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Philology rediscovered

Researchers discuss theoretical issues for building support and establishing a foundation for classical studies of the field

Reproduction of panels from the Portuguese language museum

Eduardo CesarReproduction of panels from the Portuguese language museumEduardo Cesar

Historically, philology can be understood as a kind of stem science, from which sprouted not only studies such as etymology, but also modern sciences such as linguistics and literary studies.  Strictly speaking, philology is the study of texts, including their language and literary aspects, through the historical analysis of written documents.  But, as those branches of knowledge became independent, the contours of the field of philology began to blur.  In some cases, even the term itself fell out of use.  In place of “classical philology” (which refers to texts from Ancient Greece and Rome), Brazil often uses the expressions “classical languages” or “classical studies.”  Nowadays, there is an academic effort underway around the world to strengthen philological studies by rethinking their theoretical framework.  In Brazil, the major center for this activity is the University of Campinas (Unicamp).

“The theory of philology is not well known in Brazil, but it is actively being developed in countries like Germany,” says Professor Isabella Tardin Cardoso, from the classical studies program of Unicamp’s Institute of Language Studies (IEL).  Since 2006, Cardoso has been at Unicamp as a researcher and visiting lecturer of the Classical Philology Seminar of Heidelberg University (Germany), where she has been conducting studies, courses, lectures and workshops, together and on a work exchange basis with German professor Jürgen Paul Schwindt.  Several of these activities received FAPESP funding as topic grants to organize meetings and bring foreign researchers to Brazil.

“It is interesting to note that classical studies are often viewed as an extremely practical and even theory-resistant field,” Cardoso says.  These would be activities that are “quasi-artisanal and devoid of any interpretative principles.”  As examples, she cites as tasks attributed to classical philology, the identification and collation of fragments of texts, the comparison and review of ancient texts contained in manuscripts, assumptions about and identification of gaps in knowledge, the contextualization of information found in these documents and their translation.  “These practices are also greatly valued by Brazilian professionals.”

A somewhat more thorough observation, however, rejects the notion that these activities lack intentionality or subjectivity, as inferred from the selection of manuscripts to be studied, or the very process of research or translation, when scholars ponder what to give priority to and what to leave out.  Among the ancient written documents, there are a great many works that have survived to this day in incomplete form or in different versions.  Cardoso cites as example the tragedy Atreus, by Latin poet and playwright Lucius Accius (170 A.C.-86 A.C.).  “The order in which a scholar edits the fragments follows certain principles, either deliberately or not,” says Cardoso, who herself has been studying fragments by Accius as well as by Cicero (106 A.C. – 43 A.C.) the Latin orator and philosopher.

Latinist and IEL-Unicamp Professor Paulo Sérgio de Vasconcellos notes that not only in Brazil do we find little attention being given to discussion of the theoretical assumptions of classical philology.  “One illustrious classicist, the Scotsman David West [1926-2013], would tell his students to abandon theory in order to delve directly into the texts, as if it were even possible to approach them with no explicit or implicit theory,” Vasconcellos says.  “In recent years, we have witnessed a shift in the field: there is growing interest in discussing the theoretical issues that serve as a basis for the work of the classicists, and the “Theory of philology” project, in the Brazilian case, is vital to this process.  The project, which laid the groundwork in 2014 for establishing the Center for Studies on the Theory of Philology, with outposts at Unicamp and in Heidelberg, has Cardoso and Vasconcellos as coordinators in Brazil, and Schwindt and Melanie Möller (Free University of Berlin), in Germany.  Also taking part are researchers at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) and the University of Budapest (Hungary).

The identification, study and questioning of the assumptions involved in the conventional practices of philologists constitute the field of philological theory, which can be understood as an epistemology of the field.  “The epistemological perspective is critical if we would rather not remain outside the entire modern narrative in the arts and humanities,” says Schwindt, a pioneer in this field in Germany.  “The theory of philology examines how we relate to the texts, and the emphasis of my research is in how we find something in these texts that is similar to what first led us to try to understand them.”

In order to investigate and develop the theory of philology, the exchange groups thought about a possible dictionary to hold the most important concepts in the field, but not including the most obvious ones such as “text” and “author.”  Then they began thinking about broaching not concepts, but rather words that “are normally presented as having clear meaning.”  Among numerous things, they studied the terms “classical,” “knowledge,” and even the word “philology.”  Hence was born the bilingual and binational project “Words for a theory of philology,” which received support from German research funding agencies such as the DFG and Alexander von Humboldt and has been on-going since 2013.  A bilingual book of homonyms is scheduled to be released by Heidelberg publisher Winter Universitätsverlag in 2016.

