Monday, July 21, 2008

Historicism vs. Philology

Every so often, a non-scholar (or beginning scholar) who reads the Wordhoard will ask me, "What's historicism? I can't figure out what it means when people use the term, and the dictionary doesn't help." Whenever I try to explain it, I always feel like they're just nodding politely, and have no idea what I'm talking about.

The Naked Philologist's icons recently got me thinking about this problem. One of her icons flashes the slogan, "Understand the words, understand the people who used the words."* That slogan holds the key, I think, to help the layman understand historicism.

Medieval literature is pulled between two poles: philology (which simply means "the study of words") and historicism. Now, right about now, a bunch of scholars are reaching for their keyboards to argue that philology and historicism, properly understood, aren't really at odds with one another -- and they aren't, but for the purpose of the layman's understanding, let's pretend they are for the moment. When you get down to the comment thread, you may be seeing people arguing why it isn't really the case. They're probably right; I'm just offering a baseline here.**

Philology suggests that to understand the people, you first have to understand their language. If you want to understand the Anglo-Saxons, for example, you need to be able to read what they wrote. Beyond just being able to read what they wrote, you have to pay attention to what words they had and how they used them, as well as what words they didn't have. For example, the Anglo-Saxons had a word, frod, which means something like "old and wise." Note that I cannot translate that into modern English with a single word -- it takes a phrase. This suggests that the Anglo-Saxons closely associated the concepts of age and wisdom. On the other hand, there is no Old English word for "knight," -- or, more accurately, the word cniht, from which our modern word "knight" comes from meant something more like "young boy." Why? Because the heavy mounted cavalry units we think of weren't around in Anglo-Saxon England.

Historicism suggests the opposite: That to understand the language, you first have to understand the people. If we understand how they thought about things, we'll have a better sense of what their language meant to them. For example, if you understand Anglo-Saxon gift culture -- that the person giving the gift is asserting authority, and the person receiving the gift is tacitly acknowledging that authority, then we see the scene in Beowulf where Hrothgar is giving gifts to Beowulf not as payment for services rendered, nor as gratitude, nor as a bribe to leave without overthrowing his reign, but as an assertion of authority, and Beowulf's acceptance of those gifts as a way of saying, "I accept that you are king here, and won't oppose you or your sons."

These two sides tug the rope of medieval literature constantly. A century ago, the philologists dominated; now it's the historicists who dominate. Of course, neither side can do without the other, and most scholarship needs the knowledge and skills garnered from both. Still, each thinker (and perhaps each article) favors one or the other as an approach, and each side has a tendency to suspect that the other kind isn't really a rigorous scholar -- the other side is fluffy, pseudo-scholarship, not to be confused with the serious rigor of one's own work.

Most of the time, the debate is simply a simmering quiet contempt for the other. Every so often, it grows hot. But, for the most part, laymen can understand the argument like this: Is it better to use first the language to understand the people, or to use first the people to understand the language?

*I've been assured by several people that she's quoting some famous linguist, but I've gotten conflicting reports as to who that linguist would be, and can't find the quote myself. If anyone has a source, that would be great.
**One of my lectures I give near the beginning of every medieval lit course has a line about midway through it that goes something like this: "That's what we teach people, anyway. Now let me spend the rest of the hour explaining why everything I just said isn't true, even though it's absolutely true." It must be difficult to take notes in my classes.


  1. I like the way you've characterized these two poles colliding--as both different but also emphasizing that "neither side can do without the other, and most scholarship needs the knowledge and skills garnered from both."

    I wonder, how does one bring the two poles together? What I really mean is, if scholars should be using both concepts equally--because, let's phase it: as you've pointed out, language affects history, and history affects language--what is the middle ground? Is there a vein of linguo-historicism, or historio-linguistics to be found and utilized? I don't mean "historical linguistics," but a way of approaching history and language together.

    As a young scholar entering the field through an interdisciplinary department and method (which I highly value as the best way to view the past), what might this look like, theoretically? I think your emphasis on the necessity of both views gets to this point a little, but is there more to be said for implementing both into one sphere of examination?

