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14 - Philology, Language, and the Constitution of Meaning and Human Communities

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 August 2019

Warren Breckman
Affiliation:
University of Pennsylvania
Peter E. Gordon
Affiliation:
Harvard University, Massachusetts
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Summary

Philology, the historical study of language, has recently regained an authoritative position in the history of European thought, rectifying a half-century of relative neglect, and even derision, that followed the self-proclaimed “collapse” of the field in the early twentieth century. “Philology leads to calamity,” Eugène Ionesco cautions in the play The Lesson (1951) as a delusional professor descends into a feverish tirade on linguistics and stabs a bewildered student to death. Philology has at times stood for the worst in intellectual life: obscurity, self-absorption, empty erudition, and an unrelenting disregard for relevance. However, as historians excavate what Anthony Grafton in 1983 termed the “large and haunting empty space” occupied by philology in the history of ideas, it has re-emerged as the nineteenth century’s queen of sciences and as a bedrock of the modern humanities. Philology has accordingly featured prominently in current struggles to defend literary and cultural studies against perceived threats to their institutional survival.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2019

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