Philology in the Modern Academy

In my last post, I used satire to address an important issue that has surfaced in Biblical studies in the last few years as well as in the general humanities over the last decade or so. Apparently my satirical send-up was not appreciated by all. Indeed, I was quickly chastised for my bullying, condescending, and misogynist post (and I was also subtly called a racist). Oddly, no one bothered to address the substantive issues: can we say anything useful without using a theory to interpret the data?, and what IS “philology” in contemporary scholarship?

I care about how we do things in biblical studies, not because I give a flip about current scholars (I can simply not read work I don’t think worth my time), but because I am sensitive to what young minds gravitate towards. And if there is one thing that is insidiously attractive to young minds it is easy thinking. And I think any approach that deliberately eschews clear methods for handling data and clear theories for interpreting data is very dangerous. And this is precisely what I sense in the movement to reclaim philology as a useful term in contemporary biblical scholarship.

Below are excerpts from an essay that has its origin in the joint linguistics and philology session at SBL 2018. If anyone was wondering why I wrote my phrenology (I mean, philology) post, this perhaps explains why.

Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts.
Stephen Jay Gould

1. Introduction

It may be inevitable that every discipline enters into periods of self-reflection and reorientation to the object of study, the methods used for studying that object, and relationships to overlapping disciplines. Such reflection has the potential to be a very a healthy process, though the degree of health depends greatly on the nature of the catalysts and the tenor of the ensuing discourse. The status of philology as an activity and then a definable academic discipline has changed a great deal in the last two centuries, as much if not more than any other scholarly endeavor:

… probably no other discipline in the vast spectrum of academic fields has undergone as sweeping a transformation as philology has during its history. Since the days of Karl Lachmann, it seems that nearly every aspect of it has changed radically, be it the subject, scope, or methodology. (Bajohr et al 2014: 1; similarly, see Pollock 2015: 2-3)

In the latest round of soul-searching, which has unfolded over the last decade or so in general, the concern has been less about philology and linguistics carving out their own turfs within academia, but more about whether philology has any turf at all. This question has become more intriguing in the last few years for those in Biblical Hebrew studies, for two reasons. First, the most visible and accessible scholarly venue for sharing current linguistic work on Biblical Hebrew was eliminated as an independent unit at the discipline’s largest academic society (see here for background); for reasons that were neither entirely transparent nor coherent, the unit can only organize sessions in collaboration with other units, such as the units representing philology or Hebrew poetry. At the same time, two independent collaborations began: one with the focus of “renewing” philology, the other with the focus of bridging the divide between philologists and linguists.

Circumscribing fields of inquiry need not be an exercise in limitation, but one of empowerment, enabling scholars to identify among a myriad of theories and methodologies which may be most appropriately applied to a given research question. Given the current state of Biblical Hebrew studies, it is thus eminently useful for current and future scholars to explore how “philology,” a prestigious term associated with centuries of rigorous and important scholarship, may or may not have continued utility in future academic discourse.


2. A Brief History of the Study of Biblical Hebrew


3. What Future Has Philology?


4. The Role of Theory in Language Study


5. Conclusion
Language research without theory is not research, but scientifically naive empiricism; historical linguistics, socio-linguistics, typology, and so on, refer not to theories, but to areas of focus, bundles of methods, or to return to the parable, pieces of the elephant. These tools or lens only achieve intellectual legitimacy and coherence—the elephant can only be perceived for what it is—when they are situated within an overt theory of language.

Where does this leave philology in contemporary scholarship? If we equate philology roughly with textual criticism (e.g., Hendel 2016), it has a place in manuscript culture, sometimes now situated within editorial theory. If philology is used in relation to historical linguistics (e.g., Barr 1969), it can be situated as historical study of the language (e.g., ancient Hebrew) within a specific linguistic corpus (e.g., the Bible). In contrast, philology defined so that it applies to any activity related to reading texts has no distinct identity, for it becomes little more than a synonym for interpretation, broadly construed. A glance at the modern university already drives home the deleterious impact of fuzzy scholarship on the humanities; can it survive more, under the guise of a resurrected philology?

(As a footnote to my last sentence, I point to a number of “philology” papers given at SBL the last two years—many have bizarrely little transparent connection to language or close-reading of text. I encourage curious readers to read some of these paper titles and abstracts yourselves. I recommend having a strong drink handy when you do!)

Posted in Linguistics (theory or typology), Modern Scholarship. Tags: . Comments Off on Philology in the Modern Academy
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