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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What do we have to impose on students?


Do all students have to be philologists (as is often the case in Europe)? Do they all have to focus on a minor detail of the theory of perception, etc. (as seems to be the case in departments dominated by Analitic Philosophy)?

The departments I am more familiar with tend to think that textual criticism, linguistics and (much less often) a rigorous usage of philosophy are the climax of one's academic curriculum. By contrast, history of art (archaeology being an exception), often literature, sociology and religious studies are silently deemed to be apt for less clever students. This implicit assumption is perpetuated by the fact that, throughout the decades, clever students have been lead to study, e.g., linguistics, and are now clever instructors of linguistics, and so on with the other subjects.

Is this really the case? Is textual criticism, to name just one example, the main road to our understanding of texts? Is it so complex that one has to teach it at the beginning of a student's career, since later everyone would be unable to get enough time and energy to focus on it? More importantly, is it formative? In other words, are students trained in textual criticism (and so on) better students (or scholars), whatever they will later do? A very interesting lecture by Ernst Steinkellner on the day he received the Wittgenstein prize (see here, in German), proposed philology as a new way to embrace mutual understandings among cultures. Personally, I tend to teach philosophy hoping that students will become more aware of their implicit assumptions and hence, critical citizens. But I also suspect that each subject might be used as a bridge to oneself and the others, if only done with enough depth. If this is true, than insisting on just, say, philosophy, may have the disadvantage of creating students and scholars who are doing what they don't like, are suffering because of that and are very likely not to produce any interesting contribution, since they are just out of place.

What is your experience? Did you have to study stuff you disliked? Was it formative or just a waste of time?

I have been triggered to write this post by an interesting comment on a previous post, see here. On scholars who love what they work on, see this post.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great, Elisa, glad to have said something stimulating. Really stimulating, evidently: you wrote that so fast that when I checked back and saw it, I thought, "What an unbelievable coincidence, she was going to talk about that anyway."

Anonymous said...

Keep in mind that your experience of "philology" may not be mine. I have trained under several scholars who consider themselves philologists, but their approaches to scholarship were vastly different. All used manuscripts, but the inferior ones belabored every point to the degree that we never read more than a few pages in a term. The superior ones read quickly and fluently and emended or conjectured on the spur of the moment with great confidence born from their decades of experience READING huge swaths of literature. Both types are philologists, and both are superior to these pretenders who are not able to read primary sources at all.

nOe said...

My question is exactly whether there is something like superiority or inferiority. I work on primary sources and could not imagine any other access to the ideas I want to understand, but a colleague (Amod Lele) made me consider the fact that Thomas the Aquinas did not read Aristotle in Greek. In other words: serious work, perhaps, can be done in different ways. Does it make sense to compel all our forces (/students) through the narrow gateways of textual criticism? I enjoy it (and so seem you) and I guess it might be very formative also for people who at first do not like it… but what about the long-run? Will they have to struggle all life long, only to realise they have become like what you call "inferior philologists"?

elisa freschi said...

(the last comment was by Elisa Freschi, I forgot to shift account.)

Anonymous said...

If there is no such thing as superior and inferior scholars and scholarship then we are truly lost. It's all the same to you???

elisa freschi said...

I just think that there are inferior philologists and superior art-historians. I am sorry if I have not been clear enough.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Anonimo, from one Anomino to another (I'm actually Filippo, but don't tell anyone). Good point about the two kinds of philology. Such master philologists as you describe are ideed a joy to read with. nOe well expresses my own feeling: I can't imagine not having direct personal access to the texts that mean so much to me, but on the other hand, I have certainly known scholars of various branches of oriental studies who, despite not being linguists, were far more intelligent and creative scholars of those fields than many linguists. Theoretically I have to believe that, in principle, acquisition of the linguistic knowledge can only improve the scholarship of such naturally gifted people, but in one case I am thinking of, I watched, over the years, a very brilliant former friend of mine, who was originally engaged with buddhist philosophy in the life-and-death mode of the true philosopher, become less and less authentically engaged with it, and sink deeper and deeper into petty egomaniacal polemics over lexicon and textual criticism, the more pali and philology he learned. But in this case, I think it is possible that he would have been doomed to this course in any case by his chief character flaw.

Anonymous said...

We're ok then. I don't think all scholars need to be textual scholars, but those who are should be able to read all the relevant sources which often includes manuscripts.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Anonymous 1 and Anonymous 2,
I work on primary sources and enjoy working on manuscripts. Still, I wonder whether this must be the only way to approach texts… Would not you think I lack imagination, if I were to say that the point of view of history of philosophy is the only valuable one, just because it is mine?

अश्वमित्रः said...

Well, sure, _I_ would say so.

