Interests and Arguments – Ph.D. dissertation

Interests and Arguments – Preliminary Studies Towards An Analytic Philosophy of Modern German Textual Scholarship

In my thesis I have set out a conceptual framework for the analytical reconstruction of philological practice, especially the practice of scholarly editing. I have anchored my study in the tradition of analytic philosophy and have been focusing mainly on the terminological and methodological aspects of recent German textual scholarship. In this, I have adopted a meta-theoretical or so-called second-order perspective of observation and followed up on the more general project of an ‘Analytic Philosophy of Literary Studies’.

The thesis consists of six preliminary studies whose main purpose is to outline the research programme of an ‘Analytic Philosophy of Textual Scholarship’. First, in an extensive theoretical chapter, I have explored the applicability of ‘analytic meta-theory’ to scholarly editing in general. In the following case studies, I have then put this way of approaching to the test. I have examined pivotal concepts of editorial discourse, the logic and methodology of textual criticism, the justification of specific editorial approaches, and the critical evaluation of editions. I also discussed the alleged semantic qualities of textual objects and, accordingly, hermeneutic dimensions of textual scholarship. To put it short, my overall aim has been to describe and clarify how terminological and conceptual commitments shape editorial practice, and how editorial statements, decisions, and actions are justified with arguments, that is, what reasons and arguments are presented in favour of certain theoretical or practical editorial judgements.

I believe, a good way to get what my project is all about straight in your mind is to take a closer look at the subtitle of the thesis: Vorstudien zu einer analytischen Philosophie der neugermanistischen Editionsphilologie (Preliminary Studies towards an Analytic Philosophy of modern German textual scholarship).

The expression ‘preliminary studies’ indicates that there aren’t any substantial contributions yet that would count as an Analytic Philosophy of Textual Scholarship nor is there a clearly outlined research program to be found anywhere. ‘Preliminary studies’ is not just a figure of speech indicating the postponement of something; it is also an indicator of something vague, provisional, open, and adjustable – and thus displays essential properties of a research agenda.

I do believe the realisation of such a project is worthwhile and therefore I use the expression ‘preliminary studies’ to also imply that I want to make a case for a certain research perspective and that I want to advertise an intellectual attitude by deriving its advantages theoretically and provide reasons for it on one hand, and demonstrate its practical application in a number of case studies.

The expression ‘analytic’ that I use to characterise this research program refers to a specific academic tradition. Firstly, the term is derived from so called analytic philosophy, which is, broadly speaking, a specific way of ‘doing philosophy’. It‘s roots reach back to the late 19th century and it had its golden age in the first half of the 20th century, starting in Germany and Austria and moving to the English speaking parts of Europe and Northern America after World War II.

It‘s almost symptomatic for analytic philosophy as a philosophical endeavour that the expression ‘analytic philosophy’ is notoriously difficult to define. Down to the present day there is no consensus about criteria according to which one can identify analytic philosophers and distinguish them from non-analytic ones. In the end, the expression ‘analytic philosophy’ serves as a vague collective term for philosophical approaches that concern themselves strongly with argumentation and justification or the giving of reasons, and that care – because of that! – to a special degree about precision and accuracy, clarity, and comprehensibility of the language in use. It is important to see that this specific way of approaching is compatible with diverse orientations in regards to content and research perspective.

Now, in the same way that analytic philosophy is a specific form of philosophical contemplation, Analytic Philosophy of Literary Studies (or: Literaturwissenschaft) is a specific form of meta scientific contemplation concerned with the practice of literary studies or – to put it differently: it is a specific way of doing theory of science or philosophy of science of literary studies (Wissenschaftstheorie or Wissenschaftsphilosophie der Literaturwissenschaft).

The first steps towards forming programmatic propositions for an Analytic Philosophy of Literary Studies in the German academic field have been made in the 1970s. They are part of a broader development and general debates about a scientification (Verwissenschaftlichung) of literary studies.

So far, the relationship between textual scholarship and analytic philosophy can be described as mutual ignorance. Analytic Philosophy of Literary Studies has up to now solely concerned itself with the investigation of other philological areas of activity. The focus has been mainly on the definition of terms from literary theory and genre theory, on methods of classification, on interpretation and evaluation of literary texts. The entire area of textual scholarship has been blinded out. The other way round, other theoretical points of reference had a determining influence on the meta theoretical contemplation of philological practice in textual scholarship.

Now, what is the subject area I focus on primarily? Contemporary modern German textual scholarship, or: neugermanistische Editorik. The restriction to only focus on modern German textual scholarship is mainly due to pragmatic reasons. Contemporary textual scholarship refers to editions and philological publications since 1970. The reason for this was to delimit the scope of my project to a period that can be qualified as both homogenous and coherent. Even though I do have a preference for new and recent contributions to the field, I presume that the period from 1971 onwards can to a certain degree and the period from 1995/2000 onwards can on the whole be characterized by a continuity of philological practice and philological theory.

So much for the overall scope of my dissertation project. I want to elaborate my ‘way of approaching’ a bit more because it has led many a time to confusion, frustration and misunderstandings among fellow philologists and scholars.

So, what is Analytic Philosophy of Textual Scholarship?

My conceptualisation of an Analytic Philosophy of Textual Scholarship stands out due to it being a second or third order observation that is located on an analytical meta-level. This means that Analytic Philosophy of Textual Scholarship can at best be part of theory of textual scholarship, but is by no means part of textual scholarship proper. It’s perhaps easiest to understand Analytic Philosophy of Textual Scholarship as an analytic theory of science or philosophy of science, respectively, that focuses either object-theoretical or meta-theoretical practices of textual scholarship in an academic, institutional context.

It is important to visualise the shift in perspective here: The practices of textual scholarship become the object of a higher order observation. My objects of investigation are not on the primary empirical level or the object level of textual scholarship – the documents, texts, literary works etc.

Commonly, two approaches are distinguished in Analytic Philosophy of Literary Studies: a descriptive approach and a prescriptive approach. The descriptive approach attempts a neutral description of philological practice while the prescriptive approach aims for critique, revision or normative instruction – or, with different words: an improvement of philological practice. In my case studies, I have taken a mostly descriptive approach, here and there extended towards a critique of terminological confusion or the correction of factual or logical errors. Essentially, my aim was to reconstruct philological practice as is as accurately as possible, this means: to observe it and to describe it adequately. I believe that with such a description we can get reliable points of reference to better understand philological practice and to evaluate and even modify it.

The descriptivist program is often confronted with a number of objections. The main objection is, that a mere description of a practice does not contribute to its improvement, nor that it produces general criteria for the evaluation of practices.

It is important to see, that a purposefully arranged, nuanced, factual and empirically sufficiently grounded description of editorial practice does indeed have epistemic value. This implies, that even those who engage in philological practice, do not always reflect their activity and its actual or possible reason completely nor that the structure of the presentation of a problem is always clear and comprehensible to them. Here, the descriptive approach can contribute to clarification when the attention is drawn to sensitive points of philological practice, when implicitness is made explicit, when conceptual confusion is exposed by a clarifying paraphrase and when linguistically or factually nebulous interrelations are put into order anew and in a lucid manner.

Additionally, it needs to be emphasised that descriptive reconstructions do not preclude future normalisation. On the contrary, they are much more reliable as a starting point for suggestions for improvement because they are based on actual practice. The question whether and to what degree a normalisation is necessary to begin with, cannot be answered without a descriptive analysis. What’s more, if one wants to be justified in refuting a claim or taking it up, the claim must first be known and comprehended.

The focus of my ‘analytical spotlight’ is first and foremost on the language of textual scholarship (Editionsphilologie). What I mean is (i) the terminology of textual scholarship – which I reconstruct by conceptual analysis and with regard to theory of definition; (ii) a complex of statements, some of which serve as justifications and some require justification – which I reconstruct by logical and argumentation analysis; (iii) philological speech acts and speaking activities – which I reconstruct in regard to pragmatics. Especially this last point opens up an action-theoretical perspective: Talking about ‘philological practice’ in this sense means talking about verbal practice.

I believe one other distinction is important in this context: In some parts of philological verbal practice, epistemic claims of validity are made (‘what is the case’), in other parts, claims of purposefulness or functionality are put forward. In the first case it’s about the theoretical rationality of philological beliefs, which can be true or false. In the second case it is practical rationality of philological actions, which can be more or less purposeful or functional. However, in both cases a justification or giving reasons can be requested.

It follows from what I have elaborated, that a distinction has to be made between an epistemic and an action-theoretical perspective within an Analytic Philosophy of Textual scholarship. The language game of textual scholarship features both epistemic and pragmatic aspects, where the former must be evaluated as theoretically rational while the latter must be evaluated as practically rational, this means: instrumentally rational.

Now let me briefly tell you what Analytic Philosophy of Textual Scholarship is not. This will help, I think, contouring and delimiting Analytic Philosophy of Textual Scholarship in relation to alternative approaches for reconstructing philological practice. In a nut shell: Analytic Philosophy of Textual Scholarship – as a genuinely philosophical endeavour – (i) is not history of textual scholarship. (ii) it is also not sociology of science, cultural sociology of a discipline or praxeology; (iii) nor is it a phenomenology of the cognitive processes involved in doing textual scholarship. – I want to emphasise especially that I do not look at textual scholarship from a historical point of view. This means, that my goal is neither the narrative representation nor the causal explanation of events, series of events or processes within the discipline. I more or less ignore the historical context of modern German textual scholarship when I do my analyses. It does not matter for my analyses, whether and to what extent the philologists were ‘children of their time’. Nor do I use the publications that serve as material for my analysis of philological verbal activities as historical sources, from which “knowledge of the past can be derived”.

