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Philology and the Problem of Culture

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Chapter Summary

At present philology seems to find itself in a watershed moment. Depending on what future trajectories we imagine for philology, the past will appear in a different light as well. This chapter takes two of the most recent attempts at reinvigorating and even reinventing philology, James Turner’s Philology from 2014 and Sheldon Pollock, Benjamin A. Elman, and Ku-ming Kevin Chang’s World Philology from 2015 as starting points, and proceeds to offer retrospective glances at some of the investments made in the philological tradition in the last two hundred years, which in various ways serve to frame these recent path-breaking contributions. At the core of this tradition, I argue, is “the problem of culture,” which runs through often very diverse works and contributions from the early nineteenth century onward. Rereading some of the canonical texts in the history of philology, by Friedrich Ast, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ferdinand de Saussure, Paul de Man, and others, I claim that they are involved in often very similar undertakings: to liberate or protect the study of language and literature, in all its different forms, from the dominance of broad and abstract cultural categories, which serves to link language to other fields and meanings having to do with identity, politics and ethics, thus dramatically restricting the possibilities of philology to produce new knowledge. Finally, the chapter returns to the present and asks what these re-readings could mean for how we see the future of philology as well as the philology of the future.



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