Via Laudator Temporis Acti, Sheldon Pollock, from “Future Philology? The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World,” Critical Inquiry 35.4 (Summer, 2009) 931-961 (at 933-934):

First, what precisely do I mean by philology? It is an accurate index of philology’s fall from grace that most people today have only the vaguest idea what the word means. I have heard it confused with phrenology, and even for those who know better, philology shares something of the disrepute of that nineteenth-century pseudoscience. Admittedly, the definition of any discipline has to be provisional in some sense because the discipline itself is supposed to change with the growth of knowledge, and there isn’t any reason why the definition of a discipline should be any neater than the messy world it purports to understand. Still, philologists have not done much to help their cause. An oft-cited definition by a major figure at the foundational moment in the nineteenth century makes philology improbably grand—“the knowledge of what is known”⁸—though this was not much different from the definition offered by Vico in the previous century, for whom philology is the “awareness of peoples’ languages and deeds.”⁹ Perhaps in reaction to these claims, a major figure in the twentieth-century twilight, Roman Jakobson, a “Russian philologist,” as he described himself,¹⁰ made the definition improbably modest: philology is “the art of reading slowly.”¹¹ Most people today, including some I cite in what follows, think of philology either as close reading (the literary critics) or historical-grammatical and textual criticism (the self-described philologists).

What I offer instead as a rough-and-ready working definition at the same time embodies a kind of program, even a challenge: philology is, or should be, the discipline of making sense of texts. It is not the theory of language—that’s linguistics—or the theory of meaning or truth—that’s philosophy—but the theory of textuality as well as the history of textualized meaning.

The footnotes:

8. August Boeckh: “das Erkennen des Erkannten” (“[re-]cognizing [what the human mind has produced—that is] what has been cognized”) (quoted in Michael Holquist, “Forgetting Our Name, Remembering Our Mother,” PMLA 115 [Dec. 2000]: 1977). See also Axel Horstmann, Antike Theoria und Moderne Wissenschaft: August Boeckh’s Konzeption der Philologie (Frankfurt am Main, 1992), p. 103.

9. Giambattista Vico, New Science: Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations, trans. David Marsh (Harmondsworth, 1999), p. 79; hereafter abbreviated NS. See also NS, p. 5: “By philology, I mean the science of everything that depends on human volition: for example, all histories of the languages, customs, and deeds of various peoples in both war and peace.”

10. Holquist, “Forgetting Our Name, Remembering Our Mother,” p. 1977.

11. Quoted in Jan Ziolkowski, “What Is Philology? Introduction,” On Philology, ed. Ziolkowski (University Park, Pa., 1990), p. 6, though the idea is in fact Nietzsche’s, who described himself as “ein Lehrer des langsamen Lesens” (Nietzsche, “Vorrede,” Sämtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, 15 vols. [Munich, 1980], 3:17).

Pollock has appeared at LH several times (e.g., 2010, 2015), and we discussed philology in 2009.


  1. David Marjanović says:

    “das Erkennen des Erkannten” (“[re-]cognizing [what the human mind has produced—that is] what has been cognized”)

    Or “the noticing of what has been understood”. What is this “cognizing” stuff?

    “By philology, I mean the science of everything that depends on human volition: for example, all histories of the languages, customs, and deeds of various peoples in both war and peace.”

    So, logos as “thought” instead of “word”? …Did Vico believe he had invented the term and it hadn’t been used before?

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    “the knowledge of what is known”

    This reminds me of a conversation I had with a somewhat irritating (though interesting) German anthropologist whom I met in Ghana; I was trying, in all seriousness, to get him to explain to me what exactly it was that anthropologists actually study; his replies all basically amounted to “everything”, which I found unhelpful.

  3. What is this “cognizing” stuff?

    I wondered about that as well.

  4. I think we had a discussion regarding what is it that the geographers study now after everything to be discovered on Earth has been discovered.

    The answer is pretty similar and just as unhelpful – apparently everything.

