Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities

Article excerpt

Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, by James Turner. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. 576 pp.

In Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, James Turner aims to revivify our sense of the importance of philological work by tracking its beginnings in Greece and Rome, its modern intensification in the eighteenth century, and its burgeoning in the nineteenth century. While we may, he observes, associate philology with dry-as-dustness and irrelevance, he aims to present it as the very life force of virtually all contemporary humanistic disciplines, the genetic material that binds "the modern humanities ... as cousins related by branching descent from common ancestors" (381).

Turners project thus has a double aspect. First, it seeks to capture the way in which philology involved a distancing of the present from the past; rather than imagining that Oxbridge students, for instance, should learn to think of the Greeks as essentially like themselves, philology taught scholars that they could not simply read texts off but needed to establish the authenticity of those texts, needed to document the various historical moments at which portions of the Homeric texts or the Pentateuch of the Hebrew Bible were written. That process unleashed a consciousness of the distance between any contemporary moment and the historical past. As the notion that nineteenth-century Englishmen were very nearly kin to the Greeks began to go by the boards, Turner thinks, history writing came to coordinate the study of written records--the archive--with accounts of how one might understand the passage of historically distinct knowledge into the present--narrative. The classicism that Matthew Arnold would associate not merely with school subjects but with deeply embedded moral dispositions was itself contested by philological work and the importance of method that it fostered.

At the same time that Turner stresses the historicity of philology, its seeming like an archaic scholarly practice, he aims to put it unfailingly into conversation with our present moment. Nineteenth-century English gentlemen may not have been near contemporaries to the ancient Greeks, but we humanists are more directly related to one another and to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philological scholars than we have realized: "shared background gives all the humanities a collective integrity, even if one not always acknowledged" (382). Moreover, Turner suggests, in an impassioned epilogue, the distinct disciplines which house contemporary scholarship themselves obscure the common feature of their genealogy, interconnections that continue to erupt today in calls for interdisciplinarity.

In speaking of ancient philology, Turner separates ancient philology into four areas: "linguistic speculation, rhetoric, textual philology, and grammar," even as he points out that "such partition does not do violence to the facts, but ... serves present convenience more than it reflects ancient practice" (4). That distribution of the topics of ancient philology enables him to speak of various philosophical positions on language--most notably that of Plato's Cratylus with its depiction of language as both naturally expressive and altered by convention. But it also enables him to indicate the supreme importance of writing and published records to philology. Socratic dialogue and the debate structure it instantiates correspond to Turner's categories of linguistic speculation and rhetoric, but the ability to revisit those dialogues and debates rests on Plato's having cast them into writing. Thus, even though Turner recognizes how much of the philological work of historical linguistics revolved around studies of spoken language, he draws attention to the ways in which such work could become comparative only when languages took written form.

Turner efficiently surveys the techniques that classical and medieval scholars developed for managing documentary information, and he is warm in his praise of Erasmus's contemporary Beatus Rhenanus as "an accomplished textual philologist" of the early sixteenth century and amusing in his dismissal of others. …

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