Monday, February 9, 2015


James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014. Pp. xxiv, 550. ISBN 9780691145648. $35.00.

Reviewed by Whitney Cox, University of Chicago (

Version at BMCR home site


Until recently, there were numerous academic circles in which one could reveal oneself to be a philologist only at great peril. In the company of many humanists or social scientists—to say nothing of colleagues in more quantitative disciplines, who might not even recognize the word—to claim to be a philologist could excite at best condescension, at worst denunciation. Like a covert drug habit or a particularly bizarre romantic predilection, even if you did philology, it was better not to admit it. This is not to say that there have not been a few attempts at consciousness-raising: over the last thirty years Paul de Man, Lee Patterson, and Edward Said all issued independent proclamations in declaring a 'return' to philology; more recently H.-U. Gumbrecht essayed its 'powers'.1 That these well-intended efforts massively diverged in their basic understanding of the term supplied eloquent witness to philology's beleaguered place in the landscape of knowledge over the past generation. But things have been looking up of late. The Indologist Sheldon Pollock has issued a series of impassioned appeals to the field's global significance, both past and present (full disclosure: Pollock was my doctoral supervisor),2 while the Berlin-based project Zukunftsphilologie has worked to foster cross-disciplinary and transregional networks of scholarly communication, especially among younger researchers (further disclosure: I am a member of the project's Collegium).3

Into these improving circumstances comes James Turner's Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. Turner, an intellectual historian whose previous work includes a well-received study of Charles Eliot Norton and a history of the rise of the academic study of religion, here takes up the millennia-long and transcontinental development through which the study of the Mediterranean classical literary inheritance came to speciate into the disciplines of the liberal arts and divinity faculties of the modern Anglophone university. Turner seeks to fundamentally upend the anti-philological prejudice—or even innocence of philology's continued existence—that is endemic among contemporary humanists. The misrecognition of philology's place extends beyond just the widely shared ignorance of the common ancestry of such apparently diverse fields as anthropology and the history of art: in forgetting their collective philological origins, the members of the fields are rendered unable, he claims, to comprehend the underlying shared core of their intellectual practice. Though Turner's method is that of conventional narrative history, his intention could thus be described as a process of eliminatio scientiarum descriptarum, as the apparent diversity of the modern disciplines is progressively revealed to overlay an original unitary philology, consisting in comparison, knowledgeable interpretation, and sensitivity to context. For it is this triune unity that Turner understands to be exhaustive of philology as the ur- (or über-) discipline.

Turner's book is ample in its scope. It opens with a brisk survey of textual scholarship from the Alexandrian edition of Homer through the end of the seventeenth century (pp. 3-64). With the beginning of the eighteenth, the book's central focus becomes the Anglophone world, from Bentley through to the emergence of English vernacular philology; England's global expansion from the century's end occasions lengthy asides on the European appropriation of Sanskrit learning, from the time of Colebrooke and 'Oriental' Jones, and the first systematic studies of Native American languages, whose early enthusiasts included Thomas Jefferson (also, not incidentally, a supporter of Anglo-Saxon studies, pp. 65-103). The turn of the next century finds intimations of emerging revolutions in history (e.g. Gibbon), the study of language (Humboldt), biblical philology (J. D. Michaelis), and the edition and interpretation of modern literature (especially Theobald and Dr Johnson on Shakespeare, pp. 109-66): all of these prove to be harbingers of a far greater intellectual reorganization. The crucial catalyst for this—and the real turning point in Turner's presentation—comes with the emergence of the new knowledge-form of Altertumswissenschaft, beginning in earnest with the publication of Niebuhr's Römische Geschichte (1812, expanded in 1827-1832). This new disciplinary formation, reliant upon rigorous source- criticism, was driven by a desire to reconstruct every aspect of a long-vanished human world; inherent to it and decisive to Turner's story is the proposition of an inherent difference between the world of the past and that of the modern researcher. This rapidly if controversially ramified into the historical criticism of Christian scripture, and—by virtue of its encouragement of all-inclusive professional curiosity—stimulated the study of the material and religious culture (pp. 167-230). The process of the gradual reception of German learning into the Anglosphere is one of best set-pieces of Turner's presentation: cosseted in their High Table otium, Oxford and Cambridge dons were deeply indifferent to the new scholarship emanating from the Continent; Americans —and with them Britons from outside the ancient universities—adopted it, haltingly at first, but with increasing enthusiasm by the middle decades of the 1800s.

Turner goes on to provide a series of successive case-studies of disciplinary speciation, with different results in North America and Britain. So the emergence of linguistics (pp. 236-53), literary studies (pp. 252-73), classics (pp. 274-305), history (pp. 305-10), and the history of art (pp. 310-27) is rapidly sketched; anthropology (pp. 328-56) and the academic study of religion (pp. 357-80) are given longer-form treatment. With this, the departmental structure of a modern liberal arts college or humanities faculty is basically in place, with each discipline by now in possession of its own professional associations, journals, and conferences, and its own sense of specialized problems and jargon. Such an apparent diversity, however, is "a sham," Turner declares in his peroration (p. 385). He laments that it is impossible to imagine a contemporary academic career analogous to his scholarly hero Norton's, cheerfully careening between Donne and Dante, medieval architraves and early-modern portraiture. But if we cannot today achieve such an exceptional breadth, Turner suggests humanists could do well to be mindful of the common philological deep structure to our knowledge, in order to overcome the artificiality of the current scheme of the disciplines, in line perhaps with the endlessly cross-pollinating world of the natural and physical sciences.

