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Being philosophical about scholarly editions

By Desmond Clarke


When searchable editions of classic philosophical texts became available in the 1980s, one proud publisher advertised the benefits of this new technology at an APA meeting by inviting participants to do a sample search of John Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding. Even non-experts knew the disdain for innateness that Locke notoriously displayed in Book I. So I tapped into the machine: “Innate ideas”. It churned for a while and responded: “there is nothing in the text corresponding to your entry”! I quickly reverted to the single word, “innate,” and found hundreds of references to innate notions and principles. The machine was right: Locke never refers to innate ideas in the Essay.

While the technologies for searching have been transformed almost beyond recognition since then, their benefits presuppose the efforts of dedicated editors to provide scholarly editions of the text. Philosophers can be trusted to dispute the meaning of almost any sentence without the added assistance of disputed texts. We need to agree, first, on the texts — what Aristotle or Scotus, Descartes or Locke actually wrote; and for this we are indebted to generations of editors, many of whom remain anonymous, who produced editions of those texts in their original languages or in translation.

Without disrespect to the scribes of an earlier era, however, the standards of editing improved significantly in the twentieth century. Editors and their publishers produced scholarly editions, which included extensive meta-text that identified hidden references, unacknowledged citations etc., and translations of texts that were not written in the vernacular of the reader.

Unfortunately, the results of this valuable work remain inaccessible to most scholars and students, except in the best libraries, because the editions are no longer in print. Those who have laboured in small colleges in remote locations — I speak from experience! — incurred significant travel expenses and fell asleep in libraries in Paris, London, or Oxford while consulting “the texts.”

W. B. Yeats would not object, I hope, if I use his famous phase about “all changed, changed utterly” in this context. He was writing about the 1916 revolution, but the phrase applies equally to the technological revolution that has made it possible for researchers, anywhere in the world, to access texts online. Resources will include a very wide range of scholarly editions in English literature — Ben Jonson, Shakespeare, Donne, and many more. But it will also include scholarly editions of philosophical texts, many of which are now out of print. These will include The Oxford Francis Bacon, Noel Malcolm’s two-volume edition of the Correspondence of Hobbes, and the Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley. The works of Edmund Burke, John Locke, and David Hume will follow in an early update, and later on the classical texts of Plato and Aristotle. Online publication of authors such as John Milton will fuse disciplinary boundaries between literature, history, and philosophy.

Once this vast resource becomes available online, I may miss the excuse to travel, especially to the new Bibliothèque nationale de France where the delights of French food and wine reward peripatetic scholars for their devotion to textual scholarship. But the ease of online access may be just enough to compensate the disappointed.

Desmond Clarke is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, National University of Ireland, Cork, member of the Royal Irish Academy, and member of the Oxford Scholarly Editions Online editorial board. He has published monographs on early modern philosophy and translations of texts from the same period. These include Descartes’ Theory of Mind (2003) and Descartes: A Biography (2006); translations include Poulain de la Barre: The Equality of the Sexes (1990), Louis de la Forge: Treatise on the Human Mind (1666) (1997), and a two-volume edition of the philosophical works of Descartes. Since 1993 he has been general editor, with Karl Ameriks, of Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, which currently includes over seventy-five volumes.

Oxford Scholarly Editions Online is coming soon. To discover more about it, view this series of videos about the launch of the project.

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