BMCR 2022.12.18

The marriage of philology and scepticism: uncertainty and conjecture in early modern scholarship and thought

, , , The marriage of philology and scepticism: uncertainty and conjecture in early modern scholarship and thought. Warburg Institute colloquia, 33. London: The Warburg Institute, 2019. Pp. x, 246. ISBN 9781908590565. £41.60.

What does philology, understood as truth-oriented textual criticism, have in common with skepticism, a philosophical way of thought questioning the bases of certain understanding? While most of the authors and thinkers addressing this problem between late antiquity and the early Enlightenment may have slipped out of the collective memory of the West, the issue at stake could not be more timely today, when the grounding of truth in evidence is being called into question and – especially in data-driven disciplines – probabilistic views of reality are gaining the upper hand precisely because they have no ontological foundation.

It is acknowledged that early modern scholarship set new standards in the critical evaluation of the past, owing both to a new reception of classical skepticism and the quickly improving instruments of textual criticism. Rarely, however, do readers get a chance to observe these processes in microscopic detail, to see editorial claims assessed against editorial practices while being placed into contexts of personal hostilities and learned vanity, of confessional strife and political quarrel. Such insight is provided by Gian Mario Cao’s collection of eight papers presented at the Warburg Institute in 2012 and discussing specific episodes in early modern critical scholarship from the perspective of the “marriage of philology and skepticism”.

A large section of the volume is devoted to Cao’s study of the critical moment in Western intellectual history in which, around 1700, several intertwined controversies dealt with the relationship between authority and free thought, the role of God in a Newtonian universe, and a new framing of biblical philology. At the center of the analysis is Richard Bentley, whose accommodating readings of Newtonianism in the 1690s are related to his 1713 rebuttal of Anthony Collins’ A Discourse of Free Thinking. His use of critical methods on Scripture shows an intellectual whose “adherence to orthodox doctrine could by no means be described as passive or deferential” (178). Primarily known for his scholarship on Greek and Roman authors, Bentley operated in an English environment that redefined the role of the individual parts of “‘the whole circle of sciences’” (156). His works also had bearings on discussions on the continent, however – namely on the way in which the Roman curial censorship reacted to Collins’ work: Index assessments presented by Cao for the first time show the engagement, but also the huge distance between the intellectual fields in eighteenth-century Europe. What eventually emerges is a nuanced and contextualized picture of Bentley’s plans for a new edition of the New Testament based exclusively on ancient manuscripts: “Simply put, what is it that saves conjectural emendations from being regarded as a form of freethinking?” (217).

Cao’s tableau (complemented by the appended edition of the two Index reports) serves as the centerpiece of the volume, and the remaining papers prepare the ground for it to some degree. This is especially true for the contributions dealing with antiquity and the Middle Ages. In the first, Glenn Most’s reading of Sextus Empiricus admits that ancient philosophy can only be regarded as a weak precursor for the early modern debates in that the critical potential of skepticism was not fully exploited in an epistemological sense. Surprisingly, Ian Ziolkowski’s article about the Middle Ages begins with an appraisal of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century continuations of the debate, showing – with Nietzsche and Wilamowitz, Heisenberg and Derrida – that the last word has not yet been spoken. During the Middle Ages, theological dogmatism did not exclude methods of critical examination and inquiry which, as in the case of Lupus of Ferrières or the university academics of later centuries, created a space for skepticism within the “subordinate” area of philosophy.

But subordinate to what? Ian Maclean shows the application of a scholastically defined uncertainty to the fields of early modern law and theology. The obvious dilemma was addressed by translating hierarchies of knowledge into degrees of authority – one of the major concerns of the Councils of Constance and Trent. Whereas in law, practical applicability was placed “above the criterion of truth itself” (38), early modern theologies had to formulate an increasingly subjective faith: the hope for a “self-interpreting” Bible (43) would not fulfil itself, and the commitment to the “achievement of interpretative certainty” would not yield “struggles with the inner demons of skepticism” (44) until c. 1630.

