Philology
The Question of Certainty

So we get our result, and how good is it?

Those who have read Housman have been told that the conclusions of philology are not like those of mathematics. That is correct; there is always an element of judgement. But it is also clear from Housman that some propositions in philology, such as the fact that the Latins did not use the pluperfect for the perfect, can be very convincingly demonstrated. It would then seem that more is involved, in philological decisions, than a mere choice among options. What degree of certainty is available to philology? There can be no one answer. Here are a few suggestions.

Proof

First, let us get the idea of "proof" out of the way. Mathematics is deductive from first principles. If we accept the first principles, a proposition may be proved to the satisfaction of those who know the rules of the system. Even in mathematics, there is a role for conjecture: a proposition for which evidence can be adduced, but which has not yet been proved in the strict mathematical sense (Shanks 2). A famous example is Goldbach's Conjecture of 1742: that every even number greater than 2 is the sum of two primes. This is observationally true for all numbers up to 4 times 10 to the 14th power (Jörg Richstein, July 1995), but it has not been proved to be true of all cases. In this gray territory, mathematics is operating much like the other sciences: on best inferences from presently known evidence. No mathematician would call Goldbach's Conjecture proved. But it is also something more than a personal whim or casual impression, a subjective matter on which a contrary preference would have equal standing with those who know the subject. The evidence in favor of it will impress reasonable people as actionable.

Conclusions in the humanistic sciences are of the Goldbach type. They are statements which best cover the data available at the time. As such, they are by nature provisional. If incompatible new data are found, or if a new theory is developed which better covers the old facts, then the old theory will be adjusted or replaced. Philology, at its most precise, operates this way. It is in perfectly respectable company in so doing.

Housman's conclusion about the Latin pluperfect was based on all the available evidence. It has what one might call a Goldbachian degree of certainty. It will do very nicely until a counterexample comes along.

The Tendency of the Evidence

In situations where the evidence is mixed, or where its implication is arguable, we must make do with a grounded conjecture, or with the least implausible speculation. Single isolated speculations are hard to judge. But if several bits of evidence bear independently on the same question, we will tend to respect the tendency of that evidence. If most of the indicators in a directionality problem point one way, and only a few point the other way, it is reasonable to conclude that the majority indication is probably correct.

But it is also reasonable to go back and check your addition. Five weak indicators pointing left are not as good as one strong indicator pointing right. As the early text critics liked to say, evidence should be weighed, not counted. Weighing the evidence is another aspect of judgement.

Thus far the individual passage or text. Subjecting that individual result to further constraints, such as the requirement of compatibility with other single results, further sharpens our decision criteria. If our single result conflicts with other results, then something, somewhere, needs further work. Discovering that we are not done yet is not a step back, it is a sovereign guide to further progress. In the right direction.

The Lemma

Often, in philology as in history, we do not reach a result in one leap, but rather by repeated circlings, each one clarifying the problem a little more than the last. You are stuck only if the 15th pass leaves you no further along than the 14th. It greatly helps if the problem can be broken down into constituent problems. A preliminary demonstration which is not itself the answer, but which establishes a point from which the answer can be more easily reached, is called in mathematics a lemma. The term, and the technique, might well be adopted by philologists. For practice in the concept, see Polya.

Collaboration

In the human sciences, the conclusions of individual investigators are always liable to be influenced by personal or period tastes and preferences. How do we correct for this tendency? By individual scruple and attention, and by the cultivation of personal technique. And there is a further corrective in the mere passage of time. The assumptions of one's own age may be overwhelming, and they will tend to be unperceived by many of those whom they affect. But an age is not forever, and the subconscious predilections of one period will tend to become visible to investigators looking from the vantage point of a later period. This collaborative aspect of philology over time offers significant protection from individual or period bias. The zigzags of collective opinion tend to cancel out, over time, and the probable answer tends to come clear.

One of the most important of collaborations is the collaboration with one's former self. Experience accumulates slowly in this field, but over time, those who keep doing it will tend to get better at it. We may thus sometimes profitably revisit our own former opinions; to look at what we did in the light of what we now can do. Experience sharpens judgement, and when all is said and done, judgement is the basic tool.

Undecidable Propositions

These are the grounds for reasoned optimism about the possibility of right answers in philology. But we must end by noting that some situations are hopeless. The evidence may not be there. Or the technique for handling the evidence may not be there (where would Einstein have been, without the tensor calculus of Levi-Civita?). As the period on which we work becomes earlier, the evidence becomes more tenuous, and at the same time, our knowledge of the background situation becomes less. Sooner or later, whether with modern or ancient material, we may reach a point where the tools of philology no longer have material to operate on. At that point, we can only pack up the kit and take the train back home.

Short of that point, philology has much useful work to do, and it has increasingly reputable ways of doing it. Let it proceed. And if the world in its opinions should lag for a time behind the point the philologist has reached, or if it should be unreceptive to the results of philology as such (as happens to be the case at the moment), well, that's the world for you. Keep working. There will be another world along presently.

24 June 2003 / Contact The Project / Exit to Philology Page