He describes the human mind as a system of impulses. There are conflicting instincts and desires and wants—or appetencies as Richards calls them in the human mind. These conflicting instincts cause uneasiness to the human mind, and the human mind wants to achieve an order or systematization of these conflicting instincts and emotions. The human mind possessess an inherent power of putting conflicting instinces of impulses into a systematic order to which it strives for. Each new experience, however, disturbs the whole system once again, and again the human mind has to readjust different impulses in a new way to achieve the desired system or poise. But since the impulses and instincts are conflicting and different, a system can be achieved only when some impulses are satisfied and some give way to others—in order words are frustrated. The ideal state will be when all the impulses are fully satisfied, but since this is rarely possible, then next best state is when the maximum number of impulses are satisfied and the minimum are frustrated. The value of art or poetry (and by poetry Richards means all imaginative literature) is that it enables the mind to achieve this poise or system more quickly and completely than it could do otherwise. In short, art is a means whereby we can gain emotional balance, mental equilibrium, peace and rest. What is true of the individual is also true of society. A society in which arts are freely cultivated, exhibits better mental and emotional tranquillity than the societies in which arts are not valued.
The best and most elaborate exposition of Richards’ theory of value to be found in the VII chapter of The Principles of Literary Criticism. Before establishing the value of poetry Richards first examines the working of the human mind itself to find out a general psychological theory of value.
The conduct of human life is throughout an attempt to organise impulses. The mind experiences a state of poise only when they organise to follow a common course. To achieve poise in a given situation some impulses have to give way to others and where this does not happen, no poise can take place. The ideal state of poise is one in which all the impulses are able to satisfy themselves to the full when stirred into activity by some stimulus, but as this is seldom possible, the maximum satisfaction of the maximum number of impulses, with the minimum frustration to the rest, is all that can be hoped for.
Now again we come face to face with the problem of value. How shall we decide which among these impulses are more important than others, and how shall we distinguish organisations as yielding more or less value than one another? Here Richards divides impulses into appetencies and aversions, and says “that anything is valuable which satisfies an appetency or ‘seeking after.’
In the chapter “Art and Morals,” I. A. Richards says, “The most valuable states of mind then are those which involve the widest and most omprehensive co-ordination of activities and the least curtailment, conflict, starvation and restriction. States of mind in general are valuable in the degree in which they tend to reduce waste and frustration.” So experiences can be valuable in two different ways—by virtue of the number of impulses directly satisfied and by virtue of the increased capacity for co-ordinating impulses in the future that results from the experience.
He sometimes speaks as though only the impulses that will satisfy future desires are more important. But Richard does not deny that present satisfaction of impulses has some value. However, he says that the effects of experience on our future capacity to satisfy them is what matters most. He concludes the chapter, “A Psychological Theory of Value” with the following words : “To guard against a possible misunderstanding it may be added that the organisation and systematisation of which I have been speaking in this chapter are not primarily an affair of conscious planning or arrangement….We pass as a rule from a chaotic to a better organised state by ways which we know nothing about. Typically through the influence of other minds, Literature and the arts are the chief means by which these influences are diffused. It should be unnecessary to insist upon the degree to which high civilisation, in other words, free, varied and unwasteful life, depends upon them in a numerous society.”
This theory of values is important to understand the nature of poetry as envisaged by I. A Richards. There are moments in a man’s life when his impulses respond to a stimulus in such an organised way that the mind has a life’s experience. Poetry is a representation on this uniquely ordered state of mind. By poetry Richards means not only verse but all imaginative literature, which is also the product of the same state of mind. From this it will appear that the poet is not conscious of embodying any thought in his work. All he is interested in is to record the happy play of impulses on a particular occasion. To approach him therefore for what he says is to misunderstand him. It is to share his experience, the happy play of his impulses, that the true reader gaes to him. It is all that a poem or poetry is.