What would a "return to philology" be a return to?

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I recently read Peter Brooks' "The Strange Case of Paul de Man", NYRB 4/3/2014, which is a review of The Double Life of Paul de Man by Evelyn Barish. Brooks' central argument seems to be that it's unfair to call de Man a fascist thief, because he was really just a charismatic sociopath. But the thing that caught my eye was a reference to an essay by de Man that I hadn't read:

He began teaching Reuben Brower's famous course in Harvard's General Education program, "Humanities 6: Introduction to Literature," which had a transformative effect on his own approach to literature, as he noted in one of his last published essays, "The Return to Philology."

I was curious about this, because I associate de Man with a movement in literary criticism that removed from American English departments nearly all traces of what I always understood philology to be, namely an old term for linguistic analysis, and especially comparative and historical linguistics as applied to analyzing and understanding texts in dead languages such as Old English and Middle English.

The cited essay is Paul de Man, "The Return to Philology," in The Resistance to Theory (Minneapolis, 1986), 3–26, 23.

My own awareness of the critical, even subversive, power of literary instruction does not stem from philosophical allegiances but from a very specific teaching experience. In the 1950s, Bate's colleague at Harvard, Reuben Brower, taught an undergraduate course in General Education entitled "The Interpretation of Literature" (better known on the Harvard campus and in the profession at large as HUM 6) in which many graduate students in English and Comparative Literature served as teaching assistants. […]

Brower […] believed in and effectively conveyed what appears to be an entirely innocuous and pragmatic precept, founded on Richards's "practical criticism." Students, as they began to write on the writings of others, were not to say anything that was not derived from the text they were considering. They were not to make any statements that they could not support by a specific use of language that actually occurred in the text. They were asked, in other words, to begin by reading texts closely as texts and not to move at once into the general context of human experience or history. Much more humbly or modestly, they were to start out from the bafflement that such singular turns of tone, phrase, and figure were bound to produce in readers attentive enough to notice them and honest enough not to hide their non-understanding behind the screen of received ideas that often passes, in literary instruction, for humanistic knowledge.

This very simple rule, surprisingly enough, had far-reaching didactic consequences. I have never known a course by which students were so transformed. […]

The personal experience of Reuben Brower's Humanities 6 was not so different from the impact of theory on the teaching of literature over the past ten or fifteen years. The motives may have been more revolutionary and the terminology was certainly more intimidating. But, in practice, the turn to theory occurred as a return to philology, to an examination of the structure of language prior to the meaning it produces.

This passage compounded my confusion. It seems to confirm that de Man meant philology to mean more or less what it means to me — but I can't recall ever having read anything in his work that could plausibly be described as "an examination of the structure of language", whether "prior to the meaning it produces" or posterior to it. Perhaps a reader will be able to point me to an example or two.

Meanwhile, this led me to wonder what others have taken philology to mean. And when I looked into it, I discovered that the attested senses are much more diverse than I had thought.

Some dictionary entries, starting with the OED:

1. Love of learning and literature; the branch of knowledge that deals with the historical, linguistic, interpretative, and critical aspects of literature; literary or classical scholarship. Now chiefly U.S.

By the late 19th cent. this general sense had become rare, but it was revived, principally in the United States, in the early 20th cent. For a fuller discussion of this, see A. Morpurgo Davies Hist. Linguistics (1998) 4 i. 22.

2. Chiefly depreciative. Love of talk or argument. Obs.

3. The branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development, and relationships of languages or language families; the historical study of the phonology and morphology of languages; historical linguistics. See also comparative philology at comparative adj. 1b.

This sense has never been current in the United States, and is increasingly rare in British use. Linguistics is now the more usual term for the study of the structure of language, and (often with qualifying adjective, as historical, comparative, etc.) has generally replaced philology.

The American Heritage Dictionary:

n. Literary study or classical scholarship.
n. See historical linguistics.


n. The humanistic study of historical linguistics.

The Collaborative International Dictionary of English:

n. Criticism; grammatical learning.
n. The study of language, especially in a philosophical manner and as a science; the investigation of the laws of human speech, the relation of different tongues to one another, and historical development of languages; linguistic science.
n. A treatise on the science of language.

