Comparative Difficulties in the Global Academy

by guest contributor Nicholas Bellinson

[Fu Xi] looking up… observed the images in the heavens and looking down he observed the models in the earth. He looked at how the markings of the birds and animals were appropriate to the earth. Near at hand he took them from his body, and at a distance he took them from things. With these he first made the eight trigrams [written characters]…. (The Classic of Changes, “Commentary on the Appended Phrases,” translated by Edward Shaughnessy with modifications by Jane Geaney)

Adam first gave names to all things with souls, calling each one after its apparent constitution as well as after the role in nature to which it was bound… in that language… which is called Hebrew. (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, XII.I)

At once, these two legends—one from the Chinese and one from the Christian Latin canon—invite comparison. Did both cultures, we wonder, derive this myth of natural language from a common source, or do the two stories manifest some universally human relationship to language? In my ignorance of Chinese traditions, I have no idea whether the ancestors and immediate offspring of the Fu Xi legend are documented. However, the Western discovery of this story and of the Chinese writing system (thanks to Jesuit missionaries in China) certainly resonated with learned Europeans more because of their own linguistic origin story. The Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher wrote in his monumental China Illuminated (1667) that

The Chinese place the first invention of letters about three hundred years after the Flood; the first inventor of letters was also a king named Fòhì…. The ancient Chinese obtained their characters from all the things which were presented to their sight, and from the various order and arrangement of these many accumulated things made manifest the concepts in their mind. (VI.i-ii)

Kircher thought that the Chinese were descended from the Egyptians, that the Chinese characters were hieroglyphic, and that both Egyptian and Chinese hieroglyphs encoded imperfect versions of the Edenic knowledge of nature which Adam had used to name the animals and passed on to his descendants. (Leibniz, meanwhile, read the The Classic of Changes and found support for his theory that all human thought could be reduced to binary code.)

Kircher eagerly assimilated a culture with which he had only passing familiarity into his standard universal-historical framework based on the Biblical creation myth; he would do the same with India, Egypt, and any other ancient culture he encountered. Anyone who has learned a foreign language knows how treacherous this temptation can be—and why we bitterly call words that sound similar but mean different things faux amis (“false friends”). The temptation grows with ignorance and distance.

Comparatists working across chasms of space, time, and culture have to take particular care not to fall in. We still both enjoy and criticize the first chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, in which he compares the immediate style of Homeric epic to the inward style of the Bible. Under the influence of globalization, comparative literary scholars and historians have increasingly undertaken comparisons of entire traditions. Sometimes they give us useful scholarly projects and gatherings—but with more breadth often comes greater superficiality, and correspondingly the need for the academy to insist on greater depth of knowledge. The line between caution and limitation is fine, but worth treading.

I recently attended several sessions of the four-day international workshop “Across Text and Source: Comparative Perspectives in Literary and Historical Theory” at the University of Chicago (where I first heard of Fu Xi). Dr. Ulrich Timme Kragh noted in his opening remarks that, due to the vast range of the participants’ expertise, the organizers had chosen to divide each forty-eight-minute session into two ten-minute “concept papers” followed by discussion—in admitted hopes of “mutual intelligibility.” The primary goal of this event was to reexamine the categories of “text” and “source” using examples from ancient and medieval Asia and Europe (though modern comparanda were adduced on occasion).

“Ambitious” is a gentle word for such a goal. How does one initiate listeners into the mysteries of an alien culture in ten minutes, forty-eight minutes, or four days? I was fascinated to learn from Dr. Ping Wang that the classical Chinese wén (“text,” according to her) literally means a “woven pattern,” much like the English “text” (cf. Latin textus from texo “I weave”)—but the ensuing discussion involved enough disagreement about the exact meaning of wén that I came away without a confident evaluation of the conceptual parallelism between the two words. Participants keenly aware of the structural difficulties facing them sought to disentangle (or perhaps even spin) den roten Faden (“the red thread,” a German phrase for the unifying concept or theme); I wasn’t present for enough of the conference to judge their ultimate success. The obvious gains of such an event are intimations of new material which participants can later investigate in depth: new texts, new ideas, new patterns. I wonder, though, whether these gains come at the prohibitive cost of a certain model of scholarship.

When a medieval Latinist and a classical sinologist discuss similar features of their respective scholarly domains, they will produce a very different kind of comparative work from that of a single scholar who knows both traditions very well. To return to the analogy of foreign languages: translating The Classic of Changes into English would require one fluent reader of both English and classical Chinese, not two distinct speakers of English and classical Chinese. (Occasionally, “translations” have been attempted without knowledge of the language, like Stephen Mitchell’s rewritings of Chinese texts, which have been criticized by “very irate Taoists.”) In general, I’m inclined to think that two comparatists’ heads are not better than one.

To be clear: cultural historians and literary theorists have much to learn from even a superficial acquaintance with other cultures and time periods. In perhaps the most celebrated case of successful comparative work, Milman Parry and Albert Lord derived permanent insights about the Homeric poems’ composition from ethnographic research on modern Slavic bards. Entire fields, like narratology and generic criticism, are highly comparative. Yet because comparatists often emphasize formal similarities and minimize differences, they can seem intentionally superficial and stubborn. It’s not a new point that “close reading” implies a focus deliberately rejected in the comparative approach, but the growing interest in “global” comparative projects occasions a renewed call for caution: studying the intersection of two traditions requires firm prior knowledge of both.

Nicholas Bellinson is a second-year graduate student in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He has studied Renaissance literature, art history, and history of science. He is writing his dissertation on Shakespeare.

