Monday, February 20, 2006

Footnotes

I am not alone in lamenting the decline of the footnote. Everyone is familiar with the frustrating comedy of endnotes: the tangled fingers and multiple bookmarks (or post-its), the vain struggle to recall the number of note and page as one prays that they are adequately marked at the back of the book. Having performed this extraordinary feat, one is greeted by the demoralizing "Ibid."

I have not attempted to trace such complaints through history, but I have found an early occurrence, in a letter by David Hume to the editor of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall:
One is also plagued with his Notes, according to the present Method of printing the Book: When a note is announced, you turn to the End of the Volume; and there you often find nothing but the Reference to an Authority: All of these Authorities ought only to be printed at the Margin or Bottom of the Page.
Hume's remarks concede that digressive footnotes, as opposed to mere citations, are justly confined to a cellar adjacent to the index. Rousseau made the same concession, in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. But it should not be made. It is precisely the witty aside, the nugget of research one could not bear to leave out, even though it didn't fit, that I look for in a footnote. Michael Dummett once remarked that reading a scholarly book without a preface is like arriving at a dinner party and being led directly to the table. Reading a scholarly book without footnotes is like having a conversation with a monomaniac.

Anthony Grafton's otherwise wonderful history of the footnote is not sufficiently sensitive to this. His topic is narrow: the footnote as a tool of historical scholarship; the book is a partial history of historiography, from Bayle to Gibbon to Ranke. A more indulgent treatment appears in The Devil's Details by Chuck Zerby, but it is characterized by an irritable anti-intellectualism, as though the scholarly use of the footnote is somehow incompatible with the digressive. On the contrary: it is only when one isn't sure what to expect in glancing down the page that digression can have its full effect; uncertainty is an essential part of the foonote's charm.

This is not to deny that the footnote is apt for parody. But it is already self-parodic. The avid footnoter knows that he is undisciplined, that he is on a slippery slope to the dissolution of the text, that he is borderline schizophrenic.

What we need is a strenuous but still affectionate history of this phenomenon, a cultural remembrance of the aside, from parenthetic remark to hyperlink. We do not know what the footnote means to us, how life would be impoverished without it. In the absence of that knowledge, the defence of the footnote is bound to be incomplete. We will tend to focus on the threat to scholarship that lies in the adoption of the endnote, or in the obliteration of notes tout court. But this is only part of the story. The decline of the footnote is a threat to philosophy, to personality, and to intellectual love.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Ant said...

I completely agree: the endnote, especially the bibliographic endnote, is to be deplored and if possible deprecated. On the other hand, as an avid footnoter myself, I find them some of the most delightful parts of reading what can sometimes be otherwise depressingly focussed material. I'm always tempted to include the aside which occured to me while I was working out the material: it both humanises the text and gives hints to the reader of novel and interesting applications, at its best. After all, what would Naming and Necessity be without its footnotes?

This is one reason to choose LaTeX, incidently: the possibility of combining endnotes (for purely bibliographic material), footnotes (for substative asides) and marginal notes (for whimsical asides) in a single document (and where the footnotes will stay on the same page as their superscripted marker) is almost irresistable, don't you think?

4:21 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Kripke was in the back of my mind when I wrote this post (the book on Wittgenstein, too). Also Nozick, in Philosophical Explanations, which is wonderfully digressive. (See the famous footnote on self-subsuming relations, yoga and auto-fellatio, among others.)

I have to admit that I haven't yet succumbed to the lure of LaTex, even though people rave about it. This is in part because I don't have as much trouble with Word as everyone else, and in part because I'm a technophobe (in the literal sense).

4:00 PM  
Blogger koenigsfreunde said...

I completely agree with you about the evils of endnotes. In an age of computer automation, publishers do not save much money by going to endnotes. I would rather have an uglier/plainer book cover than lose endnotes.

On quite a few occasions, going to the footnotes/endnotes was just what I needed to do in order to understand the point a philosopher was making. Sometimes I even wished he/she had incorporated it into his/her main text (e.g. Block's explanation of the Ramsey sentence in his "Troubles with Functionalism").

3:57 AM  

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