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Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities

James Turner
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 544
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    Book Description:

    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 narrativetraces 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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5015-0
    Subjects: Philosophy, Education

Table of Contents

  1. Prologue
    (pp. ix-xviii)

    In hisAdages(1500) the great humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam quipped, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.”¹ Might the two animals know the same stuff? Could the hedgehog’s one contain the fox’s many? The book you are reading began in my growing curiosity about whether humanistic scholarship in the West is ultimately many or one.* I have more to say about how I got curious, but first a few words are in order about what our fox and hedgehog comprehend.

    Studia humanitatis—humanistic studies—in one guise or another have for many centuries dwelled at...


    • [PART I. Introduction]
      (pp. 1-2)

      Language and its products enthrall human beings. Our enduring love affair with words should not surprise. After all, the expanding capacity ofHomo sapiensto use language in ever more intricate ways partly powered our evolution, gave us an edge over other animals, deepened the interdependence basic to humanity. The earliest schools, in Mesopotamia, taught not augury, astrology, or the art of war but how to handle written language. When systematic erudition emerged in ancient civilizations, it often made language its subject. InShuo Wen Jie Zi(121 CE), the Han dynasty scholar Xu Shen invented the strategy of indexing...

    • 1 “Cloistered Bookworms, Quarreling Endlessly in the Muses’ Bird-Cage”: FROM GREEK ANTIQUITY TO CIRCA 1400
      (pp. 3-32)

      The metaphorical bookworm, like its literal cousin the earthworm, loves to burrow. Imagine several bookworms patiently tunneling down through the roots of each modern Western humanistic discipline until finally coming to the last, most deeply buried tendril. When bookworms reached bottom, they would find themselves together in the ancient Mediterranean world, listening to Greek.

      To retrace this journey—to follow upward in time the roots from which the modern Western humanities sprouted millennia later—requires starting where these bookworms ended. Ancient Greeks did not devise ‘the humanities’ as Europeans and Americans know them; today’s notions of humanistic learning in the...

    • 2 “A Complete Mastery of Antiquity”: RENAISSANCE, REFORMATION, AND BEYOND
      (pp. 33-64)

      No sharp break divided late medieval intellectual life, with its Scholastics who scorned philology, from the Renaissance, with its humanists who gave philology new life. Jean Gerson long personified the supposed aridity of late Scholasticism. Yet Gerson pioneered new literary forms and admired the Latin style of humanists of his era. Italian universities of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, once pictured as hostile to humanists, turn out to have welcomed them.¹

      Yet one need not caricature thedramatis personaeto realize that a new act opened in the northern Italian peninsula during the thirteenth century. There Scholasticism had not seized...

    • 3 “A Voracious and Undistinguishing Appetite”: BRITISH PHILOLOGY TO THE MID-EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
      (pp. 65-90)

      Now the gaze narrows, focusing more closely on those philological traditions that eventually spawned the humanities as known today in Britain, Ireland, and North America. Learned Britons mostly populate this first chapter devoted to the English-speaking world. Irish and American scholars will grow more visible after 1750.

      Geographically on Europe’s edge, Britain’s scholars long lived there intellectually. They never lost touch. The great English humanist Thomas More (1478–1535), like his Scottish counterpart George Buchanan (1506–82), belonged to Europe-wide networks of the learned. A scattering of erudite men with similar links dotted early modern British history: from Humphrey, Duke...

    • 4 “Deep Erudition Ingeniously Applied”: REVOLUTIONS OF THE LATER EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
      (pp. 91-122)

      It is no wonder that James Harris interested himself in idiosyncrasies of various languages. By his day there were a lot of new tongues to pay attention to, especially if you were British; for in the later eighteenth century the British Empire reached a high-water mark. British soldiers and administrators roamed North America and the Indian subcontinent, and the Royal Navy roved the watery world. In January 1771, HM BarkEndeavourwas sailing homeward from its voyage of discovery in the South Pacific (where it had run across Australia). On board the young natural historian Joseph Banks puzzled over resemblances...


