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
. 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.