dinsdag 8 mei 2012

Scholarly intertextuality in the 18th century

The notion of intertextuality, stemming from literary studies, has until recently rarely been applied to the history of scholarship, or to the history of ideas at large. The first reference I know of is in a 2005 article by Robert Darnton. Now, with the Cultures of Knowledge project at Oxford and the Mapping the Republic of Letters project in Stanford, there is at last a systematic survey of citation, the uses of source material, and correspondence networks in the early modern age; but the only scholar to use the term intertextuality consistently is Glenn Roe, who is working at the Oxford e-research centre to identify quotes, borrowings, influences etc in particular in and around the Encyclopédie.

This is a laudable (though labour-intensive) development. The earlier neglect may have to do with provincialism in the humanities (one field of study not using the concepts from another field even in comparable cases) or with reluctance to be associated with the deconstructive programme linked to that notion (Kristeva, Barthes and Derrida spring to mind) - but at any rate the hiatus is regrettable because intertexting, now as then, is what scholars in the humanities are consistently doing in many different ways.
Scholars quote, they paraphrase, they lend notions, arguments and tropes, they comment, criticize and rephrase, they track footnotes, and they resample previous text in more subtle and tacit ways. Some of these issues have been analyzed in different terms - as in Quentin Skinner's early critique of the notion of influence, Reinhart Koselleck's Begriffsgeschichte tracking the use of "core concepts" through intellectual history, Anthony Grafton's history of the footnote, or Joep Leerssen's search for the "paper trail" to track intellectual debts. But apart from Grafton, few historians have actually devoted much attention to the transformation of primary and secondary sources into new scholarly texts.

In this blog post, I would like to offer a tentative first typology of various kinds of scholarly intertextuality, mainly from historical and linguistic works. Let me start with the disclaimer that I have no business with the aims to which the notion of intertextuality has been used in literary studies, and do not mean to equate scholarly works to literary texts. Rather, what I am concerned with is how changes in the use of source material (and in extenso, criticism, fact-checking, and conceptual innovation) mark an increase of scientific rigour, but also a more general scientification in the study of language, history, man and culture. My examples will be mainly from 18th-century studies; I leave it for some other time, or to other people, to extrapolate towards the present.

1. Samples

Samuel Johnson, in his Dictionary of the English Language, makes lavish use of previous authors (Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Swift, Chaucer) to illustrate the use of a word as well as the development in use over the ages. This makes Johnson's Dictionary a particularly readable lexicon and accounts for part of its popularity - a sensitivity towards real, if literary, use of language comparable to Luther's dictum for Bible translation to "look people at the mouth" (dem Volk aufs Maul schauen), turning his dictionary into something of a compound literary text that was actually browsed through for bedtime reading.
In a different vein, the early Modern Age sported a tradition of language compendia starting from Conrad Gessner's Mithridates de differentis Linguis (1555) and culminating in Adelung's four-volume Mithridates oder allgemeine Sprachenkunde (1806-1819), which presented all known languages through samples of the paternoster. These samples were mainly supplied by Jesuit missionaries - the paternoster being the first text to be translated into newly discovered languages for the purpose of conversion.

2. Excerpts

In 1755, Charles de Brosses published the two-volume Histoire des Navigations aux Terres Australes, in which he explicitly disavows the ambition to wield "la plume de l'historien" in flowery storytelling. Rather, for the sake of objectivity, De Brosses offers a complete digest of all the known voyages to the southern seas, reproducing and translating journals and travel literature from the past two centuries, sometimes commenting on the reliability of the sources and judiciously selecting, but never quite interfering with the original accounts. All the same, De Brosses engages in speculations about a southern continent that must of needs be there as a counterweight to the Eurasian land mass, and about potential commercial profit of a somewhat caricatural kind: “Que de moyens de débiter nos grains de verre coloré, nos pétites étoffes, notre papier, nos eaux-de-vie, nos outils de fer, notre quinquaillerie, nos petits miroirs à 7s la douzaine, avec autant d’avantage que l’on en retiroit dans les premiers voyages aux Indes occidentales!”
Remarkably, this was the book that inspired Cook's epoch-making explorations in Polynesia, which spawned a further stream of travel literature and later informed Johann Georg Forster's critique of Johann Christoph Meiners' Grundriss der Geschichte der Menschheit. [see 11]

