Back to the Future?

A Plea for a Modern Philology

  • Marcel Lepper: Philologie zur Einführung. Hamburg: Junius 2012. 192 S. Broschiert. EUR (D) 13,90.
    ISBN: 978-3-88506-063-5.

I. Anecdotal Prelude


Martianus Capella’s late antique De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii presents the seven liberal arts as handmaidens presented to the bride Philology by her newlywed Mercury, messenger of the gods. Preceding the exposition of the arts themselves, the frame narrative describes Philology’s ascent to immortality. The latter, personified, offers Philology a cup that will effect the transition – but Philology is told that, before she can ascend to her nuptials, she must »retch violently and void this matter which is choking [her] breast.« 1 A long trail of books, manuscripts, Egyptian steles and so forth streams from Philology’s gullet, as she enters into violent physical spasms, and the Arts and the Disciplines scurry to pick up the projectile artifacts of knowledge. The marriage of erudition and divine transmission is prefaced not only by immortalization, but by the expulsion of the totality of earthly knowledge – love of the word (philialogos) can receive ritual legitimacy only if its profane form is exteriorized, if its carrier can be coupled to a higher principle that allows for its organization into separate spheres (arts, or sciences). Philology stands in a dual and difficult relation both to other forms of knowing (especially to her combinatorial titular sibling, love of wisdom, philiasophia) and to the content of what she knows. She may couple with higher knowledge and gain a heteronomous ordering principle, but only at the cost of the disarrayed material traces of her gatherings. Alternatively, she may continue to gather, to study and consume texts of all kinds, but she lacks the mythopoietic strength to do more than ruminate on this consumption, literally to chew the cud of the textual. 2


Capella’s passage draws on a philosophical narrative structure familiar since Plato (in both the cave allegory and the chariot of the Phaedrus), but sets a new standard for the passage from finite to divine knowledge. This standard is then followed by authors such as Boethius, Alain de Lille, Dante, Leibniz, and Goethe. From the consolatio to Faust’s desk, each instance of narrative questioning of the extent and form of knowledge, its ability to cross a boundary between the profane and the divine, the empirical and the transcendental, the scientific and the magical, sets its variation of the epistemological problem in terms of the difficult quasi-discipline explicitly personified by Capella: Philology.


Marcel Lepper’s Philologie zur Einführung makes use of this passage twice (pp. 29 and 91), to answer for the importance of the »trivial« (from the Latin trivium, Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric), and to ask about philology’s reach: does philology simply want to know everything? Is this its problem? What sort of marriage binds the divine messenger and profane erudition? What is the relation of a »generalizing love« to foundational questions, questions about the origins of the object – words – of that love? With this anecdote, Lepper sets the tone for an extraordinary introduction to a controversial type of knowing. Not quite a discipline, not quite a system that guides other disciplines, philology maintains a subaltern role in the contemporary humanities. And so much more than merely the presentation of the facts about »philology«, Lepper’s introduction is really a polemic, a plea for a practice without which the humanities cannot – so my sense of the ramifications of this fine book – persist.


II. Style


If we want to know where to start with a relatively stable body of work that has been socially concentrated into a phrase, we turn to the kind of introduction-series for which Junius has in part become known. (I think of »new German media theory«, a phrase for which we might want the essential background. In that case, we would lack for nothing in introductory monographs.) The expectation – or at least the hope – in so turning is that we will find there an ordering of events: the historical details together with a deepening of the conventional phrase, the facts arranged according to and in explanation of a better sense of the concept than the one we trade in for daily orientation. Philologie zur Einführung is not exactly such a book, and it is my conviction – and, I think, the author’s – that it could not have been such a book. The definition of philology, the sense in which it is used in everyday academic language (for even its colloquial use is mostly restricted to this sphere), by no means stands in any linear relation, be it ever so diagonal, to the sets of practices one arrives at on closer inspection of the history of the word. Nor does the practice have an institutional home that could give it at least empirical consistency, an inroad to thinking it as a unity. No matter how many times one tries to marry philology off, it has no external marker of its use or value. What emerges from and grounds the methodology of Lepper’s study is the necessity of a practice that has historically so successfully refused domesticating conceptualization – even at the times of its greatest historical success – that to introduce it becomes a matter of defending it. And the latter can only be achieved by allowing its contour to emerge from a polemical attachment to its content. The book is a plea to retain the double bind of philology, the parallax between its theoretical motivations and its exterior conditions, as the legitimate form of a general practice of self-understanding within and between written cultures.