Sensual Charters

by contributing editor Jake Purcell

I share with JHI Blog editor John Raimo a buzzing affection for philology. On the one hand, it’s a tool I feel I need desperately, helping me to tease out how such fickle things as words might be clumped together into sentences. But philology is also a joy: Thinking philologically lets the historian play with words, and to watch others at play.

But it can be challenging, as a historian of institutions, to find ways also of being a philologist. For one, I feel my amateurism very keenly. I have read articles on the different sounds that people alive in Merovingian Gaul (France-ish, c. 450-751) might have meant when they wrote the letter “a;” I have learned my morphological and syntactical shifts from Late to Medieval Latin; I have devoured everything I can find by Roberta Frank; but is it ever enough? Lest reading continue to serve as a substitute for action, I want to strain some of these underdeveloped muscles of philological practice by looking for some of the sensuality in the medieval legal documents that I work with. In particular, what can focusing on the sensuous reveal about evidence, proof, and facts—about how governments sort information into units that are judged to be “false,” and so ineffectual, or “true,” and so actionable?

The sensual philology that I mean is Martin Foys‘, born of the now-expanding list of things that philology can do. Sensual philology sidles up next to New Philology’s earlier interest in the materiality of the text and urges a more ecumenical attention to the relationship between media, words, and bodies, and also the physical world of senses and silences beyond the visual, including non-linguistic systems of communication. Foys’ insights and methodologies don’t seem unique to the relationship between words and sensation, but the stakes of this intersection are uniquely high. Susan Kus, an archaeologist of Madagascar, has pointed out that semiotics is insufficient for understanding things like proverbs, which rely on routine physical experiences for context. The sensory is given meaning beyond the physical experience of the body, and words are embodied with content that is not just intellectual, but physical and affective.

It is easy to see how a reading attentive to the affective and sensory (especially non-visual senses) tenor of a text can be rewarding in passages like this one, from the medieval Welsh tales collectively called The Mabinogion:

His arms were round her neck, and they were sitting cheek to cheek, but what with the hounds straining at their leashes, and the edges of the shields banging together and the spear shafts rubbing together and the stamping and whinnying of the horses the emperor woke up.

Constellations of love-inflected sensory experiences, indeed. Outside of dreams, historians have found plenty of bodily and sensual experiences within and adjacent to medieval institutions. But in the legal documents that I work with on a daily basis? What is their sensuality?

Copyright Genevra Kornbluth. This charter, Archives National K 3 No. 18, is near-contemporaneous with the placitum I discuss. It was written for another Merovingian king, King Chilperic II, on or around March 5, 716. There are at least two things that are remarkable about this particular text. One is that its royal seal is still attached, after 1300 years. Another is that it is written on parchment, a sign of the document's relative youth. Papyrus, not parchment, was probably the Merovingian chancery's preferred substrate for legal documents until the end of the seventh century.

Copyright Genevra Kornbluth. This charter, Archives National K 3 No. 18, is near-contemporaneous with the placitum I discuss. It was written for another Merovingian king, King Chilperic II, on or around March 5, 716. There are at least two things that are remarkable about this particular text. One is that its royal seal is still attached, after 1300 years. Another is that it is written on parchment, a sign of the document’s relative youth. Papyrus, not parchment, was probably the Merovingian chancery’s preferred substrate for legal documents until the end of the seventh century.

Here is a near-translation of most of a Merovingian placitum (a formula-based, post facto record of a dispute resolution adjudication, but also the word refers to the adjudication process itself and also means pleasing or agreeable):

Theuderic, king of the Franks, to the noble men.

One day, we, in the name of God, were seated at our palace at Ponthion along with our retainers so that we could hear everyone’s cases and judge lawful legal proceedings. Representatives of the church of our special protector the blessed martyr Dionysus (where he rests bodily and where the saintly man Abbot Godobald is seen to preside) came to us here and spoke out against the noble man Ermente. They said against him that he had given some of his land called Boran- sur-Oise on the river Isère in the region around Chambli, which he came by for himself legally through his father Nordbert and his brother Gunthechar, both dead. to the venerable man the abbot Godobald for the church of the lord Dionysisus. He had given and confirmed the gift through a deed of sale, and he showed the document to those assembled for reading. When it was read, and while that Ermente was among those present, it was asked of him by our nobles if he had sold that land Boran-sur-Oise of his to that Abbot Godobald for the church of St. Denis, and if he had taken the purchase price for it. Ermente said to those present that he sold to the Abbot Gondobald for the church of his lord St. Denis that land of his in the aforesaid place Boran-sur-Oise in the recently mentioned Chabliois and asked it to be confirmed and received the purchase price according to his satisfaction, and had asked to confirm the sale. For that reason we together with our nobles agreed to decide that, as the noble man Cumrodobald, our count of the palace, testified how the case had been investigated and completed, we ordered that the aforementioned representatives of the venerable man the Abbot Godobald and of the church of his lord Dionysius for their part hold for all time, inviolably and with all rights that same property of Boran-sur-Oise in the abovewritten Chabliois…, with their charters having been looked over…

Many things are confusing about this document: Where is the conflict? Why is text that is standard for a deed of gift spliced onto the end of a judgment formula? I want to leave those aside to point out that, as a group, the Merovingian placita are very loud. People are always speaking, interrupting, claiming, stating, responding, agreeing, promising, asking, asserting, contradicting, professing, testifying, relating, determining, swearing, reading aloud, requesting, interrogating, ordering, declaring, and pledging. Because of all this noise, or maybe in spite of it, people were also doing a lot of hearing; the placita are peppered with curious assurances that this was the case, or that there were people around to hear all this noise.

