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Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities

by James Turner Princeton University Press
Pub Date:
Pbk 576 pages
AU$59.99 NZ$65.21
Product Status: Not Our Publication - we no longer distribute
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Many today do not recognize the word, but philology was for centuries nearly synonymous with humanistic intellectual life, encompassing not only the study of Greek and Roman literature and the Bible but also all other studies of language and literature, as well as religion, history, culture, art, archaeology, and more. In short, philology was the queen of the human sciences. How did it become little more than an archaic word? In Philology, the first history of Western humanistic learning as a connected whole ever published in English, James Turner tells the fascinating, forgotten story of how the study of languages and texts led to the modern humanities and the modern university.

This compelling narrative traces the development of humanistic learning from its beginning among ancient Greek scholars and rhetoricians, through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, to the English-speaking world of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Turner shows how evolving researches into the texts, languages, and physical artefacts of the past led, over many centuries, to sophisticated comparative methods and a deep historical awareness of the uniqueness of earlier ages. But around 1800, he explains, these interlinked philological and antiquarian studies began to fragment into distinct academic fields. These fissures resulted, within a century or so, in the new, independent disciplines that we now call the humanities. Yet the separation of these disciplines only obscured, rather than erased, their common features.

The humanities today face a crisis of relevance, if not of meaning and purpose. Understanding their common origins and what they still share has never been more urgent.

Prologue ix

Conventions xix

Acknowledgments xxiii


1. "Cloistered Bookworms, Quarreling Endlessly in the Muses' Bird-Cage": From Greek Antiquity to circa 1400 3

2. "A Complete Mastery of Antiquity": Renaissance, Reformation, and Beyond 33

3. "A Voracious and Undistinguishing Appetite": British Philology to the Mid-Eighteenth Century 65

4. "Deep Erudition Ingeniously Applied": Revolutions of the Later Eighteenth Century 91


5. "The Similarity of Structure Which Pervades All Languages": From Philology to Linguistics, 1800-1850 125

6. "Genuinely National Poetry and Prose": Literary Philology and Literary Studies, 1800-1860 147

7. "An Epoch in Historical Science": The Civilized Past, 1800-1850 167

I. Altertumswissenschaft and Classical Studies 168

II. Archaeology 184

III. History 197

8. "Grammatical and Exegetical Tact": Biblical Philology and Its Others, 1800-1860 210


9. "This Newly Opened Mine of Scientific Inquiry": Between History and Nature: Linguistics after 1850 236

10. "Painstaking Research Quite Equal to Mathematical Physics": Literature, 1860-1920 254

11. "No Tendency toward Dilettantism": The Civilized Past after 1850 274

I. 'Classics' Becomes a Discipline 275

II. History 299

III. Art History 310

12. "The Field Naturalists of Human Nature": Anthropology Congeals into a Discipline, 1840-1910 328

13. "The Highest and Most Engaging of the Manifestations of Human Nature": Biblical Philology and the Rise of Religious Studies after 1860 357

I. The Fate of Biblical Philology 357

II. The Rise of Comparative Religious Studies 368

Epilogue 381

Notes 387

Works Cited 453

Index 509

Honorable Mention for the 2015 PROSE Award in Language and Linguistics, Association of American Publishers
One of The Times Literary Supplements Books of the year 2014, chosen by Thom Shippey

' substantial survey of the growth of scholarship. . . . Only a brute would resist his argument, since the volume of evidence he has amassed really does warrant the use of the verb 'amass', and his purpose is manifestly good.'--Colin Burrow, London Review of Books

'James Turner's book on 'philology' must be the most wide-ranging work of intellectual history for many years.'--Tom Shippey, Wall Street Journal

' traces philology's origins and history, from Greek rhetoric to the Renaissance, on through the dawn of the modern humanities in the 19th-century and finally into its 20th-century decline. The story he tells is of a wide-ranging, all-encompassing field of learning that was forced to grow, evolve, and eventually spawn its successors over the centuries. . . . Thorough, occasionally wry, passionate . . . the sort of work that may be heralded as a masterpiece in the field.'--Publishers Weekly

' undertakes the mother of all thankless tasks: a comprehensive history of 'the queen of the human sciences,' the multiform discipline of philology. It's a stupendous work of scholarship and synergy, and nobody knows better than its author the uphill struggle before it. . . . The end result is the best and liveliest book (indeed, one of the only books of its kind that I know of) about philology ever written.'--Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Monthly

'A rich intellectual history of what many American scholars would describe as the long lost art and science of philology.'--Peter Sacks, Minding the Campus

'Very thorough and yet easy to read. . . . Scholars and students will find this a rewarding volume. Turner does a fantastic job of introducing how the history of philology is also, in turn, a chronicle of the various branches of the humanities and why looking at this connection might help demonstrate the humanities' worth among academic disciplines.'--Scott Duimstra, Library Journal

'Sell all the books you have which purport to explain the nature of the academic disciplines and buy James Turner's Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. If you want to understand higher education in its current configuration of departments, divisions, and professional associations, I can commend no better book. . . . Mind-invigoratingly entertaining.'--Timothy Larsen, Books and Culture

'The fluent and highly accessible way in which James Turner, Cavanaugh Professor of Humanities at the University of Notre Dame, recounts the evolution of the science of philology makes for relatively easy reading, which is especially exceptional when one considers the complexity of the subject.'--Lois Henderson,

'The fact that I can't tell you exactly what Philology means--and I bet not many others can either--makes James Turner's book of the same name an intriguing prospect.'--Julian Baggini, Observer

'The fluent and highly accessible way in which James Turner . . . recounts the evolution of the science of philology makes for relatively easy reading, which is especially exceptional when one considers the complexity of the subject matter of this 550-page book. . . . His competence and ease in exploring a subject to which he has devoted much of his own academic career instills a sense of trust in the reader that this is an expert who is not only on intimate terms with his material, but who is also vitally concerned with conveying his understanding of the matter to his readers, no matter how new they are to the field.'--Lois Henderson, Book Pleasures

'Deft intellectual history. . . . 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, Washington Post

'Monumental and capacious achievement. . . . Turner argues his case through scores of context-rich accounts of scholars and scholarship, and with a narrative verve.'--Geoffrey Galt Harpham, Times Higher Education

'Impressive in its scholarship. . . .takes readers on a detailed journey beginning with the Presocratics, with the bulk of the book devoted to the 19th and early 20th centuries.'--Susan Kristol, Weekly Standard

'Turner's Philology reads like a caffeine-fuelled love letter to the great polymaths of the past.'--Adam Smyth, Literary Review

'Turner traces the origin of the modern academic disciplines of the humanities to ancient philology, the study of texts and languages. After a brief history of the study of philology, the author concentrates on the 19th century, during which academic disciplines were largely formed and new ones created, such as anthropology and comparative religious studies.'--Choice

'Turner's exceptionally wide-ranging study shows in detail how Western culture has become, and has remained, distinctively philological.'--Tom Shippey

'If you are keen to gain clear sight of philology as a broad field of interest and get to grips with the progress of this fascinating subject through ancient and modern times, indeed, to get a righteous sense of its worth and the scholarly world's loss at its distribution around the humanities, then you will enjoy James Turner's engaging writing style and thorough erudition.'--Andrew Doig, Journal of Pedagogic Development
James 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. He is the author of The Liberal Education of Charles Eliot Norton and Religion Enters the Academy, and the coauthor of The Sacred and the Secular University (Princeton).