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Literature and Epistemology – Methodological Foundations for the Interpretation of Ancient Poetry

In the last two decades of the 20th century, the literature of antiquity has become an object for modern theories of literature and current methodologies in literary studies.  The recent methdological shift in interpretation has to do with the fact that certain elements of literary texts, which modern literature claims to have discovered or invented throughout its history, can be seen in ancient, i.e. pre-modern, texts: point of view, strategies for the construction of the first-person, reader-response theory, reflected plays on language, and synaesthetic discourses. Although all these are now considered constituents of ancient texts, they are still described as a “not yet” – they are seen as being at a preliminary stage in the development of modern literature, characterized as being merely pre-modern.

These results are not surprising at all as the search for what is modern in antiquity is one station in the history of the Querelles des Anciens et des Modernes. Ever since the early modern period, the self-understanding of the modern age consists in its being an antipode to and surpassing antiquity. 

The danger posed by the current methodologies in literary studies and the modern theories of literature is that they don’t sufficiently take into account all the constitutive differences within the literature of antiquity. In different phases and periods, antiquity developed very divergent concepts, which were sometimes even fundamentally opposed to each other, as to what made literature good literature and what were the qualities that a good poet had to have in his work.

In order to become fully aware of these qualities and give them their due, it is necessary to analyze the principles and theoretical framework, according to which ancient literary theory developed such divergent views on the question as to which qualities makes a literary masterpiece a literary masterpiece.

Since an analysis of literary and aesthetic theory in antiquity needs to first deal with the epistemological principles which provide the foundation and are therefore conceptually prior to the individual theory itself, the first methodological step on the way to correctly interpreting ancient literature is to focus on a work’s epistemological presuppositions, as far as it is relevant for the literary work itself. 

The different concrete manifestations of literary and aesthetic theory can be traced back to two conceptions: a pre-Hellenistic conception, which has its roots in Platonic-Aristotelian philosophy, and a Hellenistic-Roman, which wanted to emancipate itself from the ratio as the leading authority in literary production and elevated the phantasia – the faculty of imagination – to a new, subjective criterium.

The modern reception of theories of literature in antiquity and aesthetics has been influenced by a massive reception of texts from the Hellenistic period since the 14th and 15th centuries: Horace and Cicero, Quintilian and Dionysius of Halicarnassus were the heroes in the discovery of a new antiquity, with whose help Scholastic Aristotelianism was to be finally overcome.  Even after Aristotle’s Poetics and Rhetoric were rediscovered, they were interpreted through the filter of Hellenistic philosophy.  Arbogast Schmitt has published some very important studies highlighting the complex philosophical and historical problems involved in the reception of these theories, stressing the Hellenistic bent of the traditionally modern image of antiquity and its influence on the way we interpret literary theory in antiquity.

Any interpretation of ancient poetry needs to take these hermeneutic and historical factors into account. The Leibniz project “Literature and Epistemology – Methodological Foundations for the Interpretation of Ancient Poetry” aims at such an interpretation of individual works of pre-Hellenistic and Hellenistic poetry on the basis of a critical analysis of the epistemological and theoretical foundation of such periods and works. The methodological principle for these studies involves the cooperation between the one part that deals with ascertaining and fully grasping the literary and epistemological framework and the other part which applies these results in interpreting a particular individual work of literature.

In addition, certain studies are needed which will widen the scope of the individual interpretations, embedding them in more general reflections on the reception of the different models of literary theory in antiquity and modernity.