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Starting from an analysis of “classical” philological (and philosophical) works, I explain how philology can contribute to the perception of the contingency of human knowledge. The early modern discovery of linguistic contingency was inaugurated by Giambattista Vico, who argued that human knowledge cannot exist outside language, and that language itself is a form of knowledge. More than advancing the frontiers of knowledge, philology’s “intrinsic relativism” can sensitize readers to the unknown. Its methods of inquiry involve genealogies, ethical adjudication that transpires contingently (rather than dogmatically), narration that transpires through ruptures (rather than continuities), and the revelation of the unknown (rather than the known) as a measure of our humanity.
An International Journal
on the Evolution of Languages, Cultures and Texts
Peter Lang Vol. 1/2015
Volume 1 / 2015
Philology Two Thousand Fifteen
The Untimeliness of Biblical Philology
The Cult of the Book. What Precolumbian
Writing Contributes to Philology
Philology’s Contingent Genealogies
Reading Sacred Places: Geocriticism, the Icelandic
Book of Settlements, and the History of Religions
Critical Philology and Dante’s Rime
A Note on Boccaccio’s Dantean Categories; or,
What’s in a Book? libro, volume, pistole, rime
Philology and Philosophy in Mikhail Bakhtin
The Neolithic Discontinuity Paradigm for the Origin of European Languages
Diese Praxis – Lesen –
“Paleolithic Philology”: The Writing by Images and Gestures
during Prehistoric Times
Review Article
The Lexicon, Philosophers, and the Challenge of Translation:
Between Language and the History of Ideas
Time, History and Literature (Andrés Amitai Wilson)
Philology and Performing Arts (Antonella Sciancalepore)
D. APOLLON (ed.)
Digital Critical Editions (Pau Cañigueral)
Armenian Philology in the Modern Era (Alessandro Orengo)
Neo-Latin Philology: Old Tradition, New Approaches
(Antonella Sciancalepore)
Visionary Philology. Geoffrey Hill and the Study of Words
(Gino Scatasta)
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© Peter Lang AG Philology, vol. 1/2015, pp. 5–6
First issue (2015)
F B
Philology Two Thousand Fifteen ...............................................................7
R H
The Untimeliness of Biblical Philology ....................................................9
M E
The Cult of the Book. What Precolumbian
Writing Contributes to Philology ............................................................ 29
R G
Philology’s Contingent Genealogies .......................................................53
M E
Reading Sacred Places: Geocriticism, the Icelandic
Book of Settlements, and the History of Religions ..................................67
T B
Critical Philology and Dante’s Rime ....................................................... 91
H. W S
A Note on Boccaccio’s Dantean Categories; or,
What’s in a Book? libro, volume, pistole, rime ..................................... 115
A P
Philology and Philosophy in Mikhail Bakhtin ...................................... 121
X B
The Neolithic Discontinuity Paradigm for the
Origin of European Languages ............................................................. 151
© Peter Lang AG Philology, vol. 1/2015, pp. 5–6
W H
Diese Praxis – Lesen – .......................................................................... 175
M O
“Paleolithic Philology”: The Writing by Images and Gestures
during Prehistoric Times ....................................................................... 201
Review Article
E N
The Lexicon, Philosophers, and the Challenge of Translation:
Between Language and the History of Ideas ........................................215
E A
Time, History and Literature (Andrés Amitai Wilson) ................................. 281
M. C  C. M (eds.)
Philology and Performing Arts (Antonella Sciancalepore) ........................... 285
D. A (ed.)
Digital Critical Editions (Pau Cañigueral) .................................................. 291
V. C (ed.)
Armenian Philology in the Modern Era (Alessandro Orengo) ...................... 293
M V  P (ed.)
