Playing philologist at summer camp

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In response to "What would a "return to philology" be a return to?", Omri Ceren proposes a simple explanation for Paul de Man's assertion that literary "theory" was just a return to philology:

You might be overthinking the de Man thing.

He did the same thing with "philology" that he did with "rhetoric." It's just the bald assertion that he's doing the same thing you're doing, except he doesn't want to put in the time learning specialized methods or doing the empirical grunt work (sustained effort, especially in de Man's case, not being the hallmark of the deconstructionists).

Philologists analyzed the evolution of words to study the structure of language; de Man mentioned words and noticed that language has structure; hey, they're doing the same thing so he must be a philologist too!

It's like summer camp. You get to be whatever you want to be. He pulled the same nonsense with rhetoric. Rhetoricians analyze tropes to understand how language becomes persuasive; de Man mentioned tropes and noted that language is persuasive; hey, they're doing the same thing so he must be a rhetorician too! 

You'd think he's just trying to hijack the ethos of philology for whatever hand-waving he's engaged in, and you'd be mostly right. But there's also a more pernicious move, which becomes more noticeable when it's applied to scientific rather than humanistic disciplines (though it's applied by this crowd to both). It's the same double-move every time: "rigorous methods don't have any privileged access to knowledge" (the you're-not-doing-anything-special move) and "postmodern methods are just as rigorous as any other methods" (the what-we're-doing-is-just-as-special-as-what-you're doing move).


Or more tersely, now that I've read his philology essay: "hey, philologists think about language; I Paul de Man think about language; I'm doing philology too!"

The move requires a strange combination, driven by a con man's confidence but insulated by ignorance.

If we take some uncontroversial 30,000ft view of knowledge — disciplines split off when particular methodologies align nicely with particular objects of study, so that we can squeeze out new insights — then you can see how total ignorance of specialized methodologies would help. If you don't actually know what someone is doing, you can say with confidence you're doing the same things they are. So Lacanians who can't do math or logic claim they're doing analytical philosophy. Literary scholars who have not the foggiest clue about phonology or morphology are doing philology. And per Richard Rorty, we're all doing science, because after all that's just a narrative too.

There's an anti-intellectual version of this conceit, which is buoyed by the kind of journalism that insists experts ain't all that smart anyways. There's a version found in the workaday academy, which is usually cashed out as complaints about boundary policing. But if you're a former Nazi sympathizer with a European accent taking in the rarefied air of the 1960s humanities, it goes all the way to being the height of sophistication.

I'll add another perhaps-relevant factor:  the supreme intellectual prestige of "philology" in Europe through the middle of the 19th century, and to some extent until WW I. Thus de Man implicitly positions post-modernism as a return to pre-modern verities. The publisher's blurb for James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (2014) explains:

Many today do not recognize the word, but "philology" was for centuries nearly synonymous with humanistic intellectual life, encompassing not only the study of Greek and Roman literature and the Bible but also all other studies of language and literature, as well as religion, history, culture, art, archaeology, and more. In short, philology was the queen of the human sciences. How did it become little more than an archaic word? In Philology, the first history of Western humanistic learning as a connected whole ever published in English, James Turner tells the fascinating, forgotten story of how the study of languages and texts led to the modern humanities and the modern university.


  1. Rod Johnson said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 3:03 pm

    I want to say this is too cynical, though with de Man I'm not sure if there is such a thing. But it's worth noting that de Man, along with Derrida, was given to playing around somewhat loosely with etymology, especially with respect to Greek, as a way of exploring word meanings. This tendency goes back to Heidegger and probably beyond, and I think provides a more specific link to philology than just "thoughts about language."

    I'm guessing Saussure might play a role here too, as a prestigious exemplar of "thoughts about language" who had been adopted as a forebear in mid-century and later French thought. If you see yourself as working "in the tradition of" (even if in opposition to) Saussure and Saussure was a philologist, you might as well claim that distinction for yourself, why not?

  2. Julian Bradfield said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 3:21 pm

    Doesn't this "reader" have a name?

    [(myl) I always ask correspondents for consent before publishing their names, and I haven't gotten a response yet in this case.

    We don't require commenters to provide their true names, and I don't see any clear reason to treat this sort of thing differently.

    Update — now that I have permission, I've de-anonymized the quotations.]

  3. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 4:56 pm

    Omri Ceren is da Man.