The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia:

n. The love or the study of learning and literature; the investigation of a language and its literature, or of languages and literatures, for the light they cast upon men's character, activity, and history.

Dictionnaire de l'Académie française, 8e édition

(1)PHILOLOGIE. n. f. T. didactique. Science qui, dans son ancienne extension, embrassait toutes les parties des belles-lettres. Cette science encyclopédique ayant vieilli, on tend à substituer à ce terme, dans l'étude des langues, les mots : linguistique, grammaire, critique des textes, grammaire comparée.

Dictionnaire de l'Académie française, neuvième édition

(1)PHILOLOGIE n. f. XVe siècle. Emprunté, par l'intermédiaire du latin, du grec philologia, « amour de la parole », lui-même composé à partir de phileîn, « aimer », et logos, « parole, discours ».  1. Science qui embrasse l'ensemble des disciplines littéraires telles que la grammaire, la poétique, la rhétorique, la critique, etc.   Spécialt. Ensemble des travaux de recherche concourant à l'édition critique de textes le plus souvent anciens ; en particulier, étude des différents manuscrits, de leur transmission et de leurs variantes. L'établissement de l'apparat critique d'un texte relève de la philologie.  2. Science ayant pour objet l'étude diachronique et synchronique d'une langue ou d'un groupe de langues, à partir de documents écrits. Philologie grecque, latine. Philologie romane, germanique, sémitique.

If we look at philology texts from 1900 or so, we get a picture that looks exactly like my original idea ("an old term for linguistic analysis, and especially comparative and historical linguistics as applied to analyzing and understanding texts in dead languages") — e.g. Eustace Hamilton Miles, "How to Learn Philology", 1899; Walter William Skeat, "A primer of classical and English philology", 1905.

And if we look at the  contents of the first few volumes of Harvard Studies in Classical Philology (1890 onwards), we get a general confirmation of this view, with things like Albert A. Howard, "On the Use of the Perfect Infinitive in Latin with the Force of the Present"; Frederic D. Allen, "Gajus or Gaius?"; Thomas D. Seymour, "On the Homeric Caesura and the Close of the Verse as related to the Expression of Thought"; James B. Greenough, "Accentual Rhythm in Latin"; Richard C. Manning, "On the Omission of the Subject-Accusative of the Infinitive in Ovid";  James B. Greenough, "Early Latin Prosody"; John Henry Wright, "Five Interesting Greek Imperatives".

For another viewpoint, here's Sheldon Pollock, "Future Philology? The Fate of  a Soft Science in a Hard World", Critical Inquiry 2009:

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" — 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." Perhaps in reaction to these claims, a major figure in the twentieth-century twilight, Roman Jakobson, a "Russian philologist," as he described himself, made the definition improbably modest: philology is "the art of reading slowly." 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.

Update — More here and here.



  1. Y said,

    April 19, 2014 @ 7:15 pm

    These days, I see the term used to refer to analyzing relatively recent records of endangered or recently extinct languages. Typically, students of endangered languages might compare their own field records with older fieldnotes or with linguistically naive records of the language; the philological component of the work would be matching the older orthography with the current understanding of the language's phonology.

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    April 19, 2014 @ 7:31 pm

    I would note my teacher Pete Becker's Beyond Translation: Essays toward a Modern Philology. Pete spent a lot of time pondering what a return to philology would mean. I don't know if he ever found a definitive answer, but for him it meant returning to a humanistic, text-based approach and more attention to illuminating particularities of texts rather than generalizations about knowledge of language or language behavior. As you might suspect, as a program, that didn't get a lot of traction in a field so interested in identifying itself as a science, but I think there's a lot of value in his work.

  3. CD said,

    April 19, 2014 @ 8:02 pm

    I would like to read more philology, more studies of literature from this approach Sheldon Pollock mentions. I've read Auerbach's Mimesis and I've read all of C.S. Lewis' literary studies (which I like the best out of all his books). I'm not sure these qualify, but I'd like to read anything along these lines. However, as a layman I'm having difficulty finding anything like this.

