F. R. Leavis is the principal twentieth-century descendant of the English literary critical tradition in which Dr Johnson, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Matthew Arnold are among his most notable forebears. The best way of understanding the intellectual and historical matrix in which Leavis's criticism was formed is to see him as the focal point of tension between this Arnoldian heritage and the demands placed on it by the literary and social circumstances of the early twentieth century. Leavis's insistence on the primordial irreducibility of value judgements also came under pressure from another major source, it related to some strains of Marxism. In this brief account of how the Arnoldian heritage was transformed in Leavis, and of how subsequent thinking about literature has proposed radically different conceptions, it has become increasingly apparent that a particular understanding of language itself is the crucial underlying issue.