- World Philology ed. by Sheldon Pollock, Benjamin A. Elman, and Ku-ming Kevin Chang
Interpreting, commenting, editing—these activities occur in some form or another in every culture where the written word plays a central role. World Philology, edited by Sheldon Pollock, Benjamin A. Elman, and Ku-ming Kevin Chang, makes the bold claim that a truly global history of these practices can be told—a history that would amount to more than just the isolated histories of different scholarly traditions. That is the point of the singular “Philology” in the title. As Pollock explains in his lively and wide-ranging introduction, the editors were prepared to write “Philologies,” but instead found enough coherence in the traditions that their contributors survey to treat philology as a unitary category of analysis. These contributions—fourteen chapters written by leading scholars in several disciplines—sample local practices of philology, ranging in space from Western Europe to Japan, and in time from the third century BCE to the early twentieth century. They grew out of presentations at two conferences, in Taipei [End Page 269] in 2008 and in Shanghai in 2010. The book is thus the product of a long period of maturation, which has borne fruit in the way that the contributors productively draw on each other’s work and engage with the book’s larger ambitions.
The choice to group these practices together under the label “philology” requires some explanation. Despite its ancient Greek origin, the word only became institutionalized in nineteenth-century German universities, where classicists appropriated the label in order to break away from departments of theology and from theologically oriented ways of studying Greek and Roman antiquity. Attitudes to philology now vary considerably, depending on one’s position geographically and within a particular discipline. Having revolted from theology, it is perhaps only fair that philology eventually suffered the same fate, slowly losing much of its original territory to linguistics, on the one hand, and literary criticism, or Literaturwissenschaft, on the other. At least within the discipline of Classical Studies, the ensuing uncertainty about the word’s meaning has left it open to ideological manipulation, both by those attacking it as hopelessly old-fashioned and by those seeking to reclaim it as trendy, as in the “new philology,” proclaimed by medievalists interested in manuscript culture. It was a recognition of the word’s difficulty, especially for a nonprofessional public, when in 2013 the Trustees of the American Philological Association voted to change its name to the Society for Classical Studies.
Standing somewhat aside from these contemporary debates while expertly surveying them in the introduction, Pollock instead widens the notion of “philology” to make it serviceable for cross-cultural investigation, defining it as “the discipline of making sense of texts” (22). “Text” here refers principally to the written word, and it is apparent that the condition of textuality gives coherence to the diverse traditions that are described here. Writing language down creates hermeneutic challenges: it separates text from author, potentially over great distances in space and time; it removes gesture, song, and voice as interpretive cues; and it exposes language to misunderstanding through scribal corruption and linguistic change. But these losses are also opportunities, encouraging more daring forms of interpretation, creating new spaces for commentary, such as the margin or paratext, and leading to new forms of scholarly expertise. An extreme case is the rabbinic doctrine of Biblical omnisignificance, explored by Yaakov Elman, where textual inconsistencies themselves become legible as divine revelation. Though the challenges of textuality are met differently in each tradition, together, they give unity to an extremely diverse palette of intellectual communities. Furthermore, the category of “philology” turns out to be good at facilitating comparison between Western and Eastern intellectual traditions, as Michael Lackner notes in his chapter on Song-Yuan exegesis: it is broader than the European notion of “humanities,” and it captures forms of practice not covered by the categories of “philosophy” or “science.”
Granted philology has its counterparts in many cultures, does it yield readily to a...