Neo-Latin Philology: Old Tradition, New Approaches
(Antonella Sciancalepore) ........................................................................297
M S
Visionary Philology. Georey Hill and the Study of Words
(Gino Scatasta) ........................................................................................ 301
6 Contents
© Peter Lang AG Philology, vol. 1/2015, pp. 53–66
Philology’s Contingent Genealogies
R G
Yale – National University of Singapore
AbstractStarting from an analysis of “classical” philological (and philosophical) works,
the author explains how philology can contribute to the perception of the contingency of
human knowledge. The early modern discovery of linguistic contingency was inaugurated
by Giambattista Vico, who argued that human knowledge cannot exist outside language,
and that language itself is a form of knowledge. More than advancing the frontiers of
knowledge, philology’s “intrinsic relativism” has the possibility to sensitize readers to the
unknown. Its methods of inquiry involve genealogies, ethical adjudication that transpires
contingently (rather than dogmatically), narration that transpires through ruptures (rather
than continuities), and the revelation of the unknown (rather than the known) as a measure
of our humanity.
KeywordsPhilological relativism, Linguistic contingency, Human knowledge, Hermeneu-
tic, Revelation of the unknown
“It is worth nothing to say something new; it is only worth saying what the
Ancients already knew”, Heidegger claimed in his 1924 seminar, deliv-
ered at Philipps-Universität Marburg, on the subject of Aristotle’s Rhetoric
(Heidegger, 1978). By sublimating his voice within the classical past, Hei-
degger at once armed the persistence of the past and carved out a space
for the practice of philosophy in the present. As someone who regarded
any attempt to change dominant ways of thinking as inexorably bound up
with the attempt to think the “first beginning” over again, Heidegger recon-
structed philosophical modernity by revisiting antiquity (Rubenstein, 2008,
p. 25). Because we cannot know what being is, and therefore cannot know
what beings are, he argued, we are constrained to turn to antiquity in order
to reconstruct the constitution of knowledge from its beginnings. Far from
aiming at certainty, such reconstruction is an act of dismantling, underwrit-
ten by philology. Shifting the focus slightly, Paul Ricoeur argued that in and
through philology, we perceive “the necessity of drawing back from the
vicious circle” that conditions scientific inquiry and of engaging with the
movement of “the nonvicious circle formed by the anticipatory structure of
the very being that we are” (Ricoeur, 1991, p. 277).
54 Rebecca Gould
© Peter Lang AG Philology, vol. 1/2015, pp. 53–66
Heidegger’s lectures throughout his Marburg period are characterized
by a philological emphasis on the primacy of the text. Hannah Arendt re-
called many years later that none among her philosophy teachers in Germany
placed such primacy on the philological aspects of the texts they discussed
in the seminar room as Heidegger did (Arendt, 1971, p. 51). Heidegger
never ceased to inflect his thinking with the voices of antiquity. In a late
essay entitled “Language” (1959), he underscored the linguistically bound-
ed contingency of human knowledge when he asserted that “the speech of
mortals rests in its relation to the speaking of language” (Heidegger, 1971,
p. 208). From the earliest moments to the very end of his intellectual trajec-
tory, Heidegger’s turn to the ancients was as much a philological as it was a
philosophical revival.
Two years after his seminar on Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Heidegger gave a
second seminar on the “basic concepts of ancient philosophy”. In this later
seminar, Heidegger cast doubt on the capacity of philology, and indeed
on the capacity of any discipline other than philosophy, to explain itself
in terms of its own hermeneutical tools. “With the philological method”,
Heidegger wrote, “one cannot show what philology is…There is no phil-
ological concept of philology, because philology as such is not philosoph-
ical” (Heidegger, 1978, p. 4) To cognize itself as a discipline, philology,
Heidegger argued, requires philosophy. All explanations of philology are
philosophical before they are philological, Heidegger asserted.
Given that, as philosopher Stanley Rosen has argued, “What is today
called ‘hermeneutics’ traces its proximate origins back to philology on the
one hand and ontology on the other”, this inquiry into philology’s gene-
alogies touches on core questions in the formation of the contemporary
humanities (Rosen, 2003, p. 161). From Vico to Benjamin, modern philos-
ophy has been haunted by the decline of philological ways of thinking. The
discipline has oscillated between overcoming philology and subsuming it
into itself. And yet, even when they have been positioned as antagonists,
philosophy and philology have responded to similar challenges through
recourse to kindred principles. These challenges are epitomized in what
has been called the “linguistic turn” within the human sciences.
