Zukunftsphilologie!?

I write this – after a long absence that has no doubt seen my paltry writing skills atrophy rather than improve – having enjoyed an interesting discussion yesterday, the kind that represents the best of Classics twitter. I want to expand upon some of the short comments I earlier because I worry I came off as a bit short and terse and wish to explain myself a bit better. Besides, we rarely get to discuss such things from a British perspective (for a discussion of American treatments, click here).

Here is the initial tweet, since the original post is well worth reading – as are the discussions on Aramaic and Akkadian with attendant bibliographies.

My response essentially came down to a) the vision being improbable if not impossible and; b) some aspects of it unwittingly carrying the potential to offend. You’ll hopefully note I don’t disagree with any of the assertions being made, I’d quite like all of them to come true. I just don’t think any of them likely. 

I think the improbability comes down simply to the fact that universities are increasingly failing to properly teach Latin and Greek. We take it, bizarrely, as read that we’re increasingly less able than our 19th and 20th century predecessors (hence the above reference to ‘19th C philology’). This isn’t just a hackneyed trope, some traditional veneratio offered to our predecessors as a way to abase ourselves with false humility whilst simultaneously claiming our place in the great academic chain of being that descends from Zenotodus and Aristarchus to Wolf, Wilamowitz, and West. It’s a sad, discomforting, fact.

Sad because there’s truly never been a better time to learn Latin or Greek. Previous generations started earlier, had more time, but we eclipse them in efficiency by orders of magnitude. Students have a phalanx of textbooks to choose from, computer generated word lists, easy access to texts, readers, and even audiotools. We should, in fact, be making our predecessors look like gentlemen dilettantes with regards to their technical skills if not their insights.

One of the original points was that…”the world needs more specialised departments based on our Classical model”. Does it? What can we truly offer, say, Sanskrit scholars? I’m choosing Sanskrit because it’s the ancillary language I know best and because it has an incredible tradition behind it (of which most Classicists are sadly completely ignorant).

Indologists may avail themselves of at least one functional tradition akin to our philology, vyakarana (something like grammar) as well as several theoretical frameworks for assessing texts (I think the most famous in the west is probably mimasa). The study of the language has been not just rejuvenated but elevated by contact with western philology. After all, it was Saussure and his laryngeals which rendered Sanskrit’s intense verbal system fully understandable, British explorers and orientalists who kick-started epigraphy and paleography while fleshing out more fully the filitation between Sanskrit and early Indian vernaculars (the so called prakrits).

This is, notably, well in the past.

Indologists, on one hand, may read their texts with the aid of utterly brilliant Sanskrit commentaries. Meanwhile in 2018 it’s possible to graduate with a Classics degree not having fully read Virgil or Homer, let alone become acquainted with Servius or Eustathius.

I suspect Classics departments no longer have the intellectual, perhaps even moral, substance to offer anybody any sort of example on how to do anything. Ironically, it was those 19th century philologists and not modern comparative literature departments which furnished the inspiration for those studying Indic or Semitic (Sino-Tibetan, Finno-Urgic, Kartvelian etc etc) philology. What can we offer other scholars? Perhaps the ability to point out when someone is dead, white, and male? To turn ‘patriarchy’ from a sociological descriptor to something akin to a taboo word?

This is what I mean by potentially offensive. The days are gone when the Classicist could casually expound the rules and sound changes of Germanic philology more adroitly than the English DPhil, for example.

Another point considered widening the temporal horizon of the discipline until the fall of the Roman Empire in 1453. In some sense, Classics has already traditionally done this. After all, textual criticism by its very nature involves delving into the work of Carolingian monks, the intellectuals of the Byzantine renaissances (under the Macedonians and Palaeologi) and the Italian humanists.

I would love for this to happen to some degree, but again the basis for this has to be a sound grasp of the languages. Lorenzo Valla’s study of the false Donatio Constantini is one of the highpoints of our subject, but like all humanists his Latin can be difficult. The Greek of Laonikos Chalkokondyles is entertaining and electrifying but not for the faint of heart anymore than his subject matter.

As an aside there’s recently been a very interested guest post on Sententiae Antiquae on the merits of including post classical Latin as part of our curricula, which I link here. Unfortunately I can’t think of any similar post on reading post second sophistic Greek to link.

Can we ever engender a return to philology? On one hand I recall the resurgence of philologia propria in China after the collapse of the Ming dynasty. Under the Ming dynasty, critique and interpretation of texts and history had become dogmatically Neo-Confucian. Subsequently, disenchanted scholars found themselves eventually turning to more traditional methods in order to actually try and comprehend the past. Who knows? Maybe McKenna is right to be optimistic. I don’t think so. Out of the academy, none of my colleagues with similar backgrounds also working in black-letter professions (commercial law, finance, and I guess we should include the bloody consultants) seem to think so either. Nor do our bosses who have long since dampened their enthusiasm for hiring people with Classics degrees. Ah well.

The original post ended with an emphatic assertion that “there must be brilliant stuff out there” and I absolutely agree. In fact I’m going to end this blog post by recommending something, the Heike Monogatori. This epic, based on the struggle for dominance between two 12th century Japanese clans, has a strong claim for the best opening lines in world literature. Moreover, its compositional history make it a must read for any Classicist. It is, I hope you’ll agree, brilliant stuff. 

The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind. — Chapter 1.1, Helen Craig McCullough’s translation

Recommended reading

In an ideal world, I’d go back and re-work the above post, citing and commenting upon the below articles and books in order to strengthen points and provide more entertaining reading. Please accept my apologies and this slightly annotated bibliography instead.

