BMCR 2021.05.25

Feeling and classical philology

, Feeling and classical philology: knowing antiquity in German scholarship, 1770-1920. Classics after antiquity. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. 238. ISBN 9781107104235 $99.99.

[Chapter titles are listed below.]

Mention the phrase “history of classical scholarship,” and the words that generally come to mind are “learning,” “dedication,” and probably “Sitzfleisch.” “Emotion,” “feeling,” and “passion” do not usually make the list. This book, however, asks us to ponder the love that inspired the founders of the modern discipline of classical philology to devote their lives to the study of antiquity. As the series’ editors put it in their preface, “Rather than presenting just the dry, dusty, overly rational, mechanistic scholarship of conventional stereotypes, (Güthenke) shows us a world riven by desires and projections of fantasy.” (ix) Güthenke herself describes her book’s mission as offering “an exploration of German academic practice and academic prose in the long nineteenth century through the lens of a language of love and intimacy.” (xiii) She accomplishes that mission admirably in a slender volume of 200 pages that is nevertheless packed with nuanced readings, deep learning, and critical engagement with both modern scholarship and the scholarship of the long nineteenth century.

Güthenke begins her introduction with some apt quotations from Gilbert Murray’s “German Scholarship” (Quarterly Review 223 [1915]: 330–339) that illustrate the false impression she will endeavor to dismantle in her book. Murray averred that German scholarship is without equal when it came to measuring and quantifying data, but one should not look to it for anything having to do with “feeling.” Güthenke, however, argues that German scholarship “articulated its relationship with the classical … as a quasi-personal relationship with a personified entity, a relationship as if with another individual.” (2) After discussing some of the critical frameworks that she will engage with in the rest of the book, she provides a brief description of her six chapters and the overarching argument that ties them together.

A number of characters and images from ancient and modern art and literature serve as touchstones for Güthenke’s study. Pygmalion, the sculptor who crafted his own ideal lover, is an obvious choice to represent the “risks of solipsism, self-centeredness, and ‘errors of reading’” (7) that scholars can be guilty of when imagining the past that they want to have existed. Alcibiades, beloved by many, is also a recurring figure in this book, especially since Plato’s Symposium emerges as a common focus of many of the scholars featured in it. But a lesser known figure appears on the cover of the book, and she emerges in its contents as a powerful illustration of Güthenke’s central argument. In the first chapter we meet Dibutades, credited by some with the invention of, or at least the inspiration for, the art of sculpture. This potter’s daughter (also referenced in the title of the chapter) attempted to keep her lover close to her by tracing the profile of his face in silhouette on a wall. (25) Love for her subject is her motivation for creating the profile in the first place, but the profile itself is only based on a shadow, so it lacks detail and definition. Her father fills it in with clay to create the first relief sculpture, but that is a poor substitute for the lover himself, especially since the sculpture is someone else’s interpretation of him. Nevertheless, the feeling that compelled Dibutades to draw the silhouette of her lover is akin to what the scholars discussed in this book felt for antiquity, Güthenke argues.

The chapters proceed chronologically, though this book is hardly a plain history of scholarship in the nineteenth century. Rather, chronological order is important because of the influence that each generation had on its successors, and the regard that those successors had for their intellectual ancestors. For this reason, Güthenke begins with Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768), whose History of the Art of Antiquity is “foundational for the discipline of Altertumswissenschaft as a whole.” (21) She shows us how apt the image of the potter’s daughter is for Winckelmann’s study of ancient art by focusing our attention on the closing statement of his History, in which he compares himself and his study of antiquity to “a woman in love, standing on the shore of the ocean, seeking out with tear-filled eyes her departing lover whom she has no hope of ever seeing again.” (22) This poignant image comes up again later in the chapter, when the focus turns to Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803), who, Güthenke informs us, was a “keen reader of Winckelmann’s works” (29) even to the point of writing a memorial of the scholar in 1777. Instead of focusing on that work, however, she delves into Herder’s biography of the Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Abbt (1738–1766), since it is there that the imagery of Pygmalion and Dibutades can be glimpsed. From there, she launches into an exploration of the concept of Bildung, a rare exception to her general policy of providing accessible translations of all German words and passages. But that is not a fault. She leaves some words untranslated because they are fundamental concepts that even the scholars she discusses struggled to define.[1] In a real way, this gives readers a palpable sense of the distance and longing to know that motivate the book.

Using Winckelmann and Herder’s thoughts on Greece as a bridge, Güthenke launches into a far-ranging discussion that features other giants of the age: Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), Goethe (1749–1832), Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829), Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), and Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814). Not all of them are classicists, but that is the point: they are participants in a much broader conversation about the meaning and purpose of scholarship—amateurs in the true sense of the word. In the section “Bildung and Love,” she engages with the work of sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s “theorization of love as … a code” (39), expanding his theory to “the act of reading and of textual production, as well as of textual interpretation and criticism, as a crucial sphere where feeling becomes operative.” (40–41) The title of her next section, “The Outline of Wissenschaft,” recalls the image of the silhouette of Dibutades’ lover. Here, Güthenke chooses to focus on Friedrich Schlegel, a scholar who is as difficult to categorize as Wissenschaft and Bildung are to define.