The linguistic turn did not begin with Derrida’s recalibration of Saus-
sure in his famous Johns Hopkins lecture, “Structure, Sign, and the Play of
Discourse in the Human Sciences” (1966), which introduced deconstruc-
tion to the American academy (Deridda, 1978). Rather, the linguistic turn
is rooted in a global early modernity, epitomized by Vico’s discovery of
Philology’s Contingent Genealogies 55
© Peter Lang AG Philology, vol. 1/2015, pp. 53–66
verum esse ipsum factum (“the true is what is made”). Vico inaugurated
the early modern discovery of linguistic contingency, and argued that hu-
man knowledge cannot exist outside language, and that language itself is a
form of knowledge. The epistemic shift that Rosen grounds in the advent
of modern hermeneutics is tied to philology’s “intrinsic relativism” (Rosen,
2003, pp. 154, 158). Like historicism, philology’s relativism, which in Vico
is articulated through the institution of language, prompts a radical rethink-
ing of the terms through which meaning is made. As the following chapters
demonstrate, language is a system of dierences for philology as well as
for philosophy.
If philology names “the scholarly practice that takes place where the
historical emerges”, then the question follows: “How could there be a his-
tory of philology…when philology is the thing that produces history?” But
if Heidegger is right, the task of coming to understand what the ancients
knew presupposes philology, as is evidenced by the painstaking etymolo-
gies that fill Heidegger’s lecture notes and later writings. The interdepend-
ency between exegesis and innovation, reading and critique, means that
philosophy and philology are intertwined at birth. Although after they are
born, the two disciplinary paths tend to live separate lives, Heidegger’s
comments gesture towards the many ways in which philosophy and philol-
ogy condition and enrich each other.
Probing as well as contesting the historical divergence between phi-
losophy and philology, the new philology takes up the challenge posed by
this polarization that has come to define modern European intellectual his-
tory. From the Stoic Sextus Empiricus, to the first critic-philologist Crates
of Mallos, the antiquarian Varro, to the early moderns Scaliger and Vico,
and to late moderns such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Walter Benjamin,
philosophers and philologists have oscillated between the spirit of critical
inquiry fostered by philosophy and the textual precision inculcated by phi-
lology. Although they have rarely espoused both disciplines simultaneously,
most have been unwilling or unable to wholly forsake one for the other.
And yet, notwithstanding their millennia of cross-pollination, there
have been remarkably few attempts to create a systematic framework where-
by philosophy and philology – or, more generally, critique and textual schol-
arship – can nourish and extend each other’s horizons. Even rarer have been
thinkers who have argued, as Vico and Benjamin have in varying ways, that
one is the condition of possibility for the other. The dialectic between phi-
lology and philosophy incorporates history, the contextualizing premises of
56 Rebecca Gould
© Peter Lang AG Philology, vol. 1/2015, pp. 53–66
which are a connecting link between philosophical and philological inquiry.
This exercise in disciplinary inquiry establishes how, by drawing on the re-
sources of philosophy, philology moves “within the domain of the probable,
considering that which could be otherwise”, while also exploring how phi-
lology’s constitution in and through language can guide the linguistic turn
(Struever, 2009, p. 128).
By operating within the domain of the probable, philology becomes a
quintessentially modern mode of inquiry, even when its inquiries are ad-
dressed primarily to premodern archives. By confounding the boundaries
of philosophy, philology extends possibility itself, infusing literary crea-
tions with ontic qualities, and injecting a passionate desire for textual pre-
cision with the regenerative capacity to transform disciplinary knowledge.
Drawing on Richard Rorty’s exposure of modern philosophy’s suppression
of linguistic contingency, the following pages consider how philological
ways of thinking and being can correct, extend, revise, and otherwise nu-
ance models of knowledge production current in contemporary critical
theory. I then juxtapose this approach to those that have thus far dominated
the discipline, and argue for alternative genealogies that run counter to
philology’s master narratives. Throughout, I aim to give historical density
to the contingency that has suused philology from its very inception, as
registered in Varro’s description of etymological derivation as “the arbi-
trary aspect of language” (DLL X.51).
