World Philology

World Philology, edited by Sheldon Pollock, Benjamin A. Elman and Ku-ming Kevin Chang. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. x + 452 pp. ISBN: 9780674052864.

Most of the fourteen essays in this collection were presented at two conferences: “The Global History of Philology” organised by the Institute of History and Philology at the Academia Sinica, Taipei, in October 2008, and “Asia in the Early Modern World” at Fudan University, Shanghai, in November 2010. As the fruit of these two conferences, this book covers an astoundingly wide range of philological traditions in world history, and embodies the first valuable attempt to trace the connections and to create a space for dialogues between these various traditions. The goal of this is to approach the fundamental questions that philology faces in this challenging new era: what is philology, and where will it go?

A dire concern, or even outright anxiety, of the future of philology, can be detected throughout the lines. It is reckoned in several chapters that European philology has fallen from her former glory since Boeckh’s time as the queen of arts and humanity into a deplorable fragmentary and impoverished state. Non-European philological traditions are either disrupted by colonisation or they share the fate of European philology after they have embraced the imported discipline in the course of modernisation. It seems ever harder to defend the existence (not to say the funding) of philology in front of academic administrators, since its former territory has already been carved up by other disciplines (p. 8). To make things worse, what is left of European philology is constantly under attack of emergent theories ranging from deconstruction to postcolonialism.

It is against such a background that these leading figures in philology and intellectual history gather to help delineate the historical developments of philology, and reconstruct it as a self-sufficient and diversified discipline and conceptual category. The book as a whole argues that in the rich possibilities and realisations of philology around the globe, lies not only the foundation of philology in the past but also its future prospects. As Fan-sen Wang aptly points out in his foreword, “the best antidote to the perils of traditionalism, sterile philology, or even Orientalism” that pest the discipline is “philology’s commitment to historical reflexivity, nonprovinciality, and methodological and conceptual pluralism” (p. ix).

The fourteen essays, arranged in a chronological order of their subject matters, mainly cover two periods in world history: that of the “antiquity” (Ancient Greece, Rome, Rabbinic and early Arabic-Islamic world) and that of “early modern” (pre-colonial and Mughal India and Persia, Song-Yuan and Ming-Qing China, the West from the Humanist era to the 19th century, and 18th -19th century Japan), and two final essays stretching into the early 20th century. For the benefit of this book’s target readers, namely fellow scholars who work in their own fields of historical periods and textual traditions and who may not be acquainted with others, the essays strike a good balance between generality and specificity. The authors, all leading experts in their areas, have dexterously chosen the most significant aspects in the development of these philological traditions, and presented them in an informative yet highly readable manner. Comparative study between such vast range of subjects naturally cannot be accommodated in the same volume. Consequently apart from a brief synopsis in the Introduction, the scholars confine their discussions within specific eras and traditions. We expect comparative works in the realm of world philological traditions being done in the future, following the innovative path this book has opened.

The incisive introduction by Sheldon Pollock actually begins with the end: it firstly engages in a description of the present decline of philology as a discipline in Europe and elsewhere, since the 20th century, after the last period covered by the essays. It then briefly surveys the various conceptions and terminologies of philology around the world on the basis of the essays, and gives a summary of each chapter in turn. Pollock opines, on the evidence provided by the essays, that the singular “philology” in the book title is justified as a unitary global field of knowledge which is embodied in a constellation of textual practices, and he convincingly defines “philology” as “the discipline of making sense of texts” (p. 22). By delineating philology thus as a historically self-aware, nonprovincial and methodological and conceptual plural discipline (p. 23) that studies “the theory of textuality as well as the history of textualized meaning” (p. 22), Pollock thinks he finds a solid footing on which philology can stand and defend itself when in competition with other institutionalised disciplines.

In chapter one “From Book to Edition: Philology in Ancient Greece”, Franco Montanari traced the emergence of philology to the Alexandrian period (3rd – 2nd century BCE). The crucial development in this period is the emergence of ekdosis, which can be rendered “edition” much as it means today. The Hellenistic age was “a civilization based on books” (p. 27), and therefore dealing with texts, primarily for the purpose of preserving the literary heritage such as Homer, had become an urgent task. An ekdosis can only be achieved through diorthosis “correction, emendation”, which started with the scribe correcting his copy against his (and sometimes other) exemplar; but later, when the publishing houses strived to produce a best, authoritative exemplar, the task of diorthosis was undertaken by philologists. We witnessed the ekdosis of a text of Homer, not that of a copy of Homer. Alexandrian scholars already showed strong textual awareness, used editorial signs, and carried out both internal conjectural and external comparative assessments of copies.

