Old Fashioned Philology: Dead? Useless? Not so fast…

So I haven’t read this book and I am cherry picking a money-quotation but these words offer balm to my troubled soul.

“All the more reason that the sense of what is and is not a sound reading needs development in every historian who seeks to work with papyri–a sense that comes from reading a lot of texts and from working with the artefacts themselves, from bearing the editor’s and critic’s burden oneself.  It would be pleasant to be able to offer to historians in general the good news that all of that philological baggage and training really is not essential, that the doors have been flung wide open, but this is just not the case.

“The necessity of sound philological underpinnings to historical work is only part of the explanation of the durability of philology…it remains a fertile source of questions and insights.  The best collaboration, as Louis Robert never tired of saying, takes place inside a single brain, and it is above all the well-stocked mind that tends to generate connections previously unnoticed (Roger S. Bagnall.  Reading Papyri, Writing Ancient History. 1995) ”

I am not a papyrologist but I believe in the value of general, wide reading of primary sources in their original languages.   But lately I have been feeling insecure because I get the sense that this is a dinosaur-mentality and that my training has damned me to the ranks of the intellectually obsolete.  And that I have wasted my 12 years of adulthood.

So thanks, Roger Bagnall, you made my day.

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  • The Aphorist

    I’ve been teased by fellow grad students (they in a German dept.) for:

    -spending years studying Greek just so that I could study what modern Germans have to say about ancient Greeks

    -getting excited every time I get a new dictionary

    -being disappointed that my advisor didn’t want me to take Middle High German (I’m in Comp Lit)

    I’ve even had to defend the idea of caring about etymology. I’ve yet to see any Germanist really care about textual criticism, which can still be a real concern even with texts from the last few centuries.

    The only place I’ve seen real respect for careful reading and all of the skills and knowledge required for it has been the classics department. If Germanists think rigorous philology is quaint, I doubt most non-classicists care much more for it.

  • TT

    A papyrologist defending philology? What’s next, cats and dogs living together?

  • g.wesley

    i once picked up bagnall’s chronological systems of byzantine egypt and tried to make sense of it but it was inscrutible.

    his edited oxford handbook of papyrology is a great.

    i haven’t read this one you cite. will have to take a look. ought to go great with stephen greenblatt.

    so does this mean you’ll be applying here:


    you’ve seen that bagnall will be there right?

  • Nitsav

    It seems to be the trend that philology is either an outdated-but-essential tool OR completely worthless.

    And really, anyone who can’t deal with the documents in the original language(s) is always going to be at the mercy of those who can.

  • g.wesley

    i guess it depends on what you have in mind.

    to the extent that someone has to edit a text so that someone else can translate it so that someone else can read it in their native langauge, then yes.

    but consider this. let’s say someone with more background in language study finds a job in a department chaired by someone else with more appreciation for theory and method (this is a totally false dichotomy i know, and no real people would ever fit this description).

    the one publishes a critical edition of some text in a dead language, while the other tells her that it won’t count towards promotion and tenure because it’s not a book, lacking as it does any kind of sustained analysis.

    in that case, who is at the mercy of whom?

  • Nitsav

    “getting excited every time I get a new dictionary”

    I LOVE getting new lexicons! I’ve had my eye on Hayim Tawil’s comparative lexicon of Hebrew/Akkadian for a while, but can’t justify it.