Contingency’s Dualities
Contingency’s two distinct meanings are intimately related, if at times dia-
metrically opposed in terms of their significations. In the first instance, what
is contingent “depends on chance or uncertain conditions” (Websters) and
is “subject to or at the mercy of accidents” (OED). In the second instance, a
contingent condition refers to that which “may or may not happen” because it
is merely “possible”, not predetermined (Websters).1 For present purposes,
the first meaning, denoting dependency, arbitrariness, and fragility, will be
1 See the definitions for “contingency” and “contingent” in Guralnik, 1972, p. 309, and
OED; many of the citations that follow are taken from the latter source.
Philology’s Contingent Genealogies 57
© Peter Lang AG Philology, vol. 1/2015, pp. 53–66
called contingency A, and the second meaning, denoting possibility and
negating determinism, will be called contingency B. Dealing with these two
meanings consecutively, I aim here to establish their interrelations.
Ralph Waldo Emerson perfectly illustrated the meaning of contingency
A when he stated in an essay on Persian poetry that in “Oriental life and
society”, life “hangs on the contingency of a skin of water” (Emerson, 1875,
vol. III, p. 238). For most of its history, contingency’s uncertainty has been
a source of anxiety and even terror. The word’s occurrence in a sermon by
the poet John Donne: “Expos’d to the disposition of the tyde, to the rage of
the winde, to the wantonness of the Eddy, and to innumerable contingen-
cies” (Emerson, 2875, vol. III, p. 238). Both Emerson and Donne situate
contingency outside the domain of everyday experience, in an unknown and
unknowable Orient in the first instance, and in a post-lapsarian vision of the
world’s end on another.
Whereas contingency A evokes dependency and implies powerless-
ness in the face of fate, contingency B entails a dierent agentival structure,
even when it borrows from the first. As Thomas Spencer stated in his Art
of Logick (1628), “a true axiome is Contingent…when it is in some such
sort true, that it may also at sometime false”(Donne, 1953, vol. II, p. 191).
While contingency A denotes incapacitation, contingency B suggests that
contingency’s indeterminacy can also fortify a given signification. Thirty
years after Spencer, Thomas Hobbes defined a contingent concept as one
that “at one time may be true, at another time false” (Hobbes, Elements of
Philosophy, 1648, I, iii, 28). To exemplify the seeming paradox of an idea
that can be both true and false at the same time, Hobbes uses the statement:
“every crow is black”. While some would argue that the statement “every
crow is black” is absolute rather than contingent by virtue of the qualifier
“every”, from a philological point of view “every crow is black” can mean
many dierent things. The statement can be a metaphor, associating the
crow with black because it is the color of grief. Unlike an absolute claim
such as “every man is an animal”, which implies that everything consid-
ered human must also be considered an animal, it is possible within the
framework of the statement “every crow is black” that not every single
crow in the world is black. Whereas “every man is an animal”, makes an
absolute claim with respect to the category man, “every crow is black”
does not make absolute claims with respect to the category crow. Had the
claim been “every bird is black”, then it would have been an absolute state-
ment, but crow is a non-exclusive category, that does not encompass all
58 Rebecca Gould
© Peter Lang AG Philology, vol. 1/2015, pp. 53–66
possible variations of itself. These linguistic nuances, so central to how we
understand truth and falsifiability, can only be grasped through exegetical
methods specific to philology.
The eighteen-century British novelist Laurence Sterne exemplified the
interrelatedness of contingency A and contingency B most lucidly in a scene
from The Life of Tristram Shandy (1765), a novel that famously maneuvers
the intrinsic circuitry of language to reveal the complex relation between
narrative and the everyday experience of time. In one of the novel’s typical
digressions, the protagonist’s uncle Toby narrates the story of the King of
Bohemia and his seven castles. The story never gets told in its entirety, be-
cause Toby keeps interrupting Trim’s narrative, preventing it from reaching
its final destination:
Now the King of Bohemia with his courtiers happening one fine summer’s evening to
walk out – Aye! There’s the word happening is right, Trim, cried my uncle Toby; for
the King of Bohemia and his Queen might have walked out, or let it alone; – ‘twas a
matter of contingency, which might happen, or not, just as chance ordered it” (Sterne,
1854, p. 239).
