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Reviewed by:
  • Canonical Texts and Scholarly Practices: A Global Comparative Approach ed. by Anthony Grafton, and Glenn W. Most
  • Andrew Hui
Grafton, Anthony, and Glenn W. Most, eds. Canonical Texts and Scholarly Practices: A Global Comparative Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2016. Pp. 388. $144.95 CDN hardcover.

The front cover of the book under review is an intriguing piece of Chinese ceramic from the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316 CE): two scribes face each other, almost kissing, as they collate and check the accuracy of a text. As Anthony Grafton and Glenn W. Most write in their introduction, their activity "is at least as much interpersonal as it is intertextual" (1). This figurine becomes a fitting symbol of the volume as a whole and, it is fair to say, the editors' relationship to each other. Grafton and Most have had by now a decades-long "interpersonal and intertextual" partnership: from their translation of Friedrich August Wolf's Prolegomena to Homer with James E.G. Zetzel (1986) to their Arnaldo Momigliano: Ausgewählte Schriften zur Geschichte und Geschichtsschreibung with Wilfried Nippel (1999) to the huge omnibus The Classical Tradition with Salvatore Settis (2013), and now Canonical Texts and Scholarly Practices. Communities of learning, of course, are more than Bouvard and Pécuchet affairs; they exist as collectives. And here, Grafton and Most have assembled a stunning group of scholars of the highest calibre.

This volume is the fruitful result of a research group sponsored by the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, "Learned Practices of Canonical Texts: A Cross-Cultural Comparison" (, which itself is part of a much welcomed revival of the study of philology in recent years. The project "Comparative History of Philology in Early Modern [End Page 668] Asia" between Oxford, Princeton, and Columbia has resulted in World Philology, edited by Sheldon Pollock, Benjamin A. Elman, and Kevin Kuming Chang (2015). Yale has recently launched Archaia (, a program for the cross-cultural study of the ancient world, and Humboldt University of Berlin has a program on the "Globalized Classics" ( The journal Philological Encounters is published by Brill, along with a monograph series of the same name. Renmin University of China has created the International Centre for the Study of Ancient Text Cultures ( Other recent titles include James Turner's Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (2014), Werner Hamacher's Minima Philologica (2015), and John T. Hamilton's Philology of the Flesh (2018).

Canonical Texts and Scholarly Practices consists of fourteen dense chapters from a truly "global, comparative approach," each written by an expert in his/her field. Spanning Near Eastern, Greek and Roman, late antiquities, the millennial tradition of the Vedic commentary, the European, Byzantine, Arabic, and Coptic Middle Ages, to the early modern Ottoman Empire, Europe, China, and India, the contributors display a dazzling and precise technical mastery, but also manage always to keep the "big picture" in the foreground. Like the scholars they study, they are always reaching for something more, striving toward a more synthetic vision of erudition and a cross-cultural understanding in our world republic of letters. Since the volume is such a rich and dense assortment, I will discuss the chapters through some questions that arose in my reading rather than in the volume's sequential order.

It goes without saying that canonical texts are most often old works written in different languages or forms of languages than those of later readers; thus, they can be difficult to read. But this raises the basic but fundamental question: "What is interpretation?" In the second chapter, Ineke Sluiter uses the category of "obscurity" (Gk. to skoteinon, Lat. obscuritas) as a method of interpreting texts. Sluiter divides obscurity into two types, "unintentional" and "intentional," and further subdivides each into "good" and "bad" ones. For her, the work invested in interpreting difficult texts is the hope of a genuine "aesthetic experience" (51).

The problem of how to decipher a hidden text leads to the third chapter, Glenn Most's chapter on allegoresis and etymology. Using the Derveni papyrus, he...


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