  4. George Amis said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 10:16 pm

    For what it's worth, the OED comments:
    "In classical Greek and Latin, the word [grammar] denoted the methodical study of literature (='philology' in its widest modern sense) including textual and aesthetic criticism, investigation of literary history and antiquities, explanation of allusions, etc, besides the study of Greek and Latin languages."

    I very much doubt that Paul de Man would have recognized that definition of philology if it had came up and peed on his leg, but then I'm afraid I think de Man is best understood as a con man.
    (When I was an undergraduate in the 1950's, and very much taken with what I suppose would now be called the old New Criticism, in a version which excluded from consideration pretty much everything but the text of the poem we were reading, one of my Greek teachers showed me an article or perhaps occasional piece by, I think, Gilbert Murray, written much earlier, called 'Confessio Grammatici', which adopted something very much like the OED's ancient definition of grammar=philology. I was properly abashed.)

  5. William Flesch said,

    April 20, 2014 @ 11:39 pm

    I half agree with this. A lot of de Man's stylistic self-presentation came from a sort of T.S. Eliot pose of orthodoxy crossed with radicalism. So his claim to be doing philology might be BS for almost all values of philology. But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. He was a dynamite literary critic — he really was — and dismissing his literary critical work as a con because of his biography, instead of actually doing the work you'd need to do to understand his critical approach, is as indefensible as his own brandishing of a philological pedigree.

    It is true that, as a previous commenter said, de Man's invocation of philology was almost certainly looking to Nietzsche-as-philologist, and to Nietzsche's philosophical ideas about figurative language.

    As for Lacanians claiming to do analytic philosophy — do they? Who? Where? (I'm skeptical that this is a serious thread in Lacanian theorizing, but not dogmatic, not having a dogma in that fight.) Lacan said some stupid things about topology, but that doesn't seem to me to be the same thing.

    [(myl) Can you suggest one of his works that gives a sense of de Man's value as a literary critic? After reading three of his essays, I don't see the dynamite. I'd concluded that his appeal is like one of those jokes where "you had to be there", but I'm open to enlightenment.

    As for the influence of Nietzsche, Omri Ceren sent me a page from an English translation of Nietzsche's lecture notes for a seminar on Rhetoric given in Basel in 1892-93, full of old-fashioned crunchy philological goodness:

    I haven't seen anything of this sort in de Man's work, nor for that matter anything else that would cash in his claim that "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".]

  6. William Flesch said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 9:25 am

    Well, this is a little hard since de Man doesn't mean much to me any more as someone I'm interested in rereading, and in fact I was always critical of him (cf. my pieces in Responses and in Tainted Greatness, among other places), but: "Shelley Disfigured" in Deconstruction and Criticism is a great (and intentionally provocative) essay; "Autobiography as Defacement" is wonderful on Wordsworth; there's his classic older essay "The Rhetoric of Temporality," and for another older (and less deliberately provocative) piece of just good lit crit there's his intro to the Signet edition of Keats's poetry, which is really superb; the reading of Proust in Allegories of Reading is very helpful: there are more, but it's one of those things where the more immersed you are in a writer the more what de Man has to say about him (I can't think of places where he's written about women) really deepens your sense of that writer, or at least of the writers I've mentioned.

    To put it another way, he has strongly affected my sense of Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Proust; and to some extent affected my sense of Yeats, Kleist, Mallarmé, Rousseau, and Pascal, and I am pretty confident that the first five are writers I have really deep professional knowledge of (and passion for). I don't take a de Manian view of them, but my views were formed in part by learning, a lot, from de Man, and my love of them was certainly informed by his accounts of them.

    I'll also add that his very late essays on Aesthetic Ideology in Kant (about The Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, the first half of the Third Critique), and in Kant and Schiller (where Kleist comes up) are deep.

    [(myl) Thanks — I'll look at those.]

  7. William Flesch said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 9:36 am

    Oh, to continue, de Man's invocation of philology is really his way of telling his students to learn something about tropes. The trope he was really interested in at the end was prosopopoeia. It's not that he was doing philological research: he was arguing against a way of reading that tended to "decode" figurative language to see what it really meant, to look for the vehicle under the tenor. De Man wanted to preserve the strangeness of the figurations, hence his insistence on a strict distinction between allegory and symbolism, since allegory could never collapse into its "meaning" whereas symbolism (as he reads the German idealist tradition and its Coleridgean manifestation in Anglo-American criticism) is all about how great such a collapse is.

