Philology & Disciplinarity

A struggle has long been under way in the American university, sharpening especially in the past two decades, between area-based and discipline-based knowledge. The distinction between the two often maps closely against another, which differentiates humanistic from nonhumanistic knowledge. This is most obviously so in the case of philology, which in American universities has always been organized entirely according to areas and has, accordingly, experienced a crippling disciplinary deficit. And unsurprisingly, it is now under serious threat.

Like the humanities overall, philology has been weakened by fragmentation, with the proliferation over the past century of philology departments—national departments for Europe and, for the rest of the world, where there are no “real” nations, regional ones (English, Italian, German, Greek-and-Latin (“Classics”), Middle Eastern, South Asian, East Asian, and so on)—and philological subfields such as comparative literature. The net result has been the dispersion of a core knowledge
form across ever smaller and weaker academic units, with all the institutional risks that “small” and “weak” entail.

Another cause of the philological humanities’ debilitation, aside from fragmentation, is less proximate, relating as it does to the attack on area studies beginning in the mid 1990s. This prompted the disciplines to solve their ever-uneasy relationship with areas by simply exiling area scholars (or creating conditions that prompted them to exile themselves), leading to an unprecedented separation of disciplinary from areal knowledge in the social sciences. At the same time, administrators began to combine and transform those small and weak philology departments into “studies” programs where refugee social-science scholars could be relocated.

To be sure, good arguments have been made in support of this development. A “social science” situated outside of social science and looking in at the disciplines is better able to contest the erroneous and often harmful generalizations of Western theory. Such new academic formations can also capture transdisciplinary and transregional processes concealed by disciplines and regions more narrowly construed, replacing containers with connections, as some observers have put it.

Yet the downside, in addition to a remarkable impoverishment and provincialization of American social science, has been the even greater marginalization of philology. For in its contemporary form philology is by and large untheoretical, unmodern, untransregional, and uncool, and as a result of the area-studies critique and institutional reorganization, it has been buried at the bottom of the departmental closets where these other non-Western disciplinary appointments—theoretical, modern, trans, and cool—are being placed.

While these two broad institutional currents have contributed to the endangerment of philology, the principal cause has undoubtedly been intellectual failure, already noted, on the part of philologists themselves. Their misconception of philology has ensured that its full potential as a unified transregional and transhistorical academic discipline has remained completely unrealized. If philology is to develop its disciplinary identity, not only to reverse its dangerous decline but to stimulate the creation of the new knowledge that will do more than anything else to ensure its academic survival, serious rethinking is needed.

In 2004, while still at the University of Chicago, I organized a workshop on “critical philology,” inventing the term—or so I thought—as a kind of provocative tautology. If philology from its origins was conceived of as a critical practice—in the dictionary sense of an objective analysis and evaluation of something in order to form a judgment—it had ceased to be critical in the reflexive way I felt to be essential to its continued viability. At the same time, it abandoned its large and ambitious theoretical aspirations, indeed, its leadership among the human sciences, and had become completely routinized, self-complacent, and—most deadly sin of all, in America at least—boring. Its celebrated rigor had turned into rigor mortis.

What was essential, I felt, was a philology that really was critical and appropriately ambitious. I did not of course fully know then what I know now, a decade later, not only that I was anticipated in my use of the phrase “critical philology” but that I was part of a larger movement across the classical humanities and elsewhere attempting to change the rules of the philological game. Not just to change the rules, however, but to find some way to prevent what many of us at present, and others before us, including Erich Auerbach, believe to be no longer unimaginable: the death of philology, “an impoverishment,” as the great Romanist once put it, “for which there can be no possible compensation.”

So what is a “really critical” and appropriately ambitious philology supposed to look like? Let me start with a few general observations and proceed to some specific suggestions.

Human beings are text-making animals, and knowing how to make sense of their texts goes a long way toward making sense of the animals who produced them, or as far a way as any other method of knowing can take us. “Making sense of texts” is the definition I give to “philology” (being fully aware that philologists have been redefining our discipline ever since there have been philologists). Under this description, philology has been ubiquitous across time and space. Wherever there have been texts there have been philologists attempting to make sense of them and to develop larger generalizations for refining their project.

This project itself becomes “critical” in the sense intended here when it actualizes three core capacities: historical self-awareness, non-provinciality, and methodological pluralism. Philology becomes critical when it grasps it own historicity, constructedness, and changeability; when it understands that it is not and cannot be a local form of knowledge that passes as universal under the guise of science, but must be part of a global—and, by preference, a globally comparative—discipline, seeking global—and, by preference, globally comparative—knowledge; when it realizes that understanding by what means and according to what criteria thinkers in past eras have grounded their truth claims must be part of our own understanding of what truth is, and a key dimension of our knowledge politics.

If we accept that these capacities are constitutive of critical philology, how do we actually put them to work? I want to sketch out such a practice, or at least one aspect of it—the practice of interpretation—by offering less as a theory of philology than an autobiography of philology, indeed, my own. (Let me at the same time make it clear that if, after defining philology as the discipline of making sense of texts, I move from this narrow understanding to the grander question of interpretation—which I take to be the principal method of philology—I am simply recapitulating the discipline’s historical development, as Wilhelm Dilthey made clear.) The storyline here is how I have come to reconcile, or at least think I have reconciled, what I had long found to be fundamentally conflictual or even mutually exclusive modes of understanding a text. For I am someone who (1) was trained to a very hard historicism, but who (2), as a Sanskritist, is heir to a brilliant tradition of reception with its own claims to knowledge, claims that postcolonialism (however vague that concept) has taught us finally to take seriously; and who (3) over time has been tempered by both a critical hermeneutics of understanding and a neopragmatist vision of truth and the very forceful invitation that vision offers for rethinking the purposes of learning.

