Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.06.06

James I. Porter, Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future.   Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 2000.  Pp. xiii, 449.  ISBN 0-8047-3698-7.  $19.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Sean Gurd (
Word count: 2226 words

This excellent book is likely to be an important contribution to scholarship about Nietzsche, but it is more than that and should be studied carefully by those who profess classicism or philology. It is a significant part of the recent flowering of scholarly interest in the role of Hellenism, Classicism, and Philology in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German university system,1 and it offers arguments relevant to recent proposals that the study of literature--modern as well as ancient--must undertake a reconsideration of philology, both as a historical subject and as an ongoing task.2 But this book will also sound deep and unsettling notes for any reader happily engaged in the everyday business of being a classicist, notes which help to transform this rigorous study about Nietzsche into a serious, compelling, and constructive critical analysis of the premises, and the antinomies, of classical philology.

The critique of philology that this book succeeds in proffering is startling and successful in part because it is itself an example of philological work at its finest. Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future is part of a trilogy3 on Wilamowitz's famous adversary whose major project appears to be to illustrate the deep continuities throughout Nietzsche's career. Here Porter addresses the early philological projects, largely unpublished in Nietzsche's lifetime, with an eye to demonstrating the continuities between them and Nietzsche's famous first book, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872). Porter skillfully surveys the published notebooks and lectures and draws a clear and well-documented portrait of the young philologist. More important, perhaps, than the insight that The Birth of Tragedy represents no clear break with Nietzsche's earlier practices is Porter's insight that throughout his career Nietzsche practices a kind of critical philology. He shows that "instead of views [of antiquity], Nietzsche gives us poses, mere possible positions, which are reflexive and self-interrogating rather than positive and fixed. What is more, they tend to be derived from contemporary attitudes to antiquity and are reflected back, provocatively, upon these sources in a distortive mirroring" (230). Nietzsche's critical philology comes from his ability to face problems and contradictions in the discipline that his colleagues were aware of but tried--desperately and often tellingly--to avoid.

In addition to the discussion of Nietzsche's own philological work, there are intelligent and insightful readings of Nietzsche's philological context. Wolf is read insightfully here, as are Valentin Rose, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Winckelmann, and Wilamowitz himself. In each case, Nietzsche's critical philology is shown not to be opposing this background but rather applying its logics, and its contradictions, with startling and unsettling results. A large part of Porter's own critique of philology comes from his ability to point out how few of the contradictions that Nietzsche brings out in the discipline have left us. We are still afflicted by the basic "untimeliness" of the study of classical antiquity--which for Porter is more than a result of the anachronism implied in the act of studying and trying to see the relevance in the distant past. Porter sees our untimeliness instead as "the special relation that such study, and indeed the whole attitude of gazing back on the past, has in the formation of the identity of modernity" (273). If, as Frederick Jameson has frequently articulated, modernity is a narrative rather than an ontological category, and can best be described in terms of situations, then the situation of philology vis-à-vis the conflicting demands of antiquity and the present is one of the basic narrative expressions of the modern condition. Such a situation will describe Nietzsche's critical philology, but it also characterizes Porter's own philological work on Nietzsche, which manages, while being a careful and accomplished reading of little-studied material, to play with the relationship between present and past in a compelling and significant way.

This is a complex book, and hard to summarize adequately. It has five chapters. Chapter One, "Skeptical Philology," traces Nietzsche's early engagement with Valentin Rose, whose Aristoteles Pseudepigraphus had attempted to identify a large proportion of Aristotle's work as spurious, and F.A. Wolf, the lingering effects of whose "Homeric Question" are now endemic in classical studies. Porter traces Nietzsche's early engagement with "skeptical philology" (a hermeneutics of doubt, applied to the question of authenticity and authorship in the ancient texts) in Nietzsche's own studies of the writings of Democritus. What distinguishes Nietzsche from Rose, for example, is Nietzsche's total application of the principle of doubt, even to doubt itself. Eventually, when we must doubt even doubt itself, we arrive at a new form of affirmation, since (it is a simple mathematical fact) two negatives will result in a positive. In Nietzsche's case, the result is an engagement in the "personality" of the great authors. Nietzsche rises from a deep skepticism to an appreciation of the necessity of affirmative fictions about the personalities and historical significance of the ancient authors. Porter brings this out magnificently in his reading of "Homer and Classical Philology," Nietzsche's inaugural lecture at Basel (1869)--where we are surprised to find Nietzsche implying that (in Porter's words) "[Homer] exists at the level of theoretical fiction that lies embedded in an ancient and ongoing practice of reading--and at the nebulous vanishing point of an authorial instance" (63), surely not a proposition that seems antiquated today.