  5. I have mixed feelings… It’s a good article, and I enjoy tweaking the more grandiloquent claims of past generations as much as anyone, but in the particular case, I’ve always thought that the appealing modesty of at least Pollack’s articulation–which I don’t think his own work reflects–is pretty clearly wrong.

    What I mean is, “making sense of texts” does in fact draw upon the fullness of “the knowledge of what is known,” and the fullness of one’s “awareness of peoples’ languages and deeds.” It absolutely requires constant grappling with and refinement of one’s Theory of Language, if only implicitly. And Jakobson’s description is only wrong in scope: there are probably many arts of slow reading that are not philological, but there exists no reliable art of textual sense-making that does not involve a practice of reading slow. (Though one wonders if Jakobson would have really offered Nietzsche’s bon mot as a serious definition, rather than as a nonce-characterization.)

    Or to put it another way: when we think of early modern breakthroughs in philology, like e.g. Valla’s debunking of the Donation of Constantine, I think we all understand that we’re not looking at the fruits of a sudden late-medieval ensmartening, but rather the results of a sea-change in, well, ways of understanding everything. Or to put it yet another way, here more channeling Vico, almost every consideration relevant to any individual project of textual sense-making involves us marshalling all our understanding of various complex human systems that are genuinely difficult to understand, from the economics of parchment farming, to scribal practices, all the way up to religious philosophy. There is a lot of be said for modestly delimiting the proper *object* of philological work–texts–but here too, in the same way that a Catholic priest’s delegitimization of the Donation is indicative of many other changes going on at the time, while subcontracting philologists to solve any practical problems is obviously a recipe for utter disaster, there are *some* insights about the real-world sympathetic vibrations to intellectual developments in textual science for which “philology as universal key” is a non-insane shorthand. For the strawman of Eliot’s Casaubon there is the steelman of the actual Casaubon.

    Pollack is great, and–who knows?–as a rhetorical strategy such a stance might be for the best. At the least, hero-worship of the recent last generation of philology’s reign is misguided (indeed, no one would have more savagely attacked its luminaries than the generation of successors they didn’t have). But I think he’s not being entirely self-candid here.

  6. What I mean is, “making sense of texts” does in fact draw upon the fullness of “the knowledge of what is known,” and the fullness of one’s “awareness of peoples’ languages and deeds.”

    Surely that remains an exaggeration — and if it weren’t, philology would be utterly impossible, since no one knows but a tiny fraction of ‘what is known’. You probably don’t need to bother much with orbital dynamics (however ‘known’ this might be) to make sense of the Iliad, and (with far less distance between the areas of knowledge) a detailed expertise concerning the Norman Conquest will probably contribute little to your understanding of Beowulf.

    This reminds me a bit of an interview with the Germanic philologist R.D. Fulk, who along the way characterizes philology as ‘an aggregate of the various modes of inquiry required for the editing of texts in extinct languages’, commenting that this ‘is a good, concise way of conveying a sense of what philology is, and what all those different modes of inquiry involved in it have to do with one another’. This is even more grounded and practical, I think, while managing to be sufficiently encompassing (and contextually variable, which is important: the skills won’t be exactly the same, depending on whether one is working on Orrm, Enuma Elish, or the Dao De Jing), without verging into the grandiose or the uselessly vague.

    The full interview is here, but behind a paywall:

  7. orbital mechanics

    I think you’re right that this species of fact is likely to be less useful to philological inquiry than other kinds, but you never know. Still, I might suggest a general rule of thumb– the more directly-felt significance the object of any field of knowledge has held for human experience, the more likely mastery of that knowledge is likely to aid our attempts at better understanding human experience. Though I would never want to rule things out– “orbital mechanics” might at a cursory glance seem pretty removed from day-to-day experience, but the *objects* of that specialty’s study have obviously influenced our writings deeply. Concern for heavenly phenomena has not exactly been absent from our textual heritage, after all.