The impulse to explain in detail seeing and hearing is symptomatic of a larger epistemological habit of Merovingian diplomas: their effort to convey precisely how information was sent and received, especially information related to critical pieces of evidence. Medieval legal writing loved rhetorical specificity (“that land of his in the aforesaid place Boran-sur-Oise in the recently mentioned Chabliois”), and that specificity could manifest itself at different levels, including over the course of the whole placitum. Someone claims that a charter exists, it is made to appear physically for the purpose of reading aloud, it has been read aloud, it contained such and such information. The information is heard, it is confirmed by an official, taken to another official, written in the document, then confirmed again. (This last part, of the process, notably absent from the placitum above, is often described in others, and also frequently confirmed by notes in a Merovingian shorthand made on the documents.)

Getting information from one charter to another apparently required an odd alchemy, one that created a tangible link between the ink of the words on the page of the charter mentioned in the placitum, the ears of the king and court who made and recorded the decision, and the ink of this new placitum itself. Knowledge here is embedded in sensory experiences as a kind of physical movement. Seeing, hearing, and reading drag pieces of data from out of the secret interiors of people and documents into the open (Merovingian law always happens publice), where their truth can be verified or denied. But the careful nestling of source of information against source of information doesn’t stop here, at the decision; it extends all the way to the scribe, who is, after all, the one to record it. The carefully described passing of information from document to group to official to scribe to confirmer glues all of this information together into a coherent, sure narrative.

So, what does this shifting of perspective do for the legal or institutional historian? Most pressingly, it shows that Merovingian legal writers had assumptions that were different from those of the modern legal tradition about how writing worked as a technology, about what the law could do, and about how legal institutions made and preserved facts. The Merovingian placita offer a good opportunity to think about these issues: The placitum is probably a Merovingian genre. developed and use by Merovingian legal writers to meet the needs of Merovingian institutions. The documents are not transcripts, but recollections structured by formulas designed to elicit specific kinds of information.

A more traditional approach to this essay would have asked about categories of and rules for evidence – the relative efficacy of testimony versus written documents, or the place of oath-taking and the ordeal. Looking at the physical world of the placita shows how unsatisfying a Merovingian scribe might have found those sharply drawn categories. Facts were facts not because they could be isolated and examined individually, but because they could maneuver so lithely among texts and between text and speech, they could be read, spoken, and heard.

August Boeckh in the 21st Century: Methodological Questions for Globalized Classics

by guest contributor Colin Guthrie King

August Boeckh, depicted in a 1911 lithograph. (Wikimedia Commons)

August Boeckh, depicted in a 1911 lithograph. (Wikimedia Commons)

August Boeckh (1785–1867) is in a certain sense the great unknown classicist of the nineteenth century. Boeckh was professor eloquentiae et poeseos (“of rhetoric and composition”) at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität of Berlin (today’s Humboldt-Universität) from the university’s founding in 1810/1811 until 1864. Though we find him at the bottom of many a foundational development in modern classics—he was the founder of the Inscriptiones Graecae, and an early institutionalizer of the highly productive research and teaching model of the philologisches Seminar—the success and fame of later Berlin scholars such as Lachmann, Mommsen, Diels, Wilamowitz, and Jaeger would long eclipse him, along with much else which occupied the first half of the nineteenth century. In his Sachphilologie (“material philology”), Boeckh performed a detailed reconstruction of the history of culture and science in Greece that was well before its time, ranging from a study of the public economy of Athens to a reconstruction of real ancient weights and measures and the Greek chronological use of the cycles of the moon. It embraced a cultural-historical approach, opened new landscapes in the history of ancient science, and revealed formative influences on Greece from the Near East. But Boeckh’s restrained and often highly technical publications never managed to launch a program like the one he himself embodied in the breadth and depth of his learning.

Yet there was one important exception, a book he never published, but often read: Die Encyklopädie und Methodologie der philologischen Wissenschaften (The Encyclopedia and Methodology of the Philological Sciences). This was a series of lectures which Boeckh first gave when he became professor in Heidelberg in 1809, and which he delivered a total of 26 times throughout his career. Toward the end of Boeckh’s career, a young philosopher by the name of Ernst Bratuschek heard these lectures and was enthralled, and it is to Bratuschek that we owe an edition of them, published posthumously in 1877, and again in a second edition in 1886. The influence of these lectures on their over 1,500 listeners, among whom we can count several leading scholars of the nineteenth century, has only begun to be studied. But their importance as a document of methodological self-reflection in the field of classics is clearly great. In the “formal theory of philological disciplines” which begins the lectures, Boeckh articulates a theory of interpretation and organization of knowledge with wide scope and a powerful agenda. Philology, according to Boeckh’s famous definition, is the business of “understanding knowledge” (Erkenntnis des Erkannten), and philology’s objects in this business are not only, or not primarily, texts:

The entirety of the life and activity of mind and spirit constitutes the field of the known, and philology is thus committed to showing, for each nation, the whole of its mental development and the history of its culture in all directions. In all of these directions there is a logos which in its practical tint is already the object of philology; and in the cultivated nations the logos extends itself in all directions as conscious knowledge and reflection, so that these are subject to philological inquiry in a two-fold relation. The philology of antiquity has, then, as the material or object of its understanding the whole historical phenomena of antiquity (Boeckh, ed. Bratuschek 1877, 56, my translation).

This passage, representative of many others in the Encyklopädie, implies an account, reason, or regularity (thus logos) which are implicit in the actions of certain cultural practices, and explicit in the form of self-reflection: philology seeks to understand both. It is fitting, then, that Boeckh’s Encyklopädie should be reconsidered in light of recent attempts to study the practices and self-understanding of learned guardians and interpreters of texts across history, literatures, and cultures. The extension of philological understanding of non-Western canonical texts leads us to understand forms of knowledge which have been and remain beyond the horizon of classics, but from which classicists and historians of ideas can greatly profit.

