Textual Criticism

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Textual Criticism


the branch of philology that studies works of literature and folklore in order to verify, establish, and organize their texts for subsequent research, interpretation, and publication.

Textual criticism deals with classical, medieval, and modern literature. The critical study of historical sources and works of oral folklore involves special problems. The establishment of texts of classical literary works generally involves reconstruction by means of hypotheses, conjectures, sophisticated critical methods, and the filling in of lacunae; the reestablished text remains hypothetical. To a lesser degree, this is true of medieval texts. However, textual criticism of some works dating from the age of printing, such as those of Shakespeare, requires refined research methods as well.

In medieval Old Russian and Western literature the authorial element is of minor importance. All the stages in the history of such a text are significant, including later re workings taking place as a result of copying and of inclusion in compilations. The same is true with regard to folklore, where the concept of a text is particularly complex. A work of folklore has many valid variations. Its text may exist in verbal, musical, or dramatic form and may be the direct result of improvisation. The same is true of Eastern literary works, whose texts may combine literary and folkloric elements.

In modern literatures, with the development of the authorial element as well as the printing of multiple copies of authorized texts, the history of a text has come to mean the history of a text’s composition by its author; the subsequent stages are of limited interest. All the manuscripts and authorized editions of a text are analyzed and compared for critical verification with the author’s final version, for the study of the text’s history, and for the re-creation of the creative process. Surviving autographs, as well as psychological and aesthetic evaluations, are used to support the critique of the text.

The textual criticism of historical sources does not exist as such and is divided between two other disciplines—the study of sources and archaeography. The text should be regarded as changeable. Similarly, in the study of linguistic sources, the linguistic changes observed in a given work are an important subject of study for dialectology and historical linguistics.

Translations are subjected to critical study when classics of foreign literature are rendered into a native language, and also in the analysis of medieval literatures, which have often been enriched by translations, adaptations, and borrowings. In such cases the history of the text is more complex, since the text of the original work has its own history as well; textual criticism here borders on comparative historical literary theory and on the theory of literary translation.

The above-mentioned distinctions do not mean, however, that textual criticism should be divided into separate branches, since textual criticism is a unified discipline with a specific historical and textual basis.

A primary aim of textual criticism is the establishment of the text. By this is meant a diachronic, historically interpreted, and critical reading of the text based on an intensive study of its history and sources, including manuscripts, printed editions, and historical evidence. The establishment of the text also involves the verification of the sources’ genealogy and development, as well as the classification and interpretation of the author’s revisions and variants and of textual distortions made by editors or censors.

Textual criticism is also an aspect of the methodology of literary theory, that is, it is a means of studying literature. Both the patterns of literary development and social trends are reflected in textual changes. The study of these changes makes it possible to perceive literature as a process and to understand a work as a product of its time.

Comparative historical and typological studies are difficult to make without an intensive study of a text’s history. A diachronic reading of the synchronic definitive text increases the number of its elements to be interpreted and permits the dynamics of the text and the text itself to be more fully and correctly understood. The study of a text’s history also makes it possible to reconstruct the creative process and to analyze the text’s creative history. This type of analysis provides abundant material for the study of the psychology of literary creativity and of the laws of perception. The study of a text’s creative history also provides a historical and functional elucidation of a literary work’s role during different epochs. Textual criticism thus aids in the philological, historical, and literary interpretation of a work.

Problems involved in the study of a text’s history include the text’s attribution, dating, and localization.

The publication of a scholarly edition of a literary text or texts is an important application of textual criticism. Problems related to this process include selection of the text and of the works themselves, the arrangement of the works, and the preparation of a scholarly apparatus, including accompanying articles, commentaries, and indexes. The approach to these problems depends on the use to which the projected edition is to be put. The most highly regarded type of scholarly edition, the academy edition, has an accurate, scientifically established text and a. compilation of all available redactions and variants. It also has scholarly commentaries summarizing the results of textual analysis and providing information about sources and existing redactions. The commentaries explain why a given text was selected, as well as the bases for decisions made concerning attribution and dating. Finally, an academy edition has a scholarly apparatus permitting convenient use of the edition for scholarly work.

