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Worlds in Words

Sean Sheehan

Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, by James Turner, Princeton University Press, 576 pp, $35, ISBN: 978-0691145648

There is something about the word philology that grates on the tongue as well as in the mind. It has a lean, nitpicking sound to it and some uncool connotations. It will always lack lustre when put alongside a word like philosophy, which also comes from phi (from the Greek “to love”). Perhaps it comes down to the smoothing, soothing “s” sound in philosophy, deepened in “sophy” by the echo of the initial “ph”; “ology”, by comparison, sounds downright disagreeable. The irony is rich on two counts: philologically, the word betokens a love of words; intellectually, philology begat the humanities.

The story of this begetting is told in James Turner’s book and it is a grand narrative that spans the cultural history of the West. It begins, as so much does, with the Greeks – specifically their libraries that expanded in Alexandria and Pergamum – where Hellenistic philologists invented punctuation – and the tale gathers pace when the Bible replaced Homer as a hallowed text in need of an authoritative version, one that could synthesise the older Hebrew scriptures with the Jesus-based Greek texts that Christians claimed as their own. Scholastics of the medieval age scorned philology, unlike early Renaissance humanists such as Petrarch who, by collecting forgotten manuscripts of Roman authors, became a model for scholars who came after him. In the early sixteenth century, Erasmus was establishing a dogma of textual philology: forced to choose between a confusing line and a clearer phrase a copyist will tend to tidy it up; the philologist sticks with the clumsy version.

With the Reformation, ahistorical creed took precedence over the critical scrutiny of biblical texts and erudition was forced into a corner, but kept alive by antiquarians curious about inscriptions and issues of chronology. A fad for orientalism helped, but matters had to wait until the seventeenth century, the coming of age for British and Irish humanists, when philology branched out to new pastures while also deepening its own roots. Robert Wood (1717-71) postulated an illiterate Homer, giving birth to the theory of oral epic, while John Toland (1670-1722) helped ignite the Deist controversy by questioning the Bible’s authority as a divinely inspired text. Biblical textual philology took off as never before and the holy book began by some to be appreciated as a literary work. Methods of classical studies were also applied to English literary texts, principally Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare, aided by the fact that divisions between academic disciplines were far more fluid than they ever would be again. Language became a subject in its own right and issues of historical change gained the attention of some scholars. The interest in orientalism was facilitated by the growth of administrative posts in the British Empire, staffed at the higher levels by those with an education in the classics. It began to dawn on some that Sanskrit was not unrelated to other European languages; out of India came comparative philology. At the same time, a principle of philological research, namely the importance of documentary evidence, was to distinguish Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.

The story moves to Germany when scholars there began to probe the variant readings of biblical texts and German classicists looked anew at Homer. In 1807, the philologist Wilhelm de Wette questioned the historical validity of the Old Testament and went so far as to suggest that Moses himself, far from being the source of the Pentateuch, may have been a mythical character. The first five books of the Old Testament were seen as a work of poetic imagination and ‑ anticipating an element of Zionism – as a national epic of convenience for people who sought to anchor their territorial claims back into an immemorial time of origins. It was not long before a similar challenge to the historical authority of the Bible was laid against the New Testament. For Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), the authors of the Gospels and Epistles were not so much chronicling actual events in the life of Jesus as conducting a propaganda campaign to institute his legacy for those who followed him. In 1835, a student of Baur’s wrote a Life of Jesus that interpreted the Gospels as a work of mythology for early Christians but this went too far for Baur and he repudiated the author, David Friedrich Strauss.

A new science was emerging and it brought coherence to the development of separate intellectual disciplines that would eventually form what are now the humanities. The first half of the nineteenth century was the age of great German scholars in the fields of philology and linguistics: principally Herder, Schlegel and Humboldt. Important advances were made but so too were disturbing claims, like Humboldt’s theory that Indo-European languages were more suited to intellectual activity than Semitic ones. He could not have known to where that kind of thinking would lead. It is more edifying to dwell on the way classical philology was becoming fertile soil for the secular study of the cultures that produced the extant texts of pagan writers. By 1850, learning German became a prerequisite for the study of ancient Greece as well as the Bible and an historical approach to the Old and New Testaments, though it did not go as far as Strauss had done, became accepted in the English-speaking world. In 1860, a series of essays by an Anglican clergyman, Essays and Reviews, became a tipping point in the establishment of a historical-critical approach to the Bible.

