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Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the…
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Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities

by James Turner

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What to say about this sprawling history of everything? Most precisely this is an examination of why there was even an endeavor of philology, as at various times and places thoughtful people saw fit to try and put received texts (be they actual texts or artifacts) into some contextual understanding that made sense to them, with Philology in its prime being the main tool in the effort to retrieve the learning of the Classical World. The real interest for Turner is then institutional, as how such distinct disciplines as History, Literature, Linguistics, Anthropology and the like coalesced and then professionalized, in a process one can compare to crystals materializing out of a super-saturated solution. Much of this would seem to boil down to the stresses between institutional empire-building on one hand and the failure of the center to hold in terms of revealed religion being the center of culture, as the fears of the pious came to pass that better understanding would undermine simple faith, once the Bible became just more grist for the analytic mill.

Turner essentially takes his story up into the mid 19th-century before stopping, but he does have some thoughts on what the future might hold for the Humanities in academia, assaulted on all sides by issues of relevance, resources and mission. One suggestion that Turner makes is that the practitioners of these disciplines could take a note from the physical sciences and spend less time in self-imposed definitions of their missions and work at building links between their various endeavors; united by love of the word. Turner sees cross-disciplinary efforts such as gender and environmental studies as being a positive boon in this regard.

If nothing else the investment of time in this book made me appreciate quite a bit more what the rise of the German cultural studies post-1792 meant to world intellectual development as a whole. ( )
  Shrike58 | May 23, 2019 |
Academic Divisions
The lost history of philology.
Sell all the books you have which purport to explain the nature of the academic disciplines and buy James Turner's Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. If you want to understand higher education in its current configuration of departments, divisions, and professional associations, I can commend no better book.

To begin, however, we must overcome the smug sense of superiority that sneaks over us when we read the one-word title of this tome. As Turner concedes: "for most of the twentieth century, philology was put down, kicked around, abused, and snickered at, as the archetype of crabbed, dry-as-dust, barren, and by and large pointless academic knowledge. Did I mention mind-numbingly boring?"

We need to get back before that sneer. Philology was once the most capacious of terms. As it encompassed all study of languages and texts, it was at the heart of education and scholarship, reigning as "king of the sciences." Turner's study is dazzling in its scope and erudition, and one manifestation of this is that he starts his story at the dawn of civilization: "The earliest schools, in Mesopotamia, taught not augury, astrology, or the art of war but how to handle written language." In the beginning was the word.

With an eye for detail and a ready wit, Turner uncovers how a wide range of modern academic disciplines—history, literature, classics, art history, linguistics, archaeology, social and cultural anthropology, biblical studies, and religious studies—are a cousinhood all descending from philology (sometimes together with its junior partners, rhetoric and antiquarianism).

Two revealing themes recur: first, just how young these modern disciplines are—often not firmly established until into the 20th century—and, relatedly, how intertwined they once were. (In the first half of the 19th century, Karl Morgenstern was Professor of Eloquence and Classical Philology, of Aesthetics, and of the History of Literature and Art—just one colorful illustration of how things could look before the tapestry was unwoven.)

Moreover, grasping their origins in philology makes many puzzling things about these disciplines explicable. To wit, wishing to remain in continuity with their training and roots, once it became clear that the human story was much older than had hitherto been thought, historians quietly decided that "history" nevertheless begins with those who had the art of writing: what happened to homo sapiens in those vast ages before literacy was dubbed "prehistory" and outsourced to archaeologists and anthropologists.

Sell all the books you have which purport to explain the nature of the academic disciplines and buy James Turner's Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. If you want to understand higher education in its current configuration of departments, divisions, and professional associations, I can commend no better book.

To begin, however, we must overcome the smug sense of superiority that sneaks over us when we read the one-word title of this tome. As Turner concedes: "for most of the twentieth century, philology was put down, kicked around, abused, and snickered at, as the archetype of crabbed, dry-as-dust, barren, and by and large pointless academic knowledge. Did I mention mind-numbingly boring?"