Popular editions reprint scholarly texts but present less material, change its arrangement, and may alter its spelling. The scholarly apparatus is reduced to a minimum, and other types of commentary, primarily historical, literary, and extraliterary, are given precedence.

The basic method of textual criticism is philological analysis of the text, based on the unique nature of literature as both a historical phenomenon and a type of art. In the analysis of texts, a number of basic requirements must be met. The analysis must be historically accurate, and the work’s relations with social, historical, cultural, and literary trends must be investigated. Also studied are the text’s variants, other works by the same author, and works by other authors subject to a similar milieu. An investigation is made of reflections of the given work in other works, and the work itself is studied as a whole. Textual changes are studied both individually and in relation to changes in the work’s content. Evidence is presented that the text as established is the most accurate text possible.

As an aspect of literary theory and criticism, textual criticism is closely interrelated with other aspects of that discipline—that is, the history and theory of literature—and provides them with source materials. Conversely, textual criticism uses the findings of literary theory and criticism and of all the social sciences. Auxiliary disciplines of textual criticism include bibliography, source studies, paleography, hermeneutics, historical poetics, and stylistics. Complex methodologies of cybernetics, semiotics, and probability theory may be applied in textual criticism.

The history of textual criticism dates from the age of the classical Greek philologists. Aristarchus (second century B.C.) founded the philological school of criticism and exegetics, which dealt with the texts of Homer and other authors. Later textual criticism was concerned with the Old and New Testaments, whose translations and manuscript copies were seen to have diverged from the originals. During the Renaissance, scholars sought to restore works of classical literature to their original form. The methods of textual criticism, which developed in relation to the material of Old Testament, classical, early Christian, and medieval literatures, were later applied to modern literature.

In Russia, empirical textual criticism was founded in the mid-18th century, with the publication of the works of A. D. Kantemir and the Russian chronicles. The Tale of Igor’s Campaign and other works of Old Russian literature and folklore inspired a wealth of scholarly commentary.

Modern Russian textual criticism was first applied to the works of A. S. Pushkin, in the editions of such scholars as P. V. Annenkov. The first academy editions, containing the works of such writers as G. R. Derzhavin and K. N. Batiushkov, appeared in the second half of the 19th century. However, textual criticism became a true scholarly discipline and acquired a methodological apparatus only during the Soviet period. The works of G. O. Vinokur, B. V. Tomashevskii, and D. S. Likhachev were of particular importance in this development. In the USSR, textual criticism is linked to the comprehensive historical study of texts and is an essential component of literary research.


Vinokur, G. Kritika poeticheskogo teksta. Moscow, 1927.
Tomashevskii, B. V. Pisate’ i kniga: Ocherk tekstologii, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1959.
Voprosy tekstologii, fases. 1–4. Moscow, 1957–67.
Likhachev, D. S. Tekstologiia: Na materiale russkoi literatury X-XVIIvv. Moscow-Leningrad, 1962.
Likhachev, D. S. Tekstologiia: Kratkii ocherk. Moscow-Leningrad, 1964.
Osnovy tekstologii. Edited by V. S. Nechaeva. Moscow, 1962.
Reiser, S. A. Paleografiia i tekstologiia novogo vremeni. Moscow, 1970.
Printsipy tekstologicheskogo izucheniia fol’klora. Moscow-Leningrad, 1966.
Tekstologicheskoe izuchenie eposa. Moscow, 1971.
Witkowski, G. Textkritik und Editionstechnik neuerer Schriftwerke. Leipzig, 1924.
Górski, K. Sztuka edytorska: Zarys teorii. Warsaw 1956.
Bowers, F. Textual and Literary Criticism. New York-London, 1966.


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