As Wolfgang Iser points out in his reading of this passage, the King of
Bohemia’s unfinished story never appears again in the course of Sterne’s
narrative. “As life ‘happens’, it resists representation by a story”, writes
Iser, “for contingency cannot be narrated” (Iser, 1988, p. 67) However, life’s
very non-iterability calls for representation in verbal form. This takes the
form in Sterne’s novel of “depicting ‘happenings’ through the impossibility
of storytelling” (ivi). Contingency’s resistance to verbal representation also
intensifies the challenge of narrating (and practicing) philology.
Metaphysically, a contingent concept is “not subject to determinism”
because it is free to be other than what it is supposed to be. From a Calvin-
ist perspective, contingency is the opposite of predestination. Therefore,
contingency is also a classic precondition for freedom, as the Calvinist
preacher and poet Jonathan Edwards recognized when he called it “this
ecient Nothing, this eectual No-Cause” (Edwards, 1860, pp. II, III, 45,
48). By virtue of its emptiness and lack of cause, contingency is internal
to freedom. It is a measure of the capacity of mortals to shape their cir-
cumstances, and to intervene in the making of their histories. While for a
Calvinist such as Edwards, such freedom can generate fear and instill a
desire for determinacy, for a modern philologist, contingency’s indetermi-
nacy creates new possibilities.
Philology’s Contingent Genealogies 59
© Peter Lang AG Philology, vol. 1/2015, pp. 53–66
At once fragile and dependent (when it takes the form of contingency
A), and imbued with the power to prevail over rigid hierarchies (when it
takes the form of contingency B), contingency constituted by both of its
varieties (A+B) is constrained by and suused with freedom. It is through
these constraints and limitations that contingency acquires density and sa-
lience. Language’s arbitrariness is philology’s meaning. Calling received
assumptions into question, defamiliarizing the everyday, and shedding a
peculiar light on truths long taken for granted, contingency finds its full-
est disciplinary expression in philology, the textualized study of antiquity’s
fragments which have, in the words of Francis Bacon, been “rescued from
the shipwreck of time” (The Advancement of Learning, 1605, part 2 chap 6).
A Genealogy of Genealogy
Having explicated philology’s contingency, I want to conclude by exploring
the disciplinary lineage that grounds my understanding of philology. “Gene-
alogy” is most famously associated today with Michel Foucault, who depict-
ed this mode of intellectual inquiry as a philological tableaux of “entangled
and confused parchments, on documents that have been scratched over and
recopied many times”. For many, including Foucault, moral genealogy be-
gins with Nietzsche’s A Genealogy of Morals (1887). Nietzsche signals his
agenda in this work with a question: “What signposts does linguistics, espe-
cially the study of etymology, give to the history of the evolution of moral
concepts?” Nietzsche sets himself the paradoxical goal of replacing “the
improbable with the more probable and in some circumstances replacing
one error with another” (Nietzsche, 2006). Following Derrida by using an
older intellectual genealogy as a foundation on which to build a seemingly
new way of studying the world, Foucault made use of Nietzsche’s moral ge-
nealogy as Derrida had earlier made use of Saussurean linguistics to explain
his conception of the instability of linguistic discourse.
While Saussure and, following him, Derrida structure their semiotics
around a conception of language as a system of dierences, Nietzsche and
Foucault structure their genealogies according to a conception of power as
a system that enters the social realm through relations of inequality. Shaped
by contingency, both language and power are relational: meaningless when
60 Rebecca Gould
© Peter Lang AG Philology, vol. 1/2015, pp. 53–66
severed from the force field of relations within which they maneuver, and
entirely dependent for their potency on being placed in relief against their
others. In the words of Raymond Geuss, Nietzsche dislodged previous
philosophers’ attempts to define the nature of truth with the argument that
“Things don’t have significance or meaning. They are given it” (Geuss,
1994, p. 285). Ideas became bearers of value through a process bereft of tel-
eology. Nietzsche’s account of this process is prescient. “Anything in exist-
ence”, he argues, “having somehow come about, is continually interpreted
anew, requisitioned anew, transformed and redirected to a new purpose by a
power superior to it” (Nietsche, 2006, p. 51). To this seeming chaos of con-
flicting interests and passions, Foucault noted that genealogy’s “dierent
points of emergence” result from “substitutions, displacements, disguised
conquests, and systematic reversals” (Foucault, 1971, p. 51).
