Classical philology and philology are kindred but not the same. Philology in the general sense derives from the historical development of Classical philology. Accordingly, to understand philology one has to examine it in the context of the historical development of Classical philology.

What Is Classical Philology?

One definition of modern Classical philology:
"Classical philology is the science which concerns itself with everything that has been transmitted from antiquity in the Greek or Latin language. The object of this science is thus the Greco-Roman, or Classical, world to the extent that it has left behind monuments in a linguistic form." (J. and K. Kramer, La filologia classica [1979] 1)

This definition therefore clearly excludes archaeology. Furthermore, it excludes the study of history, though to the extent that history uses linguistic documents it must avail itself of the methods and techniques of philology. This is particularly true of ancient history, which consists mainly in the examination of information of a linguistic nature. An attempt in Germany to make the study of antiquity more broadly based was described with the term Altertumswissenschaft (which sometimes appears in French in the form science de l'antiquité). This, then, is the nineteenth century version of interdisciplinarity. Nihil novum sub sole! English has developed no such concept, though the term "Classical studies" is sometimes used to include more than just textual studies.

Historical Development Of Classical Philology

Modern Classical philolgy begins in the early Renaissance with Petrarch (1304-74). Petrarch was very unhappy with his contemporary world, and saw in the world of Roman antiquity as it was known to him through the texts of surviving Latin authors an image of a superior civilization. (Famously he said in his autobiographical sketch incubui unice inter multa ad notitiam vetustatis quoniam mihi semper aetas ista displicuit [I uniquely strove in the midst of many activities toward a knowledge of antiquity, since this age always displeased me]). This was an effort to improve the Christian world through the examination of the moral precepts of the ancients. Specifically he referred once to his interests as studia humanitatis, studies of humanity. Humanitas is literally "humanness" and is the word used by the Romans to describe civilized, cultured life: civilization is what distinguishes mankind from the beasts, and so that civilized life that which describes mankind in a normative sense. Petrarch used this expression once, but it was quickly picked up by those who carried on his interests, the humanists of the Renaissance.

The term humanism is often used to describe the frame of mind characteristic of the Renaissance. This term is a nineteenth century coinage. At the time people who investigated Classical antiquity were called humanists, and the kindred sense humanity continues today in the phrase "the humanities." The study of Classical "humanity" was at the time often contrasted with a purely theological consideration of Christianity, which was called divinity. This contrast has led to the obnoxious modern expression "saecular humanism," which really means "atheistic materialism," something quite different from the humanism of the Renaissance.

The fundamental opposition of "humanism" was to the formalistic scholasticism of the later Middle Ages. This was a complicated system of self-supporting logical constructs that defended the theological interpretations of Chistianity made by the medieval church. This system was based fundamentally on a belief in the supreme and stern god's dissatisfaction with an inherently corrupt and irredemable mankind. Only the mercy of god could save mankind from its squalor. Humanism was more optimistic, believing that the study of Classical antiquity could, when combined with the correctly understood teachings of the Church, lead to an improvement both in the saecular world and in the Christian life of the individual. The evil of the world is ascribed not to original sin or predestination but to ignorance. Dispel the shadows of ignorance and the world will improve.

So what does this have to do with philology? The works of Classical antiquity were preserved in manuscripts usually writen many centuries after the original composition. Accordingly, one of the first steps of using antiquity to improve the world is to determine a correct text of what the ancients said. This led to a search in religious institutions for better texts of preserved authors and for the discovery of works not yet known to have survived from antiquty. In addition, there was the need to establish the correct version of the ancient works. At the same time, men writing in Latin, the language of education, attempted to purify the language, returning to the idiom of antiquity (esp. Cicero) and suppressing the "barbarous" usages of medieval Latin (which diverged from Classical idiom because of both the interference of the native languages of the writers of Latin and the influence of the style of the Latin Vulgate bible (written in a lower-class Latin it also labors under the difficulty of being an overly literal translation of the Greek). This desire to return to Classical idiom resulted in two very characteristic traits of Classical philology: the careful examination of the usage of individual words and the writing of line-by-line commentaries on ancient works, often concentrating on the explanation of words through the citation of parallels (examples of other usages adduced to illuminate the sense in the passage under discussion).