    So he would look at the classical accounts of figures of speech and thought — Quintillian, e.g. — and pay attention to their structures and implications. That was the part of Nietzsche that he valued, and since Nietzsche knew about these things as a philologist (which de Man was not, no way, I absolutely admit), de Man was trying to push the idea that careful and close reading, not Nietzschean celebration of passion, affirmation, amor fati, etc., was what you should pay attention to in Nietzsche. De Man's claim was that you could only say something that mattered if you took the scholarship seriously, and that Nietzsche did take it seriously. De Man was no scholar — I think that's what people are complaining about, and I can't disagree — but he did take the scholarship seriously (e.g. in the generation before his: Auerbach, Spitzer, Curtius), and I think that's underappreciated now.

  8. cameron said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 9:37 am

    A criticism of linguistics that Derrida often made was that linguistics improperly privileges speech over writing. Perhaps De Man was adopting the term "philology" as a name for a style of linguistics that focuses on written texts more than on speech.

    [(myl) Many linguists work mainly with written texts, but this doesn't help us to find much content in what Derrida had to say about analyzing them. I was struck by this passage in Louis Menand's review of Barish's book:

    Deconstruction is all about interrogating apparently unproblematic terms. It’s like digging a hole in the middle of the ocean with a shovel made of water.

    Which, when you watch it being done by a writer like Derrida, can be exhilarating.

    I'm afraid that I never caught the thrill. Or even much splashing.]

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 9:44 am

    It is I think worth recalling the embarrassing fact that, as I understand it, most/all of those Heavy French Dudes who were so fashionable in the lit-crit world in U.S. college towns back in the '80's (Derrida, Barthes, etc etc etc, with de Man being congruent with, if not necessarily fully a part of, that scene) understood themselves as having an academic/intellectual lineage that went straight back to Saussure via intermediaries like Levi-Strauss. Linguistics academics who think of that sort of "Theory" as total bunkum, and "semiotics" as no more than palm-reading with more turgid professional jargon may gain some insight from reflecting on how they do or don't bear a family resemblance to these unacknowledged half-cousins resulting from dear old Grandpa Ferdinand's bigamy.

    My impression of the anthropological structure of intellectual life in New Haven back in the day is that the Ling Dep't faculty, whether Larry Horn or myl's late father or anyone in between, didn't tend to hang out with de Man and his crowd despite having offices only a few blocks apart from each other, but I could be wrong about that. Note, however, that in a rather different way the long time Ling Dep't mainstay Rulon Wells (with whom I never took a class) did serve the older sort of philological enterprise by collaborating with Robert Brumbaugh (who taught the ancient philosophy survey I took as a freshman, and doesn't seem to have an obit online although he must be 95 or so by now if still alive) by creating a pre-internet database of microfilms of all extent medieval-and-earlier MSS of Plato, to facilitate systematic study of variant textual readings — a lovely example of the sort of labor-intensive gruntwork the Theory guys tended not to want to get involved with.

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 10:06 am

    FWIW, I have heard it said from varied sources that de Man was (to use my own simile) sort of like a musician who you really had to have seen live because for whatever reasons the studio recordings never quite captured his particular gifts, i.e., many of those who interacted with him in person as grad students, colleagues, etc remained impressed-to-star-struck years or decades down the road even though it is quite difficult reading his published works cold to understand what all the fuss was about. This is, of course, not inconsistent with the "charismatic con-man" thesis.

  11. William Flesch said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 10:42 am

    I agree with J.W. Brewer on de Man in person, and the both thrilling and questionable character of his charisma.

    Yale linguistics in the seventies included Edward Stankiewicz from whom I took a class on linguistics and poetics. I don't know what he thought about Yale Comp Lit at the time, though he wasn't obviously hostile to them in the class; and Jakobson was obviously equally important to him and to de Man (it's actually somewhat surprising that Jakobson doesn't come up more in discussions of de Man: I think he was far more important to him than Saussure was, especially "Two Types of Aphasia," and the closing statement on "Linguistics and Poetics" in Style and Language.) I am not clear what people think about Jakobson these days: there was quite a takedown of him in TLS a few years ago, but I always found him stimulating.

