kinds of meaning’, I.A. Richards has pointed out ten difficulties experienced by his protocol – authors and suggested remedial measures. He holds the view that there are several kinds of meaning and the total meaning is a combination of several contributory meanings of different types. Language has not one but several tasks to perform simultaneously. Richards distinguishes different kinds of meaning citing four distinct aspects: Sense, Feeling, Tone, and Intention.

I.A. Richards’s experiment clearly revealed that even the intelligent students experienced grave difficulties in understanding and evaluating what they read. Identifying some characteristic problems and obstacles to good reading, he provided a basic terminology for the analysis of poetry. 

The original difficulty of all reading is the problem of making out meaning. What is meaning? What are we doing when we try to make it out? There are some readers who apply an easy method or technique to get the meaning of a poem which is not totally inappropriate in order to make out a meaning. Richards dismisses such approach saying it is not criticism. 

The sense plays vital role in the making out of a meaning. It is what we direct our hearer’s attention to when we utter something. But we generally have some feeling about the items we are referring to. We often add colour or flavour the information according to a personal bias or interest. We may have preconceptions about the matter under discussion; and we try to form our own judgement without taking into consideration the sense of the statements made by the poet. 

Then we usually employ our own words and arrange them with an eye to the character or understanding of the person we address and his relationship to us. This determines the tone of our utterance. It is the tone of the poet which clearly indicates the sense of the subject-matter. Whether he has made use of irony, hyperbole or sarcasm in the poem depends on the knowledge of the readers. 

Finally, we speak with conscious or unconscious intention and this purpose modifies our speech. Richards exemplifies how one or other of these functions may predominate according to whether a scientist is writing a treatise or a politician is seeking to be elected to parliament. 

When students fail to understand one or other of these functions, meaning slips away from their grasp. If a writer attempts to popularize some of the results and hypothesis of science, the furtherance of his intention will interfere with other functions. What rank shall we assign if we analyse public utterances made in the midst of general election? It is obvious that intention is unmistakably predominant. 

Other functions will automatically interfere with function for intention, when the speaker attempts to convey his intention. In conversation we get the clearest examples of these shifts of functions. Sometimes feeling or tone may express themselves through sense. 

The poet makes statements in poetry in order arouse interest in the readers and he may employ irrelevant words to produce musical effect in poems which appeal to their feelings and not for their own sake. It has great effect upon the readers’ feelings. Poets deal with pseudo-statements and we should not treat them as profound theory or doctrine. As a reader, we should not consider them as the backbone of the work of art and give them much importance. 

But several literary critics giving much importance to such statements they don’t know that they are only pseudo-statements and write volume of critical essays on them. They are there (in poetry) as a means to the manipulation and expression of feelings and attitudes. While interpreting Keats’s line ‘Beauty is truth and truth beauty’ many critics declare it is the quintessence of an aesthetic philosophy. Rejecting this interpretation Richards says it is the expression of certain blend of feeling not a profound doctrine.

A poet may twist his statement, he may make statements which have logically no role to play with the subject-matter under discussion, or he may practice logical nonsense. The poet employs all the ingredients of language in order to get desired effect. He does all these things in the interest of the other functions of his language. 

But these indirect devices for expressing feeling through logical irrelevance and absurd statements are not peculiar to poetry. There may be many apparent statements turn out on examination to be only in disguised forms, indirect expressions of feeling, tone and intention.


Thus, I.A. Richards' idea on the four kinds of meaning played significant role in the English criticism. It showed the students how to deal with the work of art and form their own critical analysis and judgement on the basis of the sense, feeling, tone and intention of the author which plays major role in the comprehension of any poem. His views on the four kinds of meaning paved the way for many critics in the arena of criticism.

 Watch a video: The Four Kinds of Meaning by I.A. Richards

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