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Book Review: Philology

By (May 11, 2014) No Comment

Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanitiesphilology cover
by James Turner
Princeton University Press, 2014

Notre Dame Cavanaugh Professor of Humanities James Turner’s latest book, Philology, undertakes the mother of all thankless tasks: a comprehensive history of “the queen of the human sciences,” the multiform discipline of philology. It’s a stupendous work of scholarship and synergy, and nobody knows better than its author the uphill struggle before it:

Philology has fallen on hard times in the English-speaking world (much less so in continental Europe). Many college-educated Americans no longer recognize the word. Those who do often think it means no more than scrutiny of ancient Greek or Roman texts by a nit-picking classicist, while British readers may take it as referring only to technical research into languages and language families. Professors of literature use the term to belittle a simpleminded approach to their subject, mercifully discarded long ago. Indeed, 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?

It becomes very clear almost immediately that although the bulk of Philology concerns itself with the history of the endeavor – stretching from ancient Greece right through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment to the great age of Victorian scholarship – the book particularly gets its dander up on the subject of those hard times and the reasons for them. This is not to undersell the sweep of those historical chapters, in which all the great figures from philology’s development cross the broad stage of mankind’s intellectual development, including such titanic figures as Lorenzo Valla (who used philology’s tools to expose the fakery of “The Donation of Constantine” in the early 15th Century), Desiderius Erasmus (the prince of humanists, whose philological studies formed virtually the whole of his life’s work), or the American scholar Charles Eliot Norton (the subject of Turner’s brilliant The Liberal Education of Charles Eliot Norton), as well as now largely forgotten figures like George Lyman Kittredge, “the quintessential philological scholar.”

But as invaluable as those historical chapters are, there’s an added animation in these pages when Turner turns his attention to the grisly fate philology has suffered in modern times. He himself must know how old and venerable an adjunct to philological history is philological ranting, and he waylays his bete noir with gusto. “Having identified themselves as antiphilology, scholars of modern literature cut themselves off from the cross-disciplinary breadth of philological erudition,” he writes. “They not only confined themselves to literature. Even within literary studies, more and more specialized scholars sought to bite off only as much as they could very thoroughly chew.” In Turner’s view, the intellectual balkanizations of the modern university system has been all but the death of his pet subject:

Today’s humanities disciplines are not ancient, integral modes of knowledge. They are modern, artificial creations – where made-up lines pretend to divide the single sandbox in which we all play into each boy’s and girl’s own inviolate kingdom. It is a sham … If you are labeled ‘assistant professor of art history,’ a study of medieval church architecture might get you tenure. Translating Dante’s Divine Comedy or editing John Donne’s poems will get you a place in the line at your local unemployment office. Conversely, if you are ‘associate professor of Italian,’ translating Dante may win you a full professorship; editing Donne or studying Holbein will get you nowhere, and do not expect a salary rise.

“The examples are not random,” Turner cannily continues. “Charles Eliot Norton did all these things. He could not today, nor ay time after about 1920. The modern rules of the game demand make-believe.”

As is all but inevitable in cases like this, the split in argumentative focus runs the risk of weakening each of its separate parts in turn. But through sheer dint of rhetorical ability, Turner manages to avoid this trap almost completely; his anger at the reductive rise of blinkered disciplinarianism very effectively informs his analysis of why philology has fallen on such hard times. He combines the two strands wonderfully, and the end result is the best and liveliest book (indeed, one of the only books of its kind that I know of) about philology ever written. Charles Eliot Norton would have consumed it avidly; it’s bleakly easy to predict how many 21st century readers will do the same.

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