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

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


Intellectual historian James Turner describes how the once vast and unified field of philology was chopped up in the 20th century to make the different disciplines of the humanities.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

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

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

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What is philology?

In the 20th century the understanding of philology narrowed considerably. In the 19th century and earlier, philology was the study of almost everything connected with language: the study of texts — especially ancient problematic texts like Greek poetry or the Hebrew Bible or the Sanskrit Vedas. It was also the study of particular languages and language families and their development in history, a part of what today we call linguistics. It also included the study of, and speculation about, language itself — the origin of language, the nature of language and so forth, which again, today, has become part of linguistics. So we’ve chopped up philology into its constituent parts, disciplines like English literature, or linguistics or some aspects of philosophy. But from antiquity until the 19th century it was this vast, broad, unified area of study. Associated with it were related areas of study, especially rhetoric and antiquarianism or the study of artifacts, usually material artifacts, of the past. The same scholars worked on different aspects of philology.

“if you are an assistant professor of art history in an American university and you write a book about Dante, you’re going to get fired. You’re certainly not going to get tenure.”

I’ve selected books that in one way or another illustrate how we got from philology in the ancient world — as a unified study of all the phenomena of language — to the present situation where what we now call the humanities are a set of distinct disciplines more or less disconnected from each other, or at least pretending to be disconnected from each other. In fact, in terms of methods and history, the humanities disciplines really do share a common foundation.

Do I detect a certain amount of regret that things are no longer what they were a few hundred years ago?

Not so much regret as a sense that, in dividing philology up, we have created some problems and some limitations that historically weren’t there. As a historian, I always feel there is no cause for regret because what happened, happened. But it is the case that the present division of the disciplines leads us to overlook some areas of enquiry and to narrow others in ways that probably are not advantageous.

Can you give me an example?

There’s a wonderful play by a 16th century Scottish scholar named George Buchanan. It was written in Latin and published in France. No one studies it today because there’s no room in our current division of disciplines for a neo-Latin drama written by a Scotsman and published in France. That’s an example of something that’s slipped beyond our ken.

Normally I prepare for interviews by looking up book reviews, or summaries on With these books you’ve chosen that was quite hard…

Yes, I’ve chosen these Five Books because they are good studies of particular crucial moments in the history of philology. They’re not books that I would recommend your readers rush out and buy and settle down for a pleasant read on the beach….

Tell us about your first book, the three-volume Ptolemaic Alexandria by P.M. Fraser.  

Hellenistic Alexandria — the Greek-speaking new capital of Egypt that was founded by Alexander the Great and then came under the control of one of his leading generals, Ptolemy — became the first center of scholarship of what we now call philology. Many of the fundamental methods and innovations that established philology occurred in and around two particular institutions that the Ptolemaic kings (all named Ptolemy, from 323 BC down to the Roman conquest of the 1st century) created.

“We’ve chopped up philology into its constituent parts, disciplines like English literature, or linguistics or some aspects of philosophy.”

One was what came to be called the Museum, from which we get our word museum. It wasn’t actually a museum, it was more a college of scholars on a royal salary. The other was a huge library, the largest library in the ancient world. Those are the two institutions within which philology took shape. Fraser’s study is exemplary, not only because it is the fullest study of what went on in Hellenistic Alexandria, but also because it shows how difficult it is to recover those early days of philology. Almost everything we know about the scholars of Alexandria comes from texts that were written many centuries later. They pass along stories, some probably legendary, some probably true, all of them more or less embellished, about what went on in Alexandria. Fraser sorts through that and comes up with a very solid, if necessarily somewhat uncertain, picture of the first days of philology.

So nothing is left of that library?

Nothing is left. There are legends that it was burned to the ground by religious fanatics who were opposed to secular learning. If you were a Christian, the version of that story is that the library was burned down by Muslims. If you were a Muslim it was burned down by Christians. Both those legends are almost certainly false. The books seem to have gradually disappeared. The one moment we know of in which a bunch of books disappeared from the library is when Cleopatra (Cleopatra VII of Egypt — in the royal family all the boys were called Ptolemy and all the girls Cleopatra) gave a whole bunch of them to Julius Caesar. That’s one case where we actually have historical records of how some books disappeared.