Is this date perhaps the true watershed? The four remaining papers all roughly cover the heyday of humanist scholarship between the fifteenth and the mid-seventeenth century, and while Maclean’s contribution carefully spells out the continuity with the High Middle Ages, Cao’s article masterfully illustrates the immense epistemological pressure spreading out from natural philosophy during the middle decades of the seventeenth century – and eventually making Bentley’s biblical criticism an early element of Enlightenment in the stricter sense. Although not spelled out explicitly, these intellectual hinges represent the genuine and original contribution of the volume as a whole.

Back in the sixteenth century, the epistemological boundaries of conjectural reasoning were still more fluid, as Anthony Grafton shows in his article on “divination”: it smacked of black arts and was rejected by humanists and scholastics alike as “invalid explanation” (60) – and also by Erasmus, who nevertheless discovered the value of conjecture when confronted with the challenges of a massive edition like that of the correspondence of St. Jerome. The same Erasmus is encountered in Jill Kraye’s paper, this time as an editor of Seneca. His 1515 edition was significantly expanded with regard to different readings in a 1529 reissue that owed much to Fortunatus’s 1522 edition. The quantitative “philological overkill” (76) called for a systematization of emendations that shaped both the methodological toolset (as in Guzmán’s 1536 Castigationes) and the terminological reservoir for expressing doubt: if not a marriage, philology and skepticism cultivated a “civil partnership” (86).

David Butterfield introduces Denys Lambin’s edition of De rerum natura by Lucretius, one of the iconic texts for radical Renaissance thought. Unlike previous editors, Lambinus pursued a decided “ad-fontes approach” (100), discussing the manuscripts used (and preferring them over printed editions), but not with the expected accuracy or codicological rigor. At the same time, he made significant progress in the investigation of interpolation, recognizing 76 verses as non-Lucretian. Here, the debate on the intersection of philology and skepticism was about whether to flag or rather eliminate such verses. Further proof of the rich material of philological evidence – and the somewhat overstrained capacities of textual criticism – is provided by Scott Mandelbrote, who discusses Bible editions of the sixteenth century. After the rich output of the 1510s, subsequent generations had to start dealing with the trustworthiness of the sources, especially in a climate of confessional confrontation often questioning the Christian canon. One particular issue addressed by the main character of the article, Scottish royal librarian in London Patrick Young, was the relation between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible; another was the alleged apostolic foundation of episcopal power – disproved on the basis of manuscript evidence in a remarkable episode during the Long Parliament in 1641. Here the immediate political implications of biblical philology become tangible, leading over directly to Cao’s paper on Bentley between Locke and Stillingfleet, Newton and Collins.

All contributions are brilliantly written and display a demanding density, while simultaneously testifying to the survival in the twenty-first century of an “I Tatti Renaissance Library style of ‘critical apparatus lite’” (81, as opposed to the “Germanic thoroughness of Teubner editions”). They also have a point of convergence: Cao’s treatise on the early 1700s, when skepticism began to have far-ranging epistemological bearings well beyond philosophy. However, the perspective of the papers remains that of classical scholarship in the English context; not, for example, that of contemporary French skepticism as outlined by Anton Matytsin (The Specter of Skepticism in the Age of Enlightenment, Baltimore 2016), nor that of the ubiquitous new-history-of-science discourse associated with the work of Simon Schaffer and Steven Shapin – a surprising reciprocal silence (for Leviathan and the Air Pump, this means the total absence of critical philology) despite the overlapping subject matter and the urgent need for a shared and conveyable understanding of the complexities of early modern thought.

These complexities, however, can indeed be very well observed in the practices of critical scholarship. These practices formed (and continue to form) a coherent intellectual tradition – admittedly with overlap to other disciplines but, at their core, they were condensed in the tools necessary to distinguish authenticity from corruption, to weigh assertive certainty along with the parameters on which it is based. These tools are perhaps required more than ever today; and perhaps less than ever before, they represent a broadly acknowledged epistemic virtue.