    • [PART II. Introduction]
      (pp. 123-124)

      By 1800 philology strained against its own skin. Philology—and activities within its extended family, such as antiquarianism, rhetoric, history writing—had grown more varied in expertise, had scattered over vast reaches of imperial space, had opened a host of new questions. To practice philological erudition as one, vast, intertwined endeavor became harder to do, even as scholars continued to conceive humanistic learning as a single activity at bottom.

      Institutional evolution mirrored this tension. During the first half of the nineteenth century colleges and universities expanded in number in both the United Kingdom and, especially, the United States. In the...

    • 5 “The Similarity of Structure Which Pervades All Languages”: FROM PHILOLOGY TO LINGUISTICS, 1800–1850
      (pp. 125-146)

      The fascination with the phenomenon of language that gripped Enlightenment writers did not ebb after 1800. The most ambitious project yet,Mithridates, oder allgemeine Sprachenkunde(Mithridates, or General Science of Language) sampled myriad languages worldwide.* Johann Christoph Adelung put out a first volume in 1806, then died; by 1817 Johann Severin Vater had finished the job with three more. The idea of language families, boosted by William Jones, was by now pervasive, a new template for research.Mithridatesused the “Our Father” as a lens through which to see affinities between tongues—an eyepiece like the Leibnizian word list, though...

    • 6 “Genuinely National Poetry and Prose”: LITERARY PHILOLOGY AND LITERARY STUDIES, 1800–1860
      (pp. 147-166)

      John Pickering may have thought his new ‘linguistics’ a science, but no one yet believed that of the study of literature. Critical discussion and editing of vernacular literary texts began before 1700, but only after 1800 did such literary scholarship even get acknowledged as a distinct area of philological endeavor. This chapter will follow that process—not yet complete in 1860—to track how older modes of philological erudition evolved into a field teetering on the verge of a ‘discipline’ if not a ‘science.’

      Eighteenth-century writers applied to modern literature philological methods developed to deal with classical and biblical texts....

    • 7 “An Epoch in Historical Science”: THE CIVILIZED PAST, 1800–1850
      (pp. 167-209)

      Eighteenth-century philologists and social theorists distinguished differingtypesof human societies or cultures: a trend even more evident in the nineteenth century. (The wordculture, in something approaching its modern anthropological usage, circulated after 1750, though not fully naturalized for a century.) More and more, various species of sociocultural order came to be seen as phases in a progressive historical evolution, from lower to higher. Robert Wood’s primitive Homeric era of myth and poetry led to a rational classical Greece, while Adam Smith envisoned a more complex, steplike progress from a hunter-gatherer status through pastoral barbarism and then settled agriculture...

    • 8 “Grammatical and Exegetical Tact”: BIBLICAL PHILOLOGY AND ITS OTHERS, 1800–1860
      (pp. 210-230)

      Biblical philology in the English-speaking world began to change during the first half of the nineteenth century. Understandings of the Bible affected, and were affected by, theological developments. But in this chapter the spotlight falls only on the erudite philology of Bible study, insofar as one can untangle philology and theology. In 1800, biblical scholarship (or ‘criticism,’ the old synonym for philology derived from ‘criticus’) partook fully in the holistic world of textual philology. It shared ideas and personnel especially with the other great study of ancient Mediterranean texts, Greek and Roman philology. By 1860, biblical philology was evolving into...


    • [PART III. Introduction]
      (pp. 231-235)

      In roughly the first half of the nineteenth century, philology began a prolonged process of fragmentation and re-formation. Tasks long seen as facets of a single enterprise hived off as semiautonomous areas of scholarship. Since the Renaissance, textual philologists had preoccupied themselves mostly with ancient texts, secular and sacred, written in one of the historic ‘trilinguae’: Greek, Latin, or Hebrew. Now emenders of classical texts less often pored over biblical ones, while more and more biblical philologists carried on their craft within theological institutions, writing in the first instance for a clerical audience. No hard-and-fast line yet separated classical and...