Filippo/अश्वमित्रः (Anonimo non più)

Anonymous said...

What other ways to approach texts than to read them? Is that narrow minded? Please enlighten me.

elisa freschi said...

Well, think of the example of St. Thomas the Aquinas… I doubt I can understand Aristotle better than he did just because I know Greek (possibly) better than him.
Once again, I am not the right person to defend people who read translations, since I often cannot make sense of a text unless I have read it in the original Sanskrit, but I would like to avoid the fallacy of assuming that everyone thinks like I do.

Anonymous said...

Well, think of the example of St. Thomas the Aquinas… I doubt I can understand Aristotle better than he did just because I know Greek (possibly) better than him.

I am not so familiar with Thomas Aquinas, but it seems that the relevant question here is not whether his understanding of Aristotle is better than yours, but whether it is better than someone who knows Aristotle and the literature informing him in its original language.

To bring this back to your post, I am not in favor of imposing any research model on anyone unwilling, but it is unfortunate that philology has become a taboo field in many academic cultures. Our understanding of our subjects is severely at risk with this die-off of knowledge of how to read primary sources.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Anonymous (by the way, why? are you a student of mine, wanting to spare me the suffrance of being defined as an "inferior philologist" because we only read a few pages during this term?;-)),
I can now better understand your point. You are afraid that my approach may pave the way to a superficial approach to texts, with people pretending to be experts of "Indian philosophy" without even knowing Sanskrit, am I right?
We certainly know many examples especially in the case of Buddhist philosophy and I share your worries (if I am now understanding them correctly). Unless one shares Thomas' philosophical acumen, I would also say that reading the original Sanskrit (or Greek…) is the rājamārga to get access to a text and to the ideas represented in it. I have been lucky enough to learn from my "Doktorvater" ("supervisor" does not seem to be enough;-)) that philology is not tantamount to text-criticism. There is also understanding of a culture and the ideas expressed in it. Being a good reader of Jyotiṣa manuscripts is also not enough to claim to be an expert on, e.g., astronomy.

Anonymous said...

You are afraid that my approach may pave the way to a superficial approach to texts, with people pretending to be experts of "Indian philosophy" without even knowing Sanskrit, am I right?

On the right track. More to the point, the problem is here now and is very real, not just theoretical. I am always seeing articles and books that purport to be about such and such field of Indian history or culture and the authors don't know the first thing about what they are talking about. They are just blowing around a lot of hot air. Ignore them you might say, but they are excelling in academia and taking our jobs! No job=no knowledge production=no passing on knowledge to the next generation. It is bad out there and getting worse. Refute them you might say, but that would make a bunch of enemies and get me labeled with that scorned title "philologist."

elisa freschi said...

Ok, you killed two birds with one stone (since I know understand better why you do not want to disclose your identity) and I now understand your point much better.
Bad money drives out good one and it is difficult to play against people who are appealing but inaccurate. But I cannot resist the tendency to try to fight back (it's beyond my control) and would like to suggest "us" (if you allow) not just to try to defend the few universities where manuscripts are read, loathing the "people outside", but also to try to show why manuscripts and original texts are so important. It should be obvious, and probably used to be obvious, but we cannot any longer assume that it is still obvious (surely not for the government…especially in Italy until 3 weeks ago;-)). Hence, we must repeat and explain again and again, trying to avoid to look "blasé". But I am open to different plans, when it comes to fighting for the future of philology (and for our future jobs), do you have any?

Anonymous said...

I found this letter linked on the Indology list last week very good. It doesn't fight back about philology or manuscripts specifically, but does make a strong case for the importance of the humanities.

To me it is just about literacy. Don't we want a society where people are able to delve into the depths of antiquity and bring back pearls of understanding? There IS a lot of interest in these things in the general populace. I guess we need to work hard to generate even more enthusiasm for it. I try to do that when I teach.

Anonymous said...

Link didn't work. Click on my Anonimo for link.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks, interesting indeed. I am confronted again and again with people asking me: "Why should we pay for people like you, who do not produce chairs, nor shoes, nor…?" (or the like). I often reply that chair-buyers and producers are often depressed and waste their money, energy, time (and often much more) with New Age (at the very best), tarots, future-tellers, etc. Why so? Because they look for *significance* beyond their seemingly productive life. And this they can either get through charlatans or through meaningful resources (e.g., the joy to discover "pearls", learn, investigate, communicate with interesting people), if only the society chooses to invest money in those fields, too. Not to mention the fact that one cannot stop investing in instruction (or also: in humanities) and then be surprised if teenagers have nothing to be passionate about apart… (insert the "evil" you prefer).

Anyway, I am glad to hear you do it while teaching. May I ask whether you also try to make your point at conferences or in your written work?

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