This type of legitimacy is only maintained with a deep skepticism of its very forms and practices. The »dust« of philology, the »pedantry« of its spectres – think of Faust’s Wagner – are constantly in these pages, and Lepper remains skeptical both of the external judgments (»philologists have inkblots on their souls«) and the tendential reality of those judgments. This carefully maintained balance between affection and anxiety is the method of a very specific concept of legitimacy, namely that of Hans Blumenberg, whose Die Legitimität der Neuzeit is a robust defense of precisely such a necessary and necessarily self-skeptical cultivation of modernity. Lepper’s reference point in Blumenberg is the masterful metaphorology Die Lesbarkeit der Welt, which traces the readability of nature from the Bible to the genetic code. Lepper’s question, of course, is an entirely different one, namely: how can there be a problem like that of philology at the heart of the eminently readable, i.e. the text? But Lepper’s relation to Blumenberg does not stop with regular citation: the reader is easily reminded of Blumenberg’s elliptical and forceful style in Lepper’s prose. As is the case with the narrative nugget from Capella’s De nuptiis, Lepper’s recounting of the eccentric path of philology is constituted by anecdotes, short-form stories that bring a point home. Unlike examples, however, these anecdotes do not subsume their content under a pre-given concept and then conclude to a thetic utterance. 3 Instead, they recount parts of the uneven history of the beloved word philology, raising questions that drive the introductory defense of the practice philology forward. The book convinces by being what it defends.


An example (not an anecdote): on pages 39–40, Lepper recalls Leo Spitzer’s unearthing of the Schwabian roots of Eduard Mörike’s famous line, »Was aber schön ist, selig scheint es in ihm selbst.« By attending to contemporary Schwabian usage (as recorded in an 1831 dictionary), Spitzer redirected a debate occurring around Heidegger (which read »scheinen« through the difference between videre and lucere) to a supposedly more linguistically authentic sense. Schwabian usage had »scheinen« as »schön sein«, allowing the gloss: »Das Schöne prangt selig in sich selbst«. Lepper notes that this piece of philological work was as simple as it was stunning, but that its apparent effect of halting arbitrary interpretation did not therefore lead to a definitive understanding of the »fascinating verse«. Lepper therefore both defends the legitimacy of the work done and leaves its effect open: philology as practice both opens sense and leads towards interpretation, but it cannot close the hermeneutic circle using its own resources. The anecdote, as Lepper uses it, does not lead us to a simple conclusion. The passage could have cut either way, defending the openness of the practice between lexicon and poetic language, or damning the inability of the practice to settle any interpretive debate. Instead, the double bind between content and condition is reproduced in the anecdote, which thus attains the function of a methodological polemic. Lepper practices what he pointedly does not preach: philological fundamentality without fundamentalism. The proof of the »legitimacy of philology« is in the reading of the book.


III. Definitions


Philologie zur Einführung deals primarily with three historical definitions of philology, each pointing to the internal difficulty (readability of the eminently readable as interpretive problem) and / or the external or theoretical problem (whether philology can be attached or married to a theoretical system). The first, and most often cited, is Sheldon Pollock’s:

Philology is, or should be, the discipline of making sense of texts. It is not the theory of language – that’s linguistics – or the theory of meaning or truth – that’s philosophy – but the theory of textuality as well as the history of textualized meaning. 4

This definition runs closely parallel to the author’s own definition, given only once (p. 17):

das Studium und die Erforschung sprachlicher Phänomene und Strukturen in einem weiten, literarischer Phänomene und Strukturen in einem engeren Sinn.

The point in both cases is that philology is bounded on both sides, on the one hand by the study of language as such, on the other by the study of meaning (or truth) as such. Philology thus does not possess an easily conceptualized field of content that can count as its orienting object, the pillar of its discipline (as Aristotle requires for a discipline in his Posterior Analytics). Rather, philology is constituted differently – it is not knowledge of something (-logy), but a »generalizing love« of a logos suspended permanently between word and reason. This suspension maintains itself by an extreme disciplinarization (at least in Germany in the 19th century) of a field that remains finally open to the space suspended. The readability of texts, or of »linguistic phenomena«, is nearly tautological, and it is only the realization that this tautology is the sphere of human production, of Geist, that provides the self-alienation necessary for the practice of philology (which is to say: homo sum, humani nihil me alienum non puto). The second definition, from the eminent philologist August Boeckh, runs: [Philologie ist] Erkennen des vom menschlichen Geist Producirten, d.h. des Erkannten. 5


The tautology is here deepened into a reflexivity. Philology is concerned with the non-transparency of the human spirit’s situation, namely, knowing (Erkennen) as itself a situation that is not immediate. To know the mediation of the process of knowing – the whole process captured in the word Geist – is the work of the philologist, who thereby takes up a role in equal parts essential and homeless, both ineluctably human and impossible to constrain within an institution. Such a broad definition also borders on »cultural studies« as practiced more generally, a genealogy of philology Lepper traces to Vico, who says that the philologist