3. Summaries

Johann Gottfried Eichhorn's Geschichte der Litteratur von ihrem Anfang bis auf die neuesten Zeiten (1805-1812) is noteworthy as a compendium of the whole of fiction and non-fiction from the West as well as the Rest. Although Eichhorn rejects speculations about what was written before the Deluge, his starting point is long before Moses with mythical figures like Thoth and Oannes, whom Eichhorn treats as historical figures because "the myths must come from somewhere". Oddities aside, the bulk of Eichhorn's account is a systematic summary of the main authors in different periods, in different regions, and in different fields, ending each short paragraph with a list of further works to be consulted on the topic.
The whole work comes in at 6000 pages; for example, the discussion of Ancient Greek and Roman literature accounts for a 100 pages each. In the first three volumes, Eichhorn is concerned with literature at large, which includes "1. Schöne Redekünste: a. Poesie, b. Prosa [including epistography, grammar, and rhetorics]; 2. Historische Wissenschaften [including chronology and geography]; 3. Mathematische Wissenschaften; 4. Philosophische Wissenschaften; 5. Anthropologische; 6. Naturwissenschaften; 7. Medizin; 8. Juristische". In the last three, he focuses on the history of Schöne Redekunsten, language study, and theology respectively.
What is lacking, first and foremost, are the modern sciences - Eichhorn covers ancient Greek and Roman mathematics and physics but not their modern counterparts. Eichhorn's source book is a reference work rather than an encyclopedia: it does not attempt to summarize all known knowledge, it rather points the reader to where to find it. It was intended as a companion for students as well as educated men to stay with them all their lives; although it now seems an antiquarian curiosum, it was remarkably up-to-date on most issues, and a re-issue was started, though not completed, in 1828.

4. Repeating

Gibbon wrote the Decline and Fall in his study, first in London, then in Lausanne, carrying his library with him. That is, he compared and collated previous works, rather than going straight to the Vatican and Ambrosian libraries. (The Ottoman archives would have been even harder to get into.) This is what most historians still do most of the time, despite their avowance to "archive research"; the great and lasting merit of Gibbon's work rather lies in building a sustained and coherent argument rather than summation from this carefully scrutinized material. Still, Gibbon would not have gotten away with that half a century later. Even before Ranke phrased his famous Wie es wirklich gewesen in the foreword to the Geschichten der Römischen und Germanischen Völkern, Augustin Thierry's 1820 Lettres sur l'Histoire de France already made short ado with the scholarly practices of 18th-century historians.

5. Continuation

According to Zachary Schiffman, "Voltaire [in his Essai sur les Moeurs, 1756] picks up the story of universal history where his seventeenth-century preddecessor, Bishop Bossuet, had left off - but adding a radically new element in the unfavourable comparison of European civilization with the Chinese, Hindus, Persians, and Arabs". The Encyclopédie of Diderot and d'Alembert was initially planned as a translation project of Ephraim Chambers' Cyclopedia, or a Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1728); a project which drastically got out of hand and became the 17-volume landmark work of the Enlightenment. In reverse order, the gigantic Universal History of William Guthrie and John Gray (1735-1765) was brought down from 54 to four volumes of General History of the World (1764-1767) for the wider reading public, next seriously emended and annotated by Göttingen historians Schlözer and Gatterer in their 1771 translation, appropriately titled Fortsetzung, and eventually excerpts of it became the basis of Swiss and Hungarian national histories.
A noteworthy further example are the Éloges des Hommes Savans, tirez de l'Histoire de M. de Thou by Antoine Teissier (1715), which reproduces the text of De Thou's original dictionary of scholars, and extends it by additions and comments double the size of the original work.

6. References

Pierre Bayle's Dictionnaire Historique et Critique has a remarkably complex system of references: the pages are divided in a main text, in one column, on top of the page, and a much larger subtext, in two columns, underneath. Notes to both are in the margins. As a result, the articles have notes to the main text (a,b,c), references in the main text to the subtext (A,B,C), and notes to the subtext (1,2,3).
This must have been the sort of scholarly apparatus Anthony Grafton had in mind when he remarked (in The Footnote: a curious history) that the whole Rankean machinery of source criticism had in fact been an invention of humanism and well in place since the late 16th century. The real development seems to be in the use, availability and selection of source materials more than in the way they are referred to.