  12. cameron said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 11:15 am

    I wonder, would LL readers agree that How To Kill A Dragon by the late Calvert Watkins is a work that can be categorized as as "philology"?

  13. Rod Johnson said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 11:37 am

    De Man somewhere spends some ink talking about the Greek roots of crisis, criticism, etc., though not with the erudition of Nietzsche or the expansiveness of Derrida on pharmakon and the like. As I mentioned above, there's a kind of tradition of drive-by etymologizing in continental philosophy since Heidegger where it's almost de rigeur to talk about the Greek roots of philosophical terms. Sartre does the same thing.

    As for Lacanians and analytic philosophy… not sure if this is serious. Does Lacan ever claim to be doing analytic philosophy in the Frege/Russell/Moore tradition? I would have thought "analysis" to Lacan specifically referred to psychoanalysis, not ordinary language philosophy.

  14. Rod Johnson said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 11:39 am

    Speaking of Calvert Watkins, there's a lovely essay of his called "What is Philology?" (I think) in which he cites Jakobson's definition of it as "slow reading."

  15. Joe said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 11:44 am

    Probably irrelevant, but—Nietzsche taught "classical philology" in Basel in his early 20s, in the 1870s. He had his nervous breakdown in the 1890s which did, in fact, take him back to Basel but as a patient in a psychiatric clinic. Not sure if he taught any classes there while he was sick.

  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 12:23 pm

    Re Rod Johnson's mention of that tradition of "drive-by etymologizing," I am reminded of the following amusing excerpt from someone-or-other's review of someone else's book that got block-quoted on languagehat a while back:

    Heidegger preferred fragments to whole works, and single words to fragments. For him, a word like aletheia contained the hidden sense of knowledge as unforgettingness, something the Romantic poets had intuited. ‘Heidegger’s Greeks do not so much compose literary or philosophical texts,’ the classicist Glenn Most has written, ‘as rather simply enounce to one another these primal philosophical terms. They look at one another, say phusis, and nod slowly.’

  17. Rod Johnson said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 12:34 pm

    Now I have a picture of Greek philosophy as, basically, a bunch of Deadheads in a dorm room.

  18. William Flesch said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 12:40 pm

    I think Glenn may have TA'd for de Man. He certainly TA'd for Lit X, which was part of the new Lit Major at Yale that de Man, Hartman, and Peter Brooks had established when Glenn was a grad student there (and my RA freshman year — he and his roommate weren't Deadheads, but we were).

  19. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 1:05 pm

    The plot thickens – I had not meant by borrowing that entertaining quote w/o googling its author to get us right back to one-degree-of-separation from de Man (who, now that I have done some googling, seems to have chaired Prof. Most's dissertation committee).

  20. Milan said,

    April 21, 2014 @ 7:13 pm

    I'm probably a bit late to the discussion of "philology"s meaning, but I can say that in German ("Philologie") it refers to the combined study of language and literature, so it is not very different from the broader English meaning.
    Now imagine my surprise when I learnt that the Germen Philologists' Association ("Deutscher Philologenverband") is a union of grammar school teacher. The name goes back to 1921, when they switched from a more descriptive one, probably in order to emphasize their conservative profile in the volatile times of the early Weimar Republic.

  21. Carole Chaski said,

    April 22, 2014 @ 7:42 am

    I was trained in philology because I majored in Ancient Greek at Bryn Mawr: I loved it for the intricacies of the structure of Ancient Greek as well as for a method for grounding interpretation in text, and meaning discovered through textual adpositions and logic. I also majored in English: most of the English department's staff were "New Critics" –that is, structural textual critics but we had to read the latest literary theory in Senior Seminar. Frankly, the "latest literary theory" after textual criticism was like drinking water after milk. I spent many year affiliated with English departments as a linguist, and found that literary analysis got more and more watery, until the last guest lecture I heard: a professor from Duke presented an autobiographical analysis of a novel. I had heard of and read biographical criticism: this method was anathema to the structural textual critics who believed that meaning could be derived from the text without knowing anything about the author, and that really great authors would not be writing specifically about themselves all the time anyway. But now even knowing anything about the author didn't matter: the analysis was all about how the critic could and did relate the literary text to her own life. I listened to stories that the guest lecturer told about her own life and never did find out what the literary text was about. This was "reader-response theory" to the extreme, and a natural consequence of literary theory's abandonment of structural textual criticism. All text is just a mirror for the reader, and language means what it means to the reader, not to readers (plural). As a scientist trying to navigate these academic waters, I was stunned that the study of English had become so solipsistic that a replicable or common reading was considered impossible. I jumped ship.

