The Operantcy of Practical Criticism
***** BROWN & MATHIESON **** EJC/REC Vol. 1, No. 1, 1990 ***
THE OPERANTCY OF PRACTICAL CRITICISM
Steven R. Brown
Kent State University
University of Leicester
Abstract. The principles of practical
criticism in literature and the measurement
procedures of Q methodology are shown to be in
harmony, and their compatability is demonstrated
in terms of readers' responses to poetry.
Assertions about a selected poem's meaning
constitute the concourse from which a Q sample is
drawn, and poetic interpretations are represented
as Q sorts which reveal classes of subjective
experience expressed as operant factors. The
results provide a basis for detecting threats to
the successful reading of literature, and for
suggesting ways of testing various assumptions of
LA FONCTIONNALITE DE LA CRITIQUE EMPIRIQUE.
Les principes de la critique empirique en
litterature et les techniques de mesure de la
Methode Q sont compatibles. Cette demonstration
peut etre faite en considerant les reactions des
lecteurs de poesie. D'une part, un echantillon de
type Q est produit a partir d'un concours
(ensemble) d'enonces relatifs aux sens d'un poeme.
D'autre part, des interpretations poetiques sont
representees comme des groupes du type Q qui
revelent des classes d'experiences subjectives
comme facteurs operatoires. Les resultats
permettent de deceler ce qui nuit a une lecture
efficace de la litterature et indiquent des moyens
pour verifier diverses hypotheses de la critique
The Problem of Critical Reading
In this paper, the authors propose a methodological
solution for a problem in literary criticism introduced by
I.A. Richards (1929) more than 60 years ago. Richards'
concern was with poetic interpretations which go awry. He
did not assume that poems have only one true meaning;
rather, that serious efforts to interpret a poem typically
run afoul of obstacles and snares arising from the nature of
language, sentiment, and communication: intellectual and
emotional navigation, not truth, is at issue.
Richards nominated several barriers to achieving
"critical discernment," among them the intrusions of
irrelevant associations, conventional responses, doctrinal
projections, technical presuppositions, the sheer inability
to establish sense (overt meaning), and others -- any of
which, singly or in combination, can contribute to a
"pathology of interpretation," as Russo (1989, pp. 294-316)
has referred to the matter. Clearly, if a reader thinks
that "Home on the range" refers to domestic life atop a
stove, then "Where the deer and the antelope play" can only
Richards' method was exceptionally straightforward.
Readers were presented with several poems (with title and
authorship removed) and instructed to provide written
critiques. The poems, 13 in all, were "a mixed lot," and
the written protocols which the readings produced became the
basis for Richards' assessments. In many respects, his
strategy was innovative: the poems he selected were like
plates from a projective test, and his treatment of the
protocols was akin to content analysis, and all of this
prior to the introduction of either projective techniques or
Richards' method can perhaps be best appreciated by
reading one of the poems from his collection, and then
sampling some of the commentary from the protocols. To
benefit most from subsequent discussion, it is recommended
that the reader at this point take the time to read the
following poem carefully and pay attention to the
impressions which arise. (It is sometimes helpful to give
two or three readings, including one slowly aloud.) This is
poem VIII from Richards (1929, pp. 104-117):
Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of
the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother
who smiles as she sings.
In spite of myself the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter
And hymns in the cozy parlor, the tinkling piano
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into
With the great black piano appassionato. The
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a
child for the past.
The reactions to this poem were varied, but
predominantly negative. Most judged it too sentimental, as
illustrated in comments from Richards' protocolists
(statements are lettered for subsequent reference):
(a) It is a revelling in emotion for its own
sake, that is nothing short of nauseating.
(b) Written in the heat of emotion it is simply
(c) The triviality of the sentiment is equalled
only by the utter puerility of the versification
-- as in the third line of the first verse.
In other instances, readers took issue with the imagery:
(d) I object to "cozy," and "tinkling" used of
a piano that elsewhere "booms" or is
"appassionato" is just absurd.
(e) After the first two lines, the vision of a
child sitting under the piano can move nothing but
(f) Allowing that it may possibly have been a
grand and not an upright piano that the child was
sitting under we have still to satisfy ourselves
that "tinkling" strings can boom.
In yet other protocols, readers saw in the poem what it is
difficult to imagine is really there. For example:
(g) This poem unfortunately associates itself
with jazz, and "coal black mammies" thumping the
old piano down in Dixie.
(h) Obviously a poem of homesickness -- but the
man who wrote it went to the concert feeling
By the same token, there were those who complained about
(i) In the third verse the pauses in the lines
give an impression of jerkiness. The curtailing
of the number of beats in the 2nd line is not
compensated for, while the splitting-up of "cast
down" over two lines is inexcusable.
(j) ... in stanza 2, "the tinkling piano our
guide," "guide" I don't think a good word. Too
obviously used for the sake of the rhyme.
The antisentimentalists whose protocols contained statements
(a) (b) (c) above were balanced by sentimentalists who
approved of the poem on this account:
(k) Sentimental -- fearfully so -- but if
sentiment must be expressed then here it is in its
right setting and well done really.
