What Is Philology?

According to Friedrich Nietzsche philology is the art of reading slowly. That’s a great definition, but I want to be more specific. In my view, philology has four aspects. First is the history of languages, also known as historical linguistics; second is the editing of texts; third is the interpretation of meaning in context; and fourth is literary criticism with a particular interest in language. Many philologists will concentrate on one or two aspects of the field, but most will have some acquaintance with all four.

Historical linguistics: Languages are always changing, and all modern languages derive from ancient languages. Historical linguistics, the study of languages over time, is one of the great intellectual achievements of the nineteenth century. In the late eighteenth century Western scholars became familiar with Sanskrit and realized that it bore a striking resemblance to Greek and Latin. Continue reading . . .

The Editing of Texts: Every text we read has its own history. How do we get the texts we read? How do we know that the words we read are the words the author wanted us to read? These questions became particularly pressing in the later Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, when scholars began to recover a large number of ancient manuscripts, but they remain relevant even for modern works of literature. Continue reading . . . .

The Interpretation of Meaning in Context: Meaning always depends to some extent on context, and philology attempts to include that context in interpretation. In this way philology is distinguished from certain schools of philosophy and linguistics, which treat meaning either in the abstract or not at all. Continue reading . . .

Literary Criticism with a Particular Focus on Language: There are many ways to read. We can be mostly interested in the characters in a story, or we can look for symbols and themes. We can ask how a story represents reality—or we can ask if it does. Continue reading . . .

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