The second chapter explores Friedrich August Wolf (1759–1824) and the “sympotic precedent” of the philological seminar that he founded at the University of Halle in 1787. (55) Alongside Wolf, Güthenke discusses the lesser-known Johann Georg Hamann (1730–1788), author of Socratic Memorabilia, which reveals him as one of “the ‘eccentric’ thinkers who do not fit the mould of the professionalizing, disciplinary spheres of scholarship and the knowledge of antiquity.” (57) Schleiermacher, usually known as a theologian, is the focus of the entire third chapter, with emphasis on his translation of Plato’s dialogues. The far-ranging fourth chapter, which is in many ways the heart of the book, considers how Friedrich Thiersch (1784–1860), Friedrich Ast (1778–1841), Karl Friedrich Hermann (1804–1855), Friedrich Ritschl (1806–1876), August Boeckh (1785–1867), and Hermann Usener (1834–1905), among others, confronted and struggled with the developing polarity between Altertumswissenschaft and Bildung. In the fifth chapter, we return to Winckelmann, but through the lens of Carl Justi’s (1832–1912) biography of him or, rather, his “history of Winckelmann’s Bildung.” (141) In this chapter, we also meet Schleiermacher again, but through the lens of Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911), who sees him as attempting “a synthesis of intellectual and creative understanding that is qualitatively different from scientific, technical and rational knowledge alone.” (145) We enter the 20th century by the end of the chapter with a study of Georg Misch’s (1878–1965) History of Autobiography. Misch was Dilthey’s student, and the first volume of his History concerned antiquity, so he is an excellent choice for tying together the threads of this illuminating chapter.

The final chapter, “The Life of the Centaur: Wilamowitz, Biography, Nietzsche,” will surprise readers because it is notabout the famous conflict of the two scholars in its title. Certainly, that conflict stirred their feelings, but the chapter considers them instead as “proponents of making the biographical a key to modern scholarship.” (162) Wilamowitz’ (1848–1931) biographies of Plutarch and Plato and his Sappho und Simonides receive most of Güthenke’s attention, but she concludes the chapter with a few pages on Nietzsche’s (1844–1900) study of the sources of Diogenes Laertius, by way of pointing out that even Nietzsche, “who railed against ‘our time habituated to the plague of biography,’” (188) pursued a kind of biographical research project.

The epilogue, “On Keeping a Distance,” asks “whether there are ways to maintain distance without balancing it by a language of longing for reunification, revitalization, or closeness,” (196) and it offers some reflections that all classicists should ponder. Güthenke’s meditation on distance is particularly germane to digital philology and the practice of using computational methods to analyze entire corpora instead of individual texts—also known, as it happens, by the name of “distant reading.”[2] This may not be what she means by “a post-human Classics” (194), but it is worth exploring here.

Even if traditional philologists do not feel alienated by the technical language and requirements of digital philology, they often have strong feelings against thinking of a body of literature as a “dataset.” After all, the process of distant reading deliberately removes the things that tend to stir the feelings of those who value close reading: the arrangement of words, the choice turn of phrase, the literary artistry on full display. Consequently, a certain amount of distance also separates traditional and digital philologists. There is an argument to be made, however, that 19th century philologists would have embraced computational linguistics if the technology had been available to them. Even so, with or without the technology, we must confront the tension that Güthenke explores in her book: the desire to know antiquity and the need to maintain scholarly distance.

In summary, this is a book about the feelings that drove many of the professional and amateur scholars who founded and shaped the modern study of the ancient Greek and Roman world,[3] and it arrives just as feelings are running high about the future of the discipline and the definition of its boundaries. Although it holds a mirror up to the discipline’s past and confirms that it was dominated by white, privileged, European men, it nevertheless prompts modern readers to reflect on the place of emotion and feeling in their own scholarship, while also enjoining them to appreciate and value distance from the subject of their studies.

I found no typographical errors, though the print is somewhat small. I did find copious and illuminating footnotes throughout the book, and helpful translations of all passages in languages other than English.

Chapter listing

Series Editors’ Preface
Introduction: Feeling and Philology
1. The Potter’s Daughter: Longing, Bildung, and the Self
2. From the Symposium to the Seminar: Language of Love and Language of Institutions
3. ‘So That He Unknowingly and Delicately Mirrors Himself in Front of Us, As the Beautiful Often Do’: Schleiermacher’s Plato
4. ‘Enthusiasm Dwells Only in One-Sidedness’: Knowledge of Antiquity and Professional Philology
5. ‘The Most Instructive Form in Which We Encounter an Understanding of Life’: The Age of Biography
6. The Life of the Centaur: Wilamowitz, Biography, Nietzsche 162
Epilogue: On Keeping a Distance


[1] For that reason, it would be hubris for me to attempt a definition, but “education,” “development,” or “formation” could be suitable translations.

[2] For a recent example of this type of digital philology, see Thomas Koentges, “The Un-Platonic Menexenus: A Stylometric Analysis with More Data” GRBS 60.2 (2020): 211–241. On digital philology in general, see Monica Berti, ed., Digital Classical Philology: Ancient Greek and Latin in the Digital Revolution (Berlin: De Gruyter Saur 2019,

[3] To be sure, some are conspicuous by their absence. Readers might expect Lachmann, Mommsen, Jahn, and others to receive more, or any, attention. But it must be remembered that this is not a comprehensive history of scholarship; it is a study of knowing antiquity in German scholarship in a certain period.