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On Nietzsche's 'Philology as Ephexis in Interpretation'

Leon Wash

University of Chicago

The subject of this paper is the history of a peculiar word that is now enjoying a meaning and a currency that have vastly eclipsed its meager classical pedigree, thanks to the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche. In Nietzsche’s Der Antichrist, §52, one finds an oft-quoted definition of philology “as ephexis in interpretation.” An unusual Greek word, ἔφεξις is now often treated—sometimes even in scholarship unrelated to Nietzsche—as an unproblematic synonym of the ancient Skeptics’ ἐποχή (“suspension of judgement”), although it is certainly not, as we will see. Nietzsche’s sometimes unquestioned philological authority, together with the uncritical use of standard reference material, has produced a communis opinio that is somewhat stunted. This problem has already been noted by Andreas Urs Sommer, whose recent commentary on Der Antichrist far surpasses prior scholarship on this point, yet admits of some supplement. Building on Sommer’s work, this paper surveys the sparse history of the word, including a few direct responses to Nietzsche’s use. One outstanding element of its history that has somehow gone unnoted is that the definition “checking, stopping,” which is seen repeatedly in recent Nietzsche scholarship, derives most directly from a dictionary entry (LSJ s.v., II) the sole citation in support of which is a neglected but remarkable inscription: a third-century law about hiring Dionysian artists, it was found well after Nietzsche’s death and edited by none other than Wilamowitz, whose reading of the inscription’s use of ἔφεξις incidentally contradicts the aforementioned dictionary entry. In its two instances in Classical Greek, in Aristophanes and a one-word fragment of Euripides (cf. LSJ s.v., I), ἔφεξις does not mean “suspension of judgement,” and that inscription contains the sole instance in Hellenistic texts; it never appears in Sextus or the other obvious sources. Thus the history of the word demands greater skepticism about its significance for Nietzsche. On balance, however, the rest of the evidence does establish a close connection between ephexis and epochē, both historically and in Nietzsche’s usage, while nonetheless reinforcing Sommer’s conclusion: ephexis in Nietzsche is a sort of methodical, scientific wariness that does not preclude, but rather aims at, decisive exegesis. When he used the word ephexis, Nietzsche cannot have intended it to be simply synonymous with epochē, nor can he have meant to identify philology with Pyrrhonism. His use of the exceedingly rare word was probably (not to say undoubtably) the deliberate ploy of an erudite obscurantist, offering a little object lesson in philological caution.

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Philosophical Thought and Language

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