Text and Determination

On Racism in 19th Century European Philology

In: Philological Encounters
Markus Messling Centre Marc Bloch Berlin

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Protagonists of the ‘philological turn’ have claimed philology to be a self-reflective praxis. The history of modern philology however demonstrates that this can only be understood as a demand. All too often, philological conceptions went hand in glove with a deterministic anthropology. Whereas current research on the nexus between philology and racial thought focus on how biopolitical assumptions could be applied within philological disciplines, the idea of a ‘hard’ anthropological nucleus and a ‘soft’ textual culture referring to it needs to be revised. Because of their methodological potential and cultural strength, European philologies were scientific models up to the second half of the 19th century and relied on the same epistemic assumptions from which ‘modern’ raciological discourses were born. This comes mainly from the relation established since the 17th century between the variety of languages, scripts and textual cultures on the one hand, and rationality on the other. The arguments that stem from this discourse of a challenged universalism were amalgamated with genealogical thought in 19th century philology and an obsession with origins as the biblical narrative faded away. Thus, spiritual or cognitive forms, understood as determining factors in historical evolution, could then be linked to an assumed ‘original’ intellectual or anthropological potentiality. However, raciological conceptualizations have been far from being without alternative. My paper argues that if the return to philology aims to be more than a reaction to the normative loss of textual culture, then the epistemological struggle within the history of philology needs to be reflected in its relevance for any ‘future’ philology.

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