Comparative History of Philology in Early Modern Asia

A collaborative project between Oxford, Princeton, and Columbia

Rationale and Goals

This partnership will support collaborative research with a properly global vision, on a topic combining intellectual and social history. ‘Philology,’ a term only vaguely defined for most contemporary historians, has usually been taken to be a European phenomenon – a product of the arising of Science (or Wissenschaft) in Germany in the nineteenth century. We will propose a more capacious understanding of this phenomenon, however. To use the description recently offered by Sheldon Pollock, philology is the ‘discipline of making sense of texts;’ it is both ‘the theory of textuality and the theory of textualised meaning.’

On this understanding, philology was a principal form of intellectual activity across the range of pre-modern literate societies in Europe and Asia. In many societies, philology was constituted as an autonomous, self-reflexive set of disciplines with their own modes of inquiry and self-regulation.

The interests of the three principal researchers lie primarily in the comparative study of India and China in the early modern period (ca. 1450-1750). To be more specific, they lie in discovering a way to compare the history of the Sanskrit knowledge systems in the final centuries before India’s colonial era began with the history of the scholarly disciplines of the Chinese literati of the Ming and Qing periods.

We propose that the project will make a contribution through three innovative features: the placement of the early modern in a global perspective; the treatment of philology as a phenomenon of global intellectual history; and the choice of a comparative approach that does not establish a parochial, European model as the standard of global comparison.


The partnership, which has received initial funding under the Oxford-Princeton Research Partnerships Scheme, intends in the first instance to sponsor a series of workshops and seminars, at which a core set of research questions will be developed. The meetings will rotate between the three centres, and will take place twice each year.

Principal Research Personnel

Benjamin Elman, Professor of East Asian Studies and History,
Director, Program in East Asian Studies,

Christopher Minkowski, Boden Professor of Sanskrit
Vice-Chair, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Sheldon Pollock, Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies
Chair, Department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Civilizations


Philology and Its Dangers: Canonical Texts, Modes of Knowledge, Cultural Crises
Sanskrit Knowledge Systems on the Eve of Colonialism
Classical Chinese Historiography
Early Modern South Asia
Images of Philology
Les Mondes Lettrés
History of the Book

Seminar and Discussion Group
Balliol College, Lecture Room 23
1 June 2007, 2:15 pm

For almost as long as there have been written texts, philologists and their practices have been with us, but will they always be? Some scholars have begun to examine the ‘punctuated equilibrium’ that seems to characterize philology. At certain historical moments, after periods of continuity, its practices have been radically reinvented or mortally threatened. Can we compare these moments across Eurasia? Were there developments in the early modern period, in particular, that can be usefully examined cross-culturally? Are we living through another crisis, with the arts of philology in large parts of the world under threat of extinction?

Let philology be described inclusively—and programmatically—as “the discipline of making sense of texts.” How then is a philological tradition constituted, and how does it change? Conversely, what kind of challenge does such a programmatic description pose to contemporary philological practices across areas?

This seminar is intended to begin a new discussion and develop new ideas, not to resuscitate the old quarrels. It will combine historical vignettes drawn from philology’s deep Eurasian past with broad and necessarily inexpert comparative reflection. It supposes that the study of philology’s past might provide guidance for its future.

  • Polly O’Hanlon (Oxford), Introduction
  • Christopher Minkowski (Oxford): “Pandits Punched in the Face: Early Modern Sanskrit Scholarship and the Bhagavata Purana as Forgery”
  • Joanna Weinberg (Oxford), “Forgery and Critical Philology in the Work of Azariah de’ Rossi, an Early Modern Jewish Scholar”
  • Benjamin Elman (Princeton), “Philology and Its Enemies: Changing Views of Late Imperial Chinese Classicism”
  • Sheldon Pollock (Columbia), “Future Philology? The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World”

This meeting will be the first in a series, organized by the Oxford-Princeton-Columbia Partnership for the Comparative History of Philology in Early Modern Asia.

2 p.m. until 6 p.m., 29 February, 2008
The Russell Room, Balliol College, Oxford

In the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries the scholarly discipline of vyakarana, one of the most prominent of the Sanskrit shastras, reached a high water mark in Banaras in both its forms: as grammatical knowledge system and as philosophy of language, especially in the formulations of Bhattoji Diksita and Nagoji Bhatta, two intellectuals from the South who made a profound impact on their discipline.

This much is well known What has not been remarked upon so often is that both Bhattoji and Nagoji, as well as other grammarians / language philosophers of the period, wrote works in disciplines other than vyakarana, and became involved in the activities that occupied many leading Brahmin intellectuals based in Banaras.

At this workshop we seek to explore the social and intellectual history of grammarians in early modern Banaras Why was grammar and language philosophy so important at this time? Why were philosophers so interested in fixing the understanding of meaning? What was the intellectual profile of grammarians and the range of their output, beyond strictly disciplinary grammatical works? What was the nature of their engagement and contribution to the notoriously disputatious intellectual scene in Banaras in those days? What were their links to social and political settings in Maharashtra? What was their engagement with contemporary social and scientific or technological issues? What was their teaching career like, and what became of their disciples, children and schools of thought? What explains the unexpected and unusual durability of the collective memory of Bhattoji and Nagoji as distinctive individuals, even today?

  • Polly O’Hanlon (Oxford) “Is a Social History of Sanskrit Pandits Possible”
  • Madhav Deshpande (Michigan) “Sanskrit Grammarians in Vedantic Disputes: Bhattoji, Rangoji, and their Opponents"
  • James Benson (Oxford) “Commentators and Commentaries on Bhattoji”
  • Jan Houben (Paris) “Bhattoji's Brilliant Fundamentalism: Grammar, Ritual, Religious Life”
  • Maria Piera Candotti (Leiden) “Changing rule-order: what was at stake in reorganizing Panini’s text?”
  • Pascale Haag (Paris) “Philology in a Rural Setting: Grammar and Genealogical Chronicles in Bengal”
  • Christopher Minkowski (Oxford) “Philosophers of Grammar on the Types of People”

Sponsored by:

Oxford-Princeton Comparative Philology Project

Astor Visiting Lecturer programme, University of Oxford

Inner and South Asian Subfaculty of the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Oxford

Contact: Christopher Minkowski, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Oxford: