Laboratory Determination

The job of philology, as here defined, is to answer the first question anyone should ask about a text: Is this one thing or more than one?

If more than one, the next step is to carefully untangle the formation history of the text: where later material has been interpolated into earlier material, how many strata it has. If one, we need to consider its relation to other texts and to the real world around it, its intended audience and effect, its affinities with known authors. This page lists the some of the principal questions, with examples. Proper answers to the questions would fill a book, but it is unlikely that there will be time to write the book. We instead offer what hints one page can contain.

More Than One Thing

Differences may be of many kinds. All of them deserve attention. Several signs of difference may be present in the same passage. Remember that the cardinal test of a suspected interpolation is that the text is narratively smoother, substantively more consistent, or formally more regular without it.

The basic work of identifying inconsistencies being being done, other questions arise before we are ready to move on to the next section. If there are several interpolations in a text, are any of them similar enough to each other to form a stratum? If there are two sections in a text, is the second later? (This is the normal case; text material is usually added at the end). Or is it earlier? (It can happen that new material is added at the head of a text, in order to change or obscure the meaning of the older material).

One Thing

If there are no signs of composite charater in a text, or if the extent of one text stratum or interpolation have been found, the next step is to place that text or text element in larger context.

  • Directionality Between Related Texts
  • Relation to Other Texts (Relative Dating)
    • Mencius 3A9 ~ Analects 18:6
    • Colossians > Ephesians
  • Relation to Events (Absolute Dating)
  • Authorship
  • Forgery (a whole work may be an intrusion into a tradition)


Whether in working with texts or with the Beethoven piano sonatas, improvement comes with practice. The above outline is meant to indicate what it is that one is practicing. For further examples, keep up with the scholarly literature, avoiding fields (Homer, Classical Sinology, Homer, New Testament) where textual solutions are strongly constrained by cultural piety. We may add that the first section of every volume of Warring States Papers consists of relevant examples: audience questions, literary context questions, interpolation examples, and much more. Some elementary examples for first readers are also included (as Methodological Moments) in our introductory survey The Emergence of China.

Such, as we have come to see them, are the elements of text philology. In applying them, it helps to have an idea about how many different kinds of text there are. We give an overview in the next section, which we call Text Typology. The arrow below will instead take you back to the Philology Index Page.

Text philology, as here outlined, deals centrally with the phenomenon of text growth. The other thing we need to have a sense of, in working with ancient materials, is how traditions grow. This more logically belongs to History, and some examples are given under that heading. The two cannot be separated in practice. The seemingly minute irritation of a saying attributed to a disciple in one text and to Confucius in another text may be best explained, not as scribal error, but as the evolution of tradition between the two - as time passes, good poems, or good remarks, tend to gravitate to the bigger names, as historical memory continually simplifies and rearranges itself. Remolding its past self nearer to the heart's desire of its present self.


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23 Oct 2013. Contact The Project / Exit to Home Page