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Revival of the Program in World Philology


November 28, 2023

The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities is proud to announce the relaunch of the Program in World Philology, headed by David Lurie and Mana Kia. The inaugural event of the revived program will feature Tamara Chin (Brown University) presenting on Contact Philology.

Series Description

The Program in World Philology (PWP) aims to unite Columbia and Barnard 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 practice of making sense of texts. This history includes modern European projects explicitly called philology, as well as those belonging to older and more diverse textual traditions around the world. The PWP seeks to learn about these histories, simultaneously aware of the sordid colonial past of modern European philologies and philology-derived disciplines, and also of the elitism that characterized their precolonial antecedents the world over. The project of the PWP proposes to confront these inheritances openly as we move forward.

The PWP investigates how texts come into existence, how they are structured, and how they create meaning and produce effects across different audiences through time. Traditional philology has always taken as its object of study language concretized in texts and its interpretation. As critical philologists we seek to understand how modes of interpretation developed across world traditions, premodern as well as modern, allow us to revise our inherited methods of making sense of texts. Philology includes (but is not limited to) grammatical, text-critical, rhetorical, socio-historical, and hermeneutical analysis. Aware of its own historicity as a knowledge form imbricated in power relations, philology treats itself as an object of ongoing reflexive analysis.

Philology is conceptually pluralistic, because making sense of texts entails asking how others have made sense of them, and often according to a very different sense—which renders philology inherently comparative as well. Studying the global varieties of philology brings us face to face with otherness: our confrontation with alien forms of reading from the past and present prompts further reflection on how and why we ourselves do it.

A truly global university must introduce students to the different ways people across the world have made sense of texts and established their criteria of interpretation, for such training enables us to cultivate an appreciation of the truths of others—a crucial component of human solidarity and planetary consciousness—while tempering our own absolute claims to certitude. In other words, for both faculty and students, encountering unfamiliar meaning-worlds allows us to de-naturalize our own hermeneutical ground and thereby expand our imaginative faculties.

Humanities (and humanistic social science) departments on our campuses count among their faculty many scholars who understand the importance of textual work that is self-aware and theory-rich; who know that literary, commemorative, scriptural, and other textual forms need to be studied together to enable us to grasp the specificity of each; and who appreciate that national or regional traditions best reveal their particularities when brought into comparison. While this sort of work has long been a hallmark of Columbia humanities, there has never existed a collaborative forum for developing and promoting it.

PWP aims to bring together faculty from these departments at Columbia and Barnard, as well as the Law School, Union Theological Seminary, and so on. Many of us share basic concerns and methods regardless of our particular linguistic, disciplinary, and area affiliations. Area studies are clearly important and need to be preserved, to study texts in their social and political worlds. But the organization of philology into particular traditions needs to be complemented by a structure that encourages comparison and synthesis, acknowledges intellectual diversity, appreciates interpretive multiplicity, and, most importantly, fosters broader generalization from particular cases.