The seminar “Methodological Questions for Globalized Classics,” now coming to a close as the first part of the Globalized Classics summer school organized by the August-Boeckh Centre for Classical Studies of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, has recently undertaken such an effort. Lead by Anthony Grafton and Constanze Güthenke, and comprising early-career scholars of diverse classical disciplines and from North and South America, South Africa and Central Europe, the seminar focused on questions and problems entailed in opening classics to learned practices from outside the modern West. The participants both studied Boeckh and his Encyklopädie in their time and place, and discussed two recent major contributions to the emerging field of globalized classics: World Philology and Antiquarianism and Intellectual Life in Europe and China.

When drawing this connection, one quickly apprehends the delicacy of appreciating other “philologies.” For some time, and certainly since the nineteenth-century age of nationalism, philologists have sometimes been at the center of projects of vital cultural and political importance: the appropriation of Greece into a set of normative cultural topoi in Germany, for example, or the project of reconstructing an original Japanese literature. Classical philologists like Nietzsche who questioned the normative ends of their colleagues could run the risk of ostracization. Recent studies such as the chapters in World Philology, which build on Momigliano’s seminal 1950 paper “Ancient History and the Antiquarian,” have shown that the forces at work in the history of the collection and study of ancient artifacts and texts are shifting and manifold across cultures and times—and perhaps much more important for contemporary scholarly practices than it might seem.

When we open our understanding of philology to include a variety of legitimate learned practices outside the classics and the Western academy—a tendency evidenced by Sheldon Pollock in his introduction to World Philology—we have to ask if we deem these practices legitimate with regard to one coherent concept of philology, or by accepting a variety of equally legitimate context-specific philologies. The title “World Philology” would seem to tend towards the former option, and one might think that Boeckh would approve. But comparative studies in fact suggest a different tale: philologists across time and space employ very different approaches which hardly resemble each other: not least because problems of interpretation vary widely with the systems of writing and conventions of the texts they study, but also on account of fundamental differences in normative cultural contexts and the demands these make upon the interpreters.

Ultimately, then, the methodological questions for Globalized Classics may well become normative and practical, and particularly institutional: whose philology and which classics should be learned and studied? A cosmopolitan but shallow curriculum which includes a bit of everything is obviously flawed, and dallying in many disciplines while mastering none cannot be recommended as philological training. On another level, it would be foolish to think that an unquestioning acceptance of all other cultures and their attendant canons and norms could serve as a basis for “dialogue” and understanding. But engagement between philological and historical disciplines with a view to their respective histories and ends can help their practitioners better understand their own knowledge in a wider, and eventually perhaps truly global, context.

The institutional framework for such work is rare and fragile still. But there are, at least, theoretical foundations for this enterprise. As a project in understanding both knowledge of antiquity and our grasp on it, Boeckh’s Encyklopädie offers considerable resources in this regard—though they are sometimes difficult to mine in the absence of a genetic and critical edition of the text (and a decent English translation). But we also have the recollections of those who heard Boeckh speak. One such testimonial comes from Heymann Steinthal, the Berlin linguist and Sinologist who co-founded the Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Sprachwissenschaft (“Journal for the Psychology of Peoples and Linguistics”) in 1860. Boeckh remarks, in his lecture manuscript, “Steinthal understood me best” (Boeckh ed. Bratuschek 1877: 68), and he refers to two passages in Steinthal’s 1847 treatise De pronomine relativo (“On the Relative Pronoun”). In one of them, we find this:

And unless I am wrong, from our demonstration it will appear with the greatest clarity that the languages of the African peoples – against whom the most cultivated Christian nations have sinned so grievously, as do all those peoples who deem themselves the most free in the whole world right up to the present day, and whom some gladly despise on account of love of system and form – the languages of these, I say, will be shown most clearly to be excellent (Steinthal 1847: 54).

If this is how Boeckh thought his theory of philology should be understood, then it is clear that he still has much to say.

Colin Guthrie King is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College. His research concerns ancient philosophy and science, particularly Aristotle, and the history of the modern historiography of ancient philosophy.

Philology Among the Disciplines (II): Roles, Limits, Goals

by John Raimo

“Those who don’t know, do theory.” As per Nikolaus Wegmann, this slogan of modern philology touches upon something odd this “ancient form of knowledge” and its persistence into the present day. Philology fitfully attempts to absorb theory in his reading: it historicizes both the scholarly subject at hand and the attendant methodology at a stroke. Different sorts of distances open up between the two according to the field, the scholar’s present moment, the lengths of historical and cultural distance involved, the languages present, and finally the great accumulations of previous scholarship. The philologist stands on the shoulders of giants rather than astride a cemetery. Yet it would be a disservice to varied scholarly traditions and achievements to consider philology an impossibly-idealized historicization or plain recognition of temporal distance. Something more rests at stake. It requires the most ecumenical mind to start making sense of what may no longer be a discipline, but which nevertheless continues to inform all our work.

Scholars at Notre Dame’s Rome Seminar’s “Philology Among the Disciplines” continued to move between philology’s definitions and applications, limits, roles, and problems. The primary fields of discussion included literary study, classics, philosophy, and theology. Each conversation unearthed issues regarding hermeneutics, exegesis, historical semantics, and finally practical techniques—both our own and those of past readers. At least one larger question nearly began to answer itself, namely what relationship pertains between Sach- and Wortphilologie. That is, clear historical developments and scholarly practice link text-driven philology with other disciplines and (crucially) vice-versa. The scholarly traffic ran and runs both ways. The larger question haunting the seminar, however, concerned neither philology’s influence nor history per se but rather its status as a body of techniques, a science, a proto- (or even a post-) discipline, and its potential roles today. Is it a “sublime form of craftsmanship” practiced by scholars rather than anything like a science, as Lorenzo Tomasin recently charged? Or do philology’s claims to authoritative interpretation extend more broadly and perhaps somehow more ‘particularly’ today?