  2. Now here is one of those cases where I can actually see room for "befuddlement" on the part of readers.

    You write: "Historicism suggests... : That to understand the language, you first have to understand the people."

    This may be true from a literary theory and criticism perspective, but it is not necessarily true from other perspectives.

    From a Philosophy of Science perspective, Historicism is a post-Kuhnian application of Hegelian ideas to the application of science. You have the period of normal science (the thesis) during which things behave under a dominant paradigm. Eventually, enough anomalies appear that the paradigm encounters a crisis and we enter a phase of "revolutionary" science where the dominant paradigm and its rivals are questioned all the way down to their basic principles (the anti-thesis).

    From another philosophic perspective, the direct philosophy of Hegel, Historicism understands the passage of history as a struggle between theses and anti-theses which continually approaches "freedom" or some other teleological principle. These struggles are viewed as rational and understandable through scientific principles.

    I don't know how exactly those fit with your description of Historcism in Medieval Studies, which seems to be an application of historical study (common usage) to the interpretation of literature. According to my copy of the John Hopkins guide to Literary Criticism, one might use Vico's NEW SCIENCE description, "the closest knowledge of a thing, lay in the study of its origins."

    There's more in the entry that links it somewhat to the Kuhnian and Hegelian understandings, but I find the application of Hegel clumsy.

  3. Oh dear, I'm afraid I will have to offer the anticipated dissent. The distinction between understanding the people first or understanding the language first is an altogether false dichotomy that is of little use. How is it possible to understand the historical people unless it is through the written documents of their existence? This is a basic tenet of New Historicism and familiar from most historiographical reflections from Hayden White on. (Thucydides and Herodotus also have a pretty sophisticated sense of what kind of evidence produces knowledge, even if they write thousands of years before the so-called documentary revolution.)
    The relationship between philology and historicism is that the former is an instrument of the latter. Historicism seeks to understand a given work in its original historical context. Philology, whether understood as linguistics or textual criticism, aims to reconstruct that textual-linguistic context. It aims to strip away the history that intervenes between ourselves and the past so that we can see that past more clearly.
    What you may have meant is that texts can be interpreted or understood according to interests that are primarily philological, that is, concerned with the use of language, or primarily historical, that is, how the written work reflects the world in which it was produced. In that sense, they are different lenses through which to read the work rather than opposed methodologies. Yes, that must be what you mean.

  4. Charles,

    You wrote: "The relationship between philology and historicism is that the former is an instrument of the latter."

    You wouldn't have to swing a dead cat too long before hitting someone reversing that relationship.

    Besides, everyone knows Charles Kinbote is an unreliable narrator!

    (For those missing the joke, try looking up the name "Charles Kinbote")

  5. I wasn't so much quoting as adapting for historical (and much nicer...) purposes:

    If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words: Phillip K. Dick.

    As for your post: yes. Indeed. Right you are.
    Ideally, surely, one must do both in a sort of spiral? Starting out as a beginner: depending on your teacher, you might start with an introduction to the culture, or you might be thrown the first chapter of the ASC and told to swim... but as you go, your teacher will probably keep feeding you bits of both, fleshing out the history and filling in your knowledge of the language. Again, depending on your teacher or the kind of course, you might have a bias one way or the other, I guess...

    Do people stop working in circles, though, as they get older and more erudite? I guess as you specialise in your subfield and you come to know everything you need to know about it, your need for background historical study might become less and less obvious to you?

  6. Anonymous1:34 PM

    I think the question about which to use first is the problem. As if either really needs to be first! I can imagine really enjoying a multidisciplinary approach, employing both sides of the coin simultaneously. Kind of like learning Spanish in high school: lots of language acquisition, but cultural studies too.

    Given that, I always get a little twitchy at pronouncements about preliterate societies and their artifacts. Sure, we can dig up artifacts and propose meanings for them, but how can we really know without knowing what people actually said about them? Uh-oh, maybe I'm a philologist after all.