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Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities
by james turner
princeton, 576 pages, $35

She appeared to him in the darkest of times. In the early part of the sixth century, the sun had set on the western Roman Empire. Its greatest intellectual, a highborn official named Boethius—among the last in his era to embody the old synthesis of Christian and classical learning—had fallen out of favor with the Ostrogoth ruler Theodoric. Boethius found himself in a dungeon near Milan, awaiting execution and fighting off despair. It was then, says Boethius, that the majestic figure of Lady Philosophy appeared to him in his cell and stirred him to banish his fears, accept her strong medicine, and regain the straight, right road.

To judge from the growing body of literature on the decline of the liberal arts, there are many today who fear that the humanities themselves are headed for a fatal loss of prestige and patronage, victims, like Boethius, of barbarians in power. At the end of After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre draws a parallel between our time and the decline of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, suggesting that we too live in a cultural twilight, at the beginnings of “new dark ages which are already upon us.” Despair, now as then, is a real temptation.

It may not seem so at first, but a new book by Notre Dame history professor James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, is Boethian, a book intended to console. Boethius, a cerebral and sensitive soul, conjured the stern, commanding presence of Lady Philosophy to hearten him in the hour of need. Turner, a blithe and voluble historian, contemplates the dim condition of humanistic scholarship and conjures a very different personage with which to edify the academic faithful. The hero of Turner’s book is Old Man Philology, now a forgotten figure “coated with the dust of the library,” who totters along in obscurity.

Yet the Old Man was once young and strong. Turner’s aim is to show that philology, which refers to a great deal more than the study of language, “reigned as king of the sciences, the pride of the first great modern universities,” a monarch who used to be “chic, dashing, and much ampler in girth.” As king, he held the allegiance of sturdy minds, of people intensely interested in all facets of human life: words, texts, events, ideas. In their research, scholars took delight in the strangeness and particularity of things. The rich world of philological scholarship sparkled with variety, but like the Roman imperium, it also had a distinctive, if fragile, unity.


his latter point should not be missed. Turner did not invent the word philology, of course, but he has succeeded beautifully in bringing its form and features to light. Turner shows that, instead of being merely a disciplinary label or term of convenience for the study of texts and languages, philology involved a particular way of ascertaining the truth of the human situation. Philology was, as he puts it, a “paradigm of knowledge.” The axioms within this paradigm stipulate that present realities have their roots in a tangled past. The best way to understand these realities is therefore to trace their development in different contexts, reconstruct historical relationships, and so understand the uninterrupted flow of past eras into the present one. In this way the philologist fills in leaves, twigs, and branches on a great sprawling family tree of human culture, language, and history. In both method and results, the variegated pursuits of philology amount to “one, big old thing.”

In good philological fashion, Turner traces the history of this unitary phenomenon from its origins in antiquity to the twentieth century. He begins his story in ancient Greece, where public debate, philosophical speculation, and rhetoric fostered a love of language. But philology did not emerge as a textual enterprise ­until the Hellenistic period, when, for example, scholars at the great library in Alexandria faced the challenge of organizing and editing ancient works, the Homeric corpus above all. They also wrote biographies, copied ­inscriptions, sorted out chronologies, described monuments, and “collected old lore about shrines, gods, heroes, cities, and so forth.” Roman scholars like Varro refined this burgeoning tradition, and Christian authors such as Origen, Eusebius, and Cassiodorus extended its scope to include biblical interpretation, church history, and theology.


et, in the medieval period, scholastic theologians veered away from philology. This move was, as Turner explains it, an episode in the old rivalry between Plato and Aristotle. The two philosophers symbolize a tension in Western intellectual culture between dialectic and rhetoric, a distinction within philosophy between “universally valid generalizations,” arrived at nomothetically, and philology, which works hermeneutically to interpret “individual cases.” Medieval scholastics, siding with philosophy, relegated grammar and rhetoric to the margins of formal curricula, keeping them, as Turner says, “on life support.”

