The Classical Commentary: Histories, Practices, Theory

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Nonetheless, a sense of the coherence between classical philology and the philology that has emerged in the last few years may require reinforcement; providing this is one of my goals here. At times Greek philology seeds crucial ideas for these voices; at other times their fresh perspective allows aspects to appear in Greek studies that might otherwise have passed unremarked. Demonstrating the congruence between classical philology and what is now emerging in other fields is valuable for another reason as well: as the renaming of the American Philological Association indicates, philology in classics is in crisis—in part because an extremely conservative and insufficiently theorized mode of scholarly practice, one that refuses almost all of the methods of interpretation commonly found in other humanistic disciplines and limits itself to an extraordinarily narrow field of play, has arrogated the term to itself and as a result made philology seem increasingly irrelevant to what most scholars actually do.

Illustrating the congruence between philology in other humanistic fields and the classics may go some way to liberating classical scholars from this not particularly helpful conservative tradition. It may also allow us to discern the existence of a platform for enriched dialogues between students of Greek, Latin, and other world literatures and languages.

I point, in what follows, to six themes. One theme, perhaps, ties these elements together: a systematic but surprisingly productive refusal to overextend itself. Philology does not allegorize; it does not make grand claims; it does not contaminate its gaze with concerns drawn from the present—and yet this refusal produces literary texts as concrete objects and, through an almost infinite discretion, imbues them, paradoxically, with powerful contemporary significance this last theme will only emerge in the final section of the essay.

It seems to me that the merits of philology so defined are debatable; indeed, they may need to be debated more strenuously than hitherto. I would prefer not to initiate such a debate here. My goal is only to document and provide a serviceable synthesis. What Is Philology? The genealogy I adumbrated above has been contested. Every detail, from its specific emendations to its apparatus, makes a claim about the possibility and the limits of understanding a work.

Ferdinand de Saussure, for example, wrested the study of language from the comparative philology in which he himself was trained by robbing the latter of its name, allowing to philology only the establishment of texts on the basis of which properly linguistic analyses could proceed.

The Classical Commentary

Since the time of Vico, philology has offered robust explanations of the literary fact. And yet after Wellek and Warren a certain philology seemed eager to adopt these reductive and dismissive definitions developed by hostile voices as its own.

The result, for a while, was a kind of Bartleby-discipline, one that, faced with the enticement of a broader field, preferred not to. But that view seems now to have been decisively abandoned. Nadia Altschul has proposed that philology be understood as a synthesi s of ecdotics or editing-related scholarly practice , on the one hand, and cultural studies on the other. Despite a definition broad enough to account for many forms of interpretation, Pollock does resist some identifications of reading and philology.

Pollock and he is hardly alone in this has trouble imagining how such a state could exist or, if it did, how it could be accessed. And yet it can at least be said in defense of De Man there is an intransigence in literary textuality: a moment, a node, or a tangle where texts refuse to yield up their meaning, where we stumble and encounter resistance. This intransigence is well-known among interpreters as precisely the place where strong readings take their start.

The Classical Commentary – Histories, Practices, Theory | brill

The troubling detail is also where textual criticism begins: a critical edition is, among other things, a response to cruces and difficulties in transmission. Indeed, the explanation of a text—even at a most basic level—presumes that the texts need explaining, that, for someone, somewhere, at some point in time, they make no sense.

By the same token, the fact that sense needs to be made—that there must be something like a discipline of making sense—is itself, it seems to me, a response to such kinds of textual push-back. But philology is also riven with such moments of intransigence, and at critical moments it resists meaning in its own way: when a text stops making sense, is it it, or is it us, failing to comprehend?

Perhaps the intransigence that gets interpretation and textual production going is a moment when even the distinction between philologist and text begins to break down; the distinction is never easy to maintain, as we shall see. Reading, if that is at the core of the philological enterprise, is largely invisible. We read alone and in secret, and when we write we do not repeat all that we have read. This reclusiveness is characteristic of philology, which seems to have something inevitably crowd-averse about it.

It is perhaps for this reason that statements concerning it tend toward the counterintuitive: those who attempt broad diagnoses of its scope and purpose are searching for a vocation that loves to hide. Thus Gumbrecht, observing classical scholars with the perhaps slightly amazed eyes of a nonclassicist, 24 became increasingly fascinated his word by. Leo Spitzer, too, writes of philological practices as a product of innermost experience:.

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The basic approach of the individual scholar, conditioned as it is by his first experience, by his Erlebnis , as the Germans say, determines his method: Methode ist Erlebnis , Gundolf has said. There are many remarkable things about this passage, not the least of which is the fact that Spitzer goes on to describe the following autobiographical pages as his own Mein Kampf. This access comes through no rational method, but through divination and inspired insight: the Erlebnis that is Methode exists at a level so hidden that only divinatio can access it.


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Philology depends, in other words, on a singular, personal habitus ; it is not a method but a matter of feeling. Like Spitzer, who surreptitiously brings philologist and literary author into close proximity through the idea of Erlebnis , Auerbach brings philology into dialogue with the techniques of the high modernist novel. The philological detail, like the novelistic, is chosen for its momentary role in furnishing an irritation around which consciousness emerges, like a pearl around a grain of sand.