  4. Margaret Dean said,

    April 19, 2014 @ 8:03 pm

    I always thought that philology was the sort of thing J.R.R. Tolkien did (in his professional capacity, that is), and for a while I thought I might like to do the same thing. The Linguistics 101 course I took in college, however, was so far removed from my concept of philology that I was discouraged and did not proceed any farther with the subject academically.

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 19, 2014 @ 8:34 pm

    I can't clear up any confusion, but I also can't resist quoting William Cowper's poem "Retirement" about the books he didn't want in his solitude.

    Nor those of learn'd philologists, who chase
    A panting syllable through tune and space
    Start it at home, and hunt it in the dark,
    To Gaul, to Greece, and into Noah's ark

    (Eric Partridge used that, starting with "philologists", as the epigraph of his etymological dictionary, Origins.)

    Or that the great Russian physicist Lev D. Landau used "philology" to mean "unproved statements and propositions made on the principle of 'why might it not'", according to the biographical preface in Landau and Lifshitz's Mechanics.

  6. Tom Dougherty said,

    April 19, 2014 @ 8:35 pm

    Pollock's article is definitely worth a read. There is, I'd say, a huge amount of overlap between philology and historical linguistics–at least in languages that have a written record. However, I think the sorts of questions a historical linguist is interested (why/how does language change) aren't exactly the same as the questions a philologist is interested in (what did a text mean in context), though they undoubtedly overlap to a great extent.

    For instance, you can't properly understand a text as the author/readers did (leaving aside the more heady concerns of literary criticism) if you don't get that some sound changes obliterated a pun that once was. But at the same time, just understanding how the text sounded and the grammar of the text doesn't always tell you what the authors really mean. For instance, the first book of the main source of Old Okinawan, the Omoro Sōshi, deals with the Chief Priestess of the Ryūkyū Kingdom. Without the knowledge we have (or at least are able to infer) of the religion (i.e., non-linguistic cultural elements), we would have no clue that the Sun Goddess was a goddess, that she possessed the priestesses, rather than just "coming down" (as the verb can also be interpreted in other contexts), etc.

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 19, 2014 @ 8:41 pm

    "Time and space", of course. That'll teach me to cut and paste from GB search results.

  8. William Flesch said,

    April 19, 2014 @ 9:55 pm

    By philology de Man meant, and was clear about meaning, a return to the study of figures of speech and of thought, and their relation to and tension with what he called grammar, i.e. the same strings of words used literally and not figuratively. He was interested in the interplay of these two systems of assertion in non-referential language – that is the language used in overtly fictional works.

    [(myl) But can you point us to examples in his writing where he actually engages in this sort of study, rather than telling us why we should engage in it, what it means to engage in it, or why we shouldn't engage in some other abstractly-defined but deprecated practices?

    I've read through three or four of his essays without finding anything.]

  9. Peter said,

    April 19, 2014 @ 10:02 pm

    This is, of course, somewhat off-topic from the linguistic content of the post — but your I find your second sentence, that "Brooks' central argument seems to be that it's unfair to call de Man a Nazi thief, because he was really just a charismatic sociopath," a bit surprising. Your paraphrase sounds to me much less like Brooks' own argument, and more like Brooks' portrayal of Barish's argument:

    But to Barish, it is all Mr. Ripley: a man of charm and wit who manages to talk himself into places he doesn't belong.

    which Brooks strongly takes issue with. In his telling, it is simply a classic story of a European immigrant reinventing himself in America, distancing himself from his earlier life — the reinvention quite sincere, not any Ripleyesque pretence, and as such, hardly sociopathic.