We need to get back before that sneer. Philology was once the most capacious of terms. As it encompassed all study of languages and texts, it was at the heart of education and scholarship, reigning as "king of the sciences." Turner's study is dazzling in its scope and erudition, and one manifestation of this is that he starts his story at the dawn of civilization: "The earliest schools, in Mesopotamia, taught not augury, astrology, or the art of war but how to handle written language." In the beginning was the word.

With an eye for detail and a ready wit, Turner uncovers how a wide range of modern academic disciplines—history, literature, classics, art history, linguistics, archaeology, social and cultural anthropology, biblical studies, and religious studies—are a cousinhood all descending from philology (sometimes together with its junior partners, rhetoric and antiquarianism).

Two revealing themes recur: first, just how young these modern disciplines are—often not firmly established until into the 20th century—and, relatedly, how intertwined they once were. (In the first half of the 19th century, Karl Morgenstern was Professor of Eloquence and Classical Philology, of Aesthetics, and of the History of Literature and Art—just one colorful illustration of how things could look before the tapestry was unwoven.)

Moreover, grasping their origins in philology makes many puzzling things about these disciplines explicable. To wit, wishing to remain in continuity with their training and roots, once it became clear that the human story was much older than had hitherto been thought, historians quietly decided that "history" nevertheless begins with those who had the art of writing: what happened to homo sapiens in those vast ages before literacy was dubbed "prehistory" and outsourced to archaeologists and anthropologists.

During my doctoral work in history at a British university, I once included in the first draft of a paper some drawings from my period of study as additional primary sources. The professor who evaluated it instructed me to take out the "pretty pictures": real historians find their evidence in texts, not images. (As I do not have the space to compress Turner's arguments here, if you want to know why art history and archaeology are nonetheless also heirs of philology, you will need to heed the philological maxim ad fontes and read the book yourself.)

It also becomes clearer why the main professional society for classicists in the United States today is called the American Philological Association. Likewise, I finally understand why C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien (who are not mentioned in this book) thought that it was essential for Oxford undergraduates reading Literature to learn Anglo-Saxon (Old English). I had always taken this to be a Star-Trek-fandom-like, male-obsessional-activities kind of loopiness.

Thomas Jefferson both taught himself Anglo-Saxon and included it in the curriculum he envisioned for the University of Virginia. He was such a philological enthusiast that he and another future president, James Madison, went on a research trip to an Unquachog village in order to attempt to record a dying Native American language, Quiripi, before its last three speakers passed away.

Philology loomed so large for the educated classes that an ancient language would suddenly become fashionable in society. The vogue for Norse was a manifestation of a crush on the Vikings, who were adored for a season as "irresistibly bold, blond, and berserk." The storied languages of the East had their moment as well. The poet Karoline von GÜnderode was so determined to go out in style that she even wrote her suicide note in Sanskrit.

Alas for the advance of scholarship in the English-speaking world, German was a fashion that was slow to be adopted. At one point in the early 19th century, there was not a single member of the faculty of the University of Cambridge who could read it. England's greatest philologist at the start of that century, Richard Porson—languages being his expertise notwithstanding—reputedly pronounced: "Life is too short to learn German."

What goes on in modern English departments has long confused me, and Turner's narrative has been a tremendous help in understanding some of the crosscurrents which make that world appear chaotic. For example, some have conceived of it as an area of technical research while others as about character formation and inspiration, "a tool for civilizing elite young barbarians." Turner also helpfully identifies three different tasks pursued under the general category of literary studies—textual criticism, evaluative criticism, and literary history—and I now realize how often I have been bewildered by expecting one of these and encountering another.

A study of the history of philology also makes the humanities seem like a modern nation-state whose political boundaries have been drawn with disregard to natural ones. Philosophy is not part of this cousinhood, but it is nevertheless now assumed to be a quintessential humanities discipline, while cultural anthropology—a blood relation—has ended up in the foster care of the social sciences. Never mind that The Golden Bough, the most influential work of anthropology in the early decades of the twentieth century (and indeed perhaps of all time), was written by the Cambridge classicist James Frazer.

