Chapter 4: Overview, 6 already in attachment6reductionism 

Philosophers do a  reductionism on human life until it isn’t human life anymore.   

What  I mean by ‘reductionism’ is that human life is not left as an irreducible whole, as in a novel by Anthony Trollope.  It gets chopped up and mentalized into abstract concepts which are then worked on, logicked on, generalized on.  (That last sentence is the best my inadequately philosophic mind can presently do.)

Philosophers themselves take the concept  ‘reductionism’ even further, into  realms beyond me, here, here, and here.

Leavis gave central importance, not to Philosophy, but to Literature.  How could he do that?  Surely Literature is only a small corner of culture, and consists merely of untrue stories (in novels) or of expressions of feeling (in poetry)?  But it is  unique in creating the concrete wholeness of human life.  It doesn’t reproduce or report human life but creates it, wrote Leavis.  Literature creates concrete particulars and not abstractions.  He said also that language has always had a ‘centrality’ in truth about human life and that literature is the highest in language.

I think ‘centrality’ means that language is a better vehicle for wisdom about human life than are other ways such as painting, sculpting or music.  The great musicians have prodigious abilities and look very wise on the sleeves of their discs; but music, I feel, only leads to more music.  

One does one’s thinking in words; perhaps there wouldn’t be thinking if there were no words.  (I suspect that that field, naively commented on by me, has already been gone into endlessly in the human and social sciences, let alone in Philosophy.) 

To my naive mind, literature gives experience too — it broadens the mind towards human life.  Open a novel by Anthony Trollope, and you’re amongst the clerics of Barsetshire in the 1850s.  You’re a fly on the wall and can wallow in the entertainment.

Here are some more phrases that add to the meaning of ‘sensibility to human life’.  They come from interpreters of Leavis, and have been paraphrased by me: 

‘The concrete and uniquely specific character of human experience’.  To grasp human life, you have to preserve its ‘irreducible concrete wholeness’.  Each moment of human life – of saying, doing or experiencing – is ‘unique and specific’.   It is irreducible into rational abstractions; in fact it has has ‘no abstractable form’, as  Chris Joyce  puts it.  It is unique and ‘unmodifiable’ into a generalization. Once you ‘abstract’ on the human, you lose it; you are not dealing with the human anymore.

‘Holistic’ is another word applying to ‘sensibility to human life’ that I got from interpreters of Leavis.  Chris Joyce adds the term, ‘the incorporated nature of life’. 

(I can’t now trace where exactly I got many of the words in the following three paragraphs from:  Chris Joyce and Guy Ortolano certainly, and perhaps others too.  Other sources on Leavis were Lionel Trilling, Paul Dean, wikipedia, new world encyclopedia  and Leavis – Life and Work.)

So human life has to be taken in the concrete and as a whole and not converted or reduced to abstractions by logic, let alone by maths or science.  Science is the way to the truth about things, but using it on human life reduces, minifies and deforms it from its concrete reality. 

Don’t abstract and conceptualize on human life; leave it in the concrete.

One reason for the high repute of Science is because it is intellectually more difficult than remaining at the level of concrete perceptions; it is a mental achievement.

According to Paul Dean, Leavis thought that what is threatened in a world dominated increasingly by technology is the belief in the irreducibility of the individual human being.  (That sounds like an agreeable old saw and for me needs analysing.)

The following example of the ‘irreducible concrete wholeness of human life’ is  also rather an old saw, but here it is: “The…statement that water is H2O is a mental tour de force. With our bodies we know that water is not H2O, our intuitions and instincts both know it is not so.” 

(This latter seems to have come originally from D.H.Lawrence, and then via Leavis and Guy OrtolanoAnd ‘mental’ means that the chemical formula ‘H2O’ is a statement of such abstraction that it wipes out the concreteness of sensory life.)


I remember long ago being at the home of someone interested in philosophy, particularly on ethics which he was wont to get up on his hind-legs and lecture on.  I was amazed that his bookshelves contained nothing but human and social sciences.  There were no novels, by Anthony Trollope or by anyone else.  My immediate feeling was: ‘These books on these shelves contain nothing but small de-humanizing generalizations about human beings; they’re not about human beings as they are.’  I think that in my ignorance I was touching on what is meant by ‘abstractionism’ and ‘reductionism’, which are at the other extreme from the concrete irreducible reality of human life which this fellow’s intelligence lacked. 

As I remember, many thinkers since Ancient Greece have seen the role of literature as merely to put across in lively form the great truths of Philosophy or of Religion.   Dilthey in the 1880s  reached deeper in saying that, while science deals in causes, the humanities provide understanding of what motivates individual human selves.   Leavis’s views on  ‘sensibility to human life’ take one closer than does Dilthey, I think, in understanding what is wrong with Philosophy (although Leavis himself didn’t put it forward as a criticism of Philosophy).


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