    [(myl) I agree that Brooks would not agree with my summary, but it seems to me to be difficult to draw any other conclusion from his review, even though it is as strongly in support of de Man as he was able to make it. In particular, Barish apparently argues that de Man's pro-Nazi essays were written out of conviction and not just opportunism; and that de Man used conscious fraud to loot the Hermes publishing company before he moved to the U.S. in 1948. Brooks disagrees with both of these points, while sketching a pattern of behavior for which it seems to me that the term "charismatic sociopath" is an accurate if unsympathic summary. Some quotes:

    "one has to conclude that he did collaborate [with the Nazis], no doubt from opportunism, as a young man seeking to make his way as a cultural journalist"

    "Paul de Man appears to have left Belgium not only under the shadow of his famous uncle's catastrophic career but also as the result of his mismanagement of a publishing house called Hermès, established after the liberation and dedicated to publishing luxury art books. […] How much was financial irresponsibility—which seems to have been a pattern in his life—and how much true fraud? That some authors never got promised advances sounds like publishing-as-usual; that there were forged receipts sounds much worse."

    "When de Man sailed for New York in 1948, his wife and children went to Argentina, presumably in the expectation of eventually reuniting. This never happened, and another of the charges against de Man is that he 'abandoned' his first family and then committed bigamy when he married Patricia Kelley, a senior at Bard College, where he taught for a couple of years."

    "It was apparently through his friendship with Georges Bataille that he made contact with Dwight Macdonald: Macdonald owed Bataille $20 for using his review of John Hersey's Hiroshima in the journal Politics, and de Man served as the intermediary for the payment. He was an emissary of European literature at a time when New York was interested: Macdonald put him on the Europe America Group he was forming. At one of Macdonald's parties on East 10th Street, he met Mary McCarthy, who became a good friend, for a time, and possibly more—Barish toys with their possible affair for many pages. She recommended him for his first teaching post, at Bard, replacing the professor of French who was taking a sabbatical. His relations with McCarthy soured; she evidently was disappointed by him, although Barish's account does not make clear just why."

    "At Bard he was a success—a gifted pedagogue from the start, with a kind of quiet charisma that derived from his intense attentiveness to the texts before him. But here came the first episode resembling more a Thomas Hardy than a Patricia Highsmith novel: first wife Anne, along with children, arrived unannounced at LaGuardia and took the train to Rhinebeck, with orders that Paul meet her there. He did, and eventually negotiated a financial settlement with her (which later he didn't honor). Other debts accumulated; he couldn't pay his rent to his professorial colleague, who became his enemy."

    Those who are interested in evaluating de Man and/or Brooks' evaluation of him should read all of Brooks' review. Since I haven't read Barish's book, I can't judge how fair Brooks is to it; but his job as de Man's defense counsel seems to be a difficult one. For a less sympathetic summary, see Robert Alter, "Paul de Man Was a Total Fraud", TNR 4/5/2014. Or Louis Menand, "The de Man Case", The New Yorker 3/24/2014:

    Barish doesn't attempt a psychiatric diagnosis of her subject. She does note that de Man had a habit of staring at his face in the mirror, which she interprets as a sign of narcissism. It may be, but narcissism doesn't account for such an astonishing run of deceit. That is the record of a sociopath. De Man must have known the difference between right and wrong, but those concepts appear to have had no purchase on his inner life. Writing anti-Semitic articles for pro-Nazi papers, stealing from his nurse, sending his child off to be brought up by virtual strangers, lying his way through Harvard: if those things had not been easy for him to do, they would have been impossible for him to do.


  10. David P said,

    April 19, 2014 @ 10:04 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: I liked "tune and space" better, since rhyming words in old songs have played a role.

  11. tsts said,

    April 19, 2014 @ 10:39 pm

    It seems that Philology has very different meanings in different languages, and since de Man was fluent in several of them, I wonder if that influenced the way he used it.

    Mark mentioned the definition in French. In German, "Philologie" is a very general category including basically all disciplines dealing with language and literature. Many German universities have a "Philologische Fakultaet" (college) that includes subjects such as Germanistik, Anglistik, Romanistik, Slawistik, Sinologie, Japanologie, and many others. In fact, the association for teachers at "Gymnasiums" (the type of high school traditionally leading up to university) calls itself "Philologenverband"; part of this is I guess what Germans call "Standesduenkel" — being "better" than other teachers they obviously needed a separate association that sounds more like a scholarly association than a union. So "Philologe" is actually a term for a type of teacher.