The Meaning Of Philology

It is this method of procedure that leads to the use of the word philology. Philology (philologia) is the abstraction of the Greek word philologue (philologos). A philologos is "one to whom the word is dear" and the word signified in antiquity a commentator on the ancient poetical texts like the Iliad, which contained numerous words whose significance was obscure. It is this specific aspect of Classical philology that carries over into the general sense of "philology." Classical philology has developed a whole panoply of tools designed specifically for the circumstances of the preservation of ancient texts. For example, codicology is the study of the physical aspect of medieval manuscripts, paleogrpahy is the study of various systems of writing, papyrology is the study of ancient texts preserved on papyrus. Philology is fundamentally "the correct interpretation of texts."

The very concept of philology is under attack through various theories, generally of a French origin. One thinks of people like Barthes, Derrrida, Lacan. These theories deny any fixed meaning to the text, any authorial intent, any "autonomy" of the text-in short any objective meaning to the text. Now it is true that there are ambiguities in words, and correct philology takes this into account. Nonetheless, it is illogical to conclude that because absolute, objectively demonstrable certainty as to the meaning of a word is impossible, no certainty is possible. The argument itself is self-defeating. If there is no fixed meaning to words, then the very texts that explain this idea are themselves devoid of meaning. It's like trying to make someone accept a check written against a bank that you assert is insolvent. All attempts to undercut traditional philology are pernicious attempts to undermine the belief in a recoverable sense of the text, the upshot being that the "critic" can impose on the text whatever meaning he feels like.

Relevance Of Philology To History

From Conrad Russel, The Crisis of Parliaments. English History 1509-1660 (1971) 1:
"Historians may learn much from the students of art, architecture, or archaeology. Nevertheless, history is essentially the study of the past by means of written records."

Though not everyone would agree with this statement, it is fundamentally true. True history is only possible for periods when there are written records. Physical evidence can supplement it, and allows for various inferences in the pre-historic period. Nonetheless, most history involves the use of written records, and the difficulties inherent in interpreting purely physical evidence should be clear to anyone interpreting pre-historic archaeology. Philology is crucial to interpreting all written evidence.

The Practice Of Philology

What then does the philological method signify in practice? It is the rigorous effort to attempt to recover the sense of the passage in question through the detailed examination of the language in context. First one examines the words of the text. What do they signify? This can only be determined by a nuanced examination of other uses of the words. How are they used else in the authors own work? In contemporary writing? Is there a shift in meaning that develops over time? Dictionaries are of course an indispensable aid in this effort, but a dictionary is simply someone else's attempt to digest the sense of a word. They may not have noticed idioms relative to the present case, and in any case have no objective determining authority. An examination of the citations given is usually necessary.

The words themselves must be interpreted in context. Context here means several different things. How does this passage fit into the immediate argument in the text and in the broader sense of the work as a whole? How does it fit into the author's overall ideas as they can be recovered from the corpus of the work. At times one has to broaden the context to consider a question like, How does the meaning here fit into the genre in which the author is writing or into overall context of ancient thought?

A necessary accompaniment of the correct interpretation of the text is not only an examination of the meaning of the words used but of the syntax of the sentences in which they are found. This is not the place to go into the methods of understanding the syntax of a language. The internal comparative method again is prominent. In any case, any number of misunderstandings of texts results from a defective understanding of the grammar in question, and sound understanding of the language can often make it clear what can and cannot be meant.

Philology is thus not a fixed procedure comparable to the methodology of the physical sciences. Instead, it is the use of human reason to attempt to understand, through the examination of comparative linguistic evidence, the correct, "intended" meaning of a text. Obviously there are times when either ambiguity was intended from the start by the author or because of our limited knowledge of antiquity (or the middle ages) cannot now be fully resolved. This is particularly true of works of fiction. Nonetheless, in the overwhelming majority of instances, philology is a way to reach an understanding both of what a text can and of what it cannot mean. It is not a fixed methodology, but more a frame of mind. Careful and rigorous attention to the sense of a text as it can be deteremined on the basis of both external and internal criteria is the essence of philology. A scholar properly trained in the methods of philology has the ability to reign supreme in the battlefield of interpreting linguistic evidence