Throughout the 18th century, citation seems to have played a representative rather than an epistemic role. As late as 1828, Macaulay's History essay in the Edinburgh Review still revolves largely about the role of speeches in histories, and to what extent one may confabulate them. In the Encyclopédie, the Ancients dominate among the authors cited: "Hippocrates (1016) outscores Boerhaave (487), Réaumur (246) and Robert Boyle (196) combined; whereas in astronomy, Galileo (188) is cited nearly ten times less often than Ptolemy (1664)." (On the other hand, 681 passages were taken, mainly without reference, from Montesquieu; 528 from Voltaire; 11,430 from the Dictionnaire de Trévoux. For references, see [12].)
In Kotzebue's Geschichte des Deutschen Reiches von dessen Ursprunge bis zu dessen Untergange (1814), there is a disclaimer:
"Vor allen Dingen ist nun meine Pflicht, den Leser zu überzeugen, dass ich Wahrheit geschrieben, insofern sie zu ergründen war. Mein Werk ist ohne Citaten, das könnte Misstrauen erregen. Ich muss mich erklären.
Niemand schätzt aufrichtiger als ich den Fleiss der sammelnden Gelehrten. Ohne diesen, von mir benutzten, Fleiss hätte ich dies Werk nicht schrieben können. Auch scheint mir die Pflicht zu zitieren unerlässlich, sobald neue Thatsachen vorgetragen werden. - Aber wenn, wie im vorliegenden Fall, bereits Dutzende von Geschichtsbüchern vorhanden sind, die von Citaten frotzen; wenn der hundertjährige Fleiss der Gelehrten - von Ludewig und Gundling angefangen - längst in jeden Schacht hinab gefahren, der irgend eine Ausbeute verhiess; wenn neue, bedeutende Thatsachen jetzt schwerlich mehr aufzufinden, für die alten hingegen alle Beweisstellen erschöpft sind; so würde eine abermalige Aufzählung derselben (die übrigens sehr leicht wäre) nur die Bogenzahl, nicht den Werth meines Buches vermehren." (Vorwort, p. ix)
The noteable thing here is that Kotzebue feels bound to explain why he is not quoting sources. Voltaire (who was, like Kotzebue, writing for the wider public) didn't have such qualms.

8. Arguments

Hans Aarsleff, in his collection of essays From Locke to Saussure, argues against the "standard account" of the history of linguistics by pointing out that intellectual debts cannot be inferred from references, nor even from the lending of certain concepts, but only by collating these with a comparison of arguments in which these concepts are employed. This is a defensible claim: in fact it squares with Hacking's ideas about the preponderance of styles of reasoning and Sellars' ideas about the interrelation of meanings and reasons. The problem is that this kind of similarity between arguments is much more subjective than references or word-matches: it requires interpretation, or even rational reconstruction. Hence Aarsleff's attempt to downplay the "revolution" in linguistics around and after 1800 and to rehabilitate 18th-century philosophical study of language (and to stress the importance of Locke and Condillac in particular) is seriously biased by his own iconoclastic agenda.
The question is: can there be a formalist comparison of styles of reasoning, the same way that recent developments in the digital humanities have led to algorythms that identify the "handwriting" of particular composers, as well as the statistical distribution of syntactic elements in different authors? At the current state of technology at least, the answer is a clear no. And arguments being the normative, corrigible, and essentially open things they are, I think that an "algorythm that compares styles of reasoning" is highly improbable, even though progress can be made in the comparison of tropes and the semantic distribution of correlated terms and cognates.

9. Concepts

Which brings us to the next level of abstraction: the "history of concepts" set out by Koselleck/Kocka/Reichardt's project of Begriffsgeschichte, and embodied by Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe (8 big volumes), the Handbuch politisch-sozialer Grundbegriffe in Frankreich, 1680-1820 (15 thin volumes), and to a lesser extent by the Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie (13 big volumes). There, the aim was to track a long-term change of mind through the changing meaning and use of "core concepts"; in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe these were mainly single words, in the French lexicon they were defined somewhat wider to include word pairs, groups of cognates and thought complexes.
Dietrich Busse, in his 1987 critique Historische Semantik: Analyse eines Programms, has described the historical semantics of Koselleck &co as a "mountain ridge tour" (Gratwanderung) along canonical figures. To get a full grasp of how a term was used in discourse and what an author was doing in using it, one would need to know how common a certain term was in a certain period and who else were using it to what ends. Thanks to the availability of large amounts of scanned books online and of OCR (optical character recognition) techniques, this is now less impossible than it was in 1987: one can do queries over words, word pairs, and whole passages.
The outcomes of such queries, of course, still require interpretation and fine-tuning. And even so, people may mean the same thing by different words, or the other way round. But it is substantially easier now to track the origin and spread of a certain word, and this does supply evidence for paper trails.