    Anyway, de Man might on some level think of Philology as something much more general than what is commonly used in the US. His background is Flemish, and it might be interesting to see what the term usually means in Dutch/Flemish.

  12. Robert said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 12:42 am

    Apropos of not so much, wasn't Nietzsche in fact Professor of Philology, or do I misremember?

  13. Harold said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 2:13 am

    Philology was what the New Critics and before them the "New Humanists" (Irving Babbitt and his disciples, who included T.S. Eliot) reacted against. In the United States it was represented by George Lyman Kittredge. De Man also said he did mind if people noticed that deconstruction was but a continuation of the New Criticism. Did he contradict himself? Yes, but he did not contain multitudes.

    In Belgium De Man had studied mathematics (he a top math student in in his Gymansium) and (in University) engineering. He had little or no background in philology. All his formal literary studies took place in graduate school at Harvard.

    The field of Classical Studies uses philology to this day. It involves comparative methods, grammatical analysis, explanations of etymology, and historical context in order to precisely elucidate the meanings of the texts under study. It does not precluded close reading (on the contrary). The New Critics complained that this distracted from the study of the text itself, as no doubt in many (or at least some) cases it did. They felt that philological methods had little to do with good writing and, especially, modern literature.

  14. Harold said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 2:43 am

    Sir William Jones (1746-94), who is credited with the observation that classical Greek and Latin seemed to have been derived from Sanskrit (though he was not the first to have observed this, apparently), called himself a "philologer".

    [(myl) Jones' idea was not that Greek and Latin were derived from Sanskrit, but rather that Sanskrit, Persian, Greek, Latin, German, Irish, etc., were a family sharing a common ancestor. For more on the subject, see here.]

  15. Mark Etherton said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 4:09 am

    I've always enjoyed the definition of philology in Christopher Hampton's 'The Philanthropist': the one subject that combines the boredom of the science faculties with the uselessness of the arts faculties.

  16. Victoria Simmons said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 7:17 am

    The New Critics' dislike of philologists' interest in things such as etymologies is matched on the social sciences side. In my university's folklore program the word 'philology' was used with great contempt of those who worked with texts of the past. The emphasis in folkloristics on fieldwork, context, performance, and a social-sciences version of critical theory does in fact create something of a chasm between myth-specialists based in the social sciences and those in language & literature departments whose training is usually in literary theory and who are likely to be fans of scholars such as Eliade and Campbell, whose stars have waned (or never shone very brightly) in the social sciences. It's not like contemporary fieldwork techniques or performance theory can be applied to the Ulster Cycle, so other forms of analysis have to be employed if such texts are to be studied as folk narrative. But literature specialists who attempt such study, often employing comparative linguistics and comparative myth (and often, admittedly, without formal training in either), are treated with deep suspicion, as if they were gentleman scholars mired in the outdated armchair anthropology of James Frazer, and incapable of the hyperspecialist contextualizing and methodological rigor expected of contemporary scholarship. One folklorist of my acquaintance who uses the term 'philologist' of such scholars uses it in the same breath with 'avocational folklorist' and 'Victorian cabinet of curiosities.' So, yeah, phrenology.

  17. Victoria Simmons said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 7:25 am

    Of course, 'folklorist' is now going the way of 'philologist,' so many of those with folklore degrees are now calling themselves anthropologists or area specialists (Italian Studies, Asian Studies, American Studies, etc.).

  18. BK said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 8:47 am

    Whether one is comfortable saying what de Man did can be correctly called 'philology' or not, it makes sense to me that a deconstructionist would associate himself with philology/linguistic analysis and 'close reading' as opposed to other kinds of literary analysis being done at the time. Deconstructionists were attempting analyses in which "there is nothing outside the text;" they shared more with new criticism and structuralism than with approaches that brought historic, social, and biographical facts into play.

  19. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 9:28 am

    If I remember correctly, Seth Lerer, a specialist in Old and Middle English at UC San Diego (formerly at Stanford), calls himself a philologist. A few years ago he published a book called "Inventing English"; the book is plagued with errors resulting from Lerer's apparent ignorance of other languages that might have influenced English, such as Old French and Gaelic.

  20. Sally Thomason said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 9:44 am

    To me, philology and historical linguistics overlap, but both have distinctive aspects as well. When, eons ago, my graduate-school Gothic professor suggested that I write my dissertation on the meanings of words for war & peace in Indo-European languages, I found that a profoundly philological topic. Also a profoundly boring one, but that was a matter of taste. Nowadays, if I'm reconstructing (for instance) Proto-Salishan pronouns, I'm doing historical linguistics but not philology; but if I'm making use of the superb thousand-page 19th-century Jesuit dictionary of Montana Salish for historical or synchronic analysis, I have to use the philological skills that historical linguists learn — interpreting underdifferentiated orthography, spotting words the priests might have invented for religious terminology, watching out for changed English meanings (in the Jesuits' translations) in the intervening 130 years, that sort of thing. (Salishan: a 23-language family in the Pacific Northwest = Washington, B.C., Oregon, Idaho, Montana.)

  21. languagehat said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 11:38 am

    As a historical linguist manqué, I find that Sally Thomason's distinctions correspond well with my own understanding of the term.

    [(myl) This is a better-informed and more concrete version of my understanding as well, though I'm no kind of historical linguist at all. And in that sense of the term philology, it seems to me that neither Paul de Man nor any of the other inventors or inheritors of late-20th-century literary "theory" ever did anything remotely resembling philology at all.]

  22. Victor Mair said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 11:44 am

    Here's a follow-up to this post:

    "Philology and Sinology"


  23. Rod Johnson said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 2:01 pm

    Shout out to Victoria Simmons for her great post above–that really pulled a lot of pieces together for me. Thanks.

  24. leoboiko said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 3:08 pm

    In Brazil "philology" was what "linguistics" opposed during the 20th century, and for a while there was a feud between the two fields about which would dominate the various "letters" departments. The way I see it, the difference was one of focus, and of emphasis. Emphasis because "linguistics" brought a new, refreshing orientation towards living languages, rather than classics; towards speech, rather than writing; everyday language, rather than the literary and elevated; science, rather than humanities; theoretical generalizations, rather than textual particulars. And of focus, because linguistics had quite well-defined programs (the faculty of language, ethnolinguistic documentation, SLA, etc.), whereas philology was much more open-ended; a good philologist would be expected to be conversant not only in historical linguistics but also literary history, actual history, philosophy, anthropology, palæography, anything he or she might need to better understand the text in its context.

    For those who can read Portuguese, Cristina Altman has written a lot on the historiography of this Brazilian academic turn.

    Speaking personally, I know a few professors who still identify as "philologists" in this sense and who are still bitter about losing space (and funding!) to the "linguists". I find this to be a shame, as I find those broad-ranging Classics studies fascinating, and I believe they'd benefit greatly from a friendlier attitude towards modern linguistics.

  25. Rod Johnson said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 3:10 pm

    Here's a useful paper (PDF) exploring what de Man (and Edward Said!) meant by "the return to Philology." It seems clear that the idea has complex roots and there's more going on than de Man arbitrarily appropriating a prestigious term for his own use.

    [(myl) Hmm. That paper seems to be saying that de Man and Said independently appropriated a prestigious term for their disparate purposes, without knowing anything much about the topic, and therefore giving the term philology two radically different meanings, neither of which had anything much in common with what the term really meant in practice during its heyday:

    Although neither gave evidence of actual philological expertise, both de Man and Said suggested that the origins of their own advanced practices were to be found in this most traditional, indeed, regressive of all scholarly practices. […]

    It seems strange that the leaders of two such divergent critical movements should have ended their careers and indeed their lives with the same diagnosis of criticism's current state, and the same cure; and stranger still that both should have claimed to be the true heir of the philological tradition. Strangest of all, however, is the fact that Said and de Man used the same word to denote such utterly different things: intimacy, resistance, emancipation, and historical knowledge for Said, and, for de Man, a harsh and explicit corrective to precisely such humanistic fantasies, as he regarded them. It is as if each had appropriated the term "philology" for his own purposes, without regard to its meaning.