This period also witnessed early steps being taken in the viewing of literature as a field of study of intrinsic interest – in 1828 the new London University appointed its first professor of English – broadening belles-lettres to cover editing texts and tracing the historical roots of a genre. Evaluative criticism was also emerging, as with Coleridge’s concern for “images and feelings …brought together without effort and without discord”. Oxbridge was slow to swim in this ocean and post-Christian writers like Thomas Macaulay and George Grote were the exceptions and not the rule. Meanwhile, in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, antiquarianism was morphing into archaeology, shaped and sustained by textual philology of classical works and the Bible. This development also provided fuel for the writing of history but old attitudes to what a work of history should aspire to were still prevalent – witness Carlyle (1795-1881), biographer of Oliver Cromwell, who privately regarded each newly discovered Cromwell letter, replete with scholarly exegesis, as “an ancient rusty nail embedded in half a ton of dust”.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw academic disciplines taking shape. Those who studied Anglo-Saxon grammar or Sanskrit began to view themselves as different from those who read the ancient classics and this was reflected in the growth of professional and learned societies catering for each. In higher education, the humanities were emerging as curricula based on classical languages began to break down, a development that was more obvious in American and non-Oxbridge universities than at Oxford and Cambridge. Students were now being taught under different labels and learned journals were established to anchor these new disciplines – a process that James Turner brings alive with a simile that does little to pander to academia: “they marked off each field of philological or postphilological study as an independent realm, like male marmots flagging with urine the boundaries of their territories”.

After 1860, literary history and textual editing, sprinkled with small amounts of evaluative criticism, evolved to form literature as a discipline in its own right. This took off at speed in US colleges so that by the turn of the century Latin and Greek had been displaced by literature as the centre of the humanities; it was nearly two decades later before Cambridge managed to establish an English tripos. On both sides of the Atlantic literature remained rooted in philology, especially in Old English in Oxbridge, but it led to important advances in literary editing. In 1855 an edition of Donne’s poems became the first to print variants but it was another forty years before an article by Charles Norton, “The Text of Donne’s Poems”, precipitated more expert editing. This process would lead in 1912 to Herbert Grierson’s edition, a seminal work that relied not only on analysis of early printed editions but also a careful use of manuscripts that applied techniques more commonly found in the German tradition of classical and biblical philology as practised by Karl Lachmann.

While the kind of research practised by Grierson could be professionally recognised within the philological tradition from which it was emerging, it was not so obvious how literary criticism, as we understand the term today, was to earn its place as a subject worthy of research. Emoting over the genius of Shakespeare was not sufficient evidence of one’s research credentials and the English critic John Churton Collins, who gained a professorship only three years before he died in 1908, led the way in demonstrating what was necessary by way of diligent study of context, an insistence on factual accuracy and the command of more than one language. Other critics defended themselves by insisting literary criticism was a science and the critic Mark Harvey Liddell worked on a project, “Prolegomena to a science of Prosedy” (sic), designed to show how poetry could be approached “scientifically”. Such a defensive stance may help explain the length of time it took for English departments in Britain to forgo parsing ultra-fine distinctions in texts. Also, if Turner’s observation is correct, the study of literature gained mileage because of the way it filled the gap that was left by the gradual withdrawal of the teaching of explicit Christianity from universities. Literature possessed no dogma as such, let alone a theology, but its study brought with it an air of vague “spirituality” that may have underpinned the Victorian attraction to authors like Dante, Spenser and Donne. Such writers were rich mines for literary truffle hounds in search of allegory and symbolism.

Classics became a separate discipline as scholars in academic institutions and professional societies began publishing the results of their research and forming an inward-looking community of their own. In doing so there was a realisation that the study of texts alone was not sufficient for an understanding of the ancient world. Architecture and art history, epigraphy and ancient history became integral and not ancillary to the new discipline and in doing so Greece and Rome became more, not less, foreign. Sophocles and Seneca could no longer be read as endorsements of certain contemporary values deemed useful in the education of the ruling elite. Archaeology played its part in the growing maturity of classical studies and an influential figure was Charles Newton who, as assistant in the Department of Antiquities at the British Museum in 1846, speculated in an article that slabs of a frieze found in the walls of a Crusader fort in Bodrum (ancient Halicarnassus) were taken from of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – the mausoleum, tomb of a fourth-century BCE Persian satrap. The exact whereabouts of the mausoleum in Bodrum was unknown but Newton sensed he was onto something and worked hard to organise excavations of the castle and success came in 1857. He was one of the first archaeologists to use photographers to record the site in detail; he also got the royal navy to ship home some of the artworks and was rewarded for his efforts by being made keeper of a new department of Greek and Roman antiquities.