Example of a 'stemma' tracing text transmissions in the model proposed by Karl Lachmann (Stemma for De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii by Martianus Capella proposed by Danuta Shanzer. "Felix Capella: Minus sensus qum nominis pecudalis," Classical Philology 81,1 (1986), p. 62-81).

Example of a ‘stemma’ tracing text transmissions in the model proposed by Karl Lachmann (Stemma for De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii by Martianus Capella proposed by Danuta Shanzer. “Felix Capella: Minus sensus qum nominis pecudalis,” Classical Philology 81,1 (1986), p. 62-81).

No single conversation definitively answers such questions, of course. Yet some brief notes drawn from the conference may at least underline these problems’ significance and the intellectual openness they provoke for scholars across fields and more particularly for intellectual historians.

Ralf Grüttemeier’s talks on literary trials and authorial intention opened the second week of seminars. The angle of legal history clearly binds the two. If a single, authoritative recovery of one coherent authorial intention remained a philological ideal for a great deal of time, it persists well into today’s categories of libel, blasphemy, and obscenity. Landmark literary trials such as those surrounding Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du malOscar Wilde, Joyce’s Ulysses, and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover as well as the Obscene Publications Act of 1959, the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship (helmed by Bernard Williams), and the United Kingdom’s current libel laws together demonstrate drives to institutionalize philology within modern state judiciaries. That is, this does not concern literature-as-law or vice-versa but rather attempts to identify interpretation with social consensus and enforce disciplinary boundaries in the matter of professional expertise–whether literary, juridical, or otherwise.

Sketch of Closing Trial Scene: half page (Illus. Police News, 5/4/1895)

Sketch of Closing Trial Scene: half page (Illus. Police News, 5/4/1895)

For Grüttemeier then (borrowing from Bahktin), independent philology can otherwise act as a break on centrifugal flows of knowledge both into state control and within disciplines. Historicization and scholarly differentiation occur even in the act of positing authorial intention. The process itself affords a varied and still contentious history from Augustine and Hugh of St. Victor (with untroubled authorial intent available to recover), Schleiermacher’s imperative to “understand the text at first as well as and then even better than its author,” Wimsatt and Beardsley’s famous injunction against the “intentional fallacy,” and the great moment of the ‘death of the author’ in thinkers as diverse as Kristeva, Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida among others held against the so-calledCambridge School’ of intellectual history and indeed all historians of ideas. Whether the idea of intent remains a necessary or even possible working fiction in different fields remains as much a philosophical and political question as one for philologists.

The history of philology itself presents different challenges for classicists, not least when looking to perhaps the most fundamental object of philology—etymologies. Enrica Sciarrino and W. Martin Bloomer looked to Roman translations and transformations of Greek philology. Latin translators and poets from Livius Andronicus and Ennius to the playwright Terence worked in a dual capacity as philologists and writers. A recognizable literary space grew in the shadow of imperial conquest as Rome absorbed Greek culture. That is, demonstrable philological skill with Greek lent original literary authority until a gradual rift opened between creative writers and professional critics.

From Terence, Comoedia: mit Kommentar von Aelius Donatus und Johannes Calphurnius (for 'Heauton Timorumenos'; printed Venice: Reynaldus de Nimwegen, 1482).

From Terence, Comoedia: mit Kommentar von Aelius Donatus und Johannes Calphurnius (for ‘Heauton Timorumenos’; printed Venice: Reynaldus de Nimwegen, 1482).

Yet etymologies and semantics (especially as a matter of innovation) remained huge decisions, as Bloomer made clear when discussing Varro’s etymologies in his De lingua latina libri. A rough sort of early antiquarianism combined with social, political, and moral imperatives to record the past. That is, Varro saw morphological changes, the preservation of texts, and political consensus as intimately related in a project of historical transparency. Hence a ‘politics’ of philology was present from the beginning as actual methodologies—appeals to a complex sense of natura (something apart from social usage), analogy, grammarians, custom, authorities, and citation—crossed from Greek refugees to the Roman elite. Etymology as such possesses its own particular rhetoric of fundamental nature and politics which has enchanted thinkers from Isidore de Seville to Martin Heidegger and beyond.

In the wake of modern classical studies, however, the question remains: has philology become a self-justifying, “normal science” or does it remain a sensibility, orientation, or even a simple goal? Dieter Teichert approached the impasse via a reexamination of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s work on hermeneutics. In extraordinarily brief terms, one can well ask whether Gadamer’s notions of understanding prior to scientific explanation, hermeneutic circles, ‘historically-effected consciousness’ (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein), and ‘less-subjective’ exegesis together pose the gravest challenge to historicization. Is philology still possible? Naturally—even Gadamer’s own readings of Celan suggest as much as opposing philosophical claims from Husserl, Dilthey, Ricœur and others such as Gregory Currie and Joseph Margolis. What may be more broadly deduced, however, would be that philology itself cannot level purely hermeneutic claims against competing interpretations.

