Ben Card on The Philosophy of Material Texts

The Philosophy of Material Texts - Part One
Ben Card (Graduate student, English, Yale)

Textual scholars have often set up a pair of competing intuitions concerning the reality of the text. This is a distinction between a commitment to the reality of abstractions on the one hand and, on the other, a commitment to the reality of particular objects only. Theorists of editing employ the framework of abstracts and particulars especially vividly. The work of G, Thomas Tanselle, in particular A Rationale of Textual Criticism (1989), provides a clear articulation of a commitment to the reality of abstractions, a tradition variously called platonic, essentialist, or idealist (1). According to Tanselle, “[b]ecause the medium of literature is abstract and because literary works therefore cannot exist in physical form, any attempt to apprehend such works entails the questioning of surviving texts” (2). In this model, the literary work is an abstract pre-existing entity of which particular texts—printed books, manuscripts, verbal performances—are only imperfect instances.

Another tradition prioritizes individual instances of a work over any metatextual abstraction. According to these critics, the particular artifact is all there is; in the famous formulation of Jerome McGann, literary works “cannot be known apart from their specific material modes of existence/resistance” (3). The textual idealist need not disagree here with the pragmatist—perhaps the idealist believes that the only way to approach an ideal literary work is through its particulars—but the pragmatist differs from the idealist in the conviction that the abstract work behind the text is either finally unknowable, or indeed never existed to begin with. The work for the pragmatist is therefore identical with the material instantiations at hand; the work for the idealist is instanced in those material instantiations, but enjoys an abstract reality independent from them.

The similarity of the idealist and the pragmatist positions in the textual scholarship of the 1990s and early 2000s to debates in metaphysics, particularly medieval metaphysics, can offer a new method for thinking through these rival intuitions. Wondering how to make sense of the individuality of the particular on the one hand and, on the other, the common nature that seems to be shared by similar individuals, the medieval scholastic William of Ockham (c. 1287-1347) put the question this way: “How can anything have two distinct principles that make it, respectively, really individual and really common?” A version of Ockham’s Problem considered by a textual critic, say one contemplating Hamlet, runs like this: Given three “significant” non-identical versions of Hamlet (5), by what principle are all three really individual, and by what principle are all three really Hamlet?

The job of editing Hamlet places the intuitions of the idealist and the pragmatist alike under pressure. Just as each of the three significant early printed versions of Hamlet merits and rewards consideration as an individual art object, so does each contain a sense of an ideal Hamlet made clearer by peering through Q1 (1603), Q2 (1604-5), and F (1623). The mutual attraction of these positions is evidenced by the 2006 publication by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor of three Hamlets in two books for the Arden Third Series: the texts of Q1 and F, as well as a standalone eclectic edition of Q2.

This blog series will take seriously the appeal of the abstract and the particular, the ideal and the pragmatic. Writing off neither the approach suggested above of Tanselle or McGann, these posts will rather motivate (and then challenge) both, suggesting we have as good reason to believe as to suspect the two accounts. By proceeding from pragmatism to idealism, placing these textual theories in line with their medieval prefigurations, and then suggesting an unlikely hybrid of the two, this series hopes to cast new light on old problems.

(1) See the parallel distinction drawn by David Scott Kastan in his Shakespeare and the Book (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 117-8.

(2) G. Thomas Tanselle, A Rationale of Textual Criticism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), p. 69.

(3) Jerome McGann, The Textual Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 11.

(4) As presented by Peter King in his “Duns Scotus on the Common Nature and the Individual Differentia,” in Philosophical Topics, vol. 20, no. 2 (Fall 1992), p. 51.

(5) Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, “Introduction,” in Hamlet, revised edition, eds. Thompson and Taylor (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2016), p. 8.