An Irish scholar, Rev John Pentland Mahaffy, played a part in pushing the boundaries of classics beyond the study of hallowed ancient texts. Breaking the mould of the typical Trinity don, he was in contact with German universities in the 1870s and it paid off in his published study of Assyrian, Egyptian and Persian materials. In addition to his own emendations of papyrus remains of Greek authors, he was able to make use of German collections of inscriptions and fragments. But like some of the valuable scraps of papyrus buried for millennia in Egypt, Oxbridge remained with its head in the sand when it came to acknowledging broader avenues for the understanding of classical texts. D’Arcy Thompson, professor of Greek at Queen’s College Galway from 1864 to 1902, acerbically described the mentality of the typical classicist at Cambridge:

All information, historical, antiquarian, geographical, or philosophic, as connected with the classics, he regarded with contempt: any dunderhead, he considered, might cram that at his leisure: but it pained him to the quick if a senior pupil violated the Porsonian pause [a caesura found in certain lines of Greek tragedy, the rules governing which were set forth by Porson in his edition of Euripides’s Medea], or trifled with the subjunctive.

Richard Jebb, an individual more influential than Mahaffy in establishing the intellectually holistic credentials of classics, also had an Irish connection on account of the Anglo-Irish family into which he was born. Jebb was equally well aware of the importance of German scholarship; he learned the language for this reason and after a trip to Greece the value of archaeological research was brought home to him. This led to his active support for the British School in Athens as a centre for excavations, though it was his textual work on Sophocles that won him the Greek professorship at Cambridge in 1889. A few years earlier at Cambridge, a classical philologist by the name of James G Frazer was being drawn to anthropology and this attraction changed the course of his career when he met an editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica who asked him to write the entries on “Taboo” and “Totemism”. It proved the launching pad for his study of primitive religion and the publication in 1890 of The Golden Bough in two volumes; by the time of its third edition in 1915 there were twelve volumes but in 1922 a condensed one-volume version appeared. The influence of Frazer on TS Eliot is well known – and to have Colonel Kurtz in the film Apocalypse Now also reading The Golden Bough throws light on Francis Ford Coppola’s portrayal of Conrad’s character – but one may be sceptical of the claim made by the art critic Jonathan Jones that the book has had a more powerful influence on modern literature and cinema than Marx or Freud. What is certain is the indebtedness of Frazer’s book, including its title, to his earlier life as a classicist (he was working on a translation of Pausanias before his anthropological turn). He came to inspire a new breed of younger classicist that included Gilbert Murray and Jane Harrison, a pair who with some like-minded colleagues became known as the Cambridge Ritualists. Their use of anthropology and ethnography informed their reading of Greek tragedy and in his preface to a hugely influential translation of Sophocles’s Oedipus Murray construed a background to the play that pointed to a pre-classical, primitive age and its investments of meaning in practices like curses and the exposure of new-born children. Classics, embracing nontextual evidence, had travelled a long and winding road from the Porsonian pause; and the journey prepared the ground for the seminal book published in 1951: The Greeks and the Irrational by ER Dodds.

History too evolved from its origins in philology and formed another branch of the humanities but, unlike classics, it did so not by expanding its range but by contracting it. Topics like botany which had once found a place in works of history were excluded and, with geology providing the necessary evidence for the concept of the prehistoric, the awareness of a time before there was any writing facilitated the division between archaeology and history. The discipline of history would concern itself with texts ‑ archival research emerged as a defining mark of the historian’s work – but this could include the writing of inscriptions in stone or scratched onto a clay tablet in Mesopotamia. What all historians began to have in common was a legacy of the subject’s origins ‑ philological rigour – and it provided legitimacy for its place in academia. Again though, it took more time in Britain than in the US to shift old-fashioned, ingrained attitudes; when Lord Acton was designing the momentous, fourteen-volume Cambridge Modern History in 1896 concern was expressed that he was enlisting “too many professors” as authors.

The story of anthropology’s development from an exotic branch of antiquarianism to a fully fledged discipline is a complicated one, bound up with the aetiology of historiography and philology. The demarcation between pre-history and what came after shaped the boundary lines between history and anthropology, although nowadays an anthropologist is as likely to do fieldwork with teenagers in Dublin 4 as with the few remaining forest-dwelling Penans in Sarawak. Many of the key figures were American and Turner performs a useful service by enlightening readers with the achievements of three of them ‑ Edward Burnett Tylor, Henry Sumner Maine and Lewis Henry Morgan – and for an interesting tit-bit about Ursula Le Guin ‑ her father, Alfred Kroeber, was another important academic who helped make anthropology what it is today – which throws some light on what may have influenced her concerns as a novelist.

