Richards, “The Resourcefulness of Words”

Richards, I.A. “The Resourcefulness of Words.” Speculative Instruments. Chicago: U. of Chicago P, 1955. 72-78.

“Are we perhaps like mathematicians who had never thought of using the working of examples as a technique of instruction?” (77).

I.A. Richards ends “The Resourcefulness of Words” with this, posing a question of limitations, narrow perspectives, and a missed opportunity in thinking through the techniques of instruction appropriate to a course in dialectic (which, in this context, I take to refer to argumentation). This statement bears some resemblance to the David Foster quotation from JAC I have referred to again and again about the limits of what we will know.

Richards is responding to the suggestion from the President of Yale (Mr. Hutchins) that nothing coheres a course in argumentation, nothing “except talk of personality, ‘character’, and great teachers, the slogans of educational futilitarianism” (73). But what holds the course in argumentation together, answers Richards, is the resourcefulness of words–their versatility, their crucial part in structuring and connecting (ideas and things).

To a degree, Richards is concerned with stasis–with ways specific language in philosophy and metaphysics can lead to misunderstanding. His rhetoric is one that reconciles, patching up misunderstandings caused by words. He is not interested in “attempting to show our students (much less tell them) what Plato or Aristotle really meant” (76). Rather, students would study the ways shifting meanings in “central intellectual terms” (viz., being, have, cause, connection, same, etc.) has “give[n] rise to varied misunderstandings” (76).

The challenge I find in working with Richards is his proximity to New Criticism. Following through what Berthoff adds in “Abstraction as a Speculative Instrument,” and what Haynes does, subsequently, to invoke Berthoff’s notion of abstraction as a beginning point and an answer for pedagogies seeking to move beyond reason and argumentation, I would expect to find, in Richards, something that resonates with abstraction in this discussion of the resourcefulness of words. Maybe it will turn up in How To Read A Page, in chapters called “Random Scratching and Clawing” (the rustle of language?) or “To Unite, Abstract.” Distant reading methods do not, per se, read a page, but a pile of pages.

The section on more expansive abstracting practices can get by without Richards. Yet his concluding thoughts in this brief essay relate to the semantic networks that are presented in, among other forms, tagclouds:

To develop a spatial metaphor here, which being all but unavoidable should be made as explicit as possible, all these words wander in many directions in this figurative space of meaning. But they wander systematically, as do those other wanderers, the Planets. By fixing a limited number of positions, meanings, for them, we may help ourselves to plot their courses. But we should not persuade ourselves that they must be at one or other of these marked points. The laws of their motions are what we need to know: their dependence upon the positions of other words that should be taken into account with them. (77)

In a fairly obvious sense, Richards is talking about context here. Words appear on a page, spatialized there–arranged in such a way that their sequentiality is implicated in their meanings. But I see no reason why this spatialization, this systematically observable wandering, and this hesitancy to fixate–why any of these should be incompatible with tagcloud as a visual model of a semantic network that drifts breezily along the same trajectories as the discipline of composition studies. Doesn’t Keywords in Composition–“the first systematic inquiry into compositions’ critical terms” (1)–advance this very idea? Yes. But Keywords in Composition Studies, like the class of texts dedicated to keyword extrapolation, including Williams’ Keywords, is limited by its mode of presentation to a historical account of a term’s wandering. [This is better elaborated in c. 3 than in c. 2]. The “systematic ambiguity” bears a past-ist orientation; its refresh rate is nullified by the limitations of its medium–print.

Note: Heilker and Vandenberg cite Richards’ Speculative Instruments and How To Read A Page, but rather than going to the original publications, they draw on the excerpts reprinted in Enos and Brown’s Professing the New Rhetorics: A Sourcebook.