  26. languagehat said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 8:51 am

    And in that sense of the term philology, it seems to me that neither Paul de Man nor any of the other inventors or inheritors of late-20th-century literary "theory" ever did anything remotely resembling philology at all.

    I quite agree, but then it seems to me (as a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic about Theory) that neither Paul de Man nor any of the other inventors or inheritors of late-20th-century literary "theory" ever did anything remotely resembling a contribution to human knowledge.

  27. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 10:24 am

    There is some stuff in this prior comment thread http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4271 about the use of the word "philology" in academic titles and the like in the early U.S. history (or prehistory, if you prefer) of the academic discipline now generally known as linguistics.

  28. Rod Johnson said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 11:27 am

    Mark: yes, that's what I took from it too, but not arbitrarily–rather the term indicated some kind of (imagined?) previous status quo that the trend they were reacting against (structuralism, scientism, who knows) defined itself in opposition to. So the choice of philology reveals a real fault-line in their discipline, though what they did with it might be somewhat nonsensical.

  29. Joe said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 12:56 pm

    @languagehat: "…neither Paul de Man nor any of the other inventors or inheritors of late-20th-century literary 'theory' ever did anything remotely resembling a contribution to human knowledge"

    Oh come on—at least they provide a counterpoint (from their view, a straw man) from which you can be skeptical about. LL wouldn't be so entertaining without Mark's little jabs at "Theory".

    It is quite interesting to watch the critics for and against "Theory" have at each other in these forums. Pro-Theory types rail against the Anti-Theory types' naiveté, limited scope, and faith in the unproblematic nature of terms like "philology". The Anti-Theory guys accuse the other camp of wrongness, ignorance, laziness, and unintelligibility. You can even find epithets like "terrorist" and "Nazi" in there—one only has to search "Derrida" in LL to see the gamut of these accusations.
    In a lecture about Pragmatics and Philosophy, I tried to explain why Derrida didn't believe in "context" in speech acts—he preferred, instead, to explain it through "iterability". I had to add that "iterability" is distinct from "irritability"—the feeling critics of Derrida have whenever they tried to read him.

    [(myl) To be charged with "faith in the unproblematic nature of terms like 'philology'" seems a bit unfair, given that we've devoted several thousand words to exploring the various things that the term has apparently been taken to mean at various times, in various places, and for various individuals and groups.]

  30. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 1:26 pm

    It is also possible that the Theory guys are not a unified whole when it comes to the presence or absence of intellectual value, even though both their supporters and detractors tend to treat them as such (thus disincentivizing even mild skeptics to try to sort wheat from chaff). I had a friend back in college (one-time apartment-mate, fellow punk-rock dj at the radio station, etc.) who did the Lit major referred to in the other thread (intended for undergrads who wanted a larger dose of Theory than the English major would, in those days, tolerate w/o the foreign-language chops the Comp Lit major required) who IIRC thought that most of those famous French guys who were in vogue at the time were significantly overrated, but that Deleuze and Guattari were the Real Deal. (I'm not claiming he was necessarily right, only pointing out that it was and is possible to draw distinctions like that.) And to this day I treasure my physical copy of a particular book by Baudrillard, because it was a present from a long-ago girlfriend, although I realize that sounds in hindsight like a bit of a parody of what college-town undergraduate romance might have been like circa 1986.

  31. languagehat said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 2:07 pm

    Oh come on—at least they provide a counterpoint (from their view, a straw man) from which you can be skeptical about.

