Before history can be done, the text sources for history have to be evaluated. This is the grunt work, the unromantic but necessary preliminary.
If the manuscript tradition of a work is complicated, the best possible reconstruction must be made by comparing the manuscript variants, and getting rid of scribal corruption. This is called the lower criticism. It is well defined, and widely understood, and we do not need to describe it here. That work being done, any growth process that led to the text itself must be discovered. Are there later authorial layers, or interpolations within the time period when the text was still live, and served as a school or community authority? Is the whole text the product of a later period? Is it a hoax? This is what is called the higher criticism; the thing for which the lower criticism prepares us by providing the text in a cleaned-up form, for us to work on. Finally, the text must be read, and here too there are subtleties. For one, if the text has a formation history, the meaning of its key terms may change within the work. Its compositional strata, if any, must be identified, and the relation of the text or its constituents to other texts, or to outside events, must be determined; it must be dated. 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 itself and to its times.
Three details in the above definition of philology deserve further comment:
- GROWTH. Text critics in recent times often assume that when they have eliminated scribal corruptions by comparing different manuscripts, what is left is the "author's original." The correct term is "archetype:" the earliest state of a text recoverable by manuscript criticism; it may be centuries later than the "author's original." But even more importantly, 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 master principle was first clearly enunciated by Tischendorf in 1849. It is the root of the matter.
- SPURIA. In the past, interpolated passages or forged works have been rejected as unworthy of further attention: the work of evil men. This is wrong. The critic should not discard the author's second thoughts, or the tradition's improvements on the author. They have their place in history. Everything has its place in history; the texts merely need to be assigned to their proper place in history. Civilizations make up legends about founding fathers; they even invent founding fathers. These are lies about the past, to be sure, but they are truths about the mind of the time in which those lies were told.
Philology 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 despised as little, without which great things cannot come into being").
This section begins with a brief but brutal introduction (courtesy of A E Housman). It mentions some major philologists of the past, to encourage and inspire those working in the present day. It notes some of the varieties of the text composition and formation process, the least understood part of what philology has to deal with. And there is a final page, by way of transition to more complicated, but ultimately more rewarding, situations.
- The Strictures of A E Housman (Required Reading)
One relatively new item in the philologist's toolkit is the examination of style, for which see the Style page.
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