The dates of texts, particularly when those texts serve as historical or cultural sources, have occupied the attention of scholars since the beginning of scholarship. They were a special preoccupation of the Renaissance philologists, some of whom (such as the incomparable Joseph Scaliger) are known to posterity chiefly as chronographers.
There are, to be sure, dissenting voices:
Literary persons in the middle 20th century, especially those associated with what was known as the New Criticism, emphasized the independence, even the autonomy, of the literary object. They resented dates (and they also resented attribution to particular authors) as tending to fix the text in time, and thus threatening to limit the free play of creative literary interpretation. Dates tend to imply that there is one correct interpretation, which is to be measured against the intentions of the author at the time of writing. Accepting such constraints on interpretation was called the "Biographical Fallacy" by New Critics.
There later arose a more extreme view, which denied not only the desirability but the possibility of knowing dates, or indeed any other fact about the past. This was associated with what has been called Postmodernism. This and the New Criticism have essentially the same result: they keep historical precision at bay, and allow as valid an unlimited number of "readings" of any given literary text, without the constraints which historical knowledge about that text tends to impose. This leaves things wide open for what we may call litmouthing.
But for any other purpose than as something to generate tenurable talk about, texts are better understood in their context, and their position in time is one of the essential components of their context. This applies not just to texts being appreciated as part of literary history, but to documents for any other kind of history. If we possess a handwritten receipt for a dozen eggs at $20, we will be unable to read it as part of economic history unless we know where that document came from (Topeka? Alaska?), and when (1897? 2003?). Similarly, a Chinese poem observing 8th century rhyming conventions will come across as spiffy and fresh if it is an 8th century composition, but as stuffy and archaizing if it comes from the 13th century. In the bickering between Confucians and Micians over the three year mourning custom, who is reacting to whom? Unless we can answer such questions, and sort out such fights, we can do little with the texts other than to sit in a corner with them and say how wonderful they are.
Let it be conceded, once and for all, that every work of mankind is wonderful. Including the egg receipt, whose calligraphy may present endlessly interesting artistic features, and whose syntax may furnish inexhaustible material for linguistic exegesis. But given that every object is wonderful, we are with those who feel that it becomes more wonderful if its regularities can be distinguished from its departures from regularity; if what it is doing can be let out of the box of what we would like to think it is doing. This can only be done with the help of things like chronological placement.
And can texts be chronologically placed? That question is taken up on the next page.
22 Oct 2007 / Contact The Project / Exit to Chronology Page