Can Philology Save the Humanities?

In his new book, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, James Turner has written a rich intellectual history of what many American scholars would describe as the long lost art and science of philology.  A rebirth of philology is also long overdue, says Turner, who is the Cavanaugh Professor of Humanities at the University of Notre Dame. The book offers a compelling solution to the splintered, increasingly irrelevant state of the humanities at modern universities.  A return to philological thinking, Turner agues, would be an antidote to the loss of erudition, depth, breadth, and other maladies that plague the humanities in higher learning.

“The humanities today face a crisis of relevance,” the book’s jacket states. “Understanding their common origins — and what they still share — has never been more urgent.”

Headwaters of the Humanities

The definition of philology seems to defy certainty.  Literally, it means love of the word, a definition that seems only to reinforce its esoteric hoariness. Even various authoritative sources disagree on what philology exactly describes. As Donald Maddox observes in Towards a Synthesis? Essays on the New Philology, edited by Keith Busby:  “One notes a frequent, rather disturbing tendency among many scholars, living or dead, to define philology, ‘new’ or ‘old,’ in reductive ways.” In addition to the love of words, Maddox says that philology has been defined, variously, as the love of learning and literature; the human spirit in language; the basis of literary criticism; the study of written records; the study of culture; and the art of reading slowly. One proposed definition embraces a postmodern flavor: “the meaning of language forms as these depend on the linkage of signs to the context in which they occur.”

For his part, Turner suggests that a common theme of philology is the intimate connections that it reveals between symbols, language, words, texts, objects and artifacts and the historical contexts in which human language and objects originated.  “All philologists believed history to be the key to unlocking the different mysteries they sought to solve,” he writes. “Only by understanding the historical origins of texts, or different languages, or of language itself could a scholar adequately explain the object of study.”

Turner covers a vast history of philology, including its global ebbs and flows in countries and continents.  Turner is clear in arguing that philology as a whole dominated scholarly endeavors during much of human intellectual history, from ancient times through the Renaissance and until the 19th Century. Philology, Turner argues, was the headwaters of all branches of humanities as we know them, including literature, linguistics, anthropology and history.  Wide in application but narrow in method, philology concerned itself with un-raveling layers of meaning in texts and objects, with the ultimate goal of decoding native or original meanings of texts and objects for contemporary observers.

The Malleable Truths of Rhetoric

Philologists encountered enemies over the centuries, including Scholasticism in the Middle Age.  In one sense or another, that war is still being waged. On one side, the Scholastics were inspired by the philosophy of Plato, believing in “assured knowledge, certainty, truth,” as opposed to the malleable truths of rhetoric and argument purportedly espoused by philology.  In truth, the difference amounts to the difference between the literal and unquestionable meaning of a Scholastic “press release” and the philologist’s investigative reportage.  Turner makes a fine, but important distinction between the erudition of the philologists and the mere schooling required of the Scholastic method. For the philologists, meaning was uncovered. But for the Scholastics, meaning was schooled.

The emergence of Biblical philology is a striking example of the sort of work that philologists were once engaged by, Turner suggests. A philologist studying biblical texts and artifacts would welcome the “layers of meaning in scriptural passages, with spiritual senses often overwhelming the literal one. For a scholar mining the Bible for theological insight, a preacher using scripture to give moral direction, or a nun reading to deepen her spiritual life, having several strata in the text enriched the Book.”

But that sort of Biblical investigation — as Michael Baigent argues in a modern-day example of no-holds barred investigative Biblical research in his book, The Jesus Papers — has encountered powerful enemies in the Catholic and Christian churches. Baigent shows vividly that over the ages the Church doggedly thwarted any and all non-literal and unauthorized interpretations of scripture and associated texts, destroying any evidence contrary to doctrine and burning at the stake heretics who challenged established doctrine.

The Final Blow of the 1800s

If philology didn’t encounter enough enemies through history, the final blow came in the 19th Century, when philology began to give way to the emerging sciences and the expansion of scientific method, according to Turner.

“The immense resonance of philology as a paradigm of knowledge is much less well known today than the parallel influence of natural science, because science won and philology lost,” Turner writes. “Victors often erase the footprints of the defeated. Ask any modern student of ancient Carthage.”

While philology lost to science — and presumably the scientific method for sifting through evidence in order to validate truth claims — Turner says nothing about how philology meshes with Modernism, let alone Postmodernism.  He intends the book to be a wake-up call to help solve the crisis in the humanities, and yet his book ignores perhaps the most fundamental intellectual crisis of the humanities — whether the humanities at American universities can remain relevant to ordinary people, communities, and their common language.

In an interview, Turner told me he believed that the relationship between philology and modernism was tenuous, at best.   “I’m inclined to believe that the fate of philology had little or nothing to do with modernism (in any really coherent sense, as distinct from the descriptive labeling of every intellectual institution of the earlier 20th century as modern).”

Precursor to Modernism

To be sure, philology predated modernism and continued to exist — albeit in a weakened state — in the wake of modernism and, as Turner himself points out, the scientific revolution (which in fact is part and parcel of the post-Enlightenment age known as Modernism.) But I would suggest the philology and its investigative methods for sifting meaning and validating truth claims in ancient and medieval texts was a precursor to modernism. In particular, philologists were more prone to trust logic, evidence and reason — all hallmarks of modernity — over superstition and dogma in supporting claims of absolute truth exercised by royalty and the Church.

