Warring States Project
Before history can be done, the text sources for history have to be evaulated. If the manuscript tradition of a work is complicated, the best possible reconstruction must be made by comparing the manuscript (or other) variants. Next, any growth process that led to the text must be discovered: are there later authorial layers, or still later interpolations? Is the text in its entirety the product of a later period? Is it a hoax? Then the text must be read: its key terms, whose meaning may change within the work if it has a long growth history, or if its context in time is later then had at first appeared, must be established. Its relation to other texts, or to outside events, must be determined. All this work is the province of philology. Only when the philology has been done is the work ready for the historian, who brings quite different skills to its interpretation, as a witness to own origin and to its times.
Three details in the above definition of philology are somewhat new. They are:
- GROWTH. Text critics have assumed that when they have eliminated scribal corruptions by comparing different manuscripts, what is left is the "author's original." But a work may grow, and produce internal inconsistencies, while it is still under its author's hand or closely held by its originating group, before it is given to copyists and the larger public. This prepublication growth must be recovered, and by definition, it cannot be recovered by comparison of the copyists' manuscripts, all of which are from the later, "public" period of the text.
- DIRECTIONALITY. The key to the evaluation of manuscript variants, and also to the adjudication of parallel passages in different texts, is the principle that the earlier reading is the one from which the others may most reasonably be derived. That principle was enunciated by Tischendorf in 1849; it is here extended to all philological decisions. It is the root of the matter.
- SPURIA. In the past, an interpolated passage or a forged work have been rejected as unworthy of further attention. This is wrong. The critic should not discard the author's second thoughts, or the traditions's improvements. They are have their place in history; each part merely needs to be assigned to its proper place in history. Civilizations make up legends about founding fathers; they even invent founding fathers. These are lies about the past, but they are truths about the mind of the time in which they were told. The mind of that time is also part of history.
Whether the specific techniques are new or old, the basic ideas of philology are always the same: detecting differences, establishing directionality, and determining extratextual relations.
Doing this is difficult; it requires erudition and judgement. Is it worth the trouble? The question is inevitable, and Charles-Victor Langlois answered it perfectly:
There is only one argument for the legitimacy and honorable character of the obscure labors of erudition, but it is a decisive argument: it rests on their indispensability. No erudition, no history.
Or as Langlois went on to add, quoting Saint Jerome:
Non sunt contemnenda quasi parva, sine quibus magna constare non possunt. ("Those things are not to be disparaged as little, without which the great things cannot come into being").
This section celebrates some of the achievements of philology in the past, and gives a brief outline of how philology proceeds in dealing with a problematic text.
- Outline of Procedure
17 Jan 2004 / Contact The Project / Exit to Home Page