In Chapter Two ("The Poetry of Atomism and the Fictions of Philology"), Porter continues his reading of Nietzsche's engagement with Democritus, this time with a view to capturing the role of atomism in Nietzsche's early philological work. There are frequent and convincing links forward to Nietzsche's later work on the will to power, and the ties between Nietzsche's early readings of the atomist and his later investigations are simply and clearly explicated. But what lies at the core of this chapter, again, is Nietzsche's ability to face the aporiai and inner contradictions of a body of thought. Here, the doctrine of atomism ultimately puts itself in doubt, since if atomism posits that our representations are phantasms, this must also include representations of atomism. Porter traces this from Nietzsche's engagement with the physical theory through its ethical and aesthetic implications, and arrives back at the problem of philology itself. Democritus, for Porter, is "uniquely positioned to represent the dazzling traffic jam of Nietzsche's thought in his early years" (111), and it is a traffic jam that sees philosophical speculation and philological literary history constantly at grips with each other. Like Democritus himself, whose work is portrayed here as a rigorous and a systematic materialism but also as the product of a fundamentally poetic exuberance, the philologist is "torn, willy-nilly, between 'rigor' and 'invention,'" and must "come to grips with the harsh reality that neither [rigor nor invention] is spontaneously given in the world or ever found in some pure form" (125). Which is ultimately what Nietzsche is good for. "Coming face to face with what philology most wants to avoid is what characterizes Nietzsche's counterphilology, which in its own way, and in its afterlife, has created a stain for all subsequent philological undertakings" (126).

Chapter Three, "Being on Time: The Studies in Ancient Rhythm and Meter (1870-72)," is the most difficult chapter in the book, partly because it deals with extremely abstract problems of the nature of time, and partly because it addresses a philological problem that Porter himself does not sit comfortably with, namely the question of the relation between stress accent and quantity in the study of ancient meter. Nietzsche's contribution to the study of metrics, the insight that Greek verse is based solely on quantity, is read here as an attempt to give "one more object lesson in the pressing need of classical scholarship to reevaluate its own methods and goals" (134). In the course of his metrical arguments, the contrast between a metrics based on stress and a metrics based on quantity becomes a contrast between antiquity and modernity, and it is in his meditations on time and rhythm that a meditation on the historical significance of philology begins to emerge. For Nietzsche, the prevalence of ictus theories of Greek meter represents philology's lamentable modernity. Here especially the tactical and provisional nature of Nietzsche's positions becomes clear: stress-accent is a sign of decline from an original quantitative state, but it also appears as prior to and then latent in quantitative metrics. In a concluding section, Porter demonstrates that Nietzsche's chronological obscurity on the question of ictus is reflected in a more famous historical plan: Dionysianism is both prior to Apollonianism and, surprisingly, derived from it.

Chapter Four, "Inversions of the Classical Ideal: the 'Encyclopedia of Classical Philology'" reads Nietzsche's 1871 lecture course on the methods of classical philology, and argues that, far more than merely being a primer for philologists, the lecture course comments saliently on the position of classicism within modern culture and letters. The Nietzsche of these lectures stands in stark contrast to the Nietzsche of the metrical writings, where the critique of the theory of ictus had served to critique classical philology's overly modern perspective. Here, on the contrary, we find Nietzsche advocating that, in order to appreciate antiquity properly, one must immerse oneself in the present and become thoroughly modern (176). Porter's point is that the contradiction between the Nietzsche of the metrical notebooks and the Nietzsche of the Encyclopedia reflects a similar contradiction within classical philology itself: "immersion in the past" is a "modern" desire (179). The difference between Nietzsche and philology itself, however, is that classicism is characterized as a form of disavowal, a crypto-modernism, while Nietzsche avows what classicism would conceal. Nietzsche urges his students not to "shrink back in fear" from these contradictions, and the critical philology that Porter attributes to Nietzsche is in fact an attempt to avow what had previously been disavowed, despite the fact that, in Porter's opinion, it cannot be not disavowed.