(l) The poem seems to be so eminently
sentimental ... and yet the happiness of childhood
does return at times in this way under the
influence of music.
Finally, a different perspective. Some readers were aware
of the dangers of sentimentalism due to the subject matter
-- childhood, motherhood, hymns on Sunday evening, etc. --
but judged the poet to have avoided the pitfalls:
(m) It runs an appalling risk of sentimentality
and yet seems to have escaped all offensiveness.
(n) The simplicity and accuracy with which he
records his feelings ... somehow alters the focus;
what might have been merely sentimental becomes
And so on in large volumes, but what to do with it all?
Before answering this question, it is important to point out
that Richards was concerned with more than simply analyzing
poems for their own sake, important as that might be. The
defective reading of poetry was, for him, a symptom of a
culture which was deteriorating as a consequence of a
quickening style of life, one in which advertising and
superficial newspaper reading had replaced thoughtful
contemplation and had undermined the capacity to
discriminate. This criticism became a platform urged most
forcefully by F.R. Leavis and other members of the Cambridge
school of English (for details, consult Mathieson, 1975).
Richards was therefore interested in revealing the causes
and consequences of poetic misinterpretations as a way of
providing empirical evidence for the nature of the cultural
problem, and he was also interested in providing procedures
for educating students away from defective responses as a
way of reversing or at least arresting the process.
Richards' project, again, was taken up by Leavis and others
in Britain, and in North America was spearheaded by Marshall
McLuhan, who took Richards' course in the philosophy of
rhetoric at Cambridge (Molinaro et al., 1987, p. 50) and who
later said of Leavis' methods that they "can serve to
educate a huge public ... to resist that swift obliteration
of the person which is going on" (p. 180) (see Note 1).
As a methodological aside, it is worthwhile noting that
many of the conjectures of the Cambridge school rest on
other than empirical grounds but are nevertheless within the
scope of scientific inquiry, and that Q methodology is in
many respects capable of providing the evidence required for
their confirmation or refutation. However, this would take
us too far afield, and we will have occasion to address
these matters in subsequent studies.
Measuring Critical Reading Experiences
For the moment we restrict ourselves to demonstrating
how Q methodology can provide an evidentiary base for
Richards' critical reading project. In this connection,
Richards doubted that an "objective" approach could reveal
much: curves produced by the physical characteristics of
sound (strength, pitch, duration, etc.), for example, were
apt not to distinguish good poetry from bad (pp. 227-228).
Nor, on the "subjective" side of things, was introspection
likely to be satisfactory, at least insofar as feeling is
concerned, because "a feeling ... tends to vanish as we turn
our introspective attention upon it" (p. 217). Still there
was Richards' deep seated recognition of a need to "gain
some power of diagnosis, some understanding of the risks
that interpretations run, and some capacity to detect what
has occurred" (p. 336). What he lacked was a method capable
of providing confirmation for his assertions, and his best
guess was that psychology would eventually provide the
requisite procedures. He was unwilling to wait, however,
and concluded that "what criticism most needs is less
poeticising and more detailed analysis and investigation"
(p. 364), and his own volume stands, even today, as an
impressive testimony to what can be done in the directions
In an earlier work, Richards had already called for "a
system of measurement by which we can compare not only
different experiences belonging to the same personality but
different personalities," lamenting that "We do not yet know
how to make the measurements required" (Richards, 1926a, p.
288). He noted, with limited approval, relativity theory's
"quantitative way of comparing the experiences and
preferences of individuals," but lamented again that
"whereas the physicist has measurements to work from, the
psychologist as yet has none" (p. 289). The problem which
Richards identified remains problematic more than a half
century later, as witnessed in the Schools Council's report
on "Literary Response: What Counts as Evidence?" (Dixon &
Richards was writing in the late '20s, and at that time
there was good reason for keeping expectations low
concerning psychology's potential vis-a-vis literary
criticism, but in the following decade Q methodology was
invented (Stephenson, 1935) and provided the possibility of
realizing virtually all that Richards regarded as crucial
insofar as measurement is concerned. The details have been
largely worked out, both as to methodology generally
(Stephenson, 1953, 1980a; Brown, 1980, 1986) and with
respect to literature more specifically (Stephenson, 1972,
1980b, 1985; Brown, 1977), and can be summarized briefly
using reactions to the above poem as illustrative.
Assertions (a) to (n) above are what, in Q methodology,
is now referred to as a concourse (Stephenson, 1980a); that
is, a universe of statements for any situation or topic, in
this case about the poem above, but in principle about
anything. The concept of concourse was borrowed from
Cicero, and Stephenson (1980b) has referred to the theory of
concourses as "perhaps the most significant contribution
that can be made to a general theory of knowledge" (p. 114).
