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1. the scientific analysis of written records and literary texts
2. (no longer in scholarly use) the study of literature in general
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a union of disciplines within the humanities— linguistics, literary theory and criticism, history, and others— which studies the history and essence of human spiritual culture through linguistic and stylistic analysis of written texts. In philology, the text, in all its internal aspects and external relations, is the fundamental reality. Philology focuses its attention on the text in order to compile a working commentary—the most ancient form of and classical prototype for all philological work. In doing so, it takes into account the breadth and depth of human existence, primarily, of human spiritual existence. Thus, the internal structure of philology represents a dichotomy: at one extreme is a close reading that does not depart from the concrete text; at the other is a universality, whose bounds are impossible to determine beforehand. Ideally, the philologist must know everything, in the most literal sense of the word, since in principle everything may be necessary to explicate a given text.

Inasmuch as it is a function of the self-knowledge of culture, philology arises at a relatively mature stage in literate civilizations; its existence is indicative of both the level and the type of civilization. Philology was unknown in the highly developed ancient cultures of the Near East, and it was allotted very modest interest in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. In ancient India and Greece, the cradle of philosophy, philology developed as a separate corollary from the gnoseological reflection on human thought, which was first formulated there; philology was a reflection on word and speech, a departure from the direct treatment of the two. Later, conflicts arose between the philosophical striving toward abstraction and philology’s concreteness, for example, the attacks of the humanist philologists on medieval Scholasticism and Hegel’s pejorative reference to philology. Nevertheless, the original union of philosophy and philology was not accidental, and the highest developments of philology usually followed the great epochs of gnoseological thought: in the Hellenistic world, after Aristotle; in 17th-century Europe, after R. Descartes; and in 19th-century Germany, after I. Kant).

Indian philology contributed great grammarians, such as Panini (c. fifth and fourth centuries B.C.) and Patanjali (second century B.C), and, later, theoreticians of style. Ancient China had its own philological tradition, as represented by Liu Hsieh (fifth and sixth centuries A.D). The tradition of European philology, however, derived exclusively from Greek sources, since Europe was not acquainted with the achievements of Indian scholars until modern times. The Scholastic commentary on Homer stands at the beginning of this tradition. The age of the Sophists (the late fifth and early fourth centuries B.C.) saw the emergence of a specific social type—the educated, clever intellectual—and literature became sufficiently detached from extraliterary reality to become the object of theoretical poetics and philology. Among the Sophists, the greatest contributions to the formation of philological methods were those of Protagoras of Abdera, Gorgias, and Prodicus. Greek literary theory achieved full maturity in the Poetics of Aristotle. Between the third and first centuries B.C., Hellenistic philology separated from philosophy and became the province of specialists—the librarians of Alexandria and Pergamum—who devoted themselves to establishing authoritative texts and writing commentaries on classical authors. Dionysius Thrax (c. 170–90 B.C.) gave the theory on parts of speech its final formulation, which is accepted even today. Early Christian authors, such as Origen and, later, Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, carried out prodigious textological work on original biblical texts and Greek translations of the Bible. The traditions of Greek philology were continued in medieval Byzantium, where the original philological focus on text and commentary on the classics was kept intact. After the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, Renaissance Italy received the legacy of Byzantine philology from refugee scholars.

In the West, the late-medieval flowering of Scholasticism, with its intellectual passion for abstract, formalized systems, was not favorable to the progress of philology. The aims of the humanists of the Renaissance, beginning with Petrarch, who worked on texts of Cicero and Vergil, contrasted sharply with those of the Scholastics. Although they attached great importance to grasping the thought content of authoritative classical sources, the humanists sought to find a new home in a re-created world of the ancients and to speak the ancient language, which they reconstructed in their battle with the lifelessness of medieval Latin.