What are Fraser’s conclusions? What would a reader take away from these three volumes?

His conclusions are very complex, but basically the lesson is that almost all of the techniques that scholars later applied to the study of texts were pioneered in Alexandria. Almost all the methods that scholars later applied to the study of languages were first broached in the invention of grammar by ancient Hellenistic scholars. So it really is the origin story of philology.

Your next book is Joseph Scaliger: A Study in the History of Classical Scholarship. 

This is a book by Anthony Grafton of Princeton, who is the greatest living scholar of early modern philology. It’s a 2-volume work about Joseph Scaliger who was one of the great late 16th, early 17th century philologists. Like Fraser’s book, it’s the best existing study of a very important moment in the development of philology. Most of the texts that concern philologists — from ancient Alexandria up to the late 16th and 17th centuries — were classical Greek and Roman texts. The study of those texts focused on trying to emend the damage done to texts as they were copied over time, or on understanding what the writers were trying to say. What happened in the late 16th and 17th centuries, for a variety of reasons, is that philologists began to expand enormously the kinds of subjects they were interested in, and the approaches to managing those subjects.

“He pioneered the study of chronology, an important early modern discipline, which is the attempt to order historical events in various parts of the world in various civilizations on the same timescale.”

Of all of those early modern scholars, Scaliger was perhaps the most diverse and accomplished. He worked not only in classical scholarship, as Grafton’s subtitle suggests, but also in the study of the Bible. He pioneered the study of chronology, an important early modern discipline, which is the attempt to order historical events in various parts of the world in various civilizations on the same timescale — i.e. to put events in China on a par with events in the history of ancient Greece and Rome, or the history of ancient Israel. That work, which sounds very technical and dull, in fact vastly expanded the horizons of Europeans, as they integrated into their understanding of civilization the great civilizations outside of the traditional European sphere of influence. The study of philology became much broader in terms of civilizations, and much more historically-minded in terms of the way scholars approached texts and languages.

I went to school in England and I studied Latin from age 9 to 16, as well as doing 3 years of ancient Greek. When did this focus on Latin and Greek as a useful part of one’s education begin?  Because on a practical level it doesn’t make much sense…

No it doesn’t, which is why if you or I were going to school now, we would probably not be studying Latin and Greek, unless we were attending a German gymnasium. Those languages were the center of education principally because the education on which western schooling was built was the education established in the ancient Greek-speaking world. It was then picked up by the Romans and transmitted into the Middle Ages and reinvigorated during the Renaissance. It centered on the study of Greek and Latin because of the way early philologists had created grammar as a very broad-gauged study of languages, literature and, to some extent, history.

“Precisely because Greek and Latin were arcane and difficult subjects, a certain amount of prestige attached to them.”

It’s because of that historical contingency that the study of those languages remained crucial to education, down through the 19th century and into the 20th century, in some places. Precisely because Greek and Latin were arcane and difficult subjects, a certain amount of prestige attached to them. Schooling became a way to separate the elite from the non-elite, and especially elite males, because women were not taught Greek and Latin until the very late 19th century.

Are you saying that Latin and Greek hold the key to understanding grammar?

Grammar was very closely associated with Latin and Greek and especially Latin. The grammar that we now apply to English and other vernacular languages was essentially developed out of Latin grammar. That’s why we have this awkward fit between English grammar and the way people actually speak. The categories are all categories developed for the study of Latin.

Your third choice dates from a while ago, 1795 to be precise. 

This is Friedrich Wolf’s Prolegomena to Homer or Prolegomena ad Homerum in the original, as it was published in Latin. This book marks a really important transition in philology. If you look at ancient philology, its rebirth in the Renaissance, and its development in early modern scholars like Joseph Scaliger, it is historical, in a sense. All philologers believe that if you want to understand a text written in, say, late Republican Rome, you’ve got to know a lot of history. You’ve got to know about Roman law, Roman courts, Roman family life, Roman politics and Roman diet so that you know what these words mean in their context. What is not evident in those philologists — and is certainly evident in our understanding of languages and texts today — is a sense of history as showing the development of important cultural and civilizational differences over time. There was no sense that the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, or the ancient Israelite world, were culturally very different.