[befasst sich] mit der Erkenntnis der Sprachen und den Taten der Völker […], und zwar sowohl derjenigen im Innern, wie der Sitten und Gesetze, als auch der auswärtigen, der Kriege, Friedenschlüsse, Bündnisse, Reisen, Handelsbeziehungen. 6

This would be the broadest definition of philology, the most catholically anthropological. Karl Marx, in fact, quotes this understanding in an important footnote in chapter 15 (on machinery) of Das Kapital, where it serves to differentiate natural history (which we have not made) from human history (which we have). Whatever humans most essentially produce is recognized as having its own history, and philology works to clarify, but not to solve, the problems that arise in the historical structures of this product. One gets the sense, reading Lepper, that this definition disallows any narrative of ultimate decline about philology – its horizon is nothing less than the extinguishing of culture as such, its sole blind spot an extinction event that would erase its conditions.


IV. Themes – At the Edges of Philology


The conditions of philology form the backbone of the layout of Lepper’s book, which makes quick work of the definitions (chapter 1) to move on to traditions (2), institutions (3), knowledge (forms of its practice; 4), »booms« (Konjunkturen, which includes crises and critiques; 5), and habitus (behaviors of the philologist; 6). Each of these sections is broken down into compact histories bound together by the proximity of the term philology. As often as not, this term is used snidely by the subjects of these histories, as a claim of irrelevance, of »dustiness«, of pedantry. Lepper’s histories move quickly and with a strongly philological bent, producing contours of long histories of culture reading culture from etymologies (like »habitus,« from Latin habere: »to have« or »to hold«, thus a practiced behavior or character). Each of these histories is, moreover, about the edges of philology, its confrontations with its internal (il)legibility or its (usually unsuccessful) attempts to marry itself off to an ordering discipline.


The traditions of philology, Lepper rightly insists, are widespread, hardly limited to the high-water mark of 19th-century disciplinarity and concentration on Europe. From debates about the Arabic and Jewish roots of the translation of Aristotle in the High Middle Ages to internal and orientalist treatments of Sanskrit, philology proves in this history to be a global endeavor. Inductive evidence shows philology to be coterminous with culture, with the possibility of writing as a by-product of human activity. The question of reading one’s own tradition versus the reading of the putatively »other« is read across the border between colonial and post-colonial philologies, in turn traced back to more ancient forms of cultural understandings the world over.


The institutions of philology are likewise contoured, the material sites of its practice described in detail attentive to medial shifts like the digital revolution. The library, the archive, and the museum are given both material and cultural histories, with their often tense relations to the state and to the broader practice of roving philologists as the focus. The final sections of this chapter, on the seminar and the school as social media for the dissemination of philological knowledge and habits, make for highly recommendable reading. Lepper rightly points, in the process of describing the emergence of the seminar and the museum, to the political tensions that hover around these partly state-funded ventures. From the invention of the seminar in 1738 to former French president Sarkozy’s disparaging comments about the »idiocy and sadism« of philology, the material sites and experimental social settings of the practice are put into relief against the background of the nation-state. The settings are political, but Lepper’s philology never crystallizes into an Ideological State Apparatus, resisting cannibalization and simplification by political discourses across the centuries.


The next chapter, »Erkenntnis«, takes us into the arcane world of edition-production and textual critique. The heart of the classical discipline of philology is here reproduced as a conflict underlying the questions of authorship and the »correct« readings of texts. The closing section on »hermeneutics«, which this reviewer particularly recommends, points to the necessity of a very broad concept of »reading« for any philology in the 21st century. Whether or not there is a »post-hermeneutical« humanities, there will be a subterranean and ineradicable philology in its irritated center.


Perhaps the most enjoyable chapter of this book is its fifth and penultimate, on Konjunkturen (the »booms« of boom-and-bust cycles, perhaps best rendered »resurgences«). This chapter drives home the point that the history of philology is always a history of critique of philology. Familiar and less familiar moments in this history are sketched out, from Nietzsche’s confrontation with Wilamowitz-Moellendorff to Alan Sokal’s attack on »theory« to Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s focus on desire and presence in the practice of reading. Here (p. 122) Lepper asks provocatively, »Gibt es eine philologische Zeit nach der Theorie im emphatischen Sinn?« Speaking to a rumor that has been passed around constantly in the last decade, Lepper stresses that philology remains tied in an indeterminate way to »theory« in its longue durée. The question is one that philology has always had to put to itself: sub specie philologiae nihil novum. The question that holds court in this chapter is the one that constitutes philology as a quasi-discipline: what, exactly, is a text?