Justin Martyr presenting an open book to a Roman emperor (Jacques Callot, c. 1632-1635)

Justin Martyr presenting an open book to a Roman emperor (Jacques Callot, c. 1632-1635)

Lewis Ayres‘s talk on the development of early Christian thinking demonstrated another important register of philology, namely its ideological presuppositions. This characterization is not quite right, however, in the light of early Christian reading practices drawing apart from Hellenistic traditions. Ancient philosophy (its links to rhetoric and grammar), dogma, and polemics were tightly interwoven into considerations of what constituted scriptural texts—let alone how to actually read them. IrenaeusAgainst Heresies invented something like textual commentary in the act of contesting Valentinians via close readings of soon-to-be-canonical texts, while Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho demonstrated shifts between literal and figurative readings as permitted (or demanded) by theological dogma. A distinctly Christian hermeneutics arose in the circle again between text and practice; yet as Ayres demonstrated, the philological assumptions were embedded from the beginning.

The Rome seminar’s concluding symposium brought all these terms together in a final framework: disciplinarity. Carsten Dutt offered a forceful characterization of philology as an epistemic means and an end unto itself, then as a Hilfswissenschaft (or ancillary discipline) in historical and comparative linguistics as well. This is not exclusively tied to textual studies, however. More importantly, philology serves to historicize the objects of scholarly study as a means towards “a disciplinary framework whose constitutive aim is to acquire historical knowledge about language and texts.” This methodologically-disciplined historicization may be well-termed normative and problematic at the most detailed levels, yet neither scholarship nor scholarly communities can function in its absence.

Brad Gregory seconded this claim while emphasizing philology’s role as a common denominator or even basic ideology with and between disciplines. That is, philology’s ideals at the least serve as the basis for any interdisciplinary endeavor in the humanities. Similarly, its pervasive presence admits the possibility of wider scholarship within the proper fields themselves: one can think here of classicists making recourse to pottery fragments in reconstructing texts, or legal historians turning to literature. Philology is not always visible, but its ideals guide almost every scholarly humanistic practice, as James Turner, Rens Bod, and Sheldon Pollack among many others have persuasively argued.

If philology generally forbids one from making generalizations—even ones primarily intended for intellectual historians–I will nevertheless hazard a few. The same gap between Sach- and Wortphilologie calls for an awareness of other disciplines’ methodologies and research agendas (past and present). Moreover, some sense of the history of one’s own respective discipline remains necessary at the methodological level. Interdisciplinary studies need not be forced in light of common languages and complementary bodies of expertise. The act of scholarly interpretation always functions in light of previous scholarship: even ‘the death of the author’ was not a reset-button. As such, philology can also act as a break on flows of knowledge, whether institutional or otherwise: the insistence on history also situates each individual work against the larger field of humanistic inquiry.

Finally, the imperative remains to learn languages to a deeper extent as a matter of professionalism. One doesn’t need to talk about graduate training here so much as perhaps to critique the notion of ‘reading knowledge,’ or at least criticize ignorance of scholarship in other languages. This entails something more than renewed self-reflection or a more conservative turn against theory. Take the rise of global history. ‘The state’ in the abstract has become the premier unit of analysis. Yet moving beyond questions of classical origins to flatly equate ‘the state’ with ‘stato,’ ‘état,’ ‘Staat,’ ‘estado’ and so forth rings a false note. Every one of those words has multiple histories and hence presupposes different techniques, competencies, bodies of knowledge, and finally methodologies to study in full depth.

Where then does philology ultimately land us? It’d be nice to say on the page itself, but the better answer would be to say continually looking up from the text and then back again.

ca. 1940, London, England, UK --- Holland House Library is left roofless following an air raid, ca. 1940, London. --- Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Holland House Library is left roofless following an air raid, ca. 1940, London. (© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)

The author thanks W. Martin Bloomer, Carsten Dutt, and Brad Gregory among all the seminar presenters and participants for their work and thoughts—many of which unfortunately had to go unaddressed above. Anthony Grafton, Suzanne Marchand, Madeleine McMahon, and Gregory Mellen also deserve thanks for key references and exchanges.

Philology Among the Disciplines (I): The problem of definitions

by John Raimo

What is philology? The question may be almost perfectly academic, yet more people have begun to ask it. Scholars such as James Turner and Rens Bod argue that philology as a loosely-associated body of practices proved the seedbed of the modern humanities. Jerome McGann and others advocate for a return to “philology in a new key” for literary studies, and the comparative scope of latter day philologists continue to grow. All this activity marks something new in a very old history dating back to the classical world, to say nothing of classical studies: what was once a pejorative roughly on par (and perhaps rightly so) with pedantry now readily finds a larger hearing—and not just in an Anglophone context. Yet what philology meant, means, and holds for all the disciplines remains very much in question.

James Turner's

James Turner’s “Philology” (Princeton University Press, 2014)

For this reason a number of senior scholars and graduate students have gathered at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study in Rome for two weeks under the banner “Philology Among the Disciplines.” The seminar organizers deliberately choose the widest ambit for discussion: lectures and seminars have revolved around epistemology, philosophy, exegesis, hermeneutics, traditions, practices, and above all disciplinary histories. In the first week, those entailed archaeology, art history, classics, history, and philosophy. Perhaps it’s to the credit of the discussion that any clear answers may be receding, however. What follows consists then more of my own thoughts and observations as we head into the second week (and a follow-up post later on).

If one thing is clear, it would be that philology can be extended past the textual practices of emendation, collation, and historical semantics often associated with the term. The breaking point is less clear. As per the archaeologist Alain Schnapp, philology becomes almost an ahistorical means of historical reflection. Material remains of one sort or another evoke memories in two directions: a present long past which planned for the future via monuments, coins, and so forth, and the possibility (or at least rhetoric) of a direct connection to the past from our current present. The problem of reconstruction versus memory rears its head, however, to say nothing of dropping what we might call philological rigor in imagining that we can skip over the intervening historical distance. The sheer materiality of stone or of syntax affords this illusion of direct access.

