409: Philology by James Turner

by Gerard


409: Turner, James. Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014. 386 pp. ISBN 978-0-691-14564-8.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 400: Language
  • 409: Historical, geographical, or personal treatment of language

In Philology, James Turner makes a fun and rather interesting assertion: all studies in the humanities lead back to philology, the study of languages and their history. In order to engage in the studia humanitatis, you need history. In order to read history in its proper context, you have to read it in its original language. For that you need an understanding of languages, their structure and their history, hence philology. To understand art and architecture requires context, and the urge to understand it as its contemporaries did. This requires chronicles, journals, letters, and yes, philology. Turner traces the grand study of philology through history to show its roots and how it can be again reborn as a proper tool for understanding both our current circumstances and our collective history.

Starting with ancient Chinese and Sanskrit manuals on language organization and construction, he guides the reader through eras in philological study. Early in its day, it was the go-to field for those writing about history, philosophy, or theology. All through Western history and even into 19th century America, philology is found to form the basis for any “complete” education. He moves the narrative between poets, educators, philosophers, artists, and even mathematicians to show how the field of philology both informs and is informed by everything else. Language forms in many ways the common bond between human beings, and so philology seeks to understand those bonds from the inside out.

Turner’s research on this topic is immense and rich. Even though he hedges in his introduction that this book comes up short and his understanding of ancient languages is paltry at best, he still gets across a ton of information and history. The writing is a little stuffy, but so is the subject matter. Philology is by necessity a very minutiae-driven field, so some of the sections tend to feel a bit pedantic. Trust me, if you stick it out, you get a better understanding of what we call the humanities. He laments the fact that a generalist in the humanities could not exist in today’s educational atmosphere of specialization, and in many ways I feel much the same way. Reading this will awaken the polymath in all of us, and hopefully a brave few will make a go of it as a career. All in all, a very interesting read.