"Philology -The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities"
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2014-09-15 15:59:49 UTC
An interesting read. -Stephanie Budin


‘Philology’ by James Turner explains what happened to a discipline
that flourished
By Sunil Iyengar

The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities
By James Turner
Princeton Univ. 550 pp. $35

What do such disparate fields as linguistics, archaeology, religion,
anthropology, classics and English literature have in common? Each
commands its own academic department; each abounds in specialties and
sub-specialties, professional societies, conferences and journals.
(Not to mention junior faculty straining for tenure.) If anything else
unites these disciplines, it’s the tag “humanities” — and the frequent
rumor that they’re in crisis.

That’s not all they share, Notre Dame professor James Turner reveals
in his deft intellectual history. These disciplines, and many more,
sprang from the same scholarly impulse: philology, defined broadly as
a penchant for close reading of texts, for discerning patterns and
relationships across languages and cultures and for illuminating the
historical milieu that produces a work of art or literature.

What became of this zest? Philology literally means, after all, “love
of words” or “love of learning.” How did it survive from antiquity to
the mid-1800s, morph into the modern humanities, and why, according to
Turner, has the practice of philology gone “underground” in our day?

For a measure of how things have changed, take Charles Eliot Norton,
“the most prolific begetter of the humanities” in 19th-century
American higher education. Norton “not only edited Donne but also
published serious research on Dante, medieval architecture, art
history, and classical archaeology,” Turner notes. “He died in 1908,
among the last of his kind.” Today, Turner submits, “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.” The comment hardly inspires
confidence in slogans about multidisciplinary learning on college

Yet Turner’s account glories in recalling such polymaths from
oblivion. Their examples (overwhelmingly male) enliven these pages.
One could start with Petrarch, best remembered for his sonnets to
Laura, but who, we learn, “owned more Roman literature than any other
private person, some of it his own discoveries,” including lost
letters and speeches by Cicero and a rare copy of Propertius’s poems.

Petrarch was one of several Italian humanists ushering in the
Renaissance. The new city-states carving up the northern Italian
peninsula favored scribes and administrators schooled in Latin grammar
and rhetoric. Petrarch, meanwhile, used these credentials to gain
employment as a traveling papal clerk. At one point, his textual
analysis helped to invalidate an “ ‘ancient Roman’ document” that
would have thwarted Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor.

This was in 1355. More than three centuries later, British philologist
Richard Bentley accomplished a similar feat, proving the fraudulence
of letters purportedly from Phalaris, “a semilegendary tyrant of
Syracuse in the sixth century BCE, with the winsome habit of roasting
enemies in a hollow bronze bull.” In his spare time, Bentley also
produced “a rich, if helter-skelter, study of vanished Greek drama,”
recovering along the way “a lost rule of poetic meter.” He edited
Horace and Terence and restored an elided Greek consonant to
manuscripts of epic poetry, thus accounting for previously “puzzling
gaps in Homer’s meter.” Bentley also turned his prodigious learning to
delivering a series of lectures endowed to discredit every religion
except Christianity.

By Bentley’s time, Britain had become a haven for philology, as
political and religious troubles drove the new scholarship out of
continental Europe. As the island nation’s influence spread through
global conquests, so did its interest in the languages and literatures
of other peoples. In 1767, Benjamin Kennicott, a biblical scholar,
lobbied to create the first professorship of Persian at Oxford. His
reasoning betrayed a strange brew of pragmatism and sentimentality.
How but by learning Persian, he argued, could the East India Company
rule a people who used the language for commerce and diplomacy? And
yet Kennicott also sought to discover what he called “the first seeds”
of human knowledge, as represented by “the Asiaticks.” Study of their
languages, he wrote, might lead to “the first source from which the
whole race of mankind derive their origin.”

Bentley’s prophecy bore partial fruit in the work of Sir William
Jones, known in his day as “Persian” Jones or “Oriental” Jones. When,
in 1783, he arrived in India to take a Calcutta judgship, Jones
commanded 11 ancient and modern languages, and had a smattering of
“about fifteen others.” Jones hypothesized that there once existed a
single, ancestral language, which scholars since have dubbed
Proto-Indo-European. The daring of this concept had huge implications
for philologists. Grammarians “no longer analyzed only the histories
of individual languages or closely related ones, seen in isolation,”
Turner explains. “They now also began to contrast grammatical and
lexical change over time in quite diverse languages believed to be
related over vast spans of time and space.” (A similar, though
apparently unaffiliated, movement captivated the New World. Even
Thomas Jefferson aspired to trace the origins of Native Americans by
comparing the languages of their tribes.)

Jones won the praise of Romantic thinkers in Germany, where his hunch
was verified through rigorous methods amounting to science. As German
nationalist motives mingled with scholarly zeal, this line of
speculation had its share of unhappy, if unintended, consequences.
Jones could not have guessed the fate of the Sanskrit word “Aryan”
when he published it to the West. For that matter, philology often
seems to have traveled under the banner of nationalism, imperialism or
what we would now call religious bigotry.

Still, as “Philology” illustrates, more generous spirits — call them
multidisciplinary research and learning — have always presided over
the pursuit of the humanities. Even in earlier guises, the humanities
never had it easy. Then as now, they had to contend with turbulent
times and changing social and political pressures. But given all that
philology has unearthed, we should honor its legacy, as Turner does in
his definitive study.

Sunil Iyengar directs the Office of Research & Analysis at the
National Endowment for the Arts.