“Philologers believe that if you want to understand a text written in, say, late Republican Rome, you’ve got to know a lot of history. You’ve got to know about Roman law, Roman courts, Roman family life, Roman politics and Roman diet so that you know what these words mean in their context.”

Wolf is important symbolically because his is one of the first important works of philology that has the strong sense of the ancient Greek world as being really, really different. People thought in different ways, people held worldviews that were, in many ways, incommensurable with our own. When you enter that ancient culture, you are really entering a different world. The task of philology shifts from trying to understand correctly the meaning of ancient texts to trying to understand the civilizations that produced those texts. So what you begin to see — first in classical philology and then very quickly and almost simultaneously in Biblical philology — is a new way of understanding the ancient world (and the intermediate stages between us and the ancient world, like the Middle Ages) as being as strange to us, as the culture of, say, American Indian tribes. That’s a very important shift in the way in which history was understood and it’s a shift we still live with. It’s very crucial to the humanities disciplines today.

What does he argue in the book?

He wants to show that Homer was not an actual person, but rather the name given to a series of narrative songs that were the characteristic way in which people talked about the past — in this case the Trojan War and its aftermath — in this ancient, different world. Later, someone stitches together these different songs and they eventually take the form of the Iliad and the Odyssey as known to us. But that they emerge in a world in which our conception of individual authorship and even individual authors didn’t exist yet.

Do his conclusions still stand or have they been taken apart?

It’s still controversial — that’s probably the best way to put it. Most classical scholars certainly think there is an element of truth to what he’s saying. There probably wasn’t someone named Homer who wrote down all of these things out of his own head, in the way we think of an author as composing a work. Whether or not there was a real person called Homer, that’s controversial, when the Iliad and the Odyssey came together as complete works in more or less the form known to us now, that’s controversial, and the exact relationship between these ancient songs and the texts of the Iliad and the Odyssey, that’s controversial.

Let’s go on to your next book, The Religion of the Semites.

This is a book by a Scottish scholar, William Robertson Smith, which originated as lectures given in Aberdeen at the end of the 1880s. It was published in the 1890s, not too long before Smith’s early death in 1894. Smith came out of the Free Church of Scotland, which was what we would now call a fundamentalist church. These people were highly literate, but highly suspicious of modern scholarship on the Bible. Smith got booted out of his job as professor of Hebrew at the Free Church’s theological college in Aberdeen and ended up, eventually, in Cambridge teaching Arabic. Smith had learned Arabic because he came to believe that there were strong parallels between the religions that became the religion of the Old Testament, and those of other ancient Semitic peoples. So The Religion of the Semites is an attempt to understand the origin of what he called the Old Testament religion, and eventually Christianity, by placing it in the context of this whole world of ancient religion. He develops a theory that ancient religion is fundamentally sociological in character. It is a way in which rituals — especially the sacrifice and the ritual meal that follows — bind together people who are living in a tribal society.

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This book is important in the evolution of philology because it helped to make acceptable, in the English-speaking world, some of the more deeply historical understandings of the origin of the Bible. It also laid the groundwork for the comparative study of religions, and particularly that part of the comparative study of religions that’s fundamentally sociological in character. It also became a founding text in what we would now call social and cultural anthropology. So you can see, in this text, that a deeply historical understanding of philology, of the humanistic study of the various civilizations, is beginning to split up into different disciplines. Yet all these disciplines have a kind of a fundamental unity, so that when Robertson Smith is writing The Religion of the Semites, he isn’t thinking, “Oh I’m writing anthropology” or “I’m writing comparative religion” or “I’m writing Biblical philology.” He’s doing all of those things, but he’s doing it as a single, unified enterprise.

Who are the Semites?

They are the peoples of what we now call the Middle East. They would include the Arabic-speaking peoples, the people of ancient Canaan — the various groups in the Old Testament that the Israelites are supposedly always battling against. It’s the peoples associated with the Semitic family of languages, of which the best-known representatives are Hebrew and Arabic.

Why was he so controversial when a lot of examination of the Bible in historical context happened during the Enlightenment? He’s writing quite a bit later than that, isn’t he?