    But in a larger sense, I completely disagree. Or rather, your objection is actually my point: the practical infinity of knowledge whose mastery would improve our understanding of human textual history doesn’t at all mean that philology is impossible, but that it is incompletable. There will always be more to learn and add. But what branch of scholarship is different? Precisely because no one can ever know–have at personal mental command–but a tiny fraction of what is knowable, we’ll always be plugging away at it, from now until the heat death of the universe as long as humans keep finding humans worth studying.

    At the least, though I sadly can’t access the article at the moment, on the question of what concerns the body of textual tools collectively gestured at by the word philology, Fulk is clearly wrong. Researchability is not a characteristic suddenly acquired by human texts once their last native speakers sadly die off. Text is text, or more to the point, human language is human language: today’s newspaper–today’s Language Hat!–is as amenable to the methods of philological inquiry as any passage of the Iliad. What Fulk seems to be describing is the minimalist case. The editing of ancient texts is the most obvious example of a field of knowledge where almost nothing can be achieved at all outside of philological work, which is why, predictably, it is where the term has most fully remained in current usage even as large swathes of textual study have been abandoned to the intellectual equivalent of astrology.

    Should also add– expertise on the Norman conquest would absolutely help in understanding Beowulf, indeed already does. The later history of the English language is crucial for understanding its earlier phases. It’s always a matter of minor, marginal additions to understanding, of course, but doesn’t knowledge almost always advance by pathetically dispiriting half-wrong half-steps?

  8. Shouldn’t have missed the chance to edit (sigh)…

    Upon reflection, that was a little unfair to Fulk. He did say “the various modes of inquiry required for the editing of texts in extinct languages,” which is certainly correct, and as long as one really has a grasp of what editing such texts involves, it might offer “a good, concise way of conveying a sense of what philology is.” The impression that those modes of inquiry are only useful for such texts–or more precisely the idea that texts in extinct languages are in some essential way different from texts in languages still spoken is, however, incorrect.

  9. PlasticPaddy says:

    There appear to be two activities:
    (1) preparation/emendation/elucidation of “hermetic” or ancient texts in the context in which they were composed or written down
    (2) creating a new or individual reading of texts by juxtaposing them with arbitrary additional materials
    There is some overlap, e.g., in elucidating myths with reference to myths from a different culture or to the writings of psychiatrists.

  10. You probably don’t need to bother much with orbital dynamics (however ‘known’ this might be) to make sense of the Iliad,

    Hmm. There’s been some interesting clarifications of Classical mythologies after we’d identified and were able to calculate the precession of the earth’s orbit. The alignment of passages in the Egyptian Pyramids, the appearance of constellations, the ‘flow’ of the Milky Way …

    “the knowledge of what is known”, though, fails to mention working with texts. Is there any serious risk of being unable to distinguish a Philologist from a Geographer from an Anthropologist? I think the high-fallutin’ definitions are just trying to be too cutesy.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    what is it that the geographers study now after everything to be discovered on Earth has been discovered

    The geographic distribution of everything economic and social and stuff.

  12. PlasticPaddy says:

    I suppose not all mineral deposits and underground water systems have been mapped. Or is that Earth Sciences/ Geology, rather than geography?

  13. I still can’t see that philology has any meaning (at least not any useful one) if we just take it to mean ‘everything’, which is what the comment I quoted at the start of my last post basically say. Even just the ‘making sense of texts’ idea seems rather too broad — that’s just literary criticism. While we could use ‘philology’ as a high-falootin’ and obscure synonym for this, I don’t see the point when we can use the word in a much more practical and productive way.

    I do fully agree that Fulk’s limitation to ‘ancient’ texts isn’t fair — though he is in part presenting this as a traditional definition of philology (still, one he clearly mostly endorses). Strike that one word, and it works pretty well though, capturing all that’s needful without being exclusionary, and being open-ended enough without being vague or over-general. It’s also nicely self-confident without being romantic. I like a good bit of romanticism in my literature, but it’s the opposite of helpful in scholarly ideologies (as philology in particular has seen in some very awful ways).

