The Program in World Philology

The Program in World Philology (PWP) aims to unite Columbia scholars across departments and schools around the discipline-based study of texts. Philology, defined over the course of its history as everything from text criticism to “slow reading” to “all erudition in language,” is at base the discipline of making sense of texts. Under this description philology is almost as old as the production of written texts themselves. Over time it has proven to be as central to knowledge as mathematics or philosophy, and its methods, like theirs, have similarly been adopted in other disciplines.

Program in World Philology. Jeffrey Schnapp is the founder/faculty director of metaLAB (at) Harvard and faculty co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. At Harvard, he serves as Professor of Romance Literatures and Comparative Literature in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, is on the teaching faculty in the Department of Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and is affiliated with the Critical Media Practice program in Visual and Environmental Studies.

A perennial preoccupation in the study of early writing systems is the degree to which these earliest forms of written communication reflect speech.  Nowhere is this concern more keenly present than in study of the earliest writing from Mesopotamia, known as proto-cuneiform, for which the vast gulf that separates speech from writing raises questions about the very language that underlies the script.  

  • Stephen Chrisomalis, Associate Professor, Wayne State University

In his 1935 book The psycho-biology of language, the linguist George Kingsley Zipf introduced the concept of dynamic philology, which he hoped would integrate the formal and quantifiable aspects of the psychological sciences with the philologist's concern with the social and cultural contexts of speakers, writers, and their linguistic productions. Yet Zipf's modern impact has largely been in large-scale statistical analyses of word frequencies in corpus linguistics and psycholinguistics, while many humanists are rightly skeptical of anything calling itself philology that is divorced from social context. The present paper uses material from the study of numeral systems - a core subject of traditional philology - to propose a different configuration of "dynamic philology".  

However we define philology it always entails some understanding of the contexts in which texts are produced and in which they circulate/d. In this lecture I shall examine some of the practices that often shape such contexts through looking at the place of manuscripts as they travel from a writer’s working space into collections. Such collections are never stable but grow or disintegrate and in attempting to re-constitute a work from disparate manuscript copies the micro-histories of manuscript movements have to be taken into account. Working in Timbuktu’s manuscript libraries we have found the limitations of working solely from published texts and catalogues and similar scholarly apparatuses. 

As part of the Program in World Philology, Anthony Grafton presents "Christianity and Philology: Blood Wedding?"

Stephen Houston presents the next talk in the World Philology series: "Sounding Off: Murmurs, Quotes, Cries, and Cackles in Maya Glyphs."

As part of the Program in World Philology, John Whitman discusses "Glossing and Other Traces of Vernacular Reading." Cosponsored by the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture. The Program in World Philology (PWP) aims to unite Columbia scholars across departments and schools around the discipline-based study of texts. Philology, defined over the course of its history as everything from text criticism to “slow reading” to “all erudition in language,” is at base the discipline of making sense of texts. Under this description philology is almost as old as the production of written texts themselves. Over time it has proven to be as central to knowledge as mathematics or philosophy, and its methods, like theirs, have similarly been adopted in other disciplines.

  • Karin Barber, Professor of African Cultural Anthropology, University of Birmingham

As part of the Program in World Philology, Karin Barber discusses "Traditions of Exegesis: What Audiences do with Oral and Written texts in Africa."

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