He’s quite a bit later. He was hugely controversial because most English-speaking Protestants were still deeply suspicious of an historical understanding of the Bible. Most English-speaking Protestants in the 19th century still wanted to think of the Bible as a direct divine revelation, in which all of the parts — ranging from the earliest books of the Old Testament, to the Christian gospels and epistles — were a single divine revelation.

Whereas he’s saying it was more of a hodgepodge?

He’s saying that it’s much more complicated than that. He believes in a kind of revelation, but he doesn’t believe that the Bible is the verbal record of that revelation. He believes that it’s historical testimony to the way God has revealed himself in history, in interacting with the ancient Hebrews, the Jews of the centuries before Christ, and Christians. It’s an account, by fallible mortals, of God’s action in history. The idea that the Bible itself was a product of history and of particular cultures at particular times, that was still deeply offensive to most English-speaking Protestants in his lifetime. It did start to change, over the course of his life. By the time he died in 1894 you were starting to see, particularly in academic circles, much greater acceptance of the idea that the Bible is fundamentally historical.

The last book you’ve chosen is one of your own, The Liberal Education of Charles Eliot Norton.

It’s embarrassing suggesting anyone should read one of my books. I chose it because the subject of the book is crucial for understanding the way philology gets transformed into the various humanistic disciplines in the context of the modern university. Charles Eliot Norton is largely forgotten by most generally educated readers, but he’s remembered by particular people. Art historians remember him as the first professor of art history at a university in the English-speaking world. Dante scholars remember him as the founder of modern academic Dante studies in an American university, and the author of one of the standard translations of the Divine Comedy. Archaeologists remember him as the founder of the Archeological Institute of America, which quickly became the leading professional organization for archaeologists in the US. Scholars of English literature remember him as the author of an essay on John Donne’s poems, which laid some important foundations for the modern study of that 17th century English poet.

None of these people, in these various disciplines, typically realize that Norton did all these other things too. On the one hand, he is the most important founder of humanities disciplines in American universities, and, on the other hand, he doesn’t think of the various disciplines he’s founding as different in kind. For him, they are all ways of studying, philologically, important cultural phenomena. Yet even in the course of his lifetime — he retired in 1898 and died in 1908 — these studies were splitting up into individual disciplines, the fundamental disciplines of what we now call the humanities. So he’s a key moment of transition in that development from a unified philology into a diverse set of apparently unconnected disciplines. That’s why I included him. There’s no other figure quite like that, so dramatically iconic in illustrating that development.

And it was studying Norton that led you to write your own book, Philology

Yes, it hit me very strongly that if you wanted to understand where the humanities came from in British and American higher education — which seems to me a very important question in understanding the structure of modern knowledge, and a question that no one had actually tried to answer as a coherent whole — that you had to understand the history of philology. I worked backwards from Norton and other scholars of his generation, people you can think of as the first generation of the modern humanities, into the history of philology.

So do you think there should be philologists in universities now, studying this broad range of subjects? Or is that impossible?

I think it’s very difficult, not for any intellectually solid reason, but because of the institutions that have grown up around disciplines. For example, if you are an assistant professor of art history in an American university and you write a book about Dante, you’re going to get fired. You’re certainly not going to get tenure. It’s very difficult for people to ignore the present disciplinary boundaries and get away with it in the structure of the modern university. People who are not hampered by universities can do this kind of work and they should. People who are old and in no danger of losing their jobs can write a book like I wrote.

But one of the things that’s happening in universities, both in the UK and the US, is that the humanities are getting squeezed financially. There’s more and more a sense that students should be learning something practical, they should be learning business or engineering, something that has a clear and immediate economic return. So you can find humanities departments that don’t have large enrollments — Classics departments, German departments — being shut down in a number of American institutions. And, as those pressures continue, we might see a situation in universities where more and more humanistic scholars are forced into more broadly gauged programs, producing something more like an integrated philology than has existed for a century.

So that’s a good thing?

I think that it would be, in a lot of ways, intellectually healthy. At the same time, I think the shrinking of the humanities and the devaluation, in the public mind, of humanistic learning — these are not good things. It’s a bad situation that may produce some good results.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

February 12, 2015

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James Turner

James Turner

Turner is the Cavanaugh Professor of Humanities Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, where he taught in the History Department and the doctoral program in history and philosophy of science.