Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, by James Turner

Geoffrey Galt Harpham on a timely reminder of the common root of modern human sciences

September 4, 2014

Philology, now a relic discipline known primarily for being a “mind-numbingly boring” “big old thing”, as James Turner readily concedes, was once the most ambitious of sciences, a model for other would-be disciplines and, Turner argues, the “forgotten origin” of today’s humanities. This book recalls, describes and exemplifies the methods of philology as practices from the late 18th to the late 19th century. It is a monumental and capacious achievement, a career work by a scholar whose training in the Germanic tradition is everywhere evident, beginning with the dedication to the author’s Doktorkinder.

Composed in three roughly equal parts that focus on antiquity to 1800, from 1800 to 1850, and from 1850 to about 1900, it weighs the role of philology, especially the form of Altertumwissenschaft, based on the ultimate unity of knowledge, in the emergence of modern forms of natural science, Classics, literary study, history, art history, anthropology and comparative religious studies, all of which, says Turner, “have a common origin in the splintering of philology after 1800”.

Turner argues his case through scores of context-rich accounts of scholars and scholarship, and with a narrative verve approaching liveliness. If it is difficult to imagine a reader who will read all 550 pages with unwavering interest, it is impossible to imagine a reader, no matter how well informed, who will not learn things he or she never knew or even suspected.

The time seems to be right for a comprehensive account of philology. In recent years, scholars in several disciplines have called for a “return to philology” as a cleansing immersion in the primal waters of scholarship. None of these polemics, however, evidences anything like Turner’s erudition, nor has anyone else anticipated his genealogical claim about the humanities. In fact, most of those advocating for philology see it as limited, empirical, narrow and pure – as well as mind-numbingly boring.

Ending his story with Modernism still on the horizon, Turner does not consider such developments. If he had, the story would have been different and less heroic, because he would have had to consider exactly why philology’s contribution has been “forgotten”. Modern linguistics, for example, rejected philology, especially Altertumwissenschaft, as a tissue of non-empirical speculations about human origins, human nature and racial characteristics that inhibited the development of a modern discipline. Even more tellingly, the modern concept of the humanities became modern by deliberately forgetting about the other phase of philology, the one associated with pedantic triviality. Philology has not so much been forgotten by modern disciplines as it has been forcibly expelled.

Even within the 19th century, Turner’s account has omissions. Perverse as it is to suggest that a book listing in excess of 1,300 “works cited” should contain more, a fuller picture would have emerged if Turner had included, in any more than a scattered and evasive way, the well-documented investment of philology in the sort of race-ranking that was eventually deployed in the service of the Third Reich. The phantasmatic concept of the “Aryan” race is the invention, even the fetish, of philology; Ernest Renan, for example, one of the most enlightened men of the 19th century, wrote many volumes on Semitic languages in which he discovered scientific linguistic reasons for the “incompleteness” of Judaism. He had a friendly correspondence with Arthur de Gobineau, whom he cited as a fellow philologist. There is virtually no mention of Renan or his work in Philology, and no sustained, clear-eyed account of how such a noble undertaking was able to lend its enthusiastic but tragically misguided support to racialist theorising.

Turner has admirably revealed the astonishing riches of his subject, which, however, may be even more interesting and influential than he suggests.

Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities

By James Turner
Princeton University Press, 576pp, £24.95
ISBN 9780691145648 and 9781400850150 (e-book)
Published 4 May 2014

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