Philologists: a species report

“Pardon me,” a newcomer asked Rubin, “what is your name?”

“Lev Grigorich”

“Are you an engineer too?”

“No, I’m not an engineer, I’m a philologist.”

“Philologist? They even keep philologists here?”

– Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle

Ah, when an average day’s roundup of intelligentsia would almost always yield a philologist or two amongst the catch! Not so today. Philologists are as rare as hen’s teeth; if one does turn up in the system, the government’s policy is one of immediate release. It’s a question of maintaining the breeding population, you see.

But seriously, where have all the philologists gone? I ask not because I grew up in a world filled with philologists, and now notice their absence. I’ve never met a philologist, not once in my life; I haven’t spotted one across a campus; haven’t heard one on the radio nor seen one on TV. From the day I was born, I’ve lived in an effectively philologist-free environment.

Over the years, however, I’ve stumbled across evidence that such people did exist, and that, in fact, their numbers were not insignificant when compared to other academic professions. For one thing, they frequently turned up as characters in literary novels usually written by (or about) continental Europeans. For another, famous people who one had been brought up to think of as philosophers turned out on later inspection to be philologists. Nietzsche a philosopher? Wrong.

In fact, as I recently discovered from a review in the Times Literary Supplement (of Joep Leerssen’s National Thought in Europe: A Cultural History), philologists were once considered rather hip:

In 1848, the year of revolutions, a “National Assembly” was convened at Frankfurt, to discuss unification of the German lands, civil rights and a constitution for a future Reich. The strangest thing about the assembly was its seating plan. Delegates were placed in a semi-circle facing the Speaker, but there was one seat in the centre of the semi-circle, directly opposite the Speaker, set apart from all the others. It was reserved for Jacob Grimm. Can one imagine a British durbar to decide the future of the Empire, deliberately and symbolically centred on a professor of linguistics, also known as a collector of fairy tales? But Grimm was not a mere linguist, he was a Philolog, and by 1848, as Joep Leerssen points out in his exceptionally wide-ranging study, philology was a combination of linguistics, literary history and cultural anthropology with the prestige of a hard science and the popular appeal of The Lord of the Rings. Grimm was there to speak, not for the nation, for there was no German nation, but for an imaginary Deutschland which he had very largely created in an unmatched though repeatedly imitated feat of “cultural consciousness-raising”.

More prosaically — when they were not creating nations out of thin air — what philologists generally did was to study historical texts, and by painstaking linguistic and contextual analysis, to discover the authoritative original text (or Ur-text), now cleaned of centuries of copyist errors, translator distortions, and the fabrications of forgers. This, of course, was a tremendously useful service for historians, who now no longer had to decide to accept or reject as a whole the documentary evidence they required to write history. In The Historian’s Craft, medieval historian Marc Bloch described the importance of the change:

True progress began on the day when, as Volney put it, doubt became an “examiner”; or in other words, when there had gradually been worked out objective rules which permitted the separation of truth from falsehood. The Jesuit Papebroeck, in whom the reading of The Lives of the Saints had instilled a profound mistrust of the entire heritage of the early Middle Ages, considered all Merovingian charters which had been preserved in the monasteries to be forgeries. No, replied Mabillon. There are unquestionably some charters which have been retouched, some which have been interpolated, and some which have been forged in their entirety. There are also some which are authentic, and this is how it is possible to distinguish the bad from the good. That year, 1681, the year of the publication of the De Re Diplomatica, was truly a great one in the history of the human mind, for the criticism of the documents of archives was definitely established.

Given how important this function is to the writing of accurate history, one should not be surprised to know that the profession has not, in fact, vanished. But — and this quite apart from philologists’ newfound and almost Hobbit-like ability to vanish into the background — it has begun to change. Rather than searching for an individual and authoritative Ur-text, some philologists have recently argued for an acceptance of the essential mobility of certain texts (particularly medieval ones), insofar as such texts have been continually and intentionally re-written, their meanings linked not to any original intent but more to the moment of their performance. This approach is sometimes referred to as the New Philology, and the key book here is Bernard Cerquiglini’s Éloge de la variante: Histoire critique de la philologie (1989) (published in 1999 by Johns Hopkins as In Praise of the Variant: A Critical History of Philology).

There’s no cause for worry, then. Philologists do still exist, and the species seems to be evolving at a healthy pace. But good luck catching one.

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