Philological criticism of religious and cultural tradition, such as that of Erasmus, was important as a preparation for the Reformation. After a period of scholarly professionalism (from approximately the mid-16th to mid-18th centuries), a new era of philology began in Germany as the result of the neohumanism of J. J. Winckelmann. As during the Renaissance, but with incomparably more scientific strictness, the question was raised concerning an integral representation of the classical world. The German philologist F. A. Wolf (1759–1824) introduced the term Philologie as the name of a science dealing with classical antiquity with a universal historical and cultural approach. In the 19th century, as the result of the work of such German philologists as H. Usener, E. Rohde, and U. von Wilamovitz-Moellendorff, ancient history was separated from philology and was made an independent branch of knowledge. At this time, under the influence of romanticism and other ideological trends, a new philology developed alongside classical philology and gave rise to Germanic philology (the brothers J. Grimm and W. Grimm), Slavic studies (A. Kh. Vostokov and V. Hanka), and Oriental studies.

The universality of philology was most clearly embodied between the Renaissance and the mid-19th century in the traditional figure of the classicist, a specialist in ancient texts. The classical philologist was a combination of linguist, critic, historian of customs and culture, and expert in the humanities and, on occasion, even the natural sciences—everything that might in principle be required to explicate a text. In spite of the subsequent differentiation of linguistics, literary theory and criticism, history, and other disciplines that arose from what was once a single science of history and philology, the essential unity of philology as a special approach to the written word was still preserved, although in less distinct form. Philology continued not as a particular science, as distinct in subject matter from history, linguistics, and literary theory and criticism, but as a scholarly principle, an autonomous form of knowledge, distinguished not so much by the limits of its subject as by its approach to that subject.

The essential principles of philology, however, enter into extremely complicated relationships with certain cultural and intellectual trends in modern times. First, the moral foundation of philological research was always a faith in the absolute significance inhering in certain texts, in which was sought the source of a higher spiritual orientation; it was felt that one’s entire life could be profitably spent in working on such texts. For the religious faith of the Christian scholars, these were the texts of the Old and the New Testament; for the secular faith of the Renaissance humanists and the neohumanist contemporaries of Winckelmann and J. W. von Goethe, they were the texts of classical antiquity. Nevertheless, modern man can no longer accept any venerable ancient text with the same faith and naivete he once possessed. Scholarly progress has made philology itself more democratic and wide-reaching, forcing it to reject the preference once shown to certain privileged texts. Now, instead of two varieties of philology—classical philology and the biblical philologia sacra—there exist as many varieties of philology as there are linguistic regions of the world. Such a broadening of the concepts of what is interesting, important, and valuable results in a loss of intimacy with respect to the subject. Of course, there are instances in which the relationship to a text retains the former features: the works of Dante for Italians, of Goethe for Germans, and of A.S. Pushkin for Russians are texts that, in each case, preserve the significance of a universal, living symbol. Nevertheless, philology as a substantive discipline is undergoing a genuine crisis.

Second, new and attractive possibilities in many disciplines, including the humanities, are connected with modern research on macrostructures and microstructures, promising, on the one hand, global generalization and, on the other, isolation of the smallest possible units of significance and sense. Yet the traditional architectonics of philology is oriented toward the integrity of the text and, consequently, founded on human measure (as ancient architecture was based on the proportions of the human body). Philology is opposed to these new trends, however fruitful they may promise to be.

Finally, modern times are characterized by a striving to formalize the humanities in the image of mathematics in the hope that such a framework will leave no room for arbitrariness or subjectivity in analysis. However, there is something in the traditional structure of philology, with all the strictness of its methods and the soberness of its research, that stubbornly resists such attempts. Here we are speaking of forms and methods of knowledge that are significantly alien to the scientific character. Such forms cannot even be characterized as intuition; rather, they are worldly wisdom, common sense, and the knowledge of people, without which it is impossible for an art such as philology to understand the spoken and written word. Mathematically precise methods are possible only at the fringes of philology, and they do not affect philology’s essence. Philology can never become an exact science. The philologist, of course, must not cultivate subjectivity, but neither can he protect himself from the risk of subjectivity by surrounding himself with a stout wall of exact methodology. The strictness and peculiar precision of philology consist in a continuing moral and intellectual effort, which overcomes arbitrariness and creates opportunities for human comprehension. In promoting comprehension, philology helps us achieve one of the primary human goals—the understanding of another human being, another culture, or another era—without turning it into something coldly calculated or a reflection of our own emotions.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.