Did I mention mind-invigoratingly entertaining? Turner can size someone up in a delightfully drawn sketch. Here is his one-sentence portrait of a philologist behind the project that became the Oxford English Dictionary: "Furnivall gained a reputation for hot pink neckties, sculling on the Thames with shopgirls, and hours toiling over manuscripts in the British Museum." And here is all you need to know about the members of the Free Church of Scotland: "a highly literate, highly orthodox folk who could sniff out heresy faster than a border collie could smell a wolf." The radical Unitarian Theodore Parker was making early forays into what would emerge as the field of comparative religion: "He saw Hinduism as an improvement over Presbyterianism."

Turner's magnum opus is bejeweled with eye-catching facts. Philology was once so popular that Hugh Blair was paid £1,500 by his publisher for the manuscript of his grippingly entitled Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783)—"something like two or three million dollars in today's earnings." If the word "philology" has taken on a somewhat pejorative tinge, spare a thought for the poor gentlemen who signaled their commitment to learning by founding the Society of Dilettanti. Oxford's famous Bodleian Library was initially envisioned as a Protestant polemical weapon with which to beat "the Papists." In 1317, Albertino Mussato became the first person since antiquity to celebrate his birthday.

Not to be outdone by Jefferson and Madison's services to the cause of philology, yet another future president, John Quincy Adams, was Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard. A window into what the world was like before professionalization set in, the 14-volume Cambridge Modern History (1902 - 12) was repeatedly criticized because its authors included "too many professors."

An epilogue makes it clear that Turner's tale has a lesson to teach. He finds our current disciplinary boundaries stifling, and his well-reasoned narrative has proven that they are intellectually indefensible. They are not about scholarly coherence but rather proprietary claims: "By teaching students under these new labels, and by spawning learned journals specific to them, they marked off each field of philological or postphilological study as an independent realm, like male marmots flagging with urine the boundaries of their territories."

Sometimes, I must admit, I found myself less enamored than Turner apparently is with the good old days when Dante scholars also pontificated on ancient coins and people wrote books such as Natural and Civil History of Vermont which covered both maple trees and legislative branches, but he is certainly right to observe that artificial barriers have been erected: "If the lines were real, disciplines would not need so relentlessly to police their borders within colleges and universities."

I know the case of an assistant professor of classics who was told that he was not allowed to offer courses which used works in translation as the English Department held exclusive rights to this domain. When a classics professor who knows Latin is not deemed officially competent to teach an English translation of Vergil, but a literary scholar who does not is, one begins to lose the scent of the true flower of learning and starts to catch a whiff of something that smells suspiciously like it was deposited by a groundhog. If Turner's admonition is to be heeded, the humanities will need to relearn how to be kissing rather than pissing cousins.

Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Wheaton College. His sixth monograph is The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith, due in August from Oxford University Press.

Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.
  keithhamblen | Aug 25, 2014 |
In Philology, James Turner makes a fun and rather interesting assertion: all studies in the humanities lead back to philology, the study of languages and their history. In order to engage in the studia humanitatis, you need history. In order to read history in its proper context, you have to read it in its original language. For that you need an understanding of languages, their structure and their history, hence philology. To understand art and architecture requires context, and the urge to understand it as its contemporaries did. This requires chronicles, journals, letters, and yes, philology. Turner traces the grand study of philology through history to show its roots and how it can be again reborn as a proper tool for understanding both our current circumstances and our collective history.

Starting with ancient Chinese and Sanskrit manuals on language organization and construction, he guides the reader through eras in philological study. Early in its day, it was the go-to field for those writing about history, philosophy, or theology. All through Western history and even into 19th century America, philology is found to form the basis for any “complete” education. He moves the narrative between poets, educators, philosophers, artists, and even mathematicians to show how the field of philology both informs and is informed by everything else. Language forms in many ways the common bond between human beings, and so philology seeks to understand those bonds from the inside out.

Turner’s research on this topic is immense and rich. Even though he hedges in his introduction that this book comes up short and his understanding of ancient languages is paltry at best, he still gets across a ton of information and history. The writing is a little stuffy, but so is the subject matter. Philology is by necessity a very minutiae-driven field, so some of the sections tend to feel a bit pedantic. Trust me, if you stick it out, you get a better understanding of what we call the humanities. He laments the fact that a generalist in the humanities could not exist in today’s educational atmosphere of specialization, and in many ways I feel much the same way. Reading this will awaken the polymath in all of us, and hopefully a brave few will make a go of it as a career. All in all, a very interesting read. ( )
  NielsenGW | Aug 13, 2014 |
Showing 3 of 3
Until recently, there were numerous academic circles in which one could reveal oneself to be a philologist only at great peril. In the company of many humanists or social scientists—to say nothing of colleagues in more quantitative disciplines, who might not even recognize the word—to claim to be a philologist could excite at best condescension, at worst denunciation. Like a covert drug habit or a particularly bizarre romantic predilection, even if you did philology, it was better not to admit it. This is not to say that there have not been a few attempts at consciousness-raising: over the last thirty years Paul de Man, Lee Patterson, and Edward Said all issued independent proclamations in declaring a ‘return’ to philology; more recently H.-U. Gumbrecht essayed its ‘powers’. That these well-intended efforts massively diverged in their basic understanding of the term supplied eloquent witness to philology’s beleaguered place in the landscape of knowledge over the past generation. But things have been looking up of late. The Indologist Sheldon Pollock has issued a series of impassioned appeals to the field’s global significance, both past and present (full disclosure: Pollock was my doctoral supervisor), while the Berlin-based project Zukunftsphilologie has worked to foster cross-disciplinary and transregional networks of scholarly communication, especially among younger researchers (further disclosure: I am a member of the project’s Collegium).

Into these improving circumstances comes James Turner’s Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. Turner, an intellectual historian whose previous work includes a well-received study of Charles Eliot Norton and a history of the rise of the academic study of religion, here takes up the millennia-long and transcontinental development through which the study of the Mediterranean classical literary inheritance came to speciate into the disciplines of the liberal arts and divinity faculties of the modern Anglophone university. Turner seeks to fundamentally upend the anti-philological prejudice—or even innocence of philology’s continued existence—that is endemic among contemporary humanists. The misrecognition of philology’s place extends beyond just the widely shared ignorance of the common ancestry of such apparently diverse fields as anthropology and the history of art: in forgetting their collective philological origins, the members of the fields are rendered unable, he claims, to comprehend the underlying shared core of their intellectual practice. Though Turner’s method is that of conventional narrative history, his intention could thus be described as a process of eliminatio scientiarum descriptarum, as the apparent diversity of the modern disciplines is progressively revealed to overlay an original unitary philology, consisting in comparison, knowledgeable interpretation, and sensitivity to context. For it is this triune unity that Turner understands to be exhaustive of philology as the ur- (or über-) discipline.
 
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0691145644, Hardcover)


Many today do not recognize the word, but "philology" was for centuries nearly synonymous with humanistic intellectual life, encompassing not only the study of Greek and Roman literature and the Bible but also all other studies of language and literature, as well as religion, history, culture, art, archaeology, and more. In short, philology was the queen of the human sciences. How did it become little more than an archaic word? In Philology, the first history of Western humanistic learning as a connected whole ever published in English, James Turner tells the fascinating, forgotten story of how the study of languages and texts led to the modern humanities and the modern university.



This compelling narrative traces the development of humanistic learning from its beginning among ancient Greek scholars and rhetoricians, through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, to the English-speaking world of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Turner shows how evolving researches into the texts, languages, and physical artifacts of the past led, over many centuries, to sophisticated comparative methods and a deep historical awareness of the uniqueness of earlier ages. But around 1800, he explains, these interlinked philological and antiquarian studies began to fragment into distinct academic fields. These fissures resulted, within a century or so, in the new, independent "disciplines" that we now call the humanities. Yet the separation of these disciplines only obscured, rather than erased, their common features.


The humanities today face a crisis of relevance, if not of meaning and purpose. Understanding their common origins--and what they still share--has never been more urgent.


(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:06 -0400)

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