  22. Rod Johnson said,

    April 22, 2014 @ 10:16 am

    Two observations:

    (1) From these discussions, it appears "philology" is kind of a disciplinary Rorschach blot, onto which scholars project their own preoccupations about language, with no fixed meaning beyond their own local tradition and some intuitions about what philos and logos suggest. And it's often used as one pole of a binary opposition, usually denoting an older way of doing things against some newfangled way–but what that newfangled way is varies widely. I imagine there are many similar cases in a fragmented academy. (See also structuralism, deconstruction(ism), postmodernism, behaviorism, positivism, scientism, reductionism, Boasian "butterfly collecting," etc., which are often (not always!) used as rhetorical devices without much attention to what, if anything, they denote.)

    (2) Lots of people are comfortable rejecting whatever they take "theory" to be, based on their own largely unexamined premises about what their discipline would be if it just clung to good old-fashioned pragmatic common sense analysis of the sort their advisor used to have to walk two miles uphill in the snow to do, and to hell with your fancy horseless carriages, and they like to tell anecdotes about it. As Carole Chaski's account suggests, this is at least partly an aesthetic choice (water vs. milk, i.e., taste) rather than anything particularly reasoned. That's not to say that there *aren't* reasons to find any particular version of "theory" misguided, but there's often more than a whiff of Puritanism about this reaction.

    So Mark's original question—what does "philology" mean?–basically has no answer beyond whatever battle for the soul of whatever discipline one is concerned about.

  23. A Reader said,

    April 22, 2014 @ 1:14 pm

    It's interesting (to me, at least) that 'philology' is so often contrasted with linguistics, since this seems to ignore a lot of the useful adjectives that define various 'philologies' fairly precisely. In particular, 'comparative philology' basically refers to a branch of linguistics – it's not just a synonym for historical linguistics, since the focus in comparative philology is specifically on the comparative method and linguistic reconstruction (the awkward 'historical-comparative linguistics' seems to mean essentially the same thing). There isn't any really serious debate about what this term means, and it contrasts pretty straightforwardly with textual philology (which is, as far as I can tell, what most linguists mean when they use 'philology' without qualification).

    It sometimes seems like some linguists not only conceive of philology as 'something else', but are emphatically not 'comparative philologists' even when doing linguistic reconstruction. I wonder if this is in part because of the efforts of a lot of linguistics to have the appearance of 'science', which makes the humanistic connotations of 'philology' problematic. (That humanistic = scientific = less rigorous/valuable is another issue, which people like de Man apparently didn't do much to ameliorate.)

  24. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 22, 2014 @ 2:41 pm

    To me, "philology" has for a long time meant "what linguistics was (and also what it was called) back in the day". I understand that this is not the whole truth (philology was more and broader), but linguistics seems to be the outgrowth of philology concerned with the study of language proper.

  25. Rod Johnson said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 8:06 am

    I don't think that's really accurate. Philology was a thread in the development of linguistics as a discipline, but not the only one and in the US, at least, not the main one. In the US, at least, the tradition of Boas and Kroeber, and then Sapir and Bloomfield, and the myriad descriptive linguists they trained, had little to do with traditional philology and more to do with anthropological methods. The UK had a a similar tradition, via J.R. Firth and Daniel Jones. All these people came out of a broader tradition of 19th century psychology and sociology, and not out of philology per se.

    I would say the primary distinguishing concept of structural linguistics was probably the phoneme, which I don't think was something philology was ever that clear on and came primarily from Saussure. You could probably draw a line through the work of Saussure, who came from a philological tradition but ended up somewhere very different with the Cours. Twentieth century linguistics, is probably more indebted to the Cours than any other work.

  26. David Golumbia said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 9:41 am

    This discussion and the others it connects to make me a bit sad, as it seems to me to pile on an entire group of thinkers without imaginging what they might mean if read more charitably.