Schwindt views the project as the kickoff to a study of mapping and even redefining, when necessary, concepts and terms that may be related to philology.  “In these studies, phenomena that are not traditionally associated with the realm of philology, such as temporality, recognition, order and subversion, are put forth as a genuine link to philological study,” notes the German professor.  Cardoso was responsible for studying the word “ephemerality.”  “I think about how this term is present in the philological vocabulary and how it harmonizes with the very ephemerality of knowledge, without which we could not even cogitate the notion of progress, a principle of modern science,” the researcher says.

The project was preceded by others, starting with Cardoso’s essay entitled  “Teatro do mundo: filologia e imitação”, (Theater of the world: philology and imitation) included in the book Was ist eine philologische Frage? (What is a philological question?), edited by Schwindt for the German publisher Suhrkamp, one of Europe’s most traditional publishers.  “In the chapter, I talk about an important concept for ancient and modern philological studies: imitation,” Cardoso says. “I consulted Bertolt Brecht’s theatrical work Life of Galileo and I use the metaphor ‘theater of the world’ to more closely observe imitation and the make-believe that it involves, as part of the sciences in general, and as part of philology in particular.”

The theater metaphor as representation of the world or of life is a recurrent theme in western literature and philosophy and, in Cardoso’s view, an important resource for the formulation and development of science, almost as if scientific text were “an imitation of the very object of study.”  Continuing her comparison     between science and art, Cardoso wrote a piece about the term “illusion,” published as a book for the University of Vienna (Austria), Trompe l’oeil: Philologie und Illusion (Trompe l’oeil: Philology and Illusion), a title that refers to the French expression for a painting technique that creates the impression of depth in two-dimensional images.

Cardoso notes that unlike what occurred in 19th – 20th century classical studies, imitation, in Ancient times and during the Renaissance, was an accepted and noble literary practice, and functioned as a sort of competition.  By way of example, she offers a description of a “world of the dead” as seen in Homer, Virgil, Dante and Boccaccio.  A modern and satirical reference to this habit was Ariano Suassuna’s definition in his comedy The Saint and the Sow (1957), as a “Northeastern [Brazil] imitation of Plautus.”  Another revealing aspect of the study of imitation is the habit among researchers to look for how to “imitate the author’s intent.”  This was seen up to the mid-20th century when, in the absence of historical information, researchers would often disclose “data” about the life of writers that they construed from the writer’s style.  Therefore “Plauto was poor and he spoke to a simpler public” or “Catulo wrote his poems to a girlfriend.”  Cardoso underscores the fact that today, the methodologies question such focus on the “author,” but do not entirely reject the imitation of his object of study, whether it be the text (its style and logic), or the public that the text would have had at the time it was written.

Related and innovative studies are being carried out by Vasconcellos in the field of intertextuality, which is the analysis of two or more texts to reveal new aspects about them.  “Every Latinist knows that the literature of Ancient Rome maintains a constant and complex dialogue with Greek literature as well as internally,” the researcher explains. “In the past, philologists would simply be happy mentioning the passages of the other authors.  Intertextual theory came along to lend sophistication to comparative study, demonstrating a process of generation of meaning.”  Vasconcellos, along with Patricia Prata, another professor at IEL-Unicamp, leads a team that is translating into Portuguese “essential texts about intertextuality in classical studies,” including Arte alusiva, by the Italian Giorgio Pasquali, and On the Shoulders of Giants: Intertextuality and Classical Studies, by Englishman Don Fowler.

To Cardoso, the repercussions of all these studies prove the necessity of reflecting upon the practice of philology.  She says that the project “Words for a theory of philology” provided incentive for a binational group of specialists to gather around   some central questions that surround these practices.  Schwindt discovered the benefits of partnerships with Brazilian researchers.  “It became clear to me that the scientific perspective in the study of the structures of philology could better be developed within an academic context that was not exposed to the ideological burden that shaped our work in Europe,” he says.  In his view, the frequency of travel by scholars from the two countries prompted by interest in the theory of philology is proof that there is fertile ground for both sides.