Unlike what Nietzsche called monumental history (monumentale
Geschichte) and what Geuss later termed “pedigree”, genealogy resists the
impulse to trace historical change to a single originary moment (Geuss,
1994, p. 276). The denial of a single point of origin of itself implicates
philology in contingency. A case in point, discussed in detail by Geuss, is
Nietzsche’s treatment of Christianity as the product of a conjunction of di-
verse and unrelated strands of intellectual and historical change, comprised
of processes that “ramify the further back one goes and present no obvi-
ous or natural single stopping place that could be designated ‘the origin’
(Nietsche, 2006). Unlike pedigree, genealogy negates the very possibility of
single beginning. Its future is immanent to itself: “Christianity as a dogma
was destroyed by its own morality”, Nietzsche claims (Geuss, 1994, p. 276).
That genealogy’s narrative is sutured by rupture renders it cognate to other
narrative structures of modernity. “History delineated through a genealo-
gy won’t generally exhibit unbroken lines of value-preserving succession”,
Geuss adds. Instead, it will be “characterized by an overwhelming contin-
gency (ibid., p. 277; emphasis added).
Engaging as fully with the possible as with the actual, genealogy is
as intrigued by the imaginary as it is by the empirical. Its “cyclopedian
monuments”, Foucault states in a telling citation from Nietzsche, are con-
structed from “discrete and apparently insignificant truths and according
to a rigorous method”. Nietzsche identified the “rigorous method” through
which his genealogy was articulated more precisely than did Foucault,
who merged it with the concept of critique, and thereby eviscerated it
of its textual moorings (Foucault, 1971, p. 146). Noting that his training
Philology’s Contingent Genealogies 61
© Peter Lang AG Philology, vol. 1/2015, pp. 53–66
as a philologist enabled him to inaugurate a revaluation of value itself,
Nietzsche yoked linguistic contingency to the genealogical method and
drew on lost lineages in the history of philology.
A genealogical approach to philology recognizes “the violent or sur-
reptitious appropriation of a system of rules” that structures this discipline’s
history (ibid., p. 158). Such an inquiry will find philology’s histories direct-
ed by forces that are largely beyond the discipline’s control. As a narration
of mistakes, deviations, “errors, false appraisals, and the faulty calculations
that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us”,
genealogy combines linear trajectories with narratives of multiple begin-
nings (ibid., p. 152) (for a fuller elaboration of what this means for the
practice of philology, see Cerquiglini, 1999). Far from depriving philology
of interest, the inscription of fortuity, or rather of contingency, into philol-
ogy’s disciplinarity makes it a microcosm of the humanities at large, for as
Foucault points out, “the development of humanity”, understood philolog-
ically, is simply a “series of interpretations”, a persistent requisitioning of
old meanings recalibrated for new contexts (ibid., p. 158).
As a hermeneutics of human history, philology is as inflected by false
turns as are the texts that constitute its archival basis. In lieu of linear
narrative and closure, Foucault insists that, for Nietzsche, “at the root of
what we know and what we are” is neither truth, being, or other concepts
hallowed by philosophy, but rather an “exteriority” that is at once acciden-
tal and successful [externe, accidentel et successif ]” (ibid., p. 158). Walter
Benjamin was attracted to this same aspect of Nietzschean hermeneutics,
whereby exteriority’s luminosity functions as a metonymy for the cosmos.
Benjamin drew on Nietzsche’s view of aesthetics as the legitimation of
metaphysics to construct a philological genealogy of numismatic moder-
nity vis-à-vis the German mourning play.
