For the love of words

(This photo lifted from an excellent post on early modern philology at the Journal of the History of Ideas blog - for details, see

(This photo lifted from an excellent post on early modern philology at the Journal of the History of Ideas blog – for details, see

James Turner, Philology (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2014).

These days we think of “the Humanities” as a natural kind. There are the natural sciences, the social sciences, the creative arts, and the humanities (and then the grab bag of more vocationally-focused areas of expertise, like business, engineering, agriculture, etc). Indeed, university campuses make these seemingly natural genera institutional, grouping them in separate colleges with distinct chains of command. But these academic divisions, like all things human, come with a story of how they came to be that way. Turner’s book is about how the Humanities came to be.

The answer, in the book’s title, is Philology. There are many complicating details to fuss over, but the general story is this. By the 16th century, Europe had a profound veneration for old books. Each one was a lifeline back to more civilized cultures, and perhaps back to the beginning of time itself. But old books are often inconsistent with one another, and even with themselves. Hence there arose a republic of erudite scholars who developed critical methods and strategies for winnowing wheat from chaff, sorting forgeries from honest texts, detecting copyist errors, and assembling coherent chronologies of history going back to Adam. These were the original philologists – the lovers of words – who received every newly-discovered manuscript just as a prospector greets the rumor of a newly-found vein of gold.

These philologists needed fluency in Latin and Greek, of course, but many also found they needed Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Sanskrit, Chaldean – and on and on. This mad passion for languages and texts fit comfortably within the “trivium” of the liberal arts (rhetoric, grammar, and logic) – but there was yet to be anything resembling the study of literature or history or “classics” or even linguistics in our modern senses of the terms. It was wall-to-wall “how to crack a text and find its place in a coherent chronology.” We might find this a very narrow area of interest, but it wasn’t: Turner devotes hundreds of pages to the rich controversies and discussions that such interest sparked among scores of experts across Europe, the British Isles, and the U.S.

By the mid-19th century, there came to be scholars less interested in the technicalities of language and grammar of the texts, and more interested in the stories being told. There even came to be graduates of universities who had not even a smattering of ancient languages! It was only at this late date that the humanities (at least literature and history) began to take shape, along with the specializations that to this day keep scholars from understanding one another. For the sake of administrative convenience, philosophy was adopted into the more bookish family of disciplines, despite its insistence that it loved truth far more than old books. What we call “classics” is (more or less) what’s left over from the grand, centuries-long endeavor of philology.

The lengthy and complicated tale Turner relates lends credence to a claim made in his epilogue –

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 or girl’s own inviolable kingdom. It is a sham. Students of early America freely mingle history, archaeology, and anthropology; literary scholars write history, and historians study literature; a political historian of the pre-Civil War South publishes a book on American art history. If the lines were real, disciplines would not need so relentlessly to police their borders within colleges and universities. (385)

How this bears on the perceived “crisis in the humanities” advertised over the last several decades is hard to say. On the one hand, there isn’t a genuine thing – the humanities – to suffer any crisis. On the other, there certainly is some kind of friction between those who see education as poring over books and those who see it as vocational training – despite the evident fact that there is plenty of need for both, even within a single individual.

I’d like to recommend Turner’s book to anyone who claims some manner of membership in the humanities, though my recommendation has to be qualified. I was at times frustrated by the endless parade of one scholar after another, each brought briefly on stage and then quickly ushered off. At times the book seemed like a collection of research notes that needed to be revised and honed into a more forceful narrative. But – in Turner’s defense – he tries to do justice to an exceptionally long and complicated development of several long and complicated evolving disciplines. He admits to leaving a lot out, and any more “honing” probably would mean distorting the history by giving it a teleology it didn’t have. As philology itself would teach us, the details need to be there, and Turner does us all a great service by presenting them as fairly as anyone can.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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