BMCR 1991.01.19

On Philology

, On philology. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990. 78 pages. ISBN 0271007168. $8.95.

“What is Philology?” is the question asked by the convener of this Harvard symposium (held in March 1988) and addressed by a dozen contributors in all. The papers are short (the dozen contributions fill 78 pages) and lightly footnoted. Most of the contributors are classicists, but medieval, Celtic, and Afro-American studies are also represented, with Margaret Alexiou’s contribution on classical and post-classical Greek literature taking the broadest view. Classicists on the panel include Ziolkowski, Clausen, Nagy, Watkins, and Thomas. Reference to other writers and theorists is haphazard at best, with only token bows to Saussure, de Man, and a very few other contemporary theorists, and perhaps an over-emphasis on a piece by Walter Jackson Bate on “The Crisis in English Studies” that appeared in Harvard Magazine in 1982. The only non-Harvard participant was Jonathan Culler, invited as respondent.

Difficile est saturam non scribere. Difficult, but necessary. Too much satire nowadays. Too much digging trenches and lobbing grenades. Too much polarizing around bogus hypostases. Too damn many lines drawn in the sand. The underlying historical fact is that philology is not a branch, or species, of metaphysics, but a craft, an ink-stained trade with delusions of grandeur. The philology practiced at any given moment is, in simplest terms, “what works for me” ( ut nostrates aiunt). The circumstances that govern what does in fact “work for” us are complex and labile. At the moment, we are faced with a world in which what used to work for most of us doesn’t work for some of us, and what now works for some of us doesn’t work for others. This is no new thing, and it would be dangerous to assume that the condition is permanent. And in the meantime, it would be mere silly bad manners to behave as though there were two opposing camps with one or the other of which every scholar must align.

The Harvard symposium was a failure because it was organized by people who thought they saw such polarization and were at a loss to know how to respond. What they did was gather a handful of “philologists” and have them offer impressionistic and ill-informed explanations of their craft; and to invite a single member of the perceived opposition to come and comment. The results are sterile and uninformative; worse, they are unhelpful and they make painful reading. To my taste, a far better model for such discourse may be found in the “New Philology” symposium in the January 1990 issue of Speculum. That set of papers by medievalists does not lead to any magical resolution of issues or lightning strokes of clarification, but consists of a group of attempts to say how what we used to think important and what we are now coming to think important can be reconciled with each other. Exercises of this sort are valuable and will, and should, continue until the gaps have narrowed and the issues have not been resolved—no philosophical issue raised by any thinker from the pre-Socratics to the present can be fairly said, I think, to have been resolved to general satisfaction—but have simply disappeared, or ceased to seem relevant or urgent. The Harvard symposium is in the end a useful caution: how not to think about these issues.