As a survey of the transforming landscape of knowledge, Turner's work is a tour de force, seamlessly combining massive reading in the secondary literature in three languages with extensive archival research in the U.S., Britain, and Europe. So thorough is Turner's coverage that I found myself excitedly pouring through his index in the hope of catching a glimpse of my sole philological ancestor, Caleb Harding, Professor of Greek and German at Davidson College from 1888-1935 (my great-great-grandfather escaped Turner's dragnet, but then he is also unknown to the Library of Congress). Turner possesses an enviable ability to alight on a significant detail, as when he identifies the 1849 publication of George Ticknor's History of Spanish Literature as "a turning point in philology of the English speaking world" (p. 166) or when he documents the way archaeology proved an entry for women into the guild of classical studies in America (pp. 286-7). Throughout, he writes with grace and wit, with a born lecturer's eye for a winning anecdote: the reader is entertained to learn that the Biblical critic Johann Eichhorn resembled his namesake animal (p. 116), that the celebrated Cambridge classicist Richard Porson was a malodorous drunk (p. 174), and that Frederick James Furnivall, editor of Chaucer, fancied hot pink neckties (p. 263).

With so much fascinating materials brought together, and such a genial host as Turner, it might seem churlish to take exception to the feast laid out for the reader. Nevertheless, this is very much a nineteenth-century historian's history of philology; indeed, with its central attention to the rise and rule of Altertumswissenschaft, the book's supposed subject matter is just a stalking-horse for the type of historicism that came to dominate the modern university. Turner is relentlessly consistent as to the constituent elements to any philology deserving the name: comparison, contextualization, and interpretation. Many editors of my acquaintance might fail to recognize this as a description of their scholarship; that these are the same people who most strongly cling to their self-description as philologists is perhaps worth noting. For his part, Turner shows very little patience for the continued existence of textual criticism after the great historicist turn: this tends to be ascribed to the revanchist tendencies of an undifferentiated 'Oxbridge', and dismissed as merely the learned parlor-game of conjectural emendation, essentially no different from that practiced by Hellenistic scholars of two millennia earlier. It is thus not surprising to find—in a work devoted to textual scholarship—only the briefest parenthetical reference to Karl Lachmann, whose method is dismissed as something that "supposedly makes it easier" to read the text right (p. 265). Whatever one's position on editorial theory—and they are many, and much controverted—to assume that nothing much has changed between, say, Aristophanes of Byzantium in his comments on the Odyssey and Hans Gabler's edition of Ulysses is to ignore a great deal. Even if one accepts Turner's definition of philology, there remain some genuine difficulties: for a book about the study of words, and one that is so attentive their nuances over time—'linguistics,' 'discipline,' 'archaeology,' 'history,' and 'culture' are all, at different points, subjected to Keywords-like scrutiny—neither 'context' nor 'comparison' is thematized at all. These are not self-evident categories—much ink has been spilt in their definition—nor is their application the same throughout the book. Is the context of an ensemble of relations of production the same as the context of a literary rivalry? Is the comparison of sound shifts underlying the hypothesis of a language family the same as the comparison of different finds of potsherds?

With the self-effacing charm evident throughout, Turner writes in his conclusion of how, inter alia, scholars of Chinese literature "and other neglected humanists will feel grateful that their field escaped [his] misunderstandings" (381). Turner returns repeatedly to my own field of Sanskrit studies, and acquits himself very well. But in his account of the beginnings of European cognizance of the language and its civilization, Turner announces that Indology "offered no new methods," as these were already there in the Europeans' Alexandrian inheritance (98). The notion that areas of the world other than that connected to the Mediterranean littoral might have their own philological traditions,4 and indeed their own modes of historicism, never emerges, despite the extensive debates that the marriage to European methods to Indian (or Chinese, Arabic, or Mesoamerican, etc.) materials has produced since at least the time of Jones' famous Discourse to the Asiatick Society in 1789. Avoiding this, Turner evades the problem of Orientalism (and of Orientalism) altogether, as he does when he preemptively assures his readers that comparative religion "seems—obviously but deceptively—to owe its existence to European imperialism" (370). It is a telling omission that Said's classic book —very much dedicated to tracing philological scholars and their scholarship—goes totally unnoticed in the book's otherwise overwhelmingly thorough bibliography. Turner, it bears emphasis, is unflinching in his attention to the racism of members of the philological guild: Michaelis especially gets singled out for deserved flaying as a toxic anti-semite. He is thus far from siding with the bad actors of the scholarly past; yet Turner's account of philology's domestication—and ultimately dissolution—into the modern university leaves little room for dissident or alternate versions of things.

These, however, are limited criticisms of a very considerable achievement: Turner's book will serve as a reference point for the history of learning in the English speaking world and beyond for a long time to come. In the attention it brings to the common armature uniting humanistic scholarship of whatever sort, it serves as a sort of genial provocation: self-professed philologists now have at our disposal a gracefully composed and thoroughly documented work in which to learn of (or remind ourselves of) our own intellectual genealogy, and with which to educate those less aware of the shared past, and common future, of humanistic learning. ​


1.   P. de Man, "The Return to Philology" in his The Resistance to Theory (Milwaukee, 1987); L. Patterson, "The Return to Philology" in J. van Engen, ed. The Past and the Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame, 1994); E. W. Said, "The Return to Philology" in his Humanism and Democratic Criticism (Columbia, 2004); H.-U. Gumbrecht, Powers of Philology (Urbana-Champaign, 2003).
2.   "Future Philology: The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World," Critical Inquiry 35 (2009), 931-61. S. Pollock, B. Elman and K. K. Chang, eds., World Philology (Cambridge MA, 2015) appeared just as was I completing this review.
3.   See Zukunftsphilologie website English version.
4.   See Pollock, Elman and Chang (op. cit. n. 2 above).

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