Chapter Five, "After Philology: The Reinvention of Antiquity" tries to show, by way of a conclusion, "why Nietzsche has occupied so sensitive a place in the framework according to which we understand our relation to Greek and Roman antiquity today, and why it is that to disturb Nietzsche's place in that framework is to risk disturbing the framework itself" (226). The argument here proceeds via readings of The Birth of Tragedy and the works on philology written after Nietzsche's first book, including the debate with Wilamowitz. Porter is concerned here to show that there is no refutation of the earlier philological work in the later philosophical work: rather, there are significant continuities--or, better, the contradictions that had marked the earlier work are continued in the later work. The upshot again is that Nietzsche's philology, as a critical philology, is in fact a critique of culture, as this is refracted through classical antiquity, through modern philology's imagining of classical antiquity, and through modernity itself.

Careful readers of this book (and there should be many) should notice a number of troubling but highly significant nuances in Porter's argument. Nietzsche's contradictory positions vis-à-vis classical philology are variously described either as cynical, tactical and critical interventions designed to produce a particular effect in his readers or listeners (thus he deploys contradictory versions of antiquity "where he wants to" at 249) or, in an apparent contradiction, as "fanatical" or over-enthusiastic stagings of the internal contradictions present in philology. The result is that it is difficult to discern when Porter's own philology is being cynical, tactical, and critical, and when it is itself merely symptomatically displaying the contradictions he argues are present in all philology that looks towards the past to explain the present. In fact Porter is often very Nietzschean in his disturbing (but highly effective) ability to use a critical reading of a figure in history to comment on the contemporary condition. His use of the historical present is powerful in this regard--in long stretches of argumentation, Porter's description of 19th century philology can be read as a description of contemporary philology as well, and the reader needs to remind herself that it is the past of the profession that is being described. Especially intriguing here is Porter's description of Wilamowitz as the leader of "the new historicism" (269), surely an accurate description of Wilamowitz's position, but also an uncanny invocation of recent trends in historiography, inside and outside of classical studies. And it is strange to find a skilled and sympathetic reading of Nietzsche describing Nietzsche's arguments as "perverse" as frequently as Porter does. A full reflection on Porter's use of this word is perhaps beyond the scope of this review, but a starting point might be found in Porter's remarks on Wilamowitz's misrepresentation of Nietzsche's claim that philology has brought about the "complete perversion of the aim of all studies of antiquity" (Birth of Tragedy ยง20). Wilamowitz presented this as an accusation that Germany had "completely misrecognized the study of antiquity." Porter comments, "the substitution of 'misrecognition' for 'perversion' is telling but not worth pursuing here" (384 n.2).

This is an excellent book, exhaustively documented and subtly written. Its greatest contribution will probably be to students of Nietzsche, for whom it presents cogent, intelligent readings of under-discussed material. But it should not be ignored by classical philologists, for whom it will serve as a challenge and a source of strength. Books like this, and debates about them, will help foster a dialogue between students of ancient and modern philosophy and literature that is weaker than it should be.


1.   From last year, a selective list would include, in addition to Porter's book, Pascale Hummel, Histoire de l'histoire de la philologie: étude d'un genre épistémologique et bibliographique (Geneva: Droz, 2000) and David Ferris's sophisticated Silent Urns: Romanticism, Hellenism, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).
2.   See Michael Holquist, "Forgetting our Name, Remembering our Mother," PMLA 115.7 (2000) 1975-1977, a brief but important article which quickly and eloquently sets the terms for philology's reconsideration. Classicists will be intrigued to read here that "philology may indeed be said to have died," that this death can be dated, and that "by the time the Modern Language Association was founded, in 1884, philology as a discipline was virtually over" (1976). This perception will no doubt be revised now that the APA/AIA and the MLA no longer hold their annual conventions at exactly the same time of year.
3.   The Invention of Dionysus: An Essay on "The Birth of Tragedy" also appeared with Stanford last year, and a third, on Nietzsche's later philosophy, is promised.

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