The story of the emergence of art history as a part of the humanities bears testimony to the fruitfulness of philology’s family tree, though the ground was prepared as long ago as the first century CE when Pliny the Elder wrote about Greek sculpture and painting. Vasari’s biographies of painters may have been published well over four centuries ago but they did not precipitate the scholarly investigation of art in a systematic manner. Art history as a separate discipline did not appear until the nineteenth century and, in the English-speaking world, not until the century after, slowly evolving from antiquarianism and the practices of philologists under the influence of the rise of aesthetics as a branch of philosophy in Germany. Modern aesthetics may owe its origins to the Irish-Scottish Francis Hutcheson and the third Earl of Shaftesbury but it was Kant and Hegel who properly initiated art history with their theories of art and culture. In Britain and Ireland, amateurs played their part as well and Turner reminds readers of the singular figure of Anna Jameson, born in Dublin but brought up in London since the age of four. After separating from her husband by choosing not to accompany him on an overseas posting, she supported herself by writing fiction and non-fiction (GM Hopkins greatly admired her study of women in Shakespeare) and in 1834 began a magazine series about quattrocentro painters. It confirmed her lifelong interest in art and writing on the subject made her financially independent; her readership growing larger as public art galleries and museums began proliferating: England’s National Gallery (1824) and Victoria and Albert (1852), Glasgow’s civic art collection (1854), National Gallery of Scotland (1859), National Gallery of Ireland (1864), The Tate (1897). All these museums – and they were springing up across America as well – needed knowledgeable curators, that is art historians. The University of Göttingen was the first to create a chair in art history, in 1813, followed by more important ones in Berlin and Paris. In 1868 a rich antiquarian, Felix Slade, bequeathed funds for the establishment of art professors in three British universities; one of them, London, established the now famous school for the training of artists. Yet it was not until the 1930s that art history could be said to be a university subject in its own right in the UK, following a Royal Commission lamenting the recruitment of “ill-prepared and unqualified persons” by museums and galleries. The Courtauld Institute was set up in 1931 and it benefited enormously as a result of giving refuge to the Warburg Institute after its members fled Nazi Germany. Its charitable act brought a much needed input of scholars trained in philological and historical study, lending some intellectual gravitas to the connoisseurship mentality which had prevailed at the Courtauld. The words of Kenneth Clark bear testimony to the influence of philology on historians of art:

To say whether a picture is, or is not, by Bellini or Botticelli involves a combination of memory, analysis and sensibility, which is an excellent discipline for both mind and eye. The nearest analogy is the textual criticism which was considered the ultimate end of classical scholarship from Bentley to Housman. No one complained that they were wasting their time when they emended, once again, the text of a third-rate author like Manilus. They were not even judged by the correctness of their emendations, but rather by some combination of memory, patience and elegance of mind which gave these minute revisions a quality of intellectual beauty.

Turner’s Philology is an impressive and hugely industrious work of scholarship. The telling of the tale is well-paced, not racy but not douce either, and nice turns of phrase are pleasingly peppered across his text. Writing, for example, about biblical criticism in the first half of the nineteenth century and the nascent conflict between theology and biblical philology, he comments: “And because students of the Bible more often worked under direct ecclesiastical control, flouting received beliefs carried risk. Heretics no longer feared fire, but they were fired.” A few pages on, dealing with the same topic, he describes the counter-reformation-like mentality of those who grew suspicious of German rationalism: “Churchly fingers in the dike kept seepage sluggish for a long while.” But there is nothing frivolous or light-hearted about Turner’s attitude towards his subject matter and when he finally reaches the end of his long journey he does not rest content with complacent observations about the rich life of the humanities. It is true that the various disciplines of the humanities represent the most recent version of “a millennia-long Western tradition of inquiry into language and its products – inquiry, that is, into worlds that human beings have created for themselves and expressed in words” but another truth also needs broadcasting and James Turner does not shy away from spelling it out:

Today’s humanities are not ancient, integral modes of knowledge. They are modern, artificial creations – where made-up lines pretend to divide the single sandbox in which we all play into each boy’s or girl’s own inviolable kingdom. It is a sham. Students of early America freely mingle history, archaeology, and anthropology; literary scholars write history, and historians study literature … If the lines were real, disciplines would not need so relentlessly to police their borders within colleges and universities. Consider the processes of hiring, tenure (or the equivalent), and promotion now ubiquitous in the English-speaking world. If you are labelled ‘assistant professor of art history’, a study of medieval church architecture might get you tenure. Translating Dante’s Divine Comedy or editing John Donne’s poems will get you a place in the line at your local unemployment office. Conversely, if you are ‘associate professor of Italian’, translating Dante may win you a full professorship; editing Donne or studying Holbein will get you nowhere, and do not expect a salary rise.

The author of these words, the Cavanagh Professor of Humanities at the University of Notre Dame, presumably paid heed to them.


Sean Sheehan taught English but is now a full-time writer of non-fiction, dividing his time between London and West Cork. His most recent books are Žižek: A Guide for the Perplexed and Sophocles’ Oedipus: A Reader’s Guide (both published by Bloomsbury, 2012)



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