James Turner, in his monumental work Philology: The Forgotten Origins of Modern Humanities (2014) , makes an early distinction: between the scholar and the philosopher/intellectual. Not because each kind cannot delve into the other’s domain but because the methods of reaching their respective goals are different. The scholar is beholden to erudition. The intellectual, on the other hand is seeking wisdom. The scholar must harbour two clear propensities: one, an encyclopedic ambition to amass the details and shades of scholarship, and second, a detached sangfroid to excavate, parse, chisel, interpret and classify information systematically. He must be truly picky with every bit of data that he may garner and then try and join the dots. A scholar’s passion is rigorous source-criticism: to be found only in the minutia of his engaged world. The philosopher, on the contrary, is either seeking truth or trying to interrogate it. He will take a position, which will be argued with passion and logic. He is a man of ideas, unlike the scholar. And he might get into the missionary business of the social and the political, unlike the scholar again.
James Turner and a group of scholar-philologists are taking on the tribe of the intellectuals. They are taking on the literary theorists—people who try to marry truth-concepts or terminologies to art, language and the ebb and flow of history. The philologist, by contrast, has an abiding passion for words and the turn of the phrase, in how meaning is conveyed. He respects the delicacy of language. Till 1800, an original unitary philology encompassed not only grammar and syntax but editing and commentary, etymology and lexicography and then anthropology, archeology, biblical exegesis, linguistics, law, art history and literary criticism. Turner’ diachronic and then spatial survey of the Atlantic philological learning eventually leads to the story of England’s global expansion in the 18th century, that occasions lengthy asides on the European appropriation of Sanskrit learning, from the time of Colebrooke and ‘Oriental’ Jones, and the first systematic studies of Native American languages, whose early enthusiasts included Thomas Jefferson. The turn of the next century finds intimations of emerging revolutions in history (e.g. Gibbon), the study of language (Humboldt), biblical philology (J. D. Michaelis), and the edition and interpretation of modern literature (especially Theobald and Dr Johnson on Shakespeare).
In a perceptive review of the book, Whitney Cox tells us that the real turning point in Turner’s presentation comes with the emergence of the new knowledge-form of Altertumswissenschaft, beginning in earnest with the publication of Niebuhr’s Römische Geschichte (1812). This new disciplinary formation, reliant upon rigorous source- criticism, was driven by a desire to reconstruct every aspect of a long-vanished human world. Inherent to it and decisive to Turner’s story is the proposition of an inherent difference between the world of the past and that of the modern researcher. This rapidly if controversially extended into the historical criticism of Christian scripture stimulated the study of the material and religious culture. “The process of the gradual reception of German learning into the Anglosphere is one of best set-pieces of Turner’s presentation: cosseted in their High Table otium. ” With this, the departmental structure of a modern liberal arts college or humanities faculty is basically in place, with each discipline by now in possession of its own professional associations, journals, and conferences, and its own sense of specialized problems and jargon. Such an apparent diversity, however, is a sham, Turner declares in his meditation. He laments that it is impossible to imagine a contemporary academic career of a serious philologist, cheerfully careening between Donne and Dante, medieval architraves and early-modern portraiture.