    Well, obviously I was being deliberately provocative, but I wouldn't want to be lumped in with "the Anti-Theory types' naiveté, limited scope, and faith in the unproblematic nature of terms like 'philology.'" I made a serious effort to understand Derrida and some of the others back around 1979-80, when I was working in a New Haven bookstore that catered to the academic crowd and (obviously) carried a lot of Theory books; I didn't want to seem like a dummy to the clientele, and I went so far as to attend Derrida's lectures when he visited town. I found him charming in person and a lively speaker; alas, when I went back to the books, full of hope, I found them as impenetrable as before. Now, it's possible that I simply needed to put in a lot more effort, to immerse myself for months, maybe years, in the foundational works and work my way up to the present, and then All would have become Clear. Out of self-preservation, I chose to believe instead in the Emperor's New Clothes theory.

  32. Ray Dillinger said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 2:15 pm

    I know nothing of de Man's career, but I had always seen "Philology" as a name for the study of language focused on writing and reading, much as "Linguistics" is a name for the study of language focused on speaking and listening.

    My own study of most foreign languages, such as it is, is much more Philology than Linguistics, because what is important to me is to be able to read and if absolutely necessary write texts in those languages. I care a lot about grammar, sentence structure, declinations, forms of reference, etc. But I do not care about pronunciation or phonotactics, etc, except insofar as they serve as mnemonics for the symbols I work with, or help to explain why to choose *this* (written) word over *that* (written) word or what additional meanings one may hint at via the choice.

  33. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 4:47 pm

    MYL: The paper by Geoffrey Galt Harpham that Rod Johnson linked to goes on to say, "It is tempting, reading Said and de Man, to think that one of them must simply have gotten it wrong, but philology actually answers to both of their accounts."

  34. JW Mason said,

    April 22, 2014 @ 5:48 pm

    Now, it's possible that I simply needed to put in a lot more effort, to immerse myself for months, maybe years, in the foundational works and work my way up to the present, and then All would have become Clear.


  35. languagehat said,

    April 22, 2014 @ 6:41 pm

    A very apposite video!

  36. Geoff Nunberg said,

    April 22, 2014 @ 11:51 pm

    I like what Sally said about the difference. To us, it's true, there can seem to be an unfathomable distance between the two conceptions of philology—between the heroic ambition of Vico's "awareness of peoples' languages and deeds" and the fastidious nitpicking of old-fashioned historical linguistics. But I think of the two as paired. as a technique and an (often-lost-sight-of) critical object. Annie Zaenen once pointed out to me the pun hidden in the title of Arsène Darmesteter's classic outline of philology La Vie des Mots, which could also be read as "L'avis des mots," or loosely, "what words can teach." Or as it was put by Archdeacon Richard Chevenix Trench, one of the guiding spirits of the OED project:

    We could scarcely have a lesson on the growth of our English tongue, we could scarcely follow upon one of its significant words, without having unawares a lesson in English history as well, without not merely falling upon some curious fact illustrative of our national life, but learning also how the great heart which is beating at the centre of that life, was being gradually shaped and moulded.

    But whatever the intellectual genealogies here, I don't see how linguists could be in a position to assert ownership of the term or to decide who has a legitimate right to use it.

  37. Joe said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 12:41 pm

    @myl: "To be charged with 'faith in the unproblematic nature of terms like 'philology" seems a bit unfair, given that we've devoted several thousand words to exploring the various things that the term has apparently been taken to mean at various times, in various places, and for various individuals and groups.'

    @Robert: "Apropos of not so much, wasn't Nietzsche in fact Professor of Philology, or do I misremember?"

    As Mark points out in the post following this, Nietzsche was, in fact, a student and professor of philology when he first started out. He described philology as slow reading where, I'm sure, De Man pulls his definition from. What Nietzsche means by "slow reading" is somewhat complex and, indeed, problematic because he believed that philology as practiced during his time ideologically rejected its own true nature – which, to Nietzsche, was a study of antiquities as closely interpreted through the magnifying lens of modernity.

    This kind of inversion (some say "deconstruction") is the stuff that pro-theory folks love. The anti-theory folks will certainly devote "several thousand words to exploring to exploring the various things that the term has apparently been taken to mean at various times, in various places, and for various individuals and groups" but, in the end, exclude this stuff precisely because they're inversions/deconstructions. And this is exactly why the pro-theory folks feel that the anti-theory folks are ideologically naive and faithful to the unproblematic and conventional.

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