    It’s really the pretense to universalism as a _necessary_ aspect here that I strongly object to, the idea that philology is the grand ur-discipline that inherently takes in everything else. The practical definition already allows the ‘can’ of any given intersection, whether with orbital mechanics or anything else — but it’s just incorrect to insist that orbital mechanics _is_ inherently relevant to philological work generally speaking (the reverse is equally true).

    The Norman Conquest is something I brought up because of the whole ‘awareness of peoples’ languages and deeds’ thing. Despite being broadly a part of the ‘deeds’ (history) of the people, it’s not immediately relevant to Beowulf. It can have indirect relevance (data from later English can be used to illuminate earlier Old English, and the interpretation of this data is sometimes better comprehended by having a good understanding of the NC), but you don’t, personally, need to be an expert in all the historical minutiae of the NC to be an excellent editor of Beowulf, and most of those minutiae will not help you edit or even read Beowulf one bit.

  14. What an interesting and thought-provoking discussion — many thanks to elessorn for prompting it!

    I think the high-fallutin’ definitions are just trying to be too cutesy.

    Well, a more generous way of putting it might be “trying to be striking and memorable rather than bland and wordy.” It’s very hard to put something well and succinctly without risking exaggeration, and exaggeration can always be compensated for, whereas there’s no remedy for boredom.

  15. (Of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I, since exaggeration is my middle name. I like being striking and memorable!)

  16. David Marjanović says:

    Or is that Earth Sciences/ Geology, rather than geography?

    Probably it’s all geology, but I don’t actually know. What I do know is that geography is basically one of the humanities these days, and moving it into the geosciences building of the U of Vienna was universally regarded as an incompetent move.

  17. Lars Mathiesen says:

    My mother’s 1960 candidate thesis in (Cultural) Geography was about agricultural crops in West Africa, so it’s not that new. This was at the Faculty of Natural Sciences; agricultural tools would have been Ethnology at the Faculty of Humanities, so the line is clearly very thin just there.

  18. Geography departments are not so common at research universities in America, but we have a fairly prominent one at South Carolina, in which my wife earned a masters degree. The department is split into three major sections, which really straddle thing line between humanities and engineering. There are human geography, physical geography, and technical geography. Human geography is a more humanities-oriented area that studies the impact of geography on human population, economics, politics, etc. One of the most popular undergraduate electives in the department is about the United Stats’ national park system, and how we utilize the physical landscape for the benefit of people and the environment. Physical geography has to do primarily with measurement techniques, and the physical geographers collaborate fairly closely with the Department of Earth and Water Sciences; both participate in the university’s center devoted to remote sensing. However, the physical and human geographers also work closely together, especially through the laboratory devoted to understanding and dealing with natural and manmade disasters. Technical geography, which uses physical geography as an important input, deals with using and programming with Geographic Information Systems software. That’s my wife’s field; she came from an engineering background, and did a thesis in integrating lidar (light detection and ranging) measurements from overflights of disaster areas by drones into useful digital maps. Now she works for a power utility, designing interactive internal and external maps that draw upon the utility’s massive databased of geographic data.

  19. Finländare says:

    To the zoomers out there, philology is like programming but with facts and not code.

  20. “….It is not the geographer who goes out to count the towns, the rivers, the mountains, the seas, the oceans, and the deserts. The geographer is much too important to go loafing about. He does not leave his desk. But he receives the explorers in his study. He asks them questions, and he notes down what they recall of their travels. And if the recollections of any one among them seem interesting to him, the geographer orders an inquiry into that explorer’s moral character.”

    “Why is that?”

    “Because an explorer who told lies would bring disaster on the books of the geographer. So would an explorer who drank too much.”

    “Why is that?” asked the little prince.

    “Because intoxicated men see double. Then the geographer would note down two mountains in a place where there was only one.”

  21. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I referred to the 2009 discussion in the hope it would shed light on why people who study linguistics wanted to be called linguists, thereby trying to hijack a word that had a perfectly good meaning already, one still used by 99% of the population to mean what it has always meant. If they thought “philologist” was old-fashioned and boring, why not “linguistician”? After reading the 2009 discussion I didn’t feel much the wiser about this question (though it had other good stuff).

