Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism

Today I stumbled upon "The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism" by A.E. Housman, written in 1921. I think I enjoy Housman's various papers and letters even more than his poetry, and I found this work to be a particularly refreshing and level-headed view of things. This will be of interest only to a few, but those few who are intrigued by this snippet would do well to read the whole of it (linked above).

[Textual criticism] is not a sacred mystery. It is purely a matter of reason and of common sense. We exercise textual criticism whenever we notice and correct a misprint. A man who possesses common sense and the use of reason must not expect to learn from treatises or lectures on textual criticism anything that he could not, with leisure and industry, find out for himself. What the lectures and treatises can do for him is to save him time and trouble by presenting to him immediately considerations which would in any case occur to him sooner or later. And whatever he reads about textual criticism in books, or hears at lectures, he should test by reason and common sense, and reject everything which conflicts with either as mere hocus-pocus.


Textual criticism, like most other sciences, is an aristocratic affair, not communicable to all men, nor to most men. Not to be a textual critic is no reproach to anyone, unless he pretends to be what he is not. To be a textual critic requires aptitude for thinking and willingness to think; and though it also requires other things, those things are supplements and cannot be substitutes. Knowledge is good, method is good, but one thing beyond all others is necessary; and that is to have a head, not a pumpkin, on your shoulders and brains, not pudding, in your head.

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