The last chapter focuses on the cultural images of the behaviors of the philologist, the habitus as they are actually cultivated and in turn reflected in the cultures they focus on. Learnedness, connoisseurship, and research are the topics of this portrayal of the embattled position of the philologist in contemporary culture. A high point (pp. 139–40) comes with a return to Sarkozy, whose snide remarks about a canonical watershed of French literature, La Princesse de Clèves (1678) sparked a »marathon-reading« of the full text as a form of protest, a protest that set the ancien régime against the authoritarianism of a democratically-elected president. Lepper succeeds in outlining a scholar in and out of the library stacks or the study, a scholar with amor fati about the necessity of her solitude, but also with a sense of the political and social media in which her practice operates.


V. Answers – and Some Questions


The book is framed by three questions, and three parallel concerns (pp. 15–16, 152–153). Does philology know, or want to know? Does it establish (re)sources, or offer avenues for critique? Is it on balance succeeding, or structurally lacking? These questions are brought to bear on three topics of concern meant to remove philology from the dusty yet progressivist factory of the 19th century: premodernity, globality, and contemporaneity. Lepper’s first question is Faust’s, not Goethe’s but the chapbook’s – the dialectic between knowledge and desire, at the threshold of modernity, has been dubbed der Prozess der theoretischen Neugierde by Blumenberg. For Lepper, this pre-modern problematic is constitutive of the philological enterprise. The self-historicizing and processual legitimizing of philological activity demonstrates, so Lepper, that the practice can never be reduced to Europe, not to speak of Germany. As much as philology secures bodies of knowledge, it sets critical accents precisely in the (ideological) environments (Umwelten) it inhabits. These can never be restricted to a privileged locus of production, but must continue to reflect the global history and increasingly global mediation of textual cultures.


»Philologie ist kein melancholisches Projekt«, Lepper reflects on the final question. Philology’s hope, however, does not reside in answers: »Wer [z. B.] syntaktische Strukturen analysiert, der braucht sich vor Fragen, und seien es gegenwärtig glücklicherweise mehr Fragen als Antworten, nicht zu fürchten.« (p. 153) Questions – insofar as they are precisely points of opacity in the otherwise seemingly immediate self-evidence of culture – are the wheelhouse of philology. Lepper’s introduction, recommended for anyone modest enough to consider herself a beginner in »making sense of texts«, pleads with us to retain this subterranean current of intra- and inter-disciplinary provocation. The book responds to the pressures of globalization and financialization, often seen as threats to the humanities, by doubling down on the necessity of spaces in which to mediate and reflect culture intentionally. This plea – or even polemic – by way of an introduction should be required reading for practitioners of cultural decoding today.



William H. Stahl / E. L. Burg (Eds.): Martianus Cappella and the Seven Liberal Arts. Volume II: The Marriage of Mercury and Philology. New York: Columbia, 1977, p. 47.   zurück
As suggested by Nietzsche for his own texts: »Freilich tut, um dergestalt das Lesen als Kunst zu üben, eins vor allem not, was heutzutage gerade am besten verlernt worden ist – und darum hat es noch Zeit bis zur ›Lesbarkeit‹ meiner Schriften –, zu dem man beinahe Kuh und jedenfalls nicht «moderner Mensch» sein muß: das Wiederkäuen...« Friedrich Nietzsche: Kritische Studienausgabe. Bd. 5: Jenseits von Gut und Böse. Zur Genealogie der Moral. Hrsg. v. Giorgio Colli u. Mazzino Montinari. München: de Gruyter 1966–1977; 1999 / 2007, p. 256.   zurück
For the way the anecdote does (or doesn’t) think, see Paul Fleming: The Perfect Story: Anecdote and Exemplarity in Linnaeus and Blumenberg. In: Thesis Eleven 104, No. 1, 2011, pp. 72–86.   zurück
Sheldon Pollock: Future Philology? The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World. In: Critical Inquiry 35, No. 4, 2009, pp. 931–961, here p. 934. Quoted in Lepper, Philologie, p. 43.   zurück
August Boeckh: Enzyklopädie und Methodologie der philologischen Wissenschaften [1809–1865]. Hrsg. v. Ernst Bratuschek. Leipzig: Teubner 1877, p. 10. Quoted in Lepper, Philologie, pp. 104–105.   zurück
Giambattista Vico: Prinzipien einer neuen Wissenschaft über die gemeinsame Natur der Völker. Übers. v. Vittorio Hösle u. Christoph Jermann. Hamburg: Meiner 1990, p. 92. Quoted by Lepper, Philologie, p. 94.   zurück