August Boeckh, the early proponent of philology as a universal ground-
ing for the human sciences, set about in his Encyclopedia and Method of
Philology to justify philology through what today would be called a ge-
nealogical method. In his posthumously published magnum opus, Boeckh
discerned in philology “the spirit, the ȡȤȒ [beginning], the principle that
later often becomes dimmed for lack of frequent exposure to beginnings”
(Boeckh, 1877; for a recent discussion of Boeckh in the context of the new
philology, see McGann, 2013, p. 334). In invoking this beginning, Boeckh
unwittingly looked back to the origins of his discipline. As detailed in the
book project to which this essay serves as a prolegomena, philology arose
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© Peter Lang AG Philology, vol. 1/2015, pp. 53–66
from antiquarians such as Dionysus of Halicarnassus, and later from Ro-
mans such as Varro, who rendered the Greek archaiologia (“the study of the
beginning of logos”) by the Latin antiquitates (“the study of antiquity”) (see
Momigliano, 1990, pp. 54–80). Although philologia is in many respects
a neologism specific to early modernity, its archeological and antiquarian
precedents oer many possible genealogies for modern philology (for an-
cient usages of the term, see Lehrs, 1848).
Beginnings have been important for every philologist who had endea-
vored to historicize the discipline. In European modernity, three philolo-
gists have contributed the most to shaping philology’s master narrative:
John Edwin Sandys (1844–1922), Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendor
(1848–1931), and Rudolf Pfeier (1889–1979) (see Sandys, 1903, and the
references to Wilamowitz and Pfeier below). Contemporary scholars have
noted how Sandys, Wilamowitz, and Pfeier counter their stated aims when
they eace both history and philology through “ideological tales that set the
moment of writing as the accomplished telos of centuries of development”
(Gurd, 2010). For Wilamowitz, philology is an organic whole that “can nei-
ther be cut up into so many branches, nor trimmed to suit the individual’s
capacity” (Wilamowitz-Moellendor, 1930, p. 100). Although Pfeier gave
more scope than Wilamowitz to the role of poetry in shaping philology, like
Wilamowitz he regarded philology as “the art of understanding, explaining,
and restoring the literary tradition” rather than as the invention of new forms
of knowledge (Pfeier, 1968, p. 3; emphasis added).
Sandys, Wilamowitz, and Pfeier saw their discipline as restorative
rather than creative. They referenced fixed points in the ancient past that
they regarded as untainted by their own presentist angle of inquiry. In these
respects, the narratives Sandys, Wilamowitz, and Pfeier constructed for
their discipline more closely approximate pedigrees than genealogies. As
Raymond Guess would have said, these pedigrees assume that “what is older
is better, i.e. a more genuine or more intense source of value, so that getting
into contact with it is inherently desirable” (Geuss, 1994, p. 255). While
strands in philology’s historiography diverged from the discipline’s teleo-
logical norms, the dominant trend, particularly in the nineteenth century and
partly in response to historicism, was towards uncritical valorization, unre-
flective elitism, and resistance to self-critique.
Ironically, the modern historiography of philological knowledge treats
the discipline as one that exists outside history, which is to say outside
contingency. Rather than creatively altering the discipline’s substance,
Philology’s Contingent Genealogies 63
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historians of philology such as Sandys, Wilamowitz, and Pfeier see phi-
lology’s task as the making lucid of the static artifacts of bygone pasts. It
was precisely this static model – applied to philosophy – that Heidegger
contested with his post-metaphysical ontology of being. This philological
expression of scientific positivism regards itself as having an existence
that is autonomous, of the texts that are its archive as well as of the readers
that give that archive meaning.
The nineteenth-century understanding of philology as an organic unity
that precedes the perceiving subject is paralleled by the view of philosophy
as the a priori of intellectual inquiry. In his attempt to advance an ethics
based on irony and the recognition of contingency, Rorty engages with the
positions of Kant and Hegel, the most influential propagators of idealist
philosophy. For both Kant and Hegel, all sense perceptions are secondary to
the primacy of the mental insight. Kant, Rorty notes, wanted in the Platonic
spirit “to consign science to the realm of second-rate truth – truth about
a phenomenal world” (CIS, p. 4). Meanwhile, Hegel “wanted to think of
natural science as a description of spirit not yet fully conscious of its own
spiritual nature” (ivi).
The primacy of philosophical certainty over purely contingent knowl-
edge is uncontested in the Kantian and Hegelian tradition. And yet, ar-
gues Rorty against the grain of nineteenth-century philosophical idealism,
“Truth cannot be out there – cannot exist independently of the human
mind – because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there” (CIS, p. 5).
