The 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. The first meeting will take place in Oxford on 1 June, 2007:

“Philology and Its Dangers: Canonical Texts, Modes of Knowledge, Cultural Crises”

Bhattoji and Nagoji, Grammarians and Philosophers of Language in Early Modern Banaras, 29 February, 2008

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 Oriental Studies

Sheldon Pollock, Ransford Professor of Sanskrit and Indian 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