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Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities
Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities
James Turner
Princeton University Press, 2014
576 pp., $35.00

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Timothy Larsen


Academic Divisions

The lost history of philology.

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.

To begin, however, we must overcome the smug sense of superiority that sneaks over us when we read the one-word title of this tome. As Turner concedes: "for most of the twentieth century, philology was put down, kicked around, abused, and snickered at, as the archetype of crabbed, dry-as-dust, barren, and by and large pointless academic knowledge. Did I mention mind-numbingly boring?"

We need to get back before that sneer. Philology was once the most capacious of terms. As it encompassed all study of languages and texts, it was at the heart of education and scholarship, reigning as "king of the sciences." Turner's study is dazzling in its scope and erudition, and one manifestation of this is that he starts his story at the dawn of civilization: "The earliest schools, in Mesopotamia, taught not augury, astrology, or the art of war but how to handle written language." In the beginning was the word.

With an eye for detail and a ready wit, Turner uncovers how a wide range of modern academic disciplines—history, literature, classics, art history, linguistics, archaeology, social and cultural anthropology, biblical studies, and religious studies—are a cousinhood all descending from philology (sometimes together with its junior partners, rhetoric and antiquarianism).

Two revealing themes recur: first, just how young these modern disciplines are—often not firmly established until into the 20th century—and, relatedly, how intertwined they once were. (In the first half of the 19th century, Karl Morgenstern was Professor of Eloquence and Classical Philology, of Aesthetics, and ...

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