Rorty signals to another lineage of philosophical inquiry, originating in
the philologically trained Nietzsche. Contesting the assumption of the pri-
macy of non-linguistic over linguistic knowledge, Rorty maintains that
“the intrinsic nature of reality has turned out, surprisingly enough, to be
extrinsic” (CIS, p. 8). Rorty’s reading of reality as extrinsic recalls Fou-
cault’s emphasis on the exteriority of accidents that is made visible through
Nietzschean genealogy, as well as Nietzsche’s own emphasis on the world
being aesthetically justified. Because “only descriptions of the world can
be true or false”, the world “on its own – unaided by the describing ac-
tivities of human beings” cannot be understood of in terms of true/false
antinomies (CIS, p. 5). Rorty substitutes the true/false dichotomies that
drove nineteenth-century philosophy with contingent inquiry. Grounding
philosophy in a method that is philological in that it proceeds according
to the possibilities aorded by language, Rorty argues that most paradigm
shifting conflicts in his discipline are stimulated by “half-formed” newly
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emergent vocabularies which chafe against entrenched vocabularies that
obscure more than they reveal (CIS, p. 9).
As with philology itself, language’s contingency means that change
is the only constant. Lacking a stable mooring for itself, or even a fixed
point of inquiry, philology is a way of reading texts, creeds, and indeed all
artifacts generated by the imagination. When man understands”, wrote Gi-
ambattista Vico, “he extends his mind to comprehend things; but when he
does not understand, he makes them out of himself and, by transforming
himself, becomes them” (Vico, 1847, § 405) Philology is not only – not
even primarily – about the will to knowledge. More exactly, philology is
engaged with the art of becoming. Reading and interpreting are its most
important faculties. From a Vician perspective, philology’s disciplinary
credo is homo non intelligendo fit omnia (“man becomes all things by not
knowing them”) rather than analytical philosophy’s credo, homo intelli-
gendo fit omnia (“man becomes all things by knowing them”).
More than advancing the frontiers of knowledge, philology’s mandate
is to sensitize readers to the unknown. Its methods of inquiry involve gene-
alogies (rather than pedigrees), ethical adjudication that transpires contin-
gently (rather than dogmatically), narration that transpires through ruptures
(rather than continuities), and the revelation of the unknown (rather than
the known) as a measure of our humanity. These methods, which are Vi-
chian, Benjamin, and Nietzschean converge with calls in philosophy and
the social sciences for the end of master narratives and the recognition of
the contingency of all human institutions, language in particular. If phi-
lology as a discipline can meaningfully integrate the multiple genealogies
that constitute its variegated history, and in the process lay the groundwork
for alterative futures, then this much-maligned method of traversing lan-
guage’s contingencies may one day resume its rightful position at the center
of humanistic inquiry.
Philology’s Contingent Genealogies 65
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Derrida, J. (1978). Structure, Sign, and the Play of Discourse in the Human
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The lectures gathered in this 1886 publication were delivered by August Boeckh in the years 1809–1865. The German classicist introduces his understanding of philology as a discipline that is not solely the study of language but also a subject incorporating historical and philosophical elements. The work is divided into two parts: the first provides the formal theory behind Boeckh's philological inquiries into the areas of hermeneutics and critique. The second and more substantial part of the book is a wide-ranging study of the history of Antiquity as well as an account of the methodology that Boeckh employs. He examines Greek and Roman public and private life, and considers different aspects of religion. Boeckh also gives an overview of different expressions of art such as architecture and painting, music and drama; and lastly he engages with the history of language and explains what lies behind etymology and syntax.
Sir John Edwin Sandys (1844–1922) was a leading Cambridge classicist and a Fellow of St. John's College. His most famous work is this three-volume History of Classical Scholarship, published between 1903 and 1908, which remains the only large-scale work on the subject to span the entire period from the sixth century BCE to the end of the nineteenth century. The history of classical studies was a popular topic during the nineteenth century, particularly in Germany, but Sandys stands out for the ambitious scope of his work, even though much of it was based on earlier scholarship. His chronological account is subdivided by genre and region, with some chapters devoted to particularly influential individuals. Volume 1 covers the Classical period, Byzantine scholarship, and the medieval West to 1350.