Although Stephenson was apparently unaware of it, concourse
was a term which Richards also used when he noted that "an
extraordinarily intricate concourse of impulses (in the
poet) brings the words together" (Richards, 1926b, p. 36),
and, consequently, that the reader is then confronted with
"an all but overwhelming concourse of stimulation" (p. 53).
A concourse in Q is composed of what is subjective in
the sense of being a matter of opinion rather than fact:
above statements (a) to (n) are opinions, whereas "the poem
has three stanzas" is factual and, as Richards indicated, of
little consequence insofar as interpretation is concerned
(although objective features, such as metre and rhyme
scheme, can have subjective effects). A "self-referential"
statement, as Stephenson refers to it, is akin to Richards'
"pseudo-statement," the "truth" of which is governed not by
logic or principles of refutability, but in terms of the
extent to which "it ... serves some attitude or links
together attitudes" (Richards, 1926b, p. 70).
Moreover, Richards' justifiable wariness about
introspection is substantiated in Stephenson's (1985) view
that "the primary step in understanding literature from the
subjective standpoint, is to study it as immediate
experience" (p. 236); that is, literary effect is not to be
assayed in terms of introspective reflection, but at the
level of the experience itself. If we enjoy the above poem,
for instance, the enjoyment is immediately presented and is
not a delayed result of our having introspected and
discovered a joyful feeling which we then report, as if the
report and experience existed in two separate realms. As
T.S. Eliot (1933) says, "our talking about poetry is a part
of, an extension of, our experience of it" (p. 18). The
expression is a part of the lived experience, not an
introspective reflection on it. What we have as given,
therefore, and what we wish to scrutinize most closely, is
not introspection, but communicability (Stephenson, 1980a),
or "the public dimension of private expression," as Knight
(1988, p. 99) has labeled it.
Richards, as noted, presented his protocolists'
critical comments as exemplary of good or defective reading,
and in this regard his insights can serve as a starting
point for our own inquiry. As a preliminary matter, each of
the numerous comments reported by Richards can be divided
into the simple evaluative categories of (A) positive, (B)
negative, and (C) mixed or neither; in addition, evaluations
can be subdivided in terms of their focus on (D) emotion,
(E) technique, or (F) sense/intent. This gives rise to
3x3=9 combinations into which the statements in the
concourse can be classified. For example, statement (a)
above ("It is a revelling in emotion ... nothing short of
nauseating") can be categorized pro tem as of the type BD;
that is, it refers to a negative emotional reaction, and the
same is true of statements (b) and (c), although the latter
also implicates BE. Statement (h) displays confusion as to
the sense of the poem, and the evaluation is uncertain --
hence CF. Statement (i) is critical on technical grounds,
and is therefore classified BE. All statements having been
categorized, two to four from each category were sampled,
for the sake of breadth, to comprise the final Q sample.
(The N=30 Q statements are available upon request.) It is
to be noted that all of the statements, (a) to (n) above as
well as those to be reported below, are matters of shared
communicability, of conscire (Stephenson, 1980a): they are,
as Richards (1926, p. 188) nicely phrased it, "in the main
path of humanity."
The process of Q sorting provides operational grounding
for Richards' (1926a, p. 47) concept of appetency -- the
impulse or desire to seek after -- with statements gaining
highest positive scores (+4) being most valuable and those
at zero being least; statements gaining negative scores are
negatively valuable (aversions). According to Richards
(1926b), "the first step to an understanding of the place
and future of poetry ... is to see what the general
structure of such an experience is" (pp. 18-19), and a Q
sort provides a general outline of that experience, with
strong appentencies and aversions at +4 and -4,
respectively, and a decline in salience as the Q sorter
approaches the zero point. The Q-sorting process therefore
involves the "resolution of a welter of disconnected
impulses into a single ordered response" (Richards, 1926a,
p. 245), each statement being brought under the suzereignty
of what Eliot (1933, p. 42) referred to as the "unity of
sentiment," or what Davie (1985, p. 274), in reference to
writing, referred to as "a singularly unified act of total
Q sorting provides operational substance to yet another
important principle of critical reading. In the 1920s and
'30s, the Cambridge school succeeded in redefining the study
of literature to involve "the whole reader -- emotional,
moral and intellectual" (Mathieson, 1985, p. 6), and this is
what is involved in Q as well: the reader is not
independently assessed for this or that trait measured in
isolation; rather one's total being is brought to bear in
evaluating the statements and ranking them from agree (+4)
to disagree (-4). Moreover, through correlation we are in a
position to answer another of Richards' (1926a) questions,
"How can experiences be compared?" (p. 6): high positive
correlations are evidence of similar experiences by
different readers, and each resulting factor points to a
"class of experiences" (p. 226), rendered ostensible through
the mathematics of factor analysis. These classes of
experience are not logico-categorical (i.e., they are not
defined in advance on the basis of this or that trait or
consideration), but emerge inductively from the Q sortings
themselves, hence belong to the readers; they are therefore
operant categories of literary response.
For illustrative purposes, 13 contemporary students
were asked to read the above poem, and then to render their
responses to it in terms of the Q sort described previously.
Duly factored, the analysis indicated three separate classes
of experience -- factors A, B, and C, as shown in Table 1.
All persons responding were graduate students in the School
of Education, University of Leicester, England: those eight
readers (Rs) designated by an asterisk were in training to
be teachers of English literature and were being explicitly
exposed to the principles of practical criticism espoused by
the Cambridge school; the other five were in training to be
teachers of mathematics and were chosen so as to include
readers with doubtful critical expertise, thereby putting to
test the assumption, occasionally advanced, that only those
persons specifically tutored can resonate to poetry in a
Rs A B C
1 (83) -07 -22
2* (71) 27 -04
3 (65) -22 03
4* -21 (68) -21
5* -12 (67) 28
6* 09 (67) 21
7* -23 (56) -21
8 -05 (-49) -14
9* -19 -03 (57)
10* -06 31 (59)
11* (50) (-52) 28
12 (59) -05 (-60)
13 09 11 30
*Literature majors; sig-
nificant loadings in
The first factor is purely defined by readers 1 to 3,
which means that these three readers have sorted the
statements in essentially the same order as a reflection,
presumably, that they have experienced the poem in a similar
way. Readers 11 and 12 are likewise significant for factor
A, but are associated with one of the other factors as well.
Thus, factor A represents an experience of the poem shared
by five of the readers, including both literature and math
students; it is therefore apparently not a point of view for
which specialized training is necessarily prerequisite.
Factor scores for factor A are those scores, from +4 to
-4 (Richards' appetencies), associated with each of the 30
statements, and these scores are calculated by merging
together the individual Q sorts of those readers who
comprise the factor -- that is, an initial glimpse into this
"class of experience" is obtained by examining the composite
experience of the readers belonging in this group. (For
technical details, consult Brown, 1980; or McKeown & Thomas,
1988.) It is primarily on the basis of these factor scores
that interpretations of these three literary experiences are
Classes of Experience
The most direct route to the factor A experience is to
examine those statements at the extremes of the
distribution; that is, those statements with which the
factor A readers most agree (+4) and most disagree (-4).
These statements follow, with the scores for factors B and C
also shown for comparison. First, the positive pole of the
factor (scores to the left of each statement for factors A,
B, and C, respectively):
4 -2 -2 (3) The striking thing is that the poet knows
quite well that this reversion to a childhood
incident is sentimental, but he does not try to
make capital out of the sentiment.
4 2 3 (14) The poem is extremely simple, and whether it
is itself weak or no, it well describes a certain
psychological state of mind.
4 3 2 (30) It is curious that the poet too feels
sentimentality coming upon him -- "in spite of
myself" -- and he gives way to it entirely.
As statements 14 and 30 indicate, there is general agreement
among all three factors that the poet has well described a
recognizable state of mind, and that he has felt
sentimentality coming on and has given in to it. Where A
differs from the other two factors is apparent in the scores
assigned statement 3: the factor A readers experience the
poet as having felt sentimental and as having given in to
it, but, unlike B and C, they do not see him as motivated
"to make capital out of the sentiment." The poet, in short,
has no ulterior motives as far as factor A is concerned, and
the poem is therefore defended as an honest expression.
The statements at the negative end of the factor array
(Richards' "aversions") are those with which this class of
readers disagrees, and are just as informative as those at
the positive end insofar as the poetic experience is
concerned. They are as follows for factor A:
-4 -3 -4 (9) The vision of a child sitting under the piano
can move nothing but laughter.
-4 3 2 (15) The triviality of the sentiment is equalled
only by the utter puerility of the versification.
-4 -1 4 (22) This poem is false. One worships the past
in the present, for what it is, not for what it
was. To ask for the renewal of the past is to
ask for its destruction.
Again, factor A defends the poem (whereas factors B and C
criticize it) in terms of its honest expression of sentiment
(for example, by denying statements 15 and 22). The three
factors express consensus once again in their denial of
statement 9. In this regard, one of Richards' readers had
complained of the poem's line "...till I see / A child
sitting under the piano..." on the grounds that, were the
piano an upright, one literally could not sit "under" it;
however, Richards noted that we generally don't flinch at
saying that we sat "under a tree," or "took the Underground
at West Kensington" (where it is not under the ground), and
so factors A, B, and C, unlike Richards' reader, deserve
some congratulation for recognizing and appreciating the use
It was previously noted that factor A defends the
poet's sentimentality on the grounds that it is sincere
rather than contrived or regressive, and this is reinforced
and extended in statements 18 and 19, which also distinguish
factor A from B or C (score differences of 2 or more can
generally be considered statistically significant):
3 1 -2 (18) In the second verse, the poet recognizes the
difference between his man's outlook and his
childish outlook, and we share his experience of
being "betrayed back" by "the insidious
3 0 -2 (19) The simplicity, accuracy, and justness of the
expression somehow alters the focus: what might
have been mere sentiment becomes valuable; the
strength of the underlying feeling becomes
apparent through the sincerity.