Put another way, there’s no such thing as an isolated ruin, vestige, or trace of the past. Here one might well consider numismatics or the study of currency like ancient coins. Yet this hardly remains a signature delusion of archaeologists. The same goes for texts no matter how thoroughly or obsessively contextualized and reconstructed, the self-aware knowledge of accumulated scholarship (often centuries’ worth) in the best cases non-withstanding.

According to Elisabeth Décultot, the case of Johann Joachim Winckelmann sheds some light on this dynamic. How could philology buttress interpretations of art? Or might it serve to construct universal histories, especially those adjudicating between civilizations and ages? In the case of Winckelmann as well as of the Comte de Caylus and Herder, historians of scholarship can find philology in its capacity as a Hilfswissenschaft or subsidiary discipline of sorts. This might entail claims of societal progress and artistic achievement held on par with a respective language—especially when broaching rather mistier sorts of Ur-origins. Hence for Winckelmann, philology ran parallel to and partly tempered aesthetic experience.

But philology could also simply mean employing philological prowess as a sort of polemical sidearm. Errors of reading could disqualify an opponent; those with little Latin and less Greek still know about this. Philology otherwise evidently proved crucial as means of professional distinction. Winckelmann was not simply a connoisseur practicing on an exponentially broader canvas but rather positioning himself as something like a modern art historian.

The Ara Pacis in Rome

The Ara Pacis in Rome

A trip to the Ara Pacis in Rome bodied out some underlying issues here. Perhaps especially in looking to classical remains, philology can find itself in the double-traffic between image and text. That is, it serves as a check (rather like the ‘semantic check’ theorized in Begriffsgeschichte) on the range of possible interpretations afforded by historical objects, texts or otherwise. Here philology can run counter to the sort of contextualization amounting to the process of association—often carried to the extent of an object taken to represent the whole of a civilization—and embedding historical traces into external narratives of a certain sort.

Put another way, according to Martin Bloomer, philology presupposes limits as it carries its own. It almost unconsciously entertains hermeneutic presuppositions: that a whole exists to be reconstructed from a fragment, that correct emendations and interpretations exist, that historical unities of style can be discovered, that synecdoche might recover a worldview, that the one best reader (e.g. the most talented linguist) gets to write the commentary and paratext, that monumentality and preservation best serve interpretation. At its best, however, philology can also prove “self-policing” in such a way as to ideally form a toolbox of sorts, namely one comprising practices (emendation, error-detection, &c.) within ‘negative’ or falsifiable and hence professional constraints.

Dedication page for the Historiae by the Greek historian Herodotus, translated into Latin by Lorenzo Valla (1494)

Historiae by the Greek historian Herodotus, translated into Latin by Lorenzo Valla (1494)

For Suzanne Marchand, the later receptions of Herodotus among historians demonstrated how hard this proves in practice. His unusually complicated text poses more problems (and possibilities) than I can address here. In brief though, what a broader history of the champions and detractors of the same “father of history” and the fantastical “father of lies” demonstrates is that regimes of philological truth exist: that is, Herodotus has been variously held to be accurate or false in different ways at different times, and all of them broadly convincing for period readers.

Where does that leave us? For philosopher Christiane Schildknecht and classicist Glenn W. Most, philology amounts to a renewed focus upon epistemology. For the former, this renews the distinction of propositional from non-propositional knowledge in the act of interpretation. Hermeneutics, aesthetics, and historical scholarship hold equal weight and distinguish different values of truth. For the latter, philology implies a return to the history of science. A ‘top-down’ account of material practices of philology might stand in for the best history. Here one might look to Carl Friedrich Gauss and Karl Lachmann alike: how they came to distinguish between random and systematic errors is one story, but how both came to see that even random errors could be consistent proves another. Such implicit epistemological challenges have never left scientists or scholars in the humanities.


The Coliseum at Rome (courtesy of the author)

In both Schildknecht and Most’s telling then, philology becomes more a matter of methodological orientation or even self-consciousness. Beyond a body of certain textual practices, philology serves as a willingness to revise theory in light of pragmatic and experimental difficulties rather than vice-versa. Here philology’s polemical value today also comes to light in the age of ‘distant reading,’ the long ascendancy of theoretical schools in various humanistic disciplines, and pedagogical trends and desires. To return to philology’s position today, however, this requires more historical scrutiny than ever. Back-formations of what philology never in truth was easily enough serve for a counter-politics of sorts. Nothing would be further from the historical truth of philology across and between the ages.

The Early History of Arabic Printing in Europe

by Maryam Patton

In the middle of the ninth century, Paulus Alvarus complained about Spanish Christian youths who were abandoning Latin for the native Arabic of their new conquerors. Yet nearly seven hundred years later, when the last Muslim state of Grenada fell to the Reconquista in 1492, the sustained study of Arabic in Europe suffered a fatal blow. In the following years, royal decrees banning the use of Arabic and book and manuscript burnings, such as the one initiated by Archbishop of Toledo Ximénez de Cisneros in 1499, worked to undo the special relevance Arabic had had for Europeans (Toomer, 17). Until well into the seventeenth century, European interest in the philological pursuit of Arabic waxed and waned. The sources for this interest included the Crusades, scientific knowledge, the rediscovery and transmission of Greek classical texts from Arabic and Syriac translations, and faith-based missions to the Near East. These factors constituted a “first wave” of interest in Arabic study in the medieval period. It was not until a “second wave” of interest beginning in the sixteenth century that Arabic became a sustainable subject for philological inquiry (Russell, 1-19).