Philology In Action

1) The Donation of Constantine The use of this methology to examine historical documents goes back to the Renaissance. A noteworthy example of this is the pamphlet Declamatio de falso credita et ementita Constantini Donatione (Discourse on the wrongly believed and falsified Grant of Constantine), written by the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla (1407-57). The Donatio Constantini was a document purported to record the grant by the first Christian emperor of various privileges to the pope. This document had already been attacked by an older contemporary of Valla, Nicholas of Cusa. That attack was grounded on argumentation based on ecclesiastic history and theology. Such a method is not philological. It is basically historical. The document in question cannot be legitimate because the evidence of other texts and external considerations (e.g., at some intervening period the situation called for by the grant did not prevail, hence the grant did not exist at that time). Valla used two arguments. First, he examined the earliest manuscripts of the Decreta of the church and found that the Donation was not present in them. Hence, it was a later interpolation. Second, he demonstrated that the language used in the document was a debased form of Latin that could not have been used in the time of Constantine and could only have been written during the middle ages. In rather immoderate language he referred to the author as "this ass who screeches so horribly and monstrously" (huic asino tam vaste immaniterque rudenti) and referred to the language as "the speech of some stupid little churchman [who was] bloated and thick-headed and during a hangover puked out these sentences and words (oratio ... alicuius clericuli stolidi... saginati et crassi ac inter crapulam interque fervorem vini has sententias et haec verba ructantis)." The violence of the language reflects the impatience of one who understands philology that some should have thought that such a composition would fool posterity.

Erasmus And The New Testament

During the time of Erasmus just before and at the start of the Reformation, the new philological method was applied to the editing and interpretation of the bible. This was a novel and disquieting procedure. Previously, the Latin text had been interpreted in light of the usages of the medieval church, and a number of words were interpreted on the assumption that they reflected the meaning given to these words in the technical language of the church. Erasmus first demonstrated that the text used in the accepted version of the Vulgate was not actually the original version. Furthermore, he not only showed that even the corrected Latin version was often misleading when compared to the original, but attempted to show that the sense of the words with medieval meanings was often rather different when they were interpreted in the context of the contemporary language of Greco-Roman antiquity. In the various prefaces of his text of the New Testament he had to defend himself against those who belittled his grammatical endeavors and wished to preserved the traditional text, regardless of any arguments about its validity. He said, "Why trouble about punctuation? Because such a trivial matter as incorrect punction produces a heretical sense (tantula res gignit hereticum sensum)". Regardless of the theological implications, what he means is that it is only on the basis of a sound philological understanding of a text that it can be properly interpreted.

The Goal Of Philology

Philology is not an end in itself. It is the primary prerequisite to understanding texts and thus it makes possible the further interpretation and utilization of such texts on the basis of this understanding.

The ultimate goal of philology is clearly expressed by the great Milman Parry:

The literature of every country and of every time is understood as it ought to be only by the author and his contemporaries. Between him and them there exists a common stock of experience which enables the author to mention an object or to express an idea with the certainty that his audience will imagine the same object and will grasp the subtleties of his idea... The task, therefore, of one who lives in another age and wants to appreciate that work correctly consists precisely in recovering the varied information and the complexes of ideas which the author assumed to be the natural property of his audience." (The Making of Homeric Verse [1971] 2).

Parry goes on to say that "What I have just said is obviously no more than one of the countless ways of expressing a great truth of scholarship." Perhaps it was obvious in 1928, but it no longer is today when much of scholarship attempts to impose upon the past modern preconceptions that have nothing to do with the thoughts and ideas of the past. Philology is the vehicle by which one attempts to arrive at the understanding of the past outlined by Parry.


There is no single place (as far as I know) to find a clear and succinct presentation of the general principles of philology. The word continues to be used in the context of studying modern foreign languages, but since the methodology delineated here is generally denigrated in such circles, I don't know what it signifies there. For a general introduction to the development of Classcial philology, the following works are useful:

For the adventurous souls who want to learn about Classical philology in great detail:

© 1997 Christopher S. Mackay
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