    • 9 “This Newly Opened Mine of Scientific Inquiry”: BETWEEN HISTORY AND NATURE: LINGUISTICS AFTER 1850
      (pp. 236-253)

      Linguistics became a university discipline—lightly populated—in North America and the United Kingdom in the decades after 1850 (though by no means confined to universities). Whether it remained a humanistic study presents a more complex question. The topics of linguistics were legion—Amerindian languages; Indo-European comparative philology; historical grammar of various individual tongues, Indo-European and other; studies of Pacific, Asian, and African languages and language families—with methods ranging from typology to phonology to lexicography to morphology to etymology.

      To bring so sprawling a field into focus, this chapter looks at linguistics mainly through the eyes of its two...

    • 10 “Painstaking Research Quite Equal to Mathematical Physics”: LITERATURE, 1860–1920
      (pp. 254-273)

      The discipline of ‘literature’ did not quite exist in the English-speaking world in 1860.¹ The practices that would comprise it—literary history, textual editing, evaluative criticism—had by then gained recognition as at least episodically scholarly endeavors. But a single, discrete field of literature absorbing all these subfields had not. After 1860, within the matrix of the modern university, the pieces gelled into the discipline we know today.

      As already observed, studies of literary works developed as erudite discourses during the nineteenth century from the confluence of two ancient, historically related fields of knowledge: philology and rhetoric. Neither had earlier...

    • 11 “No Tendency toward Dilettantism”: THE CIVILIZED PAST AFTER 1850
      (pp. 274-327)

      If anything, the line between civilized peoples and their primitive opposites grew brighter after 1850. In 1908 an Oxford anthropologist awarded the “lower kind” of “human culture” to his discipline, turning over “the higher life of society” to “the Humanities.”¹ The distinction certainly grew more invidious: more racialized, more racist. Tribal peoples in Africa or aborigines in Australia—supposedly unchanging folk with oddly timeless pasts, no real history—barely belonged to the same human race as Egyptian pharaohs, Roman soldiers, medieval English villagers, Renaissance artists, American and French revolutionaries.* Yet, as the nineteenth century ended, the primitive reared its unexpected...

    • 12 “The Field Naturalists of Human Nature”: ANTHROPOLOGY CONGEALS INTO A DISCIPLINE, 1840–1910
      (pp. 328-356)

      Just as a lot of nineteenth-century scholars tossed around the wordcivilizationwithout knowing exactly what they were talking about, so they didprimitive. The word meant, really, the opposite of civilized—whatever that denoted. In contrast, a well-informed person could usesavageandbarbaricmore precisely. These words labeled specific early phases of human society (hunter-gatherer, or nomadic-pastoral-agricultural in modern language). These terms of art derived from theories of the ‘progress of civilization’ through universal stages, circulated by Enlightenment Scots. Thus the Republican Party platform of 1856 indicted “those twin relics of barbarism—Polygamy, and Slavery.” This terminology put...

    • 13 “The Highest and Most Engaging of the Manifestations of Human Nature”: BIBLICAL PHILOLOGY AND THE RISE OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES AFTER 1860
      (pp. 357-380)

      As anthropologists trekked off to observe primitive religion, other heirs of philology turned attention to the civilized sort, in such great historic cultures as China, India, and Persia. So, as the sway of Christian churches over education and erudition waned, learned inquiries into religion broadened. The philologists originally concerned with religion—the biblical sort—felt their footing in this new world of knowledge shifting and uncertain.

      Biblical philologists studied—and usually believed in—a divine revelation, not human creations. Increasingly, as disciplinarity advanced, they devoted their scholarly effortsonlyto the Bible. When the fluid diversity of philology fragmented into...

  5. Epilogue
    (pp. 381-386)

    You have come to the end of a long, winding road. The road would have wound a lot farther had I tried to do justice to every modern humanistic discipline. Perhaps musicologists, scholars of Chinese literature, and other neglected humanists will feel grateful that their fields escaped my misunderstandings. All readers should give thanks that, in disciplines I did treat, I sketched a few exemplary cases rather than attempting a full account. This book is not an encyclopedia but a history: a sustained argument about change over time, cast in the form of empirical description. I have included enough (I...