Reuben Brower and Hum 6

One striking aspect of philology is that the language used to describe it — with a concerted emphasis on language, texts, symbols, and the decoding of texts and objects — hits notes that ring similar to postmodernism in the humanities.  I asked Turner about this and why the book ignores the philology’s connection to postmodernism.

“I do see interesting parallels between philology and postmodernism of the sort you note,” he told me. “I don’t discuss them in the book, for the reason that they’re oblique to my argument in a book already long enough.”

Turner noted that the postmodern critic Paul de Man’s essay, “The Return to Philology,” included his fond recollection as a teaching assistant at Harvard under Reuben Brower in the 1950s, who taught a course called The Interpretation of Literature (known as Hum 6.) In that essay, de Man wrote: “No one could be more remote from high-powered French theory than Rueben Brower.”  According to de Man, Brower had one simple rule for the course: students were not permitted to say anything that was not derived from the text itself.  There would be no “reading into” a text to create meaning that wasn’t supported by the text itself. Or, as a postmodernist would put it, students were not permitted to make a text conform to a pre-conceived, “grand narrative.”  That simple rule, de Man wrote, was transformative for students, who began to focus on how meaning is conveyed rather than on meaning itself.  It is but a small step from the philological method, as practiced in Hum 6, to locate the postmodern turn in the humanities, de Man argued.

Imagine a New Philology

“The personal experience Ruben Brower’s Humanities 6 was not so different from the impact of theory on the teaching of literature over the past 10 or 15 years,” de Man wrote. “The motives may have been more revolutionary and the terminology was certainly more intimidating but in practice the turn to theory occurred as a return to philology to an examination of the structure of language prior to the meaning it produces.

It is conceivable to imagine a “new” philology that could have an important influence on the postmodern turn in the humanities. It is worth noting that Nietzsche, who was among the founding intellectual precursors to postmodernism, had himself been a classical philologist as a scholar of Greek and Roman textual criticism. At age 24, he became chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel.  So the lineage of philology to present day humanities is more than simply historical. They share similar intellectual DNA.

While the emphasis on texts and language is similar in both theories of knowledge, the spin that practitioners of both attach to their work is decidedly different. Philology is dogma’s worst enemy, and I can imagine no postmodernist who would place dogma or grand narratives on his or list of reliable allies.  For example, consider the epistemology of the individual, as if a person were a “text” to be known or understood.  A modernist would say that an individual is, ultimately, knowable. Therefore, all human created texts have meaning and are ultimately knowable.  A philologist would not disagree with that. But the philologist is perhaps more engaged by the unmasking of multiple layers of meaning and knowing rather than finding “the truth” about an individual.

‘The Truth Is Out There’

That is where the postmodernist parts from the philologist.  While the philologist may never finally get to the truth, the truth does exist for the philologist. As the “X Files” once put it, “the truth is out there.” The postmodernist, however starts from the premise that neither the individual nor the world of texts and objects are knowable. There is no truth, just different versions of it.  My point is that the distinction is either gapingly large or splitting hairs, depending on how you want to spin it. It depends on whether you really want a culture war or whether you’d prefer to be more practical about it.

My sense is that Turner would fall into a camp far more nuanced than any culture war could accommodate.  I asked him what a committed philologist, like he, would make of Alan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind and the Great Books movement that seems to call for static readings and interpretations of great “authoritative” works in Western literature. “I think you’re spot on,” said.  “At least from the 16th Century onward, philologists routinely and self-consciously strove to understand the meaning of a text within, and in terms of, its own historical context. In its purest form — i.e., that we can read Plato as if he were our contemporary — the founding axiom of the Great Books movement repudiates philology.”

Perhaps the “Humanities” — as a concept encompassing many concepts at American universities — is a big enough tent to accommodate its long lost progenitor, a new Philology, and do so without stirring up the culture wars – and perhaps even making the culture wars irrelevant.  Turner described to me what he envisions the Humanities would look like in the new era.

Will Disciplinary Lines Disappear?

“The humanities would be much more integrated,” he said. “The present disciplinary lines would become much more porous, perhaps would disappear altogether. In the latter case, I can imagine clusters of scholars being defined by the broad topics they worked on rather than by ‘discipline’; and a given scholar might well belong to more than one cluster.”  He cited the example of J. L. Myers who taught at Oxford in early 1900’s.  Myers wore several hats: classical archaeologist, classical philologist, and anthropologist. His expertise was far reaching. Turner said that Myers oversaw the research at a Zuni pueblo for the first Oxford student to get a formal postgraduate credential in anthropology. And yet, Meyers’s last book was a study of Homer.

Indeed, Myers was a scholar who went beyond mere schooling. He surely fit the definition of erudition.  It’s an ideal worth re-imagining. Erudition might be a very good thing for higher leaning bogged down by overspecialization and territorial battles over limited financial resources. As Turner would say, philology has survived this long against all manner of formidable enemies.  For the sake of a rebirth of the troubled humanities at American universities, perhaps philology has a rich and meaningful life still ahead.