Sunday, November 04, 2018


The Text Must Come First

Martin Litchfield West (1937-2015), "Forward into the Past. Acceptance Speech for the Balzan Prize in Classical Antiquity, 2000," in Hesperos. Studies in Ancient Greek Poetry Presented to M.L. West on his Seventieth Birthday, edd. P.J. Finglass et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. xx-xxviii (at xxi):
'The text must come first', Fraenkel used to say, and discussion of textual problems constituted a major element in his seminars. In his youth he had been mortified by Leo's surprise on discovering that Fraenkel was reading Aristophanes without an apparatus criticus. Indeed it is an evident truth that (as Bruno Snell once put it) 'Philologie ohne Textkritik ist eine nichtige Spielerei'. If one takes the text on trust from whatever edition lies to hand, or (even worse) from whatever translation, one runs great danger of drawing conclusions or building constructions that are easily shown to be unsound.
Id. (at xxviii):
There is a view, fashionable in some quarters, that all interpretation of the past is necessarily subjective, that history is whatever you care to make of it, and that the very idea that there is such a thing as objective historical truth is a naive positivist error. If that were the case, scholarship would be little more than an intellectual game; and there are indeed those who seem to treat it as such. But such extreme relativism is nonsense. Of course many different types of equally valid history can be made by asking different sets of questions. But there are objective underlying facts, to which every construction must relate. They are not always attainable. But the scholar must try to attain them, or get as close to them as possible.

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