    "Philology," as a few commentators note above, is a word with multiple meanings over the 19th and 20th centuries. It has meant both something like an entirely general science of history (in the early 19c) to the study of Greek and Latin texts (using any method, but only those cultures). The "philology" de Man is referring to is "philological literary criticism," or literary criticism which pays careful attention to language, especially tropes of various sorts, and has exponents among some of the best-known critics of the early 20th century, most of them European emigres, including Erich Auerbach and Leo Sptizer. These folks were in contact with the linguists of their day, but linguistics was not their primary focus. There is some interesting contact between Sptizer and Bloomfield, who were contemporaries.

    This is the "philology" de Man asked us to "return" to, a kind of microscopic close reading that is long-recognized as a method in literary studies and that de Man himself did actually practice.

    Philology has other meanings even within literary studies, including the classical philology some commentators mention above (Edward Said, a major fan of de Man, also has an essay called "The Return to Philology," that points in an entirely different but also well-established aspect of literary studies); but this polysemy is not equivalent to a crisis, scandal, or illegitimate appropriation.

  27. William Flesch said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 10:21 am

    What David Golumbia says.

  28. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 2:23 pm

    @ Rod Johnson

    I'm historically underinformed; undoubtedly I am extrapolating from the usages of the word "philology" I am encountering now. (What did the types of guys we nowadays call "philologists" do? Researching languages, writing dictionaries, researching texts in old languages, …, doing things with literature in a very broad sense [fair enough!]). I don't know if my perception is biased from a linguistic perspective or whether the other philologies just don't make much of an appearance today.

    That not all of philology is contained in what's now linguistics is quite clear, but I'm wondering about the contributions to linguistics which you say didn't come from philology. You mention the fields of anthropology, sociology, and psychology. If I think about this, it seems like they constitute methodological influences, but as far as the object of study is concerned, linguistics is a clear move away from anthropology. (There are connections between linguistics and sociology and psychology, but sociology and psychology are young disciplines that were still growing during the wane of the age of philology.)

  29. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 3:10 pm

    There is a sort of circularity here, because contending that de Man, in particular, ought to be read charitably sort of begs the qu . . . um, assumes the conclusion. This whole discussion arises out of recent publicity given to the new biography (brave expose? ugly hatchet-job?) about de Man which might lead one to conclude that attempting to read de Man charitably is not a useful way to spend ones time. Maybe that's right or maybe it's wrong. I think it's generally a good idea to try to read people you think you may disagree with charitably, because inter alia that's a good way to learn things you might otherwise not, but it's a rebuttable presumption, and at some point, you may reach a sufficient level of confidence that a particular fellow is or was a fraud/charlatan/con-man such that to read him charitably (or recommend to others that they do so) is in some sense to help perpetuate a cover-up. Are we at that point with de Man? That's the question on the table. Now, it certainly still remains possible that a fraud and fabulist may at some point in his life have said or written something that happens to be true and important, but . . . that's the tale of the boy who cried wolf, isn't it?

    The thing is, de Man himself is more than 30 years in the grave, so who cares? Well, if he was a con-man, he was a quite successful one, and many of those he (on that assumption) conned are still around and in positions of authority in the academy. The notion that if all these impressive people took him seriously there by definition must have been some substance to his scholarly work (however regrettable his conduct in his personal life may have been) is lurking there in the background, and is imho a potentially pernicious one. Because, you know, the Elite Never Makes Mistakes. If he were an outright fraud, he would not have been tenured at a highly prestigious university, but he was, therefore he couldn't have been. That sort of (probably largely tacit) reasoning. What if anything the academy could have or should have done differently (w/o unfairly applying 20/20 hindsight, and perhaps the answer is "nothing") may be a question of more than merely, as it were, academic interest.

  30. Rod Johnson said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 3:47 pm

    Early American linguistics was not a move away from anthropology; it was part of anthropology. Frans Boas was the preeminent anthropologist of his day (at least in the US), and founded The International Journal of American Linguistics in 1917 and oversaw the publication of Handbook of American Indian Languages. Kroeber was his student, and under the auspices of the University of California Museum of Anthropology, where he was the director, an enormous amount of linguistic work describing languages of the Americas was done (plus he was Ursula Le Guin's dad!). Sapir was also a student of Boas's, and was not just a linguist but a cultural anthropologist, who was the head of the Anthropology department at Yale when he died. Another Boas protege, Pliny Earle Godard, got one of the first Ph.D.s in the US for linguistic work (on the grammar of Hupa) and went on to the Anthropology Department at Berkeley and then the Museum of Natural History in New York. And much other early American linguistic work was done with the support of various other anthropological institutions (J.P. Harrington at the Smithsonian, for example).