Turner’s book is one of a kind, but he is not alone. In the past two decades, there has been a systematic interest in reviving and providing philology with a wider currency. And a simultaneous emphasis on literary historicism is back with a vengeance. The New Philology movement (though still disparate, the votaries hold a lot of sway within the academia) broadens the ambit of its own lineage, say, by not looking at manuscripts from the perspective of text and language alone. Visual images, annotations of various forms like captions, rubrics, glosses and interpolations have now emerged as key areas to explore within philology. The division between a text editor and an art historian is untenable, a new batch of younger scholars feel. Artists and artisans have always been together: poet, scribe, illuminator, rubricator, commentator, all in an act of creation and therefore interpretation, of text/texts. Collective effort and interartistic rivalries interest philologists now. For instance, in medieval studies, there is a remarkable inter-textual possibility when a painted miniature, poetic text, and copies of manuscript (or digital versions now) are studied, placing them alongside. The verbal and visual mediums vie with each other and the scope of parsing and classifying is immense. This is what a contemporary philologist will call the Manuscript Matrix or the Illuminated Matrix. Manuscript matrices are places of radical contingencies—of representation, chronology and perception. They reveal and conceal pulsations of the mystical which are also historical.Such matrix cultivate diversity and variance—an original impulse of philological scholarship. Around thirty years ago Paul de Man, in a prescient essay ‘The Return of Philology’ (collected in The Resistance to Theory, 1986), referred to the scholar Rueben Brower and pronounced: “Mere reading, it turns out, prior to any theory, is able to transform critical discourse in a manner that would appear deeply subversive to those who think of the teaching of literature as a substitute for the teaching of theology, ethics, psychology, or intellectual history. Close reading accomplishes this often in spite of itself because it cannot fail to respond to structures of language which it is the more or less secret aim of literary teaching to keep hidden”. This is what is said, in sheer appreciation about a kind of a transformative philological scholar, by one of the foremost deconstructionists of 20th century. For, de Man is one of the most rigorous of Western textual scholars that the previous century had produced. But he was also sworn to resistant thinking. In a slightly different way, this is exactly what Lee Patterson, another stellar historicist, keeps on arguing about scholarship, though interpretive resistance is not his objective. Patterson’s Negotiating the Past: The Historical Understanding of Medieval Literature (1987), a field-shaping monograph that both argued for and modeled the power of historicist philology to medieval literature. This book is followed by a more recent anthology, focusing primarily on methodological concerns, under the title Acts of Recognition: Essays on Medieval Culture (2010). Not only does Patterson consider the relationship between exegetics and new criticism but also adumbrates more current discussions of exegetics and formalisms. His works remain an eloquent reminder that medieval literary studies must continue to be both theoretically engaged and “responsive to the demands of history.”
Then there is Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s The Powers of Philology: Dynamics of Textual Scholarship (2003), which argues for a return to this tradition as an alternative to an often free-floating textual interpretation and to the more recent redefinition of literary studies as “cultural studies” and Haruko Momma’s more accessible From Philology to English Studies: Language and Culture in the Nineteenth Century, (2015). Momma is more concerned with colonial antiquarian interests and encounters in defining the field of philology. And if Turner had missed the inner working and the true comparative framework of other philological traditions—a book has arrived tailor-made just for that: World Philology (2015) edited by Sheldon Pollock, Benjamin Elman and Ku-ming Kevin Chang. Undoubtedly one suffers from a fantastic sense of déjà vu —the figures of Gobineau and Renan loom large and the possibility of yet another cycle of imperial sweep through a new knowledge industry in the brave new world could be working silently.
Let me conclude by naming two other recent books which are equally scholarly and argue for an expansive philological universe by rigorously attending to the minutia of the textual—in the manuscript, print or the digital domain. The first one is Sukanta Chaudhuri’s The Metaphysics of the Text (2010), a remarkable book that argues for the metaphysical basis of the bibliographic, the editorial and the theoretical by defining the boundaries and the variances of textual practices. The textual scholar is engaged in an engrossed project, a persistent activity, reflected in particular material texts or versions infinitely manifested in paper and ink, chip or screen, but the formation of a text is always through the abstract verbal code and design. Strictly speaking this is not a book dedicated to philology per se but the impulses are unmistakable.
The other is James Porter’s Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future (2002). The work draws extensively on Nietzsche’s early notebooks and correspondence and traces back his abiding interest in classical philology. His incessant preoccupation with the symptoms of the modern subject, its allusion and ailments, Porter argues, has a firm basis in the vicissitudes of transmission, decipherment, reception, reconstruction and finally falsification. It is here that Porter fundamentally disagrees with the distinction that we started with—between the encyclopedic -scholar and the philosopher, as is evident by now: that in Nietzsche’s case, philosophy and philology are both symptomatic of modern cultural habits, ideologies and imaginings.
One has a feeling, a nagging worry that contemporary formalisms and exegesis are non-committed to life. Will it be an anachronism to remember how Edward Said had reminded us in his characteristically perceptive essay ‘The Return to Philology’ (collated in Humanism and Democratic Criticism, 2004) that a true philological reading is never reactionary or ossified? A philologist first receives and then resists, said Said. It is an active endeavour. It is an investment not in any higher reality but is an integral part of lived reality itself. It is based on itjihad, close reading of our daily existence. Historicism is a good thing in the climate of spiritual provincialism that is rife in our world. It is for us to see how far the votaries of New Philology can receive and then contrapuntally read texts. For there is no better example than Said who showed the world that it is possible for a philologist to be also deeply committed to his times.