Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Turner, 2015. Philology the forgotten origins of the modern humanities

Posted: Jan 27, 2024 20:01;
Last Modified: Jan 27, 2024 20:01


Turner, James. 2015. Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. 1. paperback printing. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

Philology is a very long exploration of a simple but convincing idea: that the modern “Humanities” (a collection of disciplines that Turner argues is actually quite recent) have their origins in what he argues is the ancient methodology of Philology, an approach to texts and language that is characterised by its methodological focus on comparison, contextualisation, and genealogy.

In Turner’s exposition, Philology is to be contrasted against both Philosophy and the Natural Sciences. Philology, Turner argues “interprets individual cases” while both Philosophy and the Natural Sciences seek, in different ways, “universally valid generalizations” (6). This is, he says, the embryo of the “modern distinction between law-seeking (“nomothetic”)… and interpretative (“hermeneutic”) disciplines” (6). Many disciplines in the contemporary Humanities and Social Sciences (e.g. Literary Studies, Linguistics, Archaeology, Anthropology, Religious Studies, Classics and similar historical area studies, Art History, and History, in the case of the Humanities; Sociology, and I guess Economics, Political Science, and human geography, in the case of the the Social Sciences) are at heart really just applications or extension of the basic methods of philological enquiry focussed on specific kinds of actual or metaphorical “texts.” History, Anthropology, and the Social Sciences are a kind of liminal case in this account: they incorporate both elements of philology — trying to understand the individual case, as in Philology and attempting to perceive universal rules, as in Philosophy — and end up, as a result, in varying places on the nomothetic ~ hermeneutic scale.

This is a very broad generalisation — both about the purpose of these disciplines and the relationship to Philology vs. Philosophy. And there is some reason to have some doubts about it: I’ve discussed the book with two friends from different disciplinary backgrounds (Linguistics and Sociology) who have read parts of it and found the account of their own disciplines to be overly simplified to downright wrong.

But these seem to me to be the kind of issue you are always going to have in account of this breadth. For the most part, I found the treatment convincing — I liked the definition of philology and felt that the distinction between it and philosophy and the natural sciences in the history of the disciplines both rang true and had a lot of explanatory power.

In fact, I found this to be a much preferable approach to the definition of the Humanities (and account of its history) than that in Bod’s A New History of the Humanities. That book, which I’m going to write about in a bit, attempts to define “the Humanities” through allegiance to a set of anachronistically defined “methodological principles that have been developed and… found in the study of humanistic materials (texts, languages, literatures, music, art, theatre, and the past)” (9): something that, as the book develops, begins to look a lot like a “humanities method” that is parallel to the scientific method.

While Turner’s approach is in a sense methodological — just differing a little in its methodology — I still prefer his approach because the methodology it points to is historically derived and because its approach is fundamentally historical. If Bod is looking for a nomothetic account of the Humanities (and assumes that there is such a clear thing across all times and geographies), Turner is providing a hermeneutic account of the history and theory behind certain current disciplinary practices. And that second approach seems to me better both philosophically — it’s a nice humanistic way of examining the history of the humanities — and practically: where Bod has obvious trouble throughout his book with definitions (his list of “humanistic materials” above, for example, struggles with what seems to me to be a fairly serious categorical problem, in that “the past” is a whole different kind of “material” that texts, languages, literatures, music, art, or theatre), Turner’s division of the past of the humanities into a philological stream and a philosophical stream does a much better job of accounting for the various anomalies.

I’ve been writing very positively about the book thus far. But that is mostly about its argument. As a book itself, it is actually quite difficult (and to my mind) unpleasant. The basic idea (the modern Humanities are descended largely from the ancient study of philology with, at times, a soupçon of philosophy) is easily stated. But his exposition is extremely long and full of byways that can easily distract. We go through each period in fairly great detail, learning far more about, say Erasmus, than is truly necessary to understand the current state of the Humanities. The other problem is that he also has a fairly flippant style that, again to my mind, both makes things needlessly less clear than they need to be and takes up unnecessary space. I think if I was a developmental editor on this book, I’d have suggested starting at the end (the modern Humanities) and then cycling back to say where they came from: this might have allowed him to keep his eye on the main goal which, is not so much to write a history of Philology as it is to write the origin story of the modern Humanities.

Some notes on interesting things that come up:





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