    Leonard Bloomfield was trained as a philologist, however; I got that wrong above. However, most of his subsequent work was on Algonquian languages, and he did extensive fieldwork, including ethnographic work with the Cree in Canada. Between them, Bloomfield and Sapir trained many of the first generation of American linguists (Morris Swadesh, Benjamin Whorf, Mary Haas, Charles Hockett, Harry Hoijer, Bernard Bloch, Zellig Harris), and Bloomfield in particular was the dominant figure in the field until Chomsky's rise.

    I imagine you could tell a similar story in the UK with Malinowsky and Evans-Pritchard, but I don't know that as well. But in the US, anthropology was absolutely the dominant tradition in the early development of linguistics.

    As for connections with psychology and sociology, Boas's doctorate was on psychophysics, in the tradition of von Helmholtz and Wundt, and Bloomfield was famously an adherent of behaviorism. Saussure's langue/parole distinction was clearly influenced by Durkheim, etc. etc. At Chicago, Sapir was part of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology and associated in some way with the Chicago School of Sociology. All those disciplines were emerging around the same time, and the disciplinary walls were thin, so it's no surprise that people moved easily from one field to another.

    And so on and so on–sorry for the length. There's clearly some fascinating intellectual history to be written about this (if it hasn't been already). The main point here is that early linguistics in the US wasn't especially an outgrowth of the philological tradition.

  31. Rod Johnson said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 4:20 pm

    By the way: I would very much like to read work on the emergence of academic disciplines around the turn of the 20th century, if anyone has a reference.

  32. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 4:26 pm

    The issue I have with the way Rod Johnson is telling the story is that the tradition he is talking about was not necessarily the first on the ground in the American academy. At Yale, for example, before Sapir and Bloomfield got there, there was the earlier tradition of first Whitney and then Oertel, who were very much in the "comparative philology" mode (it said so right on their business cards) and had studied auf Deutsch with the 19th century Herr Doktor Professors who had reconstructed PIE. (Whitney was an echt New England WASP but had had to go to Germany for grad school because e.g. there really weren't any Sanskritists on the ground in the New World to study with in those days). So either there was a coup and that tradition was completely displaced by the Boasians, or there was some sort of synthesis between the two approaches. (And Bloomfield himself had had much that same sort of German-university Indo-Europeanist training. LSA co-founder Edgar Sturtevant may have been kind of a transitional figure at Yale between Oertel's departure and Sapir's arrival because he apparently worked on Native American languages and AmEng regional dialects as well as Hittite – no overspecialization in those days.)

    Elsewhere in the academy, one disciplinary historian claims that the "most popular undergraduate teachers of literature in the early university [meaning in context I think circa 1900-20] were not philologists or research scholars but impressionistic classroom spellbinders and belletrists." So yet another example of what "philology" may be taken to be the opposite of.

  33. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 5:14 pm

    @ Rod Johnson
    Many thanks a lot for your elaborations; this is very informative.

    @ J. W. Brewer
    I find the popularity of fashionable nonsense interesting from a psychological perspective. (What do people get out of it? Why do they think it has something to offer? What is the character of dishonest figures in Theory? What does the work of honest figures in Theory contribute?) I have a number of thoughts, and I hope to append them another time.

    @ J. W. Brewer
    About "classroom spellbinders": And I always thought that having "entertaining" professors for high-profile, large-enrollment, intro-level undergraduate classes in the US was a new thing ☺ I guess they didn't play music upon entering and exiting the lecture hall back then. I wish I could go back in time to find out what invented personal anecdotes sounded like then.

  34. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 5:19 pm

    (PS: "Many thanks a lot" – I'll let someone else figure out how to parse this.)

  35. Rod Johnson said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 5:41 pm

    J.W.B.: You're absolutely correct. It's so hard to tell this story without oversimplifying. That's why I originally said "a thread" but not the main thread. I think the intellectual lineage, if you will, of most linguists in the States goes back (via Chomsky) to American structuralism, neo-Bloomfieldianism, etc. But there are certainly other threads. A big one is the kind of midcentury European structuralism brought to the US by Jakobson and others. I think philology survives mainly in language departments and historical linguistics (which I don't mean dismissively).