But in the early modern period, humanists rebuilt the kingdom of philology. Eschewing the logic-chopping of the scholastics, they cultivated eloquence and poetry and reestablished connections to antiquity through the study of languages and the criticism of texts. Under the guidance of Italian humanists such as Petrarch and Lorenzo Valla, rhetoric and textual criticism made a comeback. For Erasmian humanists, the paths to greater piety and higher culture merged and ran ad fontes; thus grew the Renaissance ideal of the vir trilinguis, the scholar competent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. A ­sharpened sense of historical disjuncture yielded new interest in remnants of the past. Scholars pored over Roman ruins, monuments, and inscriptions, while others wrote comparative grammars, collected coins, and assembled ­massive encyclopedias and chronologies.


n the eighteenth century, philo­logy came of age and presided over increasingly vast realms of knowledge. Keeping both the Anglophone and German contexts in view, Turner offers vivid accounts of exemplary figures who began to work out rich, sophisticated, and comprehensive understandings of cultural ­processes. Richard Bentley, F. A. Wolf, and other classical scholars used philology to untangle the complicated development of textual traditions, while ­Edward Gibbon showed how, in the case of ancient Rome, philology could be used to furnish evidence for “philosophical history.” For Robert Lowth and J. G. Eichhorn, careful study of biblical language, aided by the categories of “poetry” and “myth,” provided insight into the mental universe of the ancient Hebrews. The inimitable William “Oriental” Jones, in positing the existence of a proto-Indo-European ancestor for Persian, Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit, hit on a way to organize cultures according to lines of linguistic descent, thereby sowing an important seed for modern historical study.


he bulk of the book, parts 2 and 3, detail the career of philology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the modern era, philology fell victim to its own success, and the empire of philology became overextended. “By 1800,” says Turner, it “strained against its own skin,” and shortly thereafter it began to break into increasingly isolated subfields. In the nineteenth century, parity between German scholars and their Anglophone counterparts broke down. Germans took the lead in formulating approaches that seemed to efface the traditional character of classical and biblical philology. The renowned Indologist Franz Bopp, for example, became more interested in texts as specimens of language than as monuments of thought. For the historian B. G. Niebuhr, ancient texts functioned largely as evidence in specialized, scientific studies of the Roman “substratum of institutions and social structure.” W. M. L. De Wette used textual analysis to argue that the Old Testament, far from being a reliable source of historical truth, was “a work of poetic imagination” and “itself a product of history.”

British and American scholars did not immediately embrace German theoretical models, which seemed to balkanize erudition, dissolve it in the acids of historicism, and open the way to theological adventurism. Turner skillfully traces the uneven reception of German ideals and institutions in the Anglophone world. Eventually, though, the children of philology (linguistics, literature, history, biblical studies, classics) and the grandchildren of philology (anthropology, art history, religious studies) came into their own as separate disciplines by the start of the twentieth century.

This new arrangement was animated by what Turner calls a “professionalizing ethos.” Scholars created new journals and formed professional associations and learned societies, which remain vigorous today: for example, the Modern Language Association (founded in 1883), the Society of Biblical Literature (founded in 1880), and the Society for Classical Studies (founded as the American Philological Association in 1869). Universities served as hosts to isolated guilds of credentialed experts bent on advancing their fields—and their careers—through specialized research. Collectively, the disciplines bore a new name: the humanities. Philology, writes Turner, “went underground.”

In this way, the creation of the modern humanities disciplines over a hundred years ago completes a story of dis-integration. Forms of inquiry that once cohered in philology and branched out from its distinctive tree of knowledge were valued and understood precisely in terms of their connections to one another. Scholars in the modern humanities, though, seek legitimacy by demonstrating expert control of separated territories. They are identified, to a good degree, by what they exclude from their ­jurisdictions and leave to experts in other fields.


hatever benefits one might ascribe to specialization, it is clear that, in Turner’s view, our culture has sustained a net loss. In places, Turner abandons the cool, descriptive tone of the historian and turns cultural critic. He notes, for example, that in creating and protecting disciplinary realms, scholars resemble “male marmots flagging with urine the boundaries of their territories.” Humanities disciplines are not “ancient, integral modes of knowledge,” he writes, but “modern, artificial creations” akin to lines drawn by children in a sandbox. The disciplines are “a sham” structured by rules that “demand make-believe.”

