On Philology

Philology was, however, also understood in very different terms, not as an empirical study of a limited field, but as a speculative undertaking oriented toward deep time and distant things. In “We Philologists,” written in 1874, Nietzsche registered his contempt for most philologists, whose work impressed him as an absurd combination of inconsequentiality and hubris.

But writing just a few years later in Daybreak (1881) as the philosopher of “untimeliness,” he summoned up the vision of a rare but authentic philological practice:

Philology is that venerable art which exacts from its followers one thing above all—to step to one side, to leave themselves spare moments, to grow silent, to become slow—the leisurely art of the goldsmith applied to language: an art which must carry out slow, fine work, and attains nothing if not lento. For this very reason philology is now more desirable than ever before; for this very reason it is the highest attraction and incitement in an age of “work”: that is to say, of haste, of unseemly and immoderate hurry-scurry, which is intent upon “getting things done” at once, even every book, whether old or new. Philology itself, perhaps, will not “get things done” so hurriedly: it teaches how to read well: i.e. slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with the mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eyes.

As a careful reader of Nietzsche, de Man was undoubtedly thinking of this memorable passage when he promoted deconstruction as a way of suspending the rush to interpretive closure by attending to the structure of language prior to the meanings it produces.

Read on.

My students seem not to like theory based on linguistics, so I might return to philology. I never believed it to be a bad thing, as so many used to feel.


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Filed under Questions, What Is A Scholar?

2 responses to “On Philology

  1. The problem is with the breakdown of meaning, always a danger. Today we are flooded with meaningless language and are becoming confused as a result. No amount of examination of certain texts can divulge their meaning. They may mean nothing at all.

  2. Z

    I guess this is true. No meaning. Hmmmm…..


    “Given the magnitude of the questions it addressed and the commitment
    it demanded of the scholar, philology came to be respected, at least in
    Germany and France, as the highest form of modern scholarship, the van-
    guard discipline of modernity itself. Writing as an eager young man of
    twenty-five, in the wake of the events of 1848, Ernest Renan predicted the
    dawn of a new day of progress and science, with philology in the lead. The
    “modern spirit,” he wrote, “that is, rationalism, criticism, liberalism, was founded on the same day as philology. The founders of the modern spirit are the philologists.”

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