A series of footnotes

Glosses and footnotes galore, a manuscript page from the 11th century showing glosses on the Satires by the ancient Roman poet Juvenal. The main text of the poem seems submerged in glosses and commentaries. (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 871)

It has been said that all philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. The claim may be traced back to the English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead whose slightly qualified statement was that “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.

It’s a catchy phrase. At best, it means that European philosophical ideas emerged as a response to and engagement with the works of Plato. At worst, it makes the European philosophical tradition subservient to original and timeless Plato. After all, footnotes are footnotes, sitting at the foot of the page, clarifying the main text, serving it.

The idea that a huge body of knowledge may develop out of a handful of texts is an ancient one. Jewish Rabbinic literature grew as a series of commentaries on the Torah. Notwithstanding their originality and influence, the Talmud, the Mishnah and the Midrash are essentially footnotes to the Hebrew Bible. During the Christian Middle Ages, the works of the Church fathers and of European theologians consisted of footnotes to the Old and New Testaments. And medieval scholasticism in the West was an attempt to reduce all philosophy to a series of footnotes to Aristotle, the Philosopher par excellence.

In the beginning, there was the gloss. And the gloss was with the main text and the gloss was the text. Glosses were bits of text ranging from a word (to clarify or translate) to several paragraphs. The aim of glosses was to explain the main text on a manuscript page, whatever it may be. In time, glosses became so numerous and so rich that they literally cast a shadow over the main text. So the only solution was to transfer them onto a separate page, which in time became a separate work, a commentary, a reading aid, even a treatise. From sidenote, to footnote, to autonomous text. Organic growth.

When I submitted my 2-volume doctoral thesis half a decade ago, I did a little experiment. I extracted all the footnotes from the thesis that were not purely bibliographical and put them in a new document. The size of the new document was that of an average dissertation. A new text was stirring to break free.

In a sense, every written work is a footnote on that which precedes it, and cannot be otherwise. No writing ever happens in a vaccuum because authors are not atomised particles floating in space. They are interconnected points working together, but writing and publishing separately. The task of a good reader is to recover the footnotes, thereby enriching the main texts.

3 thoughts on “A series of footnotes

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    1. The concept of authorship during the medieval period was unstable and fluid. A commentator could easily become an author. The auctor, however, was an authoritative author, worth studying and copying, not any text ‘author’, as we might say today.


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