The deeper reality that has been distorted by disciplinarity is, to repeat a phrase, one big, old thing, what Turner calls “a millennia-long Western tradition of inquiry into language and its products.” This rugged tradition cherished small things—words, texts, and objects—and its adherents adopted a style that was “interpretive, empirical, treating in probabilities, drenched in history.” Despite the great variety of pursuits that made up this tradition, however, it was characterized by a sturdy and coherent pursuit of knowledge that refused to brook political and bureaucratic interference.


ld Man Philology, then, cuts a noble figure. The question is whether a historical recovery of the philological tradition as a unitary source for the modern humanities will, in fact, address what ails them. Turner makes a valuable observation when he points out that contemporary calls for interdisciplinarity are not “forward-looking” but rather, given the “primordial oneness” of the humanities, “backward-looking.” One can only say, “Amen.” Yet it is not clear that philology, a form of inquiry, adequately captures the substantive unity and interconnectedness of the realities to which the humanities disciplines now correspond. Instead of lying beneath the surface of modern academic life as a “primordial oneness,” philology is perhaps better understood as an organized intellectual response to a cultural inheritance that was once more vital and coherent than it is at present. The philologist, like the farmer, is a cultivator: He works the soil, but he can only work the soil that he has.

I can do no better here than to quote a younger James Turner, who in these pages over twenty years ago (First Things, December 1992) wrote an astute review of Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Idea of the University: A Re­examination. Turner gently chided the estimable Pelikan for averting his gaze from the “root-and-branch failures” of the modern academy. According to ­Turner, Pelikan was content to criticize obvious deficiencies of the university, including hyper-­specialization, while maintaining a “discreet silence” about deeper problems. Modern intellectual life was characterized, said Turner, by “fragmentation,” and university faculties cannot reach consensus on something as basic as “the aims of education.” Therefore, instead of Pelikan’s program of sensible reform, Turner argued in his review that what was needed was the courage to ask fundamental questions: whether there is any longer such a thing as common knowledge, whether “our high culture coheres at all,” and, finally, whether there exists in modern culture the “shared intellectual and moral ground” necessary for “real discourse.”


hese questions remain essential today. There is value, surely, in gaining historical perspective and in knowing that scholars working in a philological mode once shared methods and habits of mind that allowed them to illuminate human questions in extraordinary ways. From this comes a measure of confidence that common ground can be restored. But it remains to ask what this common ground might be. There is something to be said for the older view, propounded by Philo, Clement of Alexandria, and the medieval scholastics, that erudition and secular learning are the handmaidens (ancillae) of theology. Put differently: Scholarship inevitably serves some larger vision of life. Scholarship is not the objective analysis of culture but, in a profounder sense, the fruit of the culture to which scholars belong. Academic territorialism, sham disciplinary divisions, and careerism correspond perfectly to the fragmented culture we have.

In writing Philology, a big and ambitious book, Turner has, I believe, a modest goal: not to restore lost common ground so much as to remind us that it need not have been lost. He has performed this valuable task with skill, style, and an admirable “feeling for the organism.” Philology is the latest entry in a series of excellent books by Turner that document the reciprocal effects of cultural fragmentation and secularism on academic life: Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (1985); Language, Religion, Knowledge: Past and Present (2003); and, with Jon H. Roberts, The Sacred and the Secular University (2000). For a deeper grasp of the situation we are in, I recommend them enthusiastically. But for courage to face barbarism, one should turn to the scholastic favorite: ­Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy.

Michael C. Legaspi is associate professor of classics and ancient Mediterranean studies and Jewish studies at Pennsylvania State University.