For factor A readers, the poet is not dominated by
sentiment in the sense of being rendered insensible by
feeling, but remains intellectually alert to what is
happening to him and describes it for the reader as it is
occurring; hence "the poet recognizes the difference between
his man's outlook and his childish outlook," and a struggle
between them ensues, but the singer's "insidious mastery of
song" is alluring and "betrays me back," and it is perhaps
this struggle -- of induced sentiment being intellectually
monitored -- that "somehow alters the focus" and gives the
poem a value which mere sentimentalism could not have.
Unlike factors B and C, in short, factor A has penetrated
surface sentimentalism and has achieved an understanding of
the poem that has greater complexity and dimensionality.
Had factor B readers in particular achieved this
insight, it is doubtful that they could have sustained the
antisentimental indignation which characterizes their
reaction to the poem, as registered in milder form in
statement 15 (supra), but with the volume turned up in
statement 10 (scores to the left for factors A, B, and C,
-2 4 0 (10) Its appeal is entirely sentimental, and the
subject is one of the most hackneyed. Nearly
every popular song deals with the same topic.
The factor B reader sees only "sloshy sentiment," a verdict
rendered by some of Richards' readers more than a half
It is worth noting at this point that these factor
analytic results are substantiated in the comments which
readers were invited to write on their score sheets
following their individual Q sortings. Reader no. 5 (see
Table 1), for example, writes that "the poet's struggle ...
with his own sentimentality is brief and unsuccessful as he
loses himself in verbose nostalgic meanderings ... and ends
... in a nostalgic swoon." And no. 7 observes, "The writer
is unable to carry the poem beyond his own emotions. The
poem stops at the level of a sentimental music hall song."
Hence the factors fit hand in glove with the readers' more
But factor B is also critical of the poem in terms of
-2 4 -1 (16) I object to "cozy," and "tinkling" used of a
piano that elsewhere "booms" or is "appassionato"
is just absurd.
-1 3 -1 (24) In stanza 2, "the tinkling piano our guide"
-- "guide" I don't think a good word. Too
obviously used for the sake of rhyme.
Of the reaction captured in statement 24, Richards
remarked that one of his readers who reached a similar
conclusion "would have found a justification for 'guide' if
he had been able to recall, or imagine, the hymn-singing
described -- the children's uncertain voices rather
tentatively following the 'tinkling' notes of the piano" (p.
115), and the same observation perhaps applies to our factor
B readers as well. It is a question of experience and of
its recovery: Has the reader had an experience similar to
that of the writer? If not, or if he has but cannot recall
it, then "guide" may sound contrived and literary engagement
But it is statement 16 that is the most telling and
serves to inform on the closeness of factor B's reading.
There are at least two pianos in the poem: "the great black
piano" (apparently a grand) of the present which stimulates
memories of "a child sitting under the piano, in the boom of
the tingling strings" and of "hymns in the cozy parlor, the
tinkling piano our guide." Yet statement 16, about which
factor B registers greatest conviction (+4), recognizes but
a single piano -- one that tinkles and then "elsewhere
'booms' or is 'appassionato'." Note, however, that in the
poem the booming piano is not the "tinkling" one, but the
"tingling" one: from a position under the piano (where only
a child would sit), the poet recalls hearing the boom of the
piano's internal mechanisms and experiencing the tingling
vibrations of the strings, whereas later, sitting in the
parlor a respectable distance from the piano, the experience
is one of tinkling keys. Through careful choice of words,
the poet effects a difference in perspective (based on
experiences of sound), which in turn sharpens the
distinction between childhood and adulthood. (As Richards
(1929) commented, "The vividity of the poet's memory is
remarkable" (p. 107n).) Consequently, the conviction with
which factor B rejects this poem, coupled with the factor's
careless reading, serves to verify Richards' (1929)
observation that "the further away any reading seems to be
from the actual imaginative realization of its content the
more confidently it is dismissed" (p. 112).
It was this kind of apparently careless, "summary,
'newspaper' type of reading" of which Richards (1929, p.
107) was critical, and it may therefore occasion surprise to
note, in referring back to Table 1, that factor B is a
vantagepoint on the poem that is given only by graduate
students in training to be teachers of literature (readers
4, 5, 6, 7). This is perplexing, but can perhaps be
partially resolved in relation to factor A, which was
complimentary of the poet's efforts and which was rendered
by math as well as literature students. We note first that
in order to criticize, a reader must have at least a nodding
acquaintance with those standards by which a poem might be
judged deficient, and so the absence of non-literature
students on factor B may be due to the fact that they lack
those intellectual tools which make participation in factor
B possible. On the other hand, approval of the poem (factor
A) is a simpler matter, and may be a more viable position
for the reader naive about literary criticism: Thus, factor
A may not only be the position of the critically skillful --
that is, of those who, in a disciplined fashion, have
reasoned their way to this understanding -- but also the
haven of the untrained, which would account for the
appearance on the factor of literature students 2 and 11,
and also math students 1, 3, and 12.