This second wave embodied some of the same concerns the original Arabists felt concerning the religious significance of Arabic. In addition to their evangelical missions, early modern students of Arabic sought to reconnect with Eastern Christian communities such as the Maronites and Coptic Christians. In 1584 Pope Gregory XIII founded the hugely successful Maronite College in Rome for the education of Jesuit missionaries traveling East. Meanwhile, growing pressure from the encroaching Ottomans, combined with Ottoman “capitulations” allowing for expanded economic involvement within Ottoman territories, offered economic incentives to study Arabic, as well as Persian and Turkish.

Yet, during the early modern period, an increasing emphasis came to be placed on studying Arabic for its own sake, rather than purely religious or economic concerns. Joseph Scaliger (1540–1609) was one significant example of an early modern scholar who argued for the study of Arabic as an end rather than a means. He stressed the importance of the Koran as a waypoint to understanding Arabic language and culture. His own knowledge of Arabic was limited, but his influence as a professor at Leiden and the example he set for his students ought to be emphasized. Upon his death he bequeathed his impressive library of Oriental manuscripts to the university, helping to establish the Netherlands as one of Europe’s most important centers for the study of Arabic (Toomer, 42-45).

The pursuit of Arabic for its own sake was facilitated by the appearance of printing presses sophisticated enough to print in Arabic using moveable type without relying on crude woodcuts. John Selden’s (1584–1654) 1614 book Titles of Honor for instance relied on woodcuts for the ‘words of the Eastern tongue’ like amir and sultan, but the letters looked strange and often appeared alone when they should instead have been connected to the following letter. In some cases, blanks were left in books where Arabic words were called for and were written in later by hand, like in Richard Brett’s Theses published at Oxford in 1597 (Roper, 12-13).

An excerpt from Titles of Honor showing incorrect letter forms

Proper Arabic type made it possible to finally print grammars and dictionaries. Previously, students had to rely on native speakers and others who already knew the language. The first book containing Arabic printed with moveable type was a book of hours printed in 1514 and intended for use in the near east. Though it was published independently by the Venetian Gregorio de Gregorii, it was paid for by Pope Julius II, and featured odd shapes for some of the letters (cut by Gregorii himself). The characters dal and dhal in particular were too large and should not have curved down below the baseline.

Book of Hours 2

A number of other religious texts intended for Christians in the East appeared soon thereafter, but the most impressive feat was a complete Koran published in 1538 in Venice by Paganino de Paganini and his son Alessandro. It was printed entirely in Arabic without any Latin characters whatsoever in an effort to disguise its Western origins, and was most likely intended for sale in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans did not establish their own printing presses for another two hundred years, with the efforts of Ibrahim Müteferrika. Sadly, a lack of demand and the costs associated with creating new Arabic type (not to mention the numerous errors contained therein) bankrupted Paganini. Only one extant copy of this text is known (Nuovo, 79-81).

First printed Qur'an in west

Italian printing in Arabic reached its height in Rome starting in 1584 with the founding of the Medici Oriental Press by Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici. Pope Gregory XIII again offered his support, and with a newly designed type from the famed typographer Robert Granjon, the Medici Press was in an ideal position to seriously advance Arabic studies. Yet the director, Giovanni Raimondi, grew too ambitious and published many obscure texts with a limited audience. The press faced criticism for its lack of fundamental books such as grammars and basic readers. Few scholars besides those already learned in the language could make much use of these advanced texts, and the press effectively shut down upon Raimondi’s death in 1614. Granjon’s elegant type was, at the very least, saved for later use by the Vatican Press and others, and helped raise the aesthetic standards of Arabic printing. As in the image below, Granjon’s type was far more rectangular than earlier fonts. These instead resembled the curvier handwriting of the manuscripts on which they were based, while Granjon’s type resembles modern Arabic fonts.

Thomas-Stanford Plate11

After the failure of the Medici Press, the center for Arabic studies shifted to the Netherlands thanks to the diligent efforts of a few key individuals. Scaliger arrived at Leiden in 1593 and swiftly set to work encouraging others to pursue Arabic. His student Thomas Erpenius (1584–1624) was arguably “the first native European to achieve true excellence in Arabic.” Erpenius assumed his position as Professor of Oriental Languages in 1613 and in the same year published his masterful Grammatica Arabica. Its type was cast by Francis Raphelengius, and served as the authoritative grammar for many years to come with several updated editions and the addition of reading passages. Erpenius unfortunately died at the young age of 40, but his student and successor Jacob Golius (1596–1667) carried on in the same vein and produced an Arabic lexicon in 1653. His brother Petrus was then serving in Antioch, and Golius relied on this connection to build an extensive library of Arabic manuscripts rivaled only by Edward Pococke’s collection in England (Toomer, 43-45).

By this point, there was still no press capable of printing Arabic in England. Scholars instead would travel to Leiden to have them printed with Raphelengius, or rely on unsatisfactory woodcuts. Although William Bedwell succeeded in purchasing the type from the Raphelengius brothers when he visited Leiden, what arrived in England in 1614 were worn out types rather than the matrices from which fresh new types could be cast. England’s entry into Arabic printing was thus delayed until 1652 when Selden published Mare Clausum. Erpenius and Golius’ philological texts expanded the possibility for further Arabic study not only because students could be self-taught but also because they encouraged standardization in the teaching. Even after difficult financial setbacks and the technical challenges of a language with varying letter forms, the printing presses ultimately made it possible for serious advancements in the early modern period. As in the case of Greek, advances in typesetting expanded access to printed texts and made it possible for early modern scholars to learn the language from a grammar, instead of having to rely on someone who already knew the language (Dannenfeldt, 17).

Maryam Patton is a first-year MPhil student at the University of Oxford studying the early modern intellectual history of Europe and the Near East. She is particularly interested in the ways books and ideas moved between cultures, especially those concerning the history of astronomy, and her dissertation focuses on 17th-century British Orientalism.