    I do think "structural linguistics" constituted a kind of broad orthodoxy that defined itself (partly?) as the opposition to philology rather than its successor, but your question about a coup vs. a synthesis (vs. some other thing) is very interesting. You only have to look at what happened (and keeps on happening) as Chomskyan theory displaced the structuralists (though there were also deep continuities) to wonder if a similar kind of agonizing generational overturn was going on at the turn of the twentieth century. I wish I knew more.

  36. Rod Johnson said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 5:48 pm

    By the way, I was reading around after writing the long comment above, and I found a source saying paleontology essentially doesn't exist anymore as an academic discipline, except perhaps as a branch of museum studies (cruel fate). Is that true!? If it is, it makes me wonder where all that knowledge lives now—has it just been subsumed into evolutionary biology? Will someone, in a generation or so, write a paper urging a "return to paleontology"? How do disciplines die?

  37. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 6:09 pm

    Stephan S.: the fellow I was quoting (Gerald Graff) goes on to give three specific examples of the "spellbinders" he is contrasting with philologists: Wendell Barrett, William Lyon Phelps, and John Erskine (the one wikipedia calls "John Erskine (educator)" to disambiguate him from various Scots noblemen). I don't know that any of the three should be considered a mere showman, but you can google them and draw your own conclusions. Each of the three was rather an important figure in his day, and arguably may still have a living legacy (e.g. Erskine is said to have been the moving force behind the undergraduate "Core" at Columbia that is still kinda sorta in place almost a century later) greater than those of most of the philologists who were contemporaneously publishing away in the Zeitschrift fuer Obskurantische Studien. I took Homeric Greek on one of the upper floors of Phelps Hall, which even though it now houses classicists rather than English profs still embodies a legacy of sorts of W.L. Phelps, since mere teachers (as opposed to major donors to, or at least former presidents of, the university) are rarely commemorated in that fashion.

    I myself as an undergraduate self-consciously avoided large-enrollment classes with "popular" and "charismatic" professors. I think in hindsight this was rather an affectation of youth.

  38. A Reader said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 4:08 am

    Rod Johnsson, while I think you're right to emphasize the centrality of anthropology to US linguistics, I'd say the influence from comparative philology was still a bit larger even than J.W. Brewer's comments imply. We can add Sapir himself to the ranks of those trained in that field, for one thing. With Saussure (or de Saussure? I've seen both in citations, and have never been quite sure which one is the more proper convention), he was certainly innovative, but his preoccupuations with language as language (rather than as, say, corpora) certainly has its roots in neogrammarian discussions – how far one might push that would be an interesting matter to investigate closely, but my inclination would be to say the connections are on the stronger end of things. Beyond that, phonetics owes a very great deal to philologists like Sweet and Sievers, who were certainly very interested in the 'linguistic' question of _why_ sound change happens.

  39. Lane said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 4:57 am

    Since the European tradition has come up several times here, I find it interesting to note (from Berlin) that the Germans keep together the threads that went separate ways in America. You don't study German (Deutsch) oder English (Englisch) but "Germanistik" and "Anglistik". The typical course in Germanistik includes both linguistics and lit — e.g., the Sprachwissenschaft bit on German Wikipedia says that Germanistik includes

    "the German language in both its historical development (diachrony) and with regard to the sychronic functional relationships of individual language systems. Its object of study includes all periods of German, from Old High German through Middle and Early Modern to Modern German.

    In addition, Germanistik analysis the German language in its varied aspects (sounds, written forms, inflectional forms, words, sentences, texts, etc) and in its many sociolinguistic manifestations (colloquial, written language, etc.) and linguistic-geographical divisions (dialects, etc.) "

    [end quote.]

    A quick look at the University of Hamburg Germanistik requirements seems to indicate there's no way around it: a student of Germanistik will do a considerable bit of what we would recognize as linguistics — and even some of what we used to call philology.

    Not being an academic, I'm wondering when and how exactly literature and language parted ways in America while they continue to keep company in Germany. It seems that here, they do exactly what (or even more than) I called for here, a return of linguistic-style language study to American "English" departments.

  40. Lane said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 5:04 am

    Actually, there's more variation here than I just noted: at the Humbolt University, one can in fact study "Deutsch", which includes a required introductory module in linguistics and many linguistics-y offerings — or one may get the degree in "Deutsche Literatur", which does not have the required linguistics, but which does require "Older German Literature", which seems to go back to Middle German and so may sneak in some philology.

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