Much the best scholar writing on this questions is Sanskrit Professor Sheldon Pollock. His 2014 article ‘Future Philology’ has been incredibly influential and his shorter 2015 article ‘Liberating Philology’ is at once precis and expansion. For a broader, more multicultural, understanding of what’s at stake see the 2015 edited volume World Philology.

For the Byzantine Renaissances see Cyril Mango’s own contributed to the 2002 edited volume The Oxford History of Byzantium.

For an introduction on the (potential) similarities between Japanese and Greek epic see Naoko Yamagata’s article in Greece & Rome Vol. 40, No. 1 (Apr., 1993). I myself am partial to the Tyler and Watson translation. 

I have made at least two cack-handed allusions herein. I have cheekily titled this post after Wilamowitz’s famous tirade, an English translation of which may be found here. Secondly, I alluded to Said’s article “Return to Philology” which can be found here.

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One thought on “Zukunftsphilologie!?

  1. Matthew Scarborough says:

    You asked, so I will offer a few disconnected thoughts, although I suspect they’re going to be exercises in fence sitting. Full disclosure: I don’t really think of myself as a capital ‘C’ Classicist, even though all of my degrees are technically in it. (I generally think of myself first as a general philologist, second as a historical linguist with a specialism in Ancient Greek.) First one specific comment and then I’ll write more generally:

    “The days are gone when the Classicist could casually expound the rules and sound changes of Germanic philology more adroitly than the English DPhil, for example.”

    I wonder, though, is this something that the average 19th C. Classicist *ever* could have done? Certainly some of the German trained philologists might have, but at least in the English speaking world I have the impression (I’d have to look into it more) that knowledge of comparative philology wasn’t as widely known until around the beginning of the twentieth century. I can’t remember precisely when the Professorship of Comparative Philology was established in Cambridge (within the Faculty of Classics), but it was certainly fairly late. At Oxford I think comparative philology has always been something outside of the Classics department (as it still is now). I know less about the situation in the USA.

    Anyway, moving on. I am generally in favour of the proposal that Classics departments need to expand their horizons a bit, and I think there have been very positive trends towards this. Say what you will about Martin Bernal and Black Athena, since the fallout of that forced the discipline to radically come to grips with its insular focus primarily on Greek and Roman civilisations, and has done much to break down disciplinary barriers between Near Eastern studies, Egyptology, etc. over the last thirty years. And, I think, this openness is inherently good for scholarship. I’m not saying that this comparative work didn’t happen at all beforehand, but it certainly made this sort of work a lot more mainstream, and certainly set me on my own path trying to learn as much Egyptian, Coptic, Hebrew, Hittite, etc. as I could while I had the freedom to as an undergraduate (thanks be given to the flexible nature of a North American style undergraduate degree) on top of the other Greek and Latin I was doing. (Also not the least because I needed it, since I wanted to do a study of Near Eastern loanwords in Mycenaean for my BA dissertation.)

    I think, however, in proposing to expand ‘Classics’ to include an important question to ask is how would you structure it and integrate it into a programme of study for undergraduates. I share your scepticism that broadening runs the risk of not attaining sufficient depth of understanding of literary and historical contexts (cf. your comments on Servius and Eustathius) and that is not something that should be sacrificed.

    A further point is the issue of philology itself. In my own case, I don’t always feel as comfortable in my Greek and Latin as I think I should since I’ve spent more time learning all of the other languages I need in order to do my work as an Indo-Europeanist. I do envy the ability of my colleagues who do have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Greek and Latin literature, but that’s just not the thing I’m mainly interested in. I’m rather interested in linguistic history and consequently tend to ask quite different questions than literature specialists or classical historians. Crucially, however, I still have to be quite aware of the issues of textual transmission, historical context, etc. that affect the interpretation of the texts I study. Perhaps my knowledge of Greek and Latin may not be as fine as those who read the texts for their literary value, the we share these core skills in understanding the history and composition of our texts, and this is the same skillset that is cross-applicable between the different disciplines of Egyptian philology, Hebrew and Aramaic philology, Arabic and Islamic studies, Classical Indian philology, and so forth. How these skills are applied depends on the context of the specific language and text, but in general I think the principles behind text-philological skills are universal. They may be somewhat undervalued in a lot of Classics undergraduate programmes these days but are obviously not so at the postgraduate level and beyond.

    One more point, and this is mainly about the artificiality of ‘Classics’ as a disciplinary concept in the first place. I don’t like the term Classics at all and rather prefer Ancient Greek and Roman Studies (or perhaps ‘Classical Greek and Roman Studies’, if you want to keep the C word in). A case in point is that in many Dutch and German universities ‘Classical Archaeology’ does not exist in the same way it does in British and American universities – there are simply departments of archaeology that do *all* the archaeology. Does that make archaeology less a part of Classics? I don’t think I would say so, but this example illustrates how arbitrary our disciplinary divisions of knowledge can sometimes be. If we wanted to be more inclusive, perhaps we should frame the discussion in terms of replacing our Classics departments with something like a school of philology, archaeology, and ancient history (with different subsections in Roman Studies, Hellenic Studies, Egyptology, Near Eastern Studies, Classical Indian studies, etc.). Perhaps we could look to how departments of modern history or modern languages are organised as a parallel.

    Final, final comment: I haven’t read World Philology yet. It came out just as I was writing up my Ph.D. and I didn’t have time for it then (and forgot about it later). Maybe now that I have a bit more time on my hands I should read it.

    Liked by 1 person

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