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Extended Abstract

Conceptualising a Twenty-first Century Discipline: Notes on Liberation

Sheldon Pollocks proposal for a future, more desirable, philology is a very
unusual attempt to rigorously imagine an academic discipline in these times
of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity. At one level the argument is for
philological pluralism that includes philologies from other non-western
traditions Indian, Persian, Middle-Eastern, Chinese, and potentially others.
At a more ambitious and general level, he places a reimagined liberation
philology at the core of twenty-first century humanities. Making sense of
texts by reading them in their original language, philology seeks to discover
what it is to be human. If natural sciences read the book of nature, the book
of humanity is going to be read by a future philology.
We have two texts of Pollock where he is directly concerned with
reconstruction of philology. One is the public lecture delivered in Delhi as
part of CSDS golden jubilee series titled liberation philology i . Second is a
published paper titled Future Philology that was published in Critical
Inquiry. i i I have based my comments on these two texts.
Philology was a well-established discipline in the nineteenth century
academics. According to Pollock, though, it never developed into a discrete,
conceptually coherent, and institutionally unified field of knowledge and
remained a congeries of method We have failed spectacularly to
conceptualise our own disciplinarity. In twentieth century, philology was
displaced from its important nineteenth century position so much so that
Pollock fears that the philological form of expertise is in the danger of
vanishing. Which would entail that we have lesser and lesser access to the
texts in original languages of our past which in turn amounts to a loss in our
understanding of being human.

Triad of Meanings
Pollock takes philology broadly to be concerned with making sense of texts
and he delineates three sets of meanings that we encounter when confronted
with a text. This triadic structure of meaning in the process of interpretation
is the key conceptual move that Pollock relies on to imagine a future
philology out of the past. These three sets of meanings are variously
enumerated: authors meaning, traditions meaning, my own meaning; or,
textual meaning, contextual meaning, philologists meaning.
Though Pollock sees philology as a mode of historical knowledge, the
scientific historicist reading of text is only one of the three dimensions of

meaning that philology is concerned with. He traces this historicist tradition

to Spinozas Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. In the Tractatus, Spinoza reads
the bible not as a believer but as a philologist, and most of the principles and
techniques for reading this text that is employed by Spinoza is very close to
what is being taught in philology classes today. In such philological reading
the text is supposed to carry a singular meaning which can in principle be
entirely elucidated with reference to its own historical time.
What a historicist reading implies is that the meaning of a historical text is
forever locked in its own historical time. No new meaning can be disclosed
by the text in a new historical time except more and more of its own history,
its own historical meaning. There is no potentially trans-historical dimension
to the meaning of any historical text.
In this historicist reading of the text the present of the philologist is
irrelevant to the task of elucidation of historical meaning of a text. This
activity of making sense of the text is itself assumed to be outside of
history. Pollock does not reject the historicist meaning. It can even be
considered central to the future philology in the sense that it provides the
choice of object: the text; and philologys directedness towards the past as a
form of historical knowledge. He rejects the trans-historical self-location of
the philologist. The present of the philologist is in fact the third of the three
sources of meanings that together constitute (or, should constitute) philology.
The presentist reading is our own meaning of the text. How we apply the text
to our present life. He uses Gadamers conception of application in the
hermeutic process to elucidate this presentist dimension of meaning. We
write the kind of past we write because of the kind of present we inhabit and
the kind of future we desire. Spinozas philology of the Bible is the kind it is
because it paves the way for a democratic polity. It is the philology of the
capitalist age. Now we need a post-capitalist philology and now we desire a
kind of new species consciousness. We need a global, pluralist philology. Our
reading of the historical text will be shaped by our present.
But Pollock is very clear that the scientific practice of philology cannot help
but imbibe the conviction that the historicist way of reading the text takes
one to the deeper meaning of the text, if not to the only true meaning. No
practicing philologist, he states in the public lecture, who reads a text
doubts that there is a deeper, truer textual truth that we can get to as a
historicist and we cannot but continue to strive along that scientific path.
Between the historicist and the presentist meaning, is the traditional meaning.
What the text meant in the tradition is another kind of true meaning for
Pollock. Meanings attributed to the text in tradition are true meanings. He
goes so far as to say that none of these interpretations is false. His defence of
the truth of traditional meaning seems to rely on the truth of any

interpretation whatsoever. All interpretations are embodiments of human

consciousness called into being by certain properties of the text and it cannot
be called correct or incorrect in their historical existence. We have to ask
what there is about the text that call those interpretations into being. Pollock
puts the text as prior to all interpretations. In fact, he seems to be doing a
historicist reading of the tradition of reading in the sense that its significance
of the traditional is primarily historical.
These three dimensions of meaning do not have to come together or hang
together in Pollocks view. Pollock takes a broadly pragmatic view on the
question of truth or true meaning. Philology has to work within this triadic
structure of meaning. But there is an inherent tension in his schema between
the pluralist stance and the scientific stance. On the one hand he states that
what kind of meaning of a text we privilege at some point depends on the
context, on the use that we are going to make of this text. He contrasts the
pluralist Indian stance on interpretation with the modern European theory of
the one true meaning. On the other, he admits that there is always the idea
of the true meaning guiding the scientific labours of philology. This
dimension is also implicit in the claim to read the book of humanity.

Texts and Knowledge Traditions

Pollock probably looks at these internal tensions within his schema as the
necessary tensions of a pluralist enterprise. I will try to look at some other
sources of these tensions.
Let us first look at the relation between the historicist and the presentist
aspect of philology. The historicist conviction of access to a deeper strata of
meaning is located in the present of the researcher. This present is
significantly constituted by a tradition of scientific philology. It is because
the researcher is approaching its subject from within a research tradition
broadly characterized as scientific that it seeks to discover that text of the
real which is beyond all culturally produced texts. In Pollocks scheme, just
as in the scientific tradition itself, the tradition of inquiry to which
researcher himself or herself belongs, becomes invisible. This tradition
regards itself as non-traditional or anti-traditional. A knowledge tradition
marks the presence of certitude, or absolute meaning, in the form of a set of
practices or a form of life. Therefore, while Pollock rejects the historicist
philologys exemption of itself from being in history, he does not note its
exemption from tradition.
Texts are traces of knowledge traditions. In fact, a text is the intersection of
several knowledge traditions. For example, a text of Buddhist philosophy will
be part of textual, literary, philosophical, meditational traditions. How a text

is understood in a tradition depends on how the text is used, or which is the

same thing, how the text is read in that tradition. We may open the text and
look reverently at it each day. We may read out the text to others on certain
occasion. Meaning and significance of a text depends on how it is used or
read within a tradition. I am not making the argument that meaning is the
use. If one wants to relate a text to a context outside of it, the first step is to
look at how the text is used or read. This knowledge of how the text is used
does not come from the knowledge of the text. It can only come from the
knowledge of the tradition to which that text belongs.
When a philologist reads a text from a distant past culture, we can say that
two knowledge traditions are potentially in contact. But we cannot know the
knowledge tradition only by our reading the text, we will have to know how
the text was used and why it was so used.
In newer translations of texts from Indian philosophical tradition there is a
move away from philological to more philosophical translations. Earlier
translations sought to preserve the syntax of original language texts and were
truer to the original texts. There is a new practice now where conveying of
the philosophical content is privileged. This is not to deny that philology
plays an important role in the access that we have to these philosophical
Pollock does access knowledge traditions from non-western cultures in the
form of philological traditions in Sanskrit, Persian, and Chinese. He thinks
that philological pluralism has almost been institutionalized in Sanskrit
tradition. Proliferation of meaning is a basic practice of Indian exegetical
tradition. Proliferation of meaning with full self-awareness of its validity.
They are included in the global philology. What they lack is precisely the
historicist dimension.
Basically, I would like to argue that the significance of philological research
is more in terms of facilitating access to multiple knowledge traditions,
rather than as a form of historical knowledge. It is certainly less ambitious
than the claim of being the language of reading the book of humanity. We
may not be reading the book of humanity, but we may be able to understand
certain ways in which the book of humanity is written.

Avinash Jha


Video of t his l ect ure is avai l abl e on YouTube.

Thi s paper i s avai l abl e onli ne from S hel don Pol l ocks C ol um bi a Uni versi t y webpage.