  22. Brett,
    I read that lidar can be used to detect not only the location of insects in a field but even what species & sex they are. I suppose farmers use that info to direct insecticide spraying; but it’s recently become apparent that light pollution, esp. from LEDs is causing enormous damage to insect populations and to the habitat of wild nocturnal & crepuscular creatures, so I’m wondering if your wife’s reuse of old lidar measurements might be a way to record insects too, find a baseline etc. My wife just gave a local 10 min. talk on the problem, but it’s in Norwegian. There’s quite a lot in English here.

  23. m-l said:

    For short: linguists study a language for its own sake and for its contribution to the overall study of the language faculty, philologists study it in order to understand the literature and culture revealed through that language. Of course, the two approaches are not incompatible in the same person, and it is possible to be interested in both aspects.

    Like Language himself is, for example. Good enough for me, it’s pretty much what I’ve always understood philology to mean. One of my English schools had a sign outside: (formerly The Philological School f.1792), so it’s been on my mind since I was eleven. Linguists first were cursed by the name being used by various armies to mean interpreter and then by Chompers taking charge. I doubt the name will recover. Best to invent a new word, and who better equipped to suggest one than a linguist?

  24. as part of a theater collective, i’m usually the person to put together the part of our show programs that explains the (textual, visual, musical, political, cultural…) sources and references that go into our productions – each one is generally glaringly obvious to some slice of the audience, and totally opaque to the rest. i definitely think of that work as philological, in very much the ways that elessorn has been describing philology. i have a great advantage over most philologists, though, in already knowing a lot of what we intended to put in.

    nonetheless, in the process i do still have to do a fair amount of digging (in the minds of other collective members, but also in other kinds of materials), and i regularly find meaningful and important things in a show that we had not put in on purpose. so, more or less contra Nelson, i think that some key basic philological questions are “what are the most relevant areas of knowledge to the thing i’m looking at?” and “in what ways are they relevant?” – and that the answers are not at all fixed or easily predictable.

    (and not just because, as umberto eco said, the templars have something to do with everything.)

  25. In particular, they feature largely in the novel I’ve been reading, set about ten years before the Dissolution (which will probably not happen, given that the King of England is doing his best to get them out of France piecemeal without Philippe noticing).

  26. the intellectual equivalent of astrology

    I’ll have to remember that one, along with Mr Eddishaw’s one-time comment concerning a cuckoo’s egg in the nest of linguistics.

    As for philology, I am a fairly simple (perhaps simplistic) thinker.

    “Philology” was a part of the arts, seeing language and texts (often ancient or worthy texts) holistically as part of the greater study of human beings, what they have written, and how these can bring us knowledge, insight, and wisdom.

    “Linguistics” is the result of making philology and its techniques into a science, one that attempts to bring the tools of precise scientific dissection and analysis to the study of language. The change in scope is due to a belief by linguists that they shouldn’t confine themselves to worthy old texts, and a compartmentalisation away from the “liberal arts”.

    Now we have the astrological turn, whereby any kind of pretence at science has flown out the window.

    I guess the relevant progression might be from classicism to modernism to postmodernism.

    (I will admit that the above was written hastily and ran a thousand years of philology, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance to historical linguistics, into a blur, but the delimitation does seem to have come with Saussure and his distinction between synchronic and diachronic, leading into the present highly compartmentalised “science”.)

  27. Christopher Henrich says:

    What is this about “astrology”? Who is doing it? What, specifically, are they doing?

  28. Stu Clayton says:
  29. I think the reference is to Chomskyan linguistics…

  30. David Marjanović says:

    why people who study linguistics wanted to be called linguists, thereby trying to hijack a word that had a perfectly good meaning already

    …but only in English, right? I’ve never encountered any colloquial meaning of that word elsewhere.

    See also: theory.

  31. Stu Clayton says:

    I think the reference is to Chomskyan linguistics

    And *I* think the photo of Mercado is a good way to imagine Chomsky and understand his appeal.

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