(ii) Another delimitation of Analytic Philosophy of Textual Scholarship is that it is no sociology of textual scholarship. I do not look at philology as a societal sub-field or sub-system, or as a specific social structure or an institution serving as a framework for the actions and interactions of individual philologists, groups or schools. I am not interested in micro-sociological inside views or thick descriptions of the philological ‘lifeworld’ nor am I interested in the scientific reconstruction of economical, political or cultural conditions of philological practice. I especially do not develop sociological explanations.

Now let me briefly summarize the individual case studies.

The first case study is an extensive article with the title “Interest-led data processing. Empirical evidence in modern German textual scholarship”. In the article, I depart from the question what can be meant with the expression ‘Empirical Evidence in Textual Scholarship’ (Empirie der Editionsphilologie). I start out with a terminological and conceptual clarification of the word ‘Empirie’ and distinguish three levels or layers of empirical evidence: (1) objects (layer 1), object theory (layer 2) and meta theory (layer 3). I then reconstruct philological practice proper as mediating data processing between the object layer and the object theory layer that is mostly ruled by principles of empirical science. I discuss and refute possible objections to this using as an example the claim that ‘Edition is subjective interpretation’. I proceed with a clear and systematic description of the different areas of activity that can be considered as philological data processing – always pointing out whether and to what extent the individual operations and activities can still be considered as empirical science.

In my second case study I take a closer look at the epistemic dimension – or theoretical rationality – of philological practice. The article bears the title “‘Der ganze Schmutz zugleich und Glanz meiner Seele’. An analytical mirco-study on methodology of modern German textual criticism”. I take as an example for my illustration of how philologists argue an alleged textual error (Textfehler) in a letter by Heinrich von Kleist that survived only as a non-authorised manuscript. My goal is to describe as close to the facts and as differentiated as possible the practice of providing reasons and justifications for textual criticism with arguments. Hereby, I am able to reconstruct and understand how textual criticism is actually performed, what kind of argumentative strategies for reasoning and justification are preferred and what kind of empirical evidence is used and lastly, whether there is common ground for the philologists regarding the purpose of textual criticism, basic principles of argumentation and logics and appropriate methods.

My third case study is more concerned with the dimension of practical rationality and the meta-theoretical area of activity of conceptualising an edition or a type of edition. Its title is “Editing a Discourse, Not a Text. Meta-Methodological Remarks on an Editorial Endeavour”. What I do is that I try to develop the up to now not yet realised project of a discourse edition in a systematic way. Though, and that is important to understand, my intention was not to provide reasons in favour of a discourse edition. My contribution stays neutral in regards to meta-theory. What I do is that I investigate on a meta-meta theoretical level the questions and problems someone would be faced with when attempting the conceptualisation or realisation of a project like that. In other words: I want to show how one were to argue in favour of or against a discourse edition. I do this mainly to be able to draw conclusions to how the argumentation would have to be or has been built in analogous cases. My article serves as a thought experiment – both in the context of discovery and as a background for criticism – a means of finding possible answers to a ‘what if’- question.

In the fourth case study on Textual Scholarship and Canon Formation I concern myself with the meta-theoretical evaluation of philological practice as a whole. To be more precise, the article is all about the rather general hypothesis that editions contribute to the canonisation of works or are a factor in the process of canonisation. The common opinion in textual scholarship, in literary history, and sociology of literature seems to be that scholarly editions significantly contribute to the canonisation of single works and authors – or, in a milder version: indicate their canonisation. In opposition to this I take a sceptical point of view and try to clarify what exactly is meant with claims like that and whether these claims can be tested empirically. I provide a clarifying paraphrase and possible answers. The basic idea is to understand the hypothesis that scholarly editions are factors in canonisation as a causal explanation. It would then be possible to create a differentiated model of explanation according to which one would be able to test the empirical hypothesis.

The last case study in this collection has the title “How does a material text mean?” and it deals with interdependencies and reciprocal relations of editorial representation of non-verbal and para-verbal material-medial object properties of documents and literary criticism and interpretation. It seems that in order to justify the documentation and presentation of these properties philologists make use of a certain semantic argument that says that the materiality of documents – either on its own or as part of the so called material text – has a semantic potential, bears meaning or contributes to the meaning of the text. Now, the question is, what is actually meant with these claims and how were these claims to be validated empirically?

In the article, I try to answer the first question by way of terminological and conceptual clarification. The crucial point of my deliberations is to reformulate the ambiguous term ‘meaning’ with the aid of semiotic terminology and by contouring the term more precisely and more differentiated in the framework of theory of signs (or: Zeichentheorie). It was, however, not my intention to confirm or to refute claims of ‘semanticity’ generally. Instead, I propose a set of criteria according to which an empirical validation of these claims could be undertaken for individual cases. I demonstrate the usefulness and the hermeneutical neutrality of my criteria for semiotic significations with the meta-theoretical reconstruction of two representative examples for claims of ‘semantification’ and the interpretation of typographical textual features. This shows that my criteria are in principal compatible with diverse epistemological interests.

For project related publications see the publications and talks pages on this website.