James Zetzel’s “The Bride of Mercury: Confessions of a ‘Pataphilologist’” is a light-hearted essay even though its dramatic rhetoric may not be appreciated by all alike. Zetzel is trying to establish a twin personality of Roman philology, one whipping her subjects with a priori correctness, the other basking in high literature. These twins are always at odds: the former (the “pataphilology”) disciplines legal and religious texts strictly, while the latter (“philology”) deals with Latin literary texts in a Greek manner. The former imposes a descriptive grammar, the latter a normative one. The difference can be explained as one in chronological distance between critic and text or as one between the types of texts, of which the legal and religious texts were regarded as (semi-)sacred and unalterable by editors (p. 53). From this it appears that the twin metaphor has gone awry: the real “dominatrix” (p. 46) is not the “Mistress Pataphilology” of the critics, but their ideology about texts and their social functions. From p. 55 on Zetzel seems to be launching a fierce assault on the “unscientific” criticism by the Romans. This is surprising, for one would expect more empathy of the minds and limits of the Ancients from a professor of Latin, and his attitude is somehow in disconcert with the nonprovincial, multicentric tone of the book. The insularity culminates when he claims that “the bulk of Latin grammatical writing after the fourth century is mind-numbingly dull, elementary, and repetitive” (p. 60): ironically, it is the “insular” and Carolingian grammarians who produced a sophisticated, comprehensive and innovative philological culture which is sadly omitted from this book’s coverage.1

Literature from ancient Israel and subsequent Jewish societies, like that of Alexandrian Greece, is one based primarily on texts. Yaakov Elman’s chapter “Striving for Meaning: A Short History of Rabbinic Omnisignificance” examines the rich tradition of Rabbinic legal interpretation (halakha) in the Mishnah and the Talmud. There are two premises in this tradition: that the authoritative texts are not to be changed, and that the Scripture is omnisignificant, i.e. every word in its text is significant. These premises determine that the Rabbinic exegesis, so long as it can be called philological, is immediately different from other traditions in this book that it involves no textual criticism but only external commentaries. Although the rabbis had developed an amazing system of exegetical techniques on both the Bible and works of earlier rabbis, “the line between exegesis and eisegesis…had been obliterated” (p. 76), and it is indeed difficult in such a case to restrain oneself from sliding into the discussion of philosophy, as Elman does in a later part of the chapter on the contributions of R. Rava.

Beatrice Gruendler’s “Early Arabic Philologists: Poetry’s Friends or Foes?” addresses an interesting chapter in the Islamic Arabic world before the 11th century: that of the philologists’ attitudes of towards poetry. Scholars in the early Arabic empire compiled and collated texts, developed the discipline of studying language and text, and projected a cultural ambition in their study; they deserve the title of philologists in all aspects. But instead of decoding a dead language, the Arabic philologists faced the task of inventing an ever-living one for the present and the future. While at the earlier stage Pagan Arabic poetry was employed by scholars to re-establish the “pure” Arabic language, after the 8th century, when Arabic had been standardised, poetry began to evolve from this standard and incurred mixed feelings among philologists.

The fifth chapter is Sheldon Pollock’s “What was Philology in Sanskrit?”, which examines interpretative commentaries on secular poetry and Vedic scripture, among the vastness of Sanskrit literature and scholarship. These commentaries appeared relatively late at the end of the first millennium, but represent, in Pollock’s opinion, an epistemic rather than technological transformation in Sanskrit culture and a newly standardised form of knowledge. Early Indian scholars did not sufficiently theorise their textual practices; nevertheless they obviously engaged in text constitution, emendation and analysis in a sophisticated manner. Pollock offers an example of poetic scholar and his work for each type of these philological activities, and tries to reconstruct their theoretical dimensions. Vedic commentaries of the same age, though lacking the component of textual criticism, show the same theoretical complexity. On pp. 134-5, Pollock raises insightful questions on the effects of early Indian philology on its society, and reflects, again, on the future of philology.

“Reconciling the classics: Two Case Studies in Song-Yuan Exegetical Approaches” by Michael Lackner looks at the philological practices in China in the 11th-14th century, especially techniques that “can be understood as philological and textual analysis in the service of a higher-ranking project” (p. 140). Lackner investigates the techniques used by Zhang Zai (1020-1078) and the practices of Xu Qian (1270-1337) as two exemplary cases. The intertextual resonance that Zhang Zai created between the canons in his exegesis proves the unity of the ancient wisdom of the classics; whereas the diagrams devised by Xu Qian demonstrate not only the hidden structure in texts, but also that apparent contradictions in the originally united canons can be reconciled by textual analysis.

A historical view of the ancients and their texts emerged in 14th century Italy, according to Anthony Grafton in “Humanist Philologies: Texts, Antiquities and their Scholarly Transformations in the Early Modern West”. A new book form without commentaries encourages reading directly the ancient texts and link them with the active life. The return to Classical, Ciceronian Latin and the teaching of Greek marked fresh pedagogical ideas and the new technique of printing consolidated the humanist aesthetics. But these innovations, argues Grafton, largely derived from the ancient texts themselves. While the editorial production of texts remained relatively static, historical criticism became a battleground of new methods, including the use of material remains and non-textual evidence.

Muzaffar Alam concentrated on the philological achievements of ‘Abd al Laṭīf on the Mathnavī in Mughal India and Persia (“Mughal Philology and Rūmī’s Mathnavī”). Alam reveals to us how ‘Abd al Laṭīf (c. 1605-58) produced his edition based on more than eighty manuscripts of the Mathnavī, and his voluminous lexicon, commentary and other scholarly works. He has showed that ‘Abd al Laṭīf’s methodology is surprisingly comprehensive and systematic, but his discussion would benefit from briefly introducing the Mughal philological tradition from which ‘Abd al Laṭīf drew his methodology.

Khaled El-Rouayheb’s “The Rise of ‘Deep Reading’ in Early Modern Ottoman Scholarly Culture” studies the emergence of a more impersonal and textual model in the central Ottoman lands in the 17th and 18th centuries that departed from an earlier personal, oral education. Müneccimbāşī’s (b. 1361/2) treatise on the proper manner of perusing books announces such a break from the tradition as represented by Zarnūjī (13th century) and Ibn Jamā‘ah (14th century). The techniques used by Müneccimbāşī are articulated by El-Rouayheb, as well as those by Sāçāḳlīzāde (d. 1732). This shift in paradigm is linked to the change in Ottoman policy regarding education and civil service employment, which no longer relied on the personal ties between teacher and student.

The following chapter by Benjamin Elman, “Early Modern or Late Imperial? The Crisis of Classical Philology in Eighteenth-century China”, reckons the developments from Song-Ming rationalism to “a more skeptical and secular classical empiricism” in the 18th century. Abstract ideas and metaphysical paradigms gave way as the primary objects of elite discussion to concrete facts and verifiable institutions (p. 226). Partly due to the Jesuit impact, Chinese scholars started to look at the canons through the lenses of natural philosophy and astronomy. This period witnessed the rise of Han learning that is exempt from Buddhist and Daoist influences, the revival of New Text scholarship that criticises the textual verity of the Classics , and new interest in classical poetry which transformed the imperial examination and was consolidated by the latter in turn.

“The Politics of Philology in Japan: Ancient Texts, Language, and Japanese Identity” by Susan Burns traces the growth of Japanese nativist philology after the 17th century. The interpretation of Japan’s earliest texts, KojikiMan’yōshū and Nihon shoki was intertwined from the beginning with deep philological concerns, namely decoding the Chinese scripts and interpreting the Old Japanese texts that are hidden under those scripts. Under the influence of contemporary Chinese evidential scholarship and newly imported Western science, scholarship on these texts took a nativist turn, denying the shared affinity between Japan and China. Heralded by Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), scholars examined the ancient language and interpreted the texts as “pure” accounts of the mythical past that had not been meddled by Chinese culture. Philological efforts were complicated by nationalist and political agendas and this remains the case up to the present day.

Constanze Güthenke’s “‘Enthusiasm Dwells only in Specializaion’: Classical Philology and Disciplinarity in Nineteenth-century Germany” analyses the tension between concentration and diffusion in the terrain of philology. The quotation in the title comes from one of the supporters of a specialised philology, Basil Gildersleeve (1831-1924). Despite such advocation, the ideal of this period persists that a fuller understanding of human nature and culture was still the aim of philology, as exemplified by the grammatic writings of German classical philologists Friedrich Ritschl (1806-76), Friedrich August Wolf (1759-1824) and August Boeckh (1785-1867), either through individual roundedness or collective contribution from specified fields.

Christoph König offers a specimen of slow and careful reading of Rilke’s O komm und geh (“The Intelligence of Philological Practice: On the Interpretation of Rilke’s Sonnet ‘O komm und geh’”). König calls for an “insistent reading”, a reading that “can live up to the creative potential offered by cognitive conflicts in philologies” (p. 290), such as that between historical and aesthetic interests. Readers should engage in philological praxis which will finally supersede the conflicts. As König argues, a literary work has its compulsion in a necessary progression that forces the reader to reach a higher understanding.

The final chapter by Ku-ming Kevin Chang, “Philology or linguistics? Transcontinental Responses”, reviews the establishment of the Institute of History and Philology at the Academia Sinica. The two founding figures of this institute, historian Ssu-nien Fu (1896-1950) and linguist Yuen Ren Chao (1892-1982) had very different educational backgrounds and personified the divorce of linguistics from philology in the Chinese tradition during the 20th century.

This book is well edited and only a few typos are spotted: “when her or she realizes” (p. 90) should be “when he or she realizes”; “...from a single original, which should serve as the basis...” (p. 168) should be “... from a single original, which should not serve as the basis...”; the name in “Nicolson relied on Hermann Ethe”s cataloguing” (p. 196) should be “Ethé”; in chapter nine passim, ū has been printed ῡ; “Ecole de Lille” (p. 293) should be “l’École de Lille”.

At the end of the book, the bibliography (grouped under separate chapters) and the detailed index provide readers who are interested in investigating in greater depth with further aids. Graduate students who are required to learn about the different philological traditions will find this book especially accessible and helpful.

1 Excellent introductions of this philological tradition can be found in: Martin Irvine, The Making of Textual Culture: ‘Grammatica’ and Literary Theory, 350-110(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Vivien Law, The Insular Latin Grammarians (Woodbridge Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1982); Vivien Law, Grammar and Grammarians in the Early Middle Ages (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1997).

- See more at:


Fangzhe Qiu

Comparative Criticism and Translation

occt logo290