10. Correspondence

For most of the 17th and 18th century, letters were the primary means of scholarly communication: they were used to communicate new results and findings long before, or even instead of, book publication. Duhalde's Description de la Chine was written in Europe, based entirely on the work of Jesuit correspondents; likewise for Leibniz and Kircher, writing about China, Jesuit correspondents were the prime source of information.
One rare thing on which Anne Goldgar and Dena Goodman agree is that learned journals set out as a continuation of epistolatory commerce: a more efficient way of learning about worthwhile new books and "nouvelles de la République des Lettres" than maintaining individual and costly correspondence networks. However, it took a long while before the journals also took over the function of presenting new findings. Until the 19th century, very little of the content of learned journals would count as "articles" in the modern sense. Most of it was notices, reviews, announcements, and obituaries; that is, not "original content".

11. Critique

Probably no kind of intertextuality is more indicative of an increase in scientific rigour than critique: it shows not just what is found lacking in previous work but also how fact-checking is done, what is found relevant, and what sort of ideal of scholarship is espoused by the critic. Two near-simultaneous examples are Anquetil-Duperron's book-length critique of Esprit des Lois in his Législation Orientale (1778), and Georg Forster's crushing review of Meiners' Grundriss zur Geschichte der Menschheit in the Allgemeine Litteratur-Zeitung, 4-6 May 1789. Both writing from firsthand experience in the East, their basic message is: the work of "M." (Montesquieu) and Meiners is not based on observation, but on speculation and book knowledge. Forster sums up, 1-8 and a-h, all aspects in which Meiners is counterfactual in his claims, or prejudiced in his judgement; Anquetil uses critique of Montesquieu as a framework to build a full account of Ottoman, Persian, and Indian society, contrasting every aspect of this account with the silly mistakes and fabulations of M.
Nettement's Études Critiques sur les Girondins (1848) confronts Lamartine's Histoire des Girondins with the first- and secondhand accounts of eyewitnesses and their relatives, and uses these to attack Lamartine's modern, secular, pro-Gironde position with regard to the French revolution. A large part of the book consists of letters and excerpts from letters, mainly from nobles, notables, and clerics. In the same year, Nettement would also edit and re-issue Bossuet's Discours d'Histoire Universelle to give a proper example of history writing in a theological frame. No matter how unscientific and reactionary Nettement's own position is, his critique of Lamartine is apposite in setting straight the historical record.

12. Plagiarism

In recent articles like Plundering Philosophers: Identifying Sources of the Encyclopédie and Something Borrowed: Sequence Alignment and the Identification of Similar Passages in Large Text Collections, Glenn Roe et al. have tracked how the Encyclopédie made massive use of passages from contemporary sources such as Montesquieu's Esprit de Lois, Voltaire's Essai sur les Moeurs, and the Dictionnaire de Trévoux. They have done so by using digital tools to detect multigrams (combinations of words). This gives a completely different picture of the distribution of ancient and modern sources in the Encyclopédie than Dan Edelstein's statistics of which authors are explicitely named: there the majority consists of ancients, and among the moderns the 17th century outnumbers the 18th.
Stealing ideas was not such a huge sin in the 18th century; another marker of scientification is precisely the increasing transparency of which sources are used and how (though not for a previous lack of apparatus; see 6). Interestingly, Roe et al. have applied the same detection tools to later authors writing about the 18th century, yielding 67 passages in Paul Hazard, 21 in Chateaubriand, 17 in Sainte-Beuve, and 12 in Hippolyte Taine. Especially in Hazard, who has a way of describing "intellectual currents" in a paraphrastic style, this need not be plagiarism proper. The authors comment, "While one might be tempted to think this is conscious 'plagiarism' or simply an artifact of sloppy note-taking, a more charitable take on this may be that of inadvertent cryptomnesia, an echo of a hidden textual reminiscence, or even a quotation or paraphrase from memory". Still, one would not get away with this now or in 1950. But it is telling that Hazard could get away with it in 1935.

The list can be extended further. This blog post mainly serves as a way of "making up my mind in public" and giving an impression of my research over the last few months.  The typology, however, provides a perspective on the history of scholarship which to my best knowledge is new. It might even be interesting.

Geen opmerkingen: