December 02, 2017

“Philology is the art of distinguishing the probable from the possible.”

This note does not aim to discuss definitions of “philology.” It merely aims to record Prof. Isaacson’s one of many possible definitions of it. On Thursday (30.11.2017), in his reading class on the Āmnāyamañjarī, he stated in passing that “philology is the art of distinguishing the probable from the possible.” After the class, we had our regular ITLR editorial meeting. In passing, I told him that I liked his definition of “philology.” He was not sure who formulated it for the first time. Just now, I see that Prof. Okita in his book refers to Prof. Isaacson’s 2007 lecture on “Philology and Codicology.” See Kiyokazu Okita, The Rise of Devotionalism and the Politics of Genealogy. Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 18. The definition recorded by him does not contain the definitive articles before “probable” and “possible.” Articles seem necessary but I am not sure. I do not recall if I attended his 2007 class on “Philology and Codicology.” If I did, it is very embarrassing, for I have missed the jewel then. But I am glad that I have the jewel now. Better late than never.


  1. There's something uplifting about this definition, since it seems to open up a world of possibilities in itself. I also like it. It's very different from the normative image of what text-philology means, which is more like a 'closing in': To be [1] disciplined and [2] conscientious: [1] disciplined by long training and education and [2] conscientious without letting the least little thing get past you without subjecting it to merciless scrutiny. Luckily we believe in the tetralemma, so I guess philology can be both at once, a closing in and an opening up. Or perhaps it's a neither nor situation? Perhaps there is no such thing as philology to begin with. Could we consider that possibility? -D

  2. Dear Dan, haha, are you becoming an incorrigible Madhyamaka philosopher? As an dBu-ma-rang-rgyud-pa might maintain, on the samvṛti level, just as real poison should be clearly distinguished from fake poison, so should philology be clearly distinguished from pseudo-philology. But on the absolute level,let alone pseudo-philology, even actual philology does not exist. Just kidding! Warmly, D.

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