Here understanding transforms itself in the very exposition of its materials. It is, consequently, the name of a schism within language through which is created something that declines and recedes from linguistic awareness. Plato was aware of this possibility when, in the Phaedo , he gave to Socrates the insight that those who are too enamored of words risk falling into an equally extreme misology when words are proved untrustworthy. It even, at a crucial level, coincides with it. What is despised is a trust in the viability of language, a faith that words can operate as an audible, but more importantly, transparent medium of sense.

Consulting the lexica, disputing subtleties of meaning, arguing over points of derivation—all this turns communicative language into a problem. We can generalize: one of the distinguishing marks of literary language lies in its relationship to traditionality, its ability to recommend itself to others as worth saying or writing again.

We may risk the claim that the field in which literature is given and received to be repeated is philology: scribal copying, textual criticism, and commentarial practice are all acts of re-utterance, albeit each in its own way. Awareness of the intimate association between literature and philology has probably never been lacking.

But it became a central element of modern philological awareness when F. Wolf, who described himself famously as studiosus philologiae , published the Prolegomenon ad Homerum The consequence was that the epics appeared philologically mediated from beginning to end.

In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant argued that human knowledge of the world was fundamentally regulated by human structures: space and time were cognitive rules that processed and made sense of sensation. Consequence: we had no unmediated access to things in themselves, and human cognition was the condition of possibility.

But it can also produce dissonances and juxtapositions that lead to fascinating amounts of information. Here we find Spitzer practicing philology and identifying the Quixote as itself a philological representation of philology. The abyss this seems to plunge us into is precisely the place where philology comes into its own as the discipline of making sense and thus the discipline that exists before sense, before the text.

So Werner Hamacher derives philology from the inexhaustible productivity of language:. To be able to speak means to be able to speak beyond everything that has been spoken and means never to be able to speak enough. Here philology comes very close to the receiving-in-order-to-repeat of Gadamerian hermeneutics, with the emphasis shifted to the difference that always coincides with repetition.

Longing for the utterance that is still to come, and ultimately uncertain how it will come, 54 philology finds itself, as John Hamilton has emphasized, as care and insecurity. Philology, Hamacher concludes, is a nekuia. To such a degree is this the case, says Pollock, that the older a literature is, the more mediated, the more philological it becomes.

Philology grows in exile: the further away you are in space and time from the language the more intense your philological attention—and vice versa. That is why spatially Persian philology is an Indian phenomenon, why temporally Valla was concerned not with Italian but with Latin, and why Sanskrit—the eternal language of the gods—is the most philologized of any language on earth. In fact it is philology that designates its language as the language of the gods, and in doing so it stages its own role as intercessor, repeater, and interpreter, as, in other words, the location of literature.

And no history of and from philology against which philology would not have its reservations. This knowledge has been part of the epistemic commitments of Greek philology at least since Aristarchus, who in his critical engagement with the text of Homer did not change the words of the epic as he found them in his texts, but rather annotated suspected lines with a critical mark. Modern products of textual scholarship continue to embody this self-critical element. From the papyrological underdot which dignifies the uncertainty of perception in deciphering ancient and damaged writing traces to the square bracket which marks a passage as not original but does not remove it and the crux which marks a passage as problematic but unresolved , critical texts are modalized texts, each letter and word coded with various degrees of probability according to the self-criticism of the editor.

Techniques of page-design function similarly. Such elements prevent philology from becoming interpolation: the latter, in this light, appears as an essentially hubristic failure to anticipate future criticism. Perhaps I have not pushed this idea far enough. This presumes that the text itself is a historical datum , a prior reality, to which philology pays credit.

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It is more accurate, however, to claim the opposite: philological self-criticism creates the text as an apparently independent entity. The principle disciplines philology by identifying the text as the sole locus and container of meaning and refuses any interpretation not so grounded. This principle, too, continues to be fundamental to modern philological practice. Or so it seems; in fact, after all, even such a text is the product of philological activity. At risk of paradox, we might observe that the concrete text, seemingly independent of its editor, is a philological interpolation; it is the interpolation produced by a refusal to interpolate.

Elsewhere Gumbrecht uses presence as the basis for an advocacy of silent attention, a wordless erotics of literature.

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But Gumbrecht has a valid point nonetheless: philology is concrete. If Passannante is right, then philology is fundamentally, one might say inevitably, engaged with material, with those concrete moments when the world—or the text—refuses to yield to our desires to mold it. It is its emphasis on the concrete that gives philology its enormous scope.

He describes his procedure as follows:.

Again, a belief is involved […] that the mind of an author is a kind of solar system into whose orbit all categories of things are attracted: language, motivation, plot, are only satellites of this mythological entity as my antimentalistic adversaries would call it : mens Philippina. The linguist as well as his literary colleague must always ascend to the etymon which is behind all those particular so-called literary or stylistic devices which the literary historians are wont to list.

And the individual mens Philippina is a reflection of the mens Franco-Gallica of the twentieth century. Spitzer attributes to the work what he finds in the world: he explicates , and thus seems to remain concrete. This example makes clear how and in what way philology is not historicism or antiquarianism. Historicism attempts to develop a representation of an epoch; it treats texts as evidence and deploys them as keys to their contexts.

It aims for systematicity and comprehensiveness.


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Its view is from above.