The Emergence of A New Professional Identity Among Modern Classicists: A Synthesis of Symbolic-Interactionist, Semiotic and Hermeneutic Perspectives

February 2010
Journal of International Social Research;Feb2010, Vol. 3 Issue 10, p613
Academic Journal
Over approximately the past half century classicists have been redefining themselves in far-reaching ways both as scholars and teachers. In essence, the study of ancient Greco-Roman civilization, including the surviving literary texts, the "classics" par excellence, is no longer governed by exclusively or even largely philological objectives leading to the establishment of the authentic ancient text and the correct authorial meaning thereof. Even those classicists who have not engaged in sustained reflection on the hermeneutical and methodological premises underlying their scholarship have not been left untouched by this development, the decisive impetus for which was pedagogical rather than occasioned by purely scholarly or philosophical motives. After the Second World War, the classics had to be increasingly taught, especially in North America, to 'Latin-less' students who had not acquired the basics of at least one of two classical languages, Latin and ancient Greek, in their secondary school years. In what was surely the most drastic revamping of the classical curriculum at the university level since the Renaissance, the teaching of the "classics in translation" courses (as they were often dubbed, sometimes disparagingly) encouraged holistically--above all, socio-culturally--framed modes of enquiry which were also carried through into graduate studies and classical scholarship. This new turn in teaching and scholarship accelerated a development which had already begun in the second half of the 19th century, when the emerging social sciences (sociology and anthropology in particular) began to interface with classical studies, and philological modes of scholarly enquiry were, in the work of some classicists, replaced by largely socio-culturally focused modes. Here the work of French and German scholars was especially innovative and was facilitated enormously by the establishment of the ancillary disciplines of scientific archaeology, epigraphy, and papyrology. Far more complex and nuanced understandings of Greco-Roman antiquity have emerged in this process of scholarly refocusing and indeed transformation. These cannot be explained or even accurately described by means of a simply positivist-empirical epistemology which views progress in knowledge and understanding, also in the humanities and social sciences, in terms of the accumulation and organization of factual knowledge. Thomas Kuhn's notion of paradigm shift provides a helpful corrective, but it is concerned primarily with the natural sciences. In any case, the Cartesian model of the subject (=e.g. classicist) : object (=e.g. Greco-Roman antiquity) relationship is inadequate. A more dynamic hermeneutic characterized by symbolic interactionist and semiotic perspectives views the individual classicist scholar-teacher, as well as the collectivity of classicists, as constantly constituting and reconstituting Greco-Roman civilization with new meanings, and in doing so, also fashioning and refashioning their own life-worlds, inclusively, of course, of their professional identities as classicists. Hans-Georg Gadamer's hermeneutic of the "fusion of horizons" is helpful in our epistemological fleshing out, as it were, of the scholar's engagement with the classical world, and fits well with symbolic-interactionist and semiotic perspectives. Indeed, the synthesis of perspectives I propose makes the idea of a classical tradition reaching from Greco-Roman antiquity into the present age especially meaningful, and makes for a highly visible and contemporary role for the classicist as an academic and intellectual in our culture.


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