Second, even with the requisite skills, it also takes a
certain degree of courage to be publicly critical of a poem
of unknown pedigree. Mathieson's (1985) text on the
teaching of practical criticism contains recommendations
designed specifically "to increase pupils' confidence in the
value of their own responses to imaginative literature" (p.
51), and this willingness to take interpretive risks,
instilled in literature students but not math students,
might also contribute to an explanation as to why factor B
is defined by literature students only: they have both the
conceptual accoutrements necessary to criticize and the will
to step forward and do so.
Finally, the stereotypical mark of the critic is to be
critical and to complain and rail about deficiencies of one
sort or another, and so it is easy to see how these factor B
readers might have been pulled into this outlook by
professional role demands, which, again, would be missing
among math students. This would then represent yet another
treacherous obstacle, not mentioned by Richards, which might
result in "bad reading," that is, "reading that prevents the
reader himself from entering into the poem" (Richards, 1929,
Before moving on to the last factor, it should be noted
that factor B is bipolar (see Table 1), and that reader no.
8, while significantly associated with the same group as
readers 4 to 7, has ranked the statements in reverse order;
hence, the statements with which readers 4 to 7 have agreed
have been those with which reader 8 has tended to disagree,
and vice versa. In opposition to the readers comprising
factor B, therefore, reader 8 has denied that the poem is
simply "sloshy sentiment," and consequently represents
another positive judgment complementary to, yet uncorrelated
with, factor A.
As Table 1 shows, factor C, like B, is a reaction to
the poem rendered by literature students only (readers 9 and
10) but no math students. On the one hand, factor C gives
the impression of resonating in a positive way to the poem,
reminiscent of factor A, as illustrated by statement no. 8
(scores for factors A, B, and C, respectively):
3 -2 4 (8) One is made keenly aware of the strange
relationship of past and present experience --
one feels the emotion the poet experienced
through his identity with and separation from his
Hence, factor C, like A (but unlike B), appreciates the link
which the poet is making between past and present. On the
other hand, factor C seems to share B's criticism that the
poem is too sloshy and sentimental, as indicated in the
-3 4 3 (27) A lot of emotion is being stirred up about
nothing much. The writer seems to love feeling
sobby about his pure childhood and to enjoy
thinking of himself as a world-worn wretch.
It is this oscillation in factor C between
congratulations and condemnation, reiterated in other
statements as well, which is baffling: What are the
individuals comprising this factor trying to say? How are
they experiencing the poem? Are the surface contradictions
of this response camoflaging a more abstract theme that
would homogenize these apparent inconsistencies and reveal
coherency at a deeper level? One of the oft cited
advantages of Q technique is that it can produce
unanticipated and puzzling results such as these which
impress themselves upon the observer and demand explanation
in terms other than those with which the inquiry began.
This is Q's abductory feature, or capacity for discovery
It is assumed, at least initially, that factor C
represents a genuine viewpoint inasmuch as there is no
evidence that the two persons comprising the factor
collaborated in any way. Consequently, the factor's
schematical nature can also be vouchsafed due to the
operation of Peirce's law of mind (akin to Eliot's unity of
sentiment), to the effect that "meaning forms in relation to
statements of a concourse by way of feeling" (Stephenson,
1980a, p. 9), and that the meaning is evident in the
configuration of the statements. But what is the meaning
that is being displayed? The statements which distinguish
one factor from all the others are often helpful in
answering this question. Consider, for example, the
following statements, with which factor C agrees:
-1 -3 4 (17) The man's weeping is the unrestrained
soul-satisfying crying which we only experience
-4 -1 4 (22) This poem is false. One worships the past
in the present, for what it is, not for what it
was. To ask for the renewal of the past is to
ask for its destruction.
Factor C's critical stance toward the poem is more obvious
in statement no. 22; factor B was also critical, however,
yet C is orthogonal to B and so must be operating according
to different criteria. In short, the above statements are
not especially helpful in clarifying C's focalizing
principle. Nor are those statements with which C is in
1 -1 -4 (11) I can't decide about this poem -- it
portrays something with which the modern mind has
little sympathy, and yet there is a sense of
1 0 -4 (26) The subject matter is appealing: the
picture given in the first verse is vivid and
Still, factor C's central theme remains ambiguous:
these readers obviously have some misgivings about the poem,
but the governing principle giving rise to these misgivings
is less obvious. The statement scores, in sum, attest to an
ostensible effect for which there is no clearly discernible
In the process of searching for clues, we returned to
the essays which readers 9 and 10 had written following
their Q sortings. Of particular interest were the comments
of reader no. 10, who, after a lengthy and primarily
technical critique of the poem, made the following
assertion: "This poem is a typical example of the artist at
work presenting a strong daydream to us in the acceptable
guise of a poem, and as such is, I have decided, fair game
for a bit of Freudian interpretation." Reader 10 then went
on to refer to the poet's associations to his mother, to his
erotic attachment to her "small, poised feet" (foot fetish),
to the guilt residues of his unresolved Oedipal conflict, to
his homosexual tendencies, and to his weeping as an orgasmic
Upon reflection, the possibility suggested itself that
factor C might represent a psychoanalytic interpretation of
the poem (sans Freudian language), and this abductory
inference has the advantage of providing intellectual
coherence to the factor. Note now, in retrospect, how the
above statements flow together into a coherent theme. There
is, for example, an approving reference to dream experiences
(statement no. 17, above) and a keen appreciation of the
relationship between one's past self and present self (no.
8), which are hallmarks of orthodox psychoanalytic theory.
And there is a warning (in statement no. 22) which is also
common to most versions of psychoanalysis: we must
relinquish the past, not try and recapture it, for to
attempt the latter is to destroy the past (the victory of
destrudo over libido, Thanatos over Eros). Hence, factor C
has little sympathy for the poet's "feeling sobby about his
pure childhood" (no. 27) and other immature expressions of
sentimentality (no. 29). Given this vantagepoint,
therefore, the poem is not appealing (no. 26).
We are reminded in this regard of Freud's (1908/1959)
own observations about the relation of the poet to
daydreaming, and about the tendency for the daydreamer's
inner phantasies, once revealed, to "repel us or at least
leave us cold" (p. 153), and factor C does indeed seem
repelled. Richards was of course aware of psychoanalysis
and approved of it for certain purposes; from a
methodological standpoint, however, he wisely held that "the
beginning of every research ought to be superficial," and
that "little progress would be made if we attempted to drag
too deep a plough" (Richards, 1929, p. 10), there already
being enough "strange material" near the surface. Not Freud
or Watson, therefore, but Stout and Ward were judged the
best guides through the psychological morass of literary
response (p. 322), and it is noteworthy that the latter have
been the more fundamental in Q methodology's development as
well (Stephenson, 1980a).
Psychoanalytic theories of literature are more in vogue
nowadays than when Richards was writing (e.g., Easthope,
1989), and so part of the obscurity of factor C may be due
to the fact that the concourse drawn from Richards' book
contained little of the language with which these readers
wished to express their views, the statements having been
collected from criticisms made circa 1925.
Factor C's obscurity may derive from yet another source
which is more methodological than technical. Recall that
Richards was somewhat taken by Einstein's theory of
relativity and its capacity for comparing observational
standpoints, and it is this relativity which Q methodology
captures. When we, as directors of this study, provided our
own Q-sort reactions to the poem, our responses were shown
to to be strongly associated with factor A (and somewhat
negatively with B), but to be wholly uncorrelated with
factor C. Factor C was therefore demonstrably outside our
frame of reference, hence our difficulty in comprehending
its character once it appeared.
It remains to appraise factor C's reaction to the poem,
which, with appropriate reservations, may be placed in
Richards' category of "doctrinal adhesions," or possibly
even "stock responses" given that psychoanalytic literary
interpretations are now so fashionable as to demand
emulation. In either instance, there is risk in applying
prepackaged thoughts which can intervene between reader and
text, thereby providing innoculation against clear
apprehension. Misreading occurs, according to Russo (1989),
when a favorite theory blocks perception of other valuable
qualities of a poem; to the extent we can divest ourselves
of too rigid adherence to a favored perspective, however,
and "the more closely we analyze the work of art, the more
likely will other evidentiary claims, qualifications, and
complexities force their attention upon us" (p. 314).
Consider, for example, factor C's responses to
statements 18 and 29:
3 1 -2 (18) In the second verse, the poet recognizes the
difference between his man's outlook and his
childish outlook, and we share his experience of
being "betrayed back" by "the insidious
1 0 -3 (29) Sentimental -- fearfully so -- but if
sentiment must be expressed then here it is in
its right setting and well done really.
Earlier (in statement 8, supra), factor C readers embraced
an awareness of the relationship between past and present
experience, and of the identity of past and present selves.
Simply being aware of these connections is intellective
only, however, a matter of perception; but statements 18 and
29 involve participation in being "betrayed back" and an
acceptance of sentimentality, and this implies emotional
involvement rather than mere perception. Factor C resists
this: these readers are capable of cognizing the conflict,
therefore, but appear unwilling to be drawn into it
emotionally, and this detached attitude seems to have stood
in the way of seeing that the poet's invitation may have
been for other than regressive emotional gratification.
In some respects, factor C could be a more vulnerable
position than factor B insofar as a careful reading of the
poem is concerned. Factor B can be seen as due in some
measure to carelessness and perhaps to the kind of overly
critical stance which a novitiate might be tempted to
assume; the factor may therefore be transitional -- that is,
a temporary position which a new critic might occupy while
in the process of developing more observant critical
capabilities. Factor C might also be transitional, as a
fashionable psychoanalytic phase which a critic might
eventually transcend or supplement once a more comprehensive
outlook was achieved. On the other hand, if factor C
represents a commitment to psychoanalysis, this could impose
theoretical blinders that might cancel whatever genuine
advantages this perspective might otherwise have.
Before concluding, it is instructive to draw brief
attention to reader no. 13 (see Table 1), whose view is
unique among those in the study in the sense that it is not
in accord with any of the three factors previously
discussed; his therefore represents yet another experience
of the poem, and we gain quick entree into this experience
by noting some of the statements with which reader 13 most
(12) In the third verse the pauses in the lines
give an impression of jerkiness: the curtailing of
the number of beats in the second line is not
compensated for, while the splitting up of "cast
down" over two lines is inexcusable.... (20) The
poet is trying to get effects the whole time, to
say something out of the common.... (24) In
stanza 2, "the tinkling piano our guide" --
"guide" I don't think a good word. Too obviously
used for the sake of rhyme.
This reader is obviously preoccupied with technicalities
judged independently of the meaning they were employed to
carry. Like factor B, therefore, reader 13 also agrees that
"'tinkling' used of a piano that elsewhere 'booms' or is
'appassionato' is just absurd" (statement 16), thereby
indicating how a "mechanical reading" (Richards, 1929, p.
231) can interfere with getting close enough to the poem to
determine its sense.
In comments written on his score sheet, reader 13
expresses awareness that there may be a difficulty in this
regard, although he misdiagnoses the problem somewhat: "I
notice that the statements I'm in agreement with relate to
the structure of the poem. Obviously being a mathematician
I can analyse structures and not feelings!" (Candor of this
kind is refreshing, but the burden of this study is to
demonstrate that feelings are likewise structured.)
Students of literature are typically educated against
mechanical readings of the above kind, and so it is doubtful
that their responses would ever correlate with reader 13's.
The poem selected for illustrative purposes above is
D.H. Lawrence's "Piano," which, of the 13 poems used by
Richards, ranked second in the level of condemnation which
it attracted. According to admittedly rough estimates, only
19% of Richards' readers were favorable toward the poem, 66%
unfavorable, and 15% noncommittal (Richards, 1929, p. 365).
But as Richards demonstrated, and as the above results
verify, much of the poem's poor showing is attributable to
navigational defects in reading -- of carelessness, of
misunderstanding the poet's intent, of becoming preoccupied
with literary technicalities, and so forth. Once again, it
is not a matter of reaching a consensus concerning the
"right" interpretation, but, as Richards (1926a) has said,
of the critic's "experiencing, without eccentricities, the
state of mind relevant to the work ... he is judging" (p.
114). And, as he said elsewhere, "It is the quality of the
reading we give them that matters, not the correctness with
which we classify them. For it is quite possible to like
the 'wrong' poems and dislike the 'right' ones for reasons
which are excellent" (Richards, 1929, p. 349).
Our primary intent in this paper has been to
demonstrate the similarity between Stephenson's Q
methodology and certain aspects of Richards' critical
theory. As noted at the outset, Richards (1929) wished to
achieve "some understanding of the risks that
interpretations run, and some capacity to detect what has
occurred" (p. 336), and it is at this point that Q
methodology applies its lever, with factor analysis its
fulcrum. Space precludes more than bare mention of other
parallels between these two bodies of thought -- for
example, of Richards' (1977) farsighted interest in Bohr's
principle of complementarity as it might apply to
literature, and Stephenson's (1988) development of a quantum
theory of subjectivity; and of Q methodology's capacity to
provide operational grounding for many of the assumptions of
practical criticism. Also worth mentioning is the
connection, noted by Hourd (1949, pp. 146-149), between
literary creativity and the noegenetic principles of Charles
Spearman, the inventor of factor analysis whose work
influenced Stephenson's development of Q methodology. These
and related matters will be addressed subsequently.
Our focus has been on Q methodology's applicability to
practical criticism, but the coin has two sides. A person's
Q sort, on poetry or any other topic, typically consists of
statements linked in a significant sequence; consequently,
they are as textual as any poem, short story, sculpture, or
work of art, and as subject to the principles of
interpretation, yet most interpretations of Q factors pale
in comparison to the thoroughness of even the most mundane
of literary interpretations. In this respect, those who
utilize Q methodology have much to learn from practical
Finally, since its inception in 1935, Q methodology has
itself been subject to an unusual level of misunderstanding,
even among its adherents, much of it traceable to the same
kinds of stock responses, doctrinal adhesions, technical
presuppositions, general critical preconceptions, and missed
sense lurking behind the criticisms of Lawrence's "Piano."
A major value to Q methodology of Richards' work is that it
helps us better understand the nature of the
misunderstandings, hence places us in an improved position
to anticipate, and hopefully avoid them in the future.
1. We are grateful to James Winter (University of Windsor)
for having brought to our attention the connection between
the Richards-Leavis initiatives in England and the works of
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Steven R. Brown is in the Department of Political
Science, Kent State University, Kent, OH 44242-0001, U.S.A.
(Bitnet SBROWN@KENTVM). Margaret Mathieson is in the School
of Education, University of Leicester, 21 University Road,
Leicester LE1 7RF, United Kingdom.
Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, Inc.