Review by M. Munro

The Return to Philology

Werner Hamacher, Minima Philologica, translated by Catharine Diehl and Jason Groves (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015) pp. 176.


What happens is parting. [Was geschieht, ist Abschied.]

—Werner Hamacher

A well-known story relates that when an editor (as tradition has it, Andronicus of Rhodes) came, some centuries after Aristotle’s death, to produce the first complete edition of the Philosopher’s works, the volume of fourteen books following those comprising the volume on nature, the Physics, bore a designation that in time became a word unknown to the Philosopher himself: “metaphysics,” from ta meta ta phusika, literally, “the after the physicals,” or, more idiomatically, “the ones after the physical ones,” “the ones,” the books, “after the ones about physics.” “Whether or not the story is true,” one scholar has commented, in an authoritative volume on the history of metaphysics, “the name is peculiarly apt”: “for ‘meta’ can also be translated either as ‘above’ or as ‘beyond,’ and metaphysics is often reckoned to lie at a level of generality above and beyond physics. Come to that, it is often reckoned to be a subject that should be studied ‘after’ physics.” However meta may be translated, whatever interval it may insinuate, whether “after,” “above,” or “beyond,” how is place to be understood in the word, no less than in the title, Metaphysics? What bearing will that initial designation be said to have had on the “subject” that it names, and how will one have come to situate—to read—the intervention of the editor in having supplied it? How, in short, is one to understand the “aptness” of that title in all its “peculiarity”?

In a 1798 fragment Friedrich Schlegel defined philology in passing as the “counterpart” (Seitenstück) of philosophy. Philosophy, from the same root, may perhaps be said to be in turn the “metaphysics” of philology.

min phil

It will be recounted that Aristotle had no one word for metaphysics. In truth, he had more than one. “Aristotle himself described what he was undertaking in that volume as ‘first philosophy,’ or as the search for the first causes and the principles of things, or again as the science of being qua being.” “These descriptions,” the scholar goes on to comment, “variously indicate both the fundamental character of his undertaking and its abstractness.” That the Philosopher’s undertaking in the Metaphysics may be characterized as both “fundamental” and “abstract” makes the following all the more striking: “In its approach, the volume was a miscellany. It comprised historical and methodological reflections, a survey of problems and aporiai to be addressed, and a philosophical lexicon, as well as direct treatment of its main topics, which included substance, essence, form, matter, individuality, universality, actuality, potentiality, change, unity, identity, difference, number, and the prime eternal unmoved mover (God).” What is to be made of the fact that, despite its “fundamental character” and “abstractness,” metaphysics—what Aristotle called “‘first philosophy,’” “the search for the first causes and the principles of things,” “the science of being qua being”—has never been anything other than variegated? However “direct” it may be said to be, not least in the “treatment” of “its main topics,” Aristotle’s curious volume, in its “approach,” was “a miscellany.” How is one to understand that “approach”? How is one to approach it?

“There could be no philology were tradition not broken,” Daniel Heller-Roazen has observed, “no field of textual interpretation, criticism, and study were the transmission of texts not already obscure, altered, and interrupted: the immediacy and transparency of understanding would forbid the constitution of a discipline of the study of the language of the past.” At root, philosophy and philology are bound by a shared condition of possibility, one which neither, as a “field,” can leave behind, yet one with which neither, in its “transmission,” can be identified: “already obscure,” “altered” from the outset, and there, as by an incipient perplexity, by an uncertain interval “interrupted,” “immediacy and transparency of understanding” “would forbid the constitution” of the one no less than the other. That “interpretation, criticism, and study” are necessary, however, is bound to “forbid,” in addition, that that be all. Philosophy and philology are each coextensive with the “interruption” they constitute and with which, at the limit, they nonetheless do not coincide: “immediacy and transparency of understanding” “would forbid” each, no less than its “constitution,” its possession of a “past”—a past that, as such, had gone unthought and until then unremarked. A single consequence follows, a singular complication. There could be no metaphysics were there nothing “broken,” no “tradition” of metaphysics were not its medium, its very element, on each approach, wanting. Wanting, strangely, the question of metaphysics is therefore not, in truth, one. Metaphysics is a question of first philosophy. Then philology.

M. Munro is author of the open access chapbook, Theory is like a Surging Sea (Punctum Books, 2015).

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One thought on “Minima Philologica

  1. Pingback: Anti-Education | HONG KONG REVIEW OF BOOKS

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