I have become convinced that a critical philology will simultaneously and in full self-awareness orient itself along these three axes, what are in fact the three planes of a text’s existence: its moment of genesis; the tradition of its reception; and its presence to our own subjectivity here and now. It is only in the sum-total of the varied meanings generated on these three planes, their co-presence to our mind, that the real meaning of a text, its one correct interpretation, can lie. What a text means is nothing but what the text has been taken to mean by the people who have read it; its one true meaning is the assemblage of all these others: what the text may have meant to the first audience; what it meant to readers in time; what it means to me here and now. We make use of these various meanings according to the kind of sense we are aiming to make of the world.

Learning to do this sort of three-dimensional philology is learning to practice a difficult balancing act, I agree, one that requires both training and untraining. It appears to be especially precarious for hardcore historicists such as myself, until we realize that true historicism requires the recognition of historicity everywhere, in ourselves and earlier readers no less than in the core object of our study. All three dimensions must be allowed to represent forms of truth, and any need to reconcile or rank them should be resisted. Some readers will be uneasy with this kind of multiplicity, or worse, find it philosophically incoherent. But others, both those freeing themselves from the tradition of Platonic monism that is the source of that unease, to say nothing of those outside it—like people in India, who happily lived with a kind of pluralistic universalism—will rejoice in it. “We contain copresent but distinct sets of equally coherent sets of desires,” as Richard Rorty put it. “These may not always be able to be made coherent with one another, but they may not be any the worse for that. Plato was wrong: you don’t have to get everything to get together.” In a similar vein Jalal al-Din Rumi, the great Persian poet, is reported to have once said that he was one with all seventy-three sects of Islam. When he was abused by the follower of a particular school for this statement, Rumi smiled and replied, “I am also in agreement with what you say.”

This balancing act is the great intellectual challenge of a critical philology. At one and the same time it respects the scientific value of truth, the pragmatic value of pluralism, and the hermeneutical necessity of asking “What possibility does the text give me to understand my own being?” At one and the same time it asks students to address themselves these questions.

To properly dwell in this multiplicity of truths, philology requires a disciplinary location uniting textualists across areas. And this should be one component in a new and broader paradigm: the problem of “areality” (and disciplinarity) will never be solved unless and until areas are reconjoined with disciplines (and vice versa). Both kinds of knowledge must be produced simultaneously and interactively; scholars should not have to choose between the two because the extrinsically verified and the intrinsically validated are intimately linked. The former recovers its richest meaning in the dense web of connections that exist only areally, and those connections only become meaningful when embedded in a disciplinary matrix—at least one that is historically reflexive, transregional and comparative, and conceptually pluralistic, as the discipline of philology shows to be possible.

Many departments at Columbia, including MESAAS, number among their faculty such critical philologists, scholars who understand the importance of reflexive, theory-rich textual study. But there has never existed an institutional structure for developing and promoting this essential form of knowledge. I have recently proposed the creation of a Center for Critical Philology, which could be the basis for a newly reinvigorated field of study knitting together most of the humanities departments. This new disciplinary identity would complement the area identity that now defines virtually all text-based scholarship in the university and constrains those who practice it from their making a full contribution to the humanities. CCP could also function as an academic home for many of digital humanities projects, of the sort now found in MESAAS and to a lesser degree Classics and English.

This kind of philology—a critical or reflexive or hermeneutic or, better, liberated philology, which can also, when properly cultivated, promote the cultivation of core political-ethical values to become a sort of liberation philology—is for area humanists an essential next step both conceptually and institutionally. It is a necessary extension of our fields. And it is one of the great ideas from the past that, if thoroughly reconstructed, is most decidedly worth preserving.


Note: Some portions of this article have been published in German in the introduction to S. Pollock, Kritische Philologie: Essays zu Literatur, Sprache und Macht in Indien und Europa. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag (in the series, “Philologien: Praxis, Geschichte, Theorie,” ed. Christoph Koenig), 2015. Other portions will be published in “Liberating Philology” in Verge 1.1, forthcoming, Spring 2015. Visit their website here.

About Sheldon Pollock

Sheldon Pollock is Arvind Raghunathan Professor of Sanskrit and South Asian Studies at Columbia, author of The Language of the Gods in the World of Men (2006), and founding editor of the Murty Classical Library of India (Harvard U. Press).

One thought on “Philology & Disciplinarity

  1. “philological humanities’ debilitation” … Isn’t it amazing that the US almost “single-handedly” kick-started modern linguistics by virtue of the seminal impulse from Chomsky’s transformational grammar(s)? And how on the other hand still philology often languishes as a “descriptive” discipline in many departments? Computer science and computer translation have all shunned these departments because they have kind of hid in an ivory tower while the world around them was (still is) craving and begging for guidance in all matters language.

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