Sunday, August 30, 2020


Definitions of Philology

Sheldon Pollock, "Future Philology? The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World," Critical Inquiry 35.4 (Summer, 2009) 931-961 (at 933-934):
First, what precisely do I mean by philology? It is an accurate index of philology's fall from grace that most people today have only the vaguest idea what the word means. I have heard it confused with phrenology, and even for those who know better, philology shares something of the disrepute of that nineteenth-century pseudoscience. Admittedly, the definition of any discipline has to be provisional in some sense because the discipline itself is supposed to change with the growth of knowledge, and there isn't any reason why the definition of a discipline should be any neater than the messy world it purports to understand. Still, philologists have not done much to help their cause. An oft-cited definition by a major figure at the foundational moment in the nineteenth century makes philology improbably grand—"the knowledge of what is known"8—though this was not much different from the definition offered by Vico in the previous century, for whom philology is the "awareness of peoples' languages and deeds."9 Perhaps in reaction to these claims, a major figure in the twentieth-century twilight, Roman Jakobson, a "Russian philologist," as he described himself,10 made the definition improbably modest: philology is "the art of reading slowly."11 Most people today, including some I cite in what follows, think of philology either as close reading (the literary critics) or historical-grammatical and textual criticism (the self-described philologists).

What I offer instead as a rough-and-ready working definition at the same time embodies a kind of program, even a challenge: philology is, or should be, the discipline of making sense of texts. It is not the theory of language—that's linguistics—or the theory of meaning or truth—that's philosophy—but the theory of textuality as well as the history of textualized meaning.

8. August Boeckh: "das Erkennen des Erkannten" ("[re-]cognizing [what the human mind has produced—that is] what has been cognized") (quoted in Michael Holquist, "Forgetting Our Name, Remembering Our Mother," PMLA 115 [Dec. 2000]: 1977). See also Axel Horstmann, Antike Theoria und Moderne Wissenschaft: August Boeckh's Konzeption der Philologie (Frankfurt am Main, 1992), p. 103.

9. Giambattista Vico, New Science: Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations, trans. David Marsh (Harmondsworth, 1999), p. 79; hereafter abbreviated NS. See also NS, p. 5: "By philology, I mean the science of everything that depends on human volition: for example, all histories of the languages, customs, and deeds of various peoples in both war and peace."

10. Holquist, "Forgetting Our Name, Remembering Our Mother," p. 1977.

11. Quoted in Jan Ziolkowski, "What Is Philology? Introduction," On Philology, ed. Ziolkowski (University Park, Pa., 1990), p. 6, though the idea is in fact Nietzsche's, who described himself as "ein Lehrer des langsamen Lesens" (Nietzsche, "Vorrede," Sämtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, 15 vols. [Munich, 1980], 3:17).
Id. (at 945):
One of the challenges confronting philology in the U.S. today is easy to describe; it's the economy, the hardest part of the new hard world. In a chief financial officer's view of things, philology is a budget-busting nightmare, a labor-intensive, preindustrial, artisanal craft...

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