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Οσα περὶ Φιλολογίαν


What is Philology? This is a question that has accompanied me since I graduated in a discipline called Philology right at the time when this discipline was in need of a sabbatical. Is this sabbatical over? If it is, what are its consequences? This is the first of a series of posts on this subject. They don't have any particular order, and they are only ways to dwell for a short while on certain historical uses of the word --and the concept.

Aristotle’s Problems, book 18 is devoted to ask questions about the love of letters in general1. It begins with the most crucial one:

“Why is it that in some people, if they begin to read, sleep overtakes them when they don’t want it to, whereas others, who want to sleep, are made to be awake when they take up a book?”2

This is a really awakening answer. Aristotle (or not; but at any rate the author of this part knew well the corpus aristotelicus) responds that the one falling asleep is probably too cold, either naturally or because of melancholy, and that, therefore, “the pneumatic residue becomes unconcocted because of coldness.” It’s not very clear. Not even in Greek. The perverse alternative of the question has a different explanation:

“…when the intellect is moved but does not think with concentration, it is checked by the other movement [the pneumatic residue?], which cools, which is why they are more likely to sleep. But when they [those who read and cannot sleep even though they would like nothing else] fix on something in the intellect, which is what reading does, they are moved by a hotter movement, which is unchecked by anything, so that they cannot sleep.”3

The answer is clearly physiological, but not entirely. It also points out a psychological assumption, which is that of the person who reads but is not “thinking with concentration” (καὶ μὴ νοήσῃ ἐπιστήσασά τι). The translation might be a bit rough around the edges, but the aorist of ἐφίστημι with τι means to pay heed to something, to pay attention to something, or simply to get focused or concentrated on something. Being unfocused and not thinking while you read is what makes you sleep. Pick up the book, think while you read, and then you won’t fall asleep. Probably forever. The same Problem explains that thinking is fundamentally dynamic; thinking is movement, and even some sort of dispersion. When it becomes static, your head falls down and you fall asleep. Thinking and movement, keeps saying the text, is life itself4.

That was one important problem of philology. But there are other equally important. One of them is that people in general learn more quickly and more easily by means of paradigms than by means of enthymemes, because the latter are mere demonstrations. Stories (μῦθοι, λόγοι) and paradigms, however, “are more like witnesses (μαρτύρων) and the proofs that come from witnesses are easy (ῥᾴδιοι).”5 This is because, according to Aristotle, people find pleasure in what shows analogies or similarities, and “paradigms and tales (μῦθοι) display similarities (τὸ ὅμοιον δεικνύουσιν).

Connecting both problems very freely one can say that in fact by means of stories and paradigms6, thought goes in many directions, focuses better in the kind of experience they suggest, and therefore the head stays up and awake.

In this second problem comes up another important question for the history of philology in general, which is its connection to legal thought, legal reasoning, and, above all, legal uses of discourse (including rhetoric). The language used by Aristotle does not leave much space to doubt, as it invokes proof (πίστις), witness (μάρτυς -the etymon of “martyr”), and other words from the same semantic field. One of the questions I always wonder is whether, and how, philology became one of the main pillars of the Law. In this sense, perhaps the very concept of philology is becoming a real problem, and not just a casual epigraph alluding to some love of letters.

This affinity and also disconnection between philology and the Law appears again in Problems 18.5, in which the philosopher considers that philosophers are better than orators, because philosophers can actually define complex concepts like “injustice” or “tyranny”, whereas the orators can only point at what is unjust or at the tyrant. The philosophical power is not only to articulate a discourse, but rather to establish a link between language and the very task of creating concepts.

Perhaps philology is only a catchword in these problems. But the problems themselves give as well an idea of something different, a concept that is emerging, a concept in the making, if you wish, and that Latin translators of the Problemata were also rescuing with the purpose of putting it to use7.

I cannot know whether there is a discipline, or perhaps only an inclination called philology. The Problems related to it, however, are leaning towards an idea of reading that involves thought, that involves being awake –because being awake is life itself. In these Problems about philology, thinking is dynamic, and prefers putting forth stories, myths, and becoming an art of the proof, a way to bear witness. If I read correctly, thinking actively, dynamically also prefers, in the end, a philology of the philosopher than a philology of the orator, because the philosopher is the one with the capacity of actually creating complex concepts that are, at the same time, intellectual and public –like, for instance, what is injustice, or what is tyranny. All these ideas seem at the very least an interesting line of inquiry into the formation of a debate on philology. A debate worthwhile pursuing8.

Last Updated 3 years ago


Jesús R. Velasco, « Οσα περὶ Φιλολογίαν », Blogs, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on November 18, 2014. Full URL for this article

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