Richards’ existential demand

I.A. Richards’ materialism did not impress McLuhan when he began his study in the Cambridge English school in 1934.1

But he very much did agree with Richards on the demand for self-examination implicated in great criticism:

It comes to this : Coleridge’s criticism is of a kind that requires us, if we are to study it seriously, to reconsider our most fundamental conceptions, our conceptions of man’s being — [including2] the nature of his mind and its knowledge. It is a chief merit of Coleridge’s work that it forces us to do this and it is no defect that he forces us to do so more evidently than other critics. Our aim is to understand his opinions, if we can, and in so doing to understand our own. Whether we agree or not with them is, in comparison3, of no importance.4

  1. For discussion see On the “necessary conjoint” of Platonists and Aristotelians.
  2. Richards specifies the mental aspects of human being here because he read Coleridge as “an extreme Idealist”. For reference and discussion see On the “necessary conjoint” of Platonists and Aristotelians.
  3. Richard’s meaning here was clearly that agreement with an opinion was of little value “in comparison” to understanding it. But for McLuhan, with his background in Rupert Lodge’s ‘comparative method‘, Richard’s admonition might be taken in an additional sense: “Whether we agree or not with them is, in comparison (as practiced by Lodge), of no importance.”
  4.  Coleridge on Imagination, 19. Richards continued this passage: “This is not an easy aim,  and it will be well, before proceeding, to recall another sentence from Mill (from his 1840 essay on Coleridge): ‘Were we to search among men’s recorded thoughts for the choicest manifestations of human imbecility and prejudice, our specimens would be mostly taken from their opinions of the opinions of one another’.” It would be necessary, therefore, to proceed slowly and carefully in the formulation of opinions about Coleridge’s opinions.