IF YOU ASK READERS to picture a philologist, they are apt to think of a blank space or a question mark. If they think of anything at all, they might tend to think of someone like Edward Casaubon, the pitiable scholar and clergyman who marries Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Casaubon is an older man, spare of form and pale of complexion, with gray hair and deep-set eyes. He looks as if he spends his days poring over dusty books in a dark library, as indeed he does. When he takes Dorothea to Rome for their honeymoon, he goes to the Vatican to read rare manuscripts while poor Dorothea cries alone in her room. “I live too much with the dead,” he admits. “My mind is something like the ghost of an ancient, wandering about the world […] in spite of ruin and confusing changes.” Full of dry and pointless knowledge, and laboring futilely on a “Key to all Mythologies,” Casaubon looks out from his deep-set eyes with a dreary sense of weariness. He is not fond of the piano.

But crabbed men like Casaubon did not always characterize philology. “It used to be chic, dashing, and much ampler in girth,” as the intellectual historian James Turner writes in Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities:

Philology reigned as king of the sciences, the pride of the first great modern universities […]. It meant far more than the study of old texts. Philology referred to all studies of language, of specific languages, and (to be sure) of texts. Its explorations ranged from the religion of ancient Israel through the lays of medieval troubadours to the tongues of American Indians — and to rampant theorizing about the origin of language itself.

Before it began to fracture in the early 19th century, the various studies that went by the name “philology” were united by their shared scholarly methods. In contrast to Newtonian natural scientists, who sought to uncover universal and eternal laws of nature, philologists used history and comparison to reveal the contexts of a given text or language or religion. Almost any product of human language, which is to say almost any aspect of human culture, could be studied in a philological manner. Ultimately philologists attempted to trace the genealogical origins of modern languages and religions to their now-extinct ancestral forms, such as Proto-Indo-European, and to reconstruct entire lost worlds through the magic of dogged research, thorough comparison, and daring conjecture.

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Turner’s Philology is written in the spirit of its subject: it is a philological history of philology. This is true, unfortunately, in the pejorative, Casaubonian, sense. The book is a prodigious and erudite synthesis, complete with a scholarly apparatus consisting of some 55 pages of works cited, 65 pages of notes, and 42 pages of index. All this learning results in a history that is rather dry and densely packed with names and ideas. Turner’s redeeming sense of humor and irony is not enough to fully endow his endless parade of minor scholars with a sense of life. Yet the book nevertheless holds out the tantalizing promise that by finding the origins of the modern humanities, we might still reinvigorate them in this age of ascendant scientism.

Turner investigates the history of the humanities using the basic methods of philology. In this way, his book is also philological in the neutral, scholarly sense. History, comparison, and genealogy lie at the heart of philological scholarship. The goal, as with Casaubon’s doomed “Key to all Mythologies,” is to use comparative methods to trace the development of different religions or languages or editions of a text back as far as possible, ultimately to their original source. Like Casaubon with his mythologies, Turner looks across the various humanistic disciplines, from classics to anthropology to religious studies, and follows them upstream until they converge, in roughly the late 18th century, in the larger river of philology, whose many twists and turns can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

As with most stories of Western scholarship, this one begins with Plato. The word “philology” first appears in his writings, in the early fourth century BCE, and his dialogue Cratylus marks the earliest serious surviving attempt to analyze language. But for Turner, Plato leads to something of a philological dead end: Plato privileged universal generalizations over individual interpretations, dialectic over rhetoric, philosophy over philology.

This dichotomy between philosophy and philology runs throughout the book; Turner excludes philosophy from his history because he believes its goals and methods are fundamentally different from those of the humanistic disciplines that descended from philology. This is an understandable omission in a history of philology, but it looms as a glaring gap in a book that bills itself as “the forgotten origins of the modern humanities.” Humanistic knowledge involves both wisdom and words, which are (or should be) nearly inseparable anyway. By divorcing philosophy from philology, Turner ensures that his study will convey information but no real insight, a fate that has also hampered the modern humanistic disciplines whose development he discusses.

According to Turner, the more direct ancestors of today’s humanistic scholars were actually Plato’s enemies, the sophists, as well as the librarians at Alexandria. Plato accused the sophists of a kind of Machiavellian manipulation of the masses, but they were basically teachers of rhetoric. At the same time Plato was writing, his contemporary Isocrates was making rhetoric the centerpiece of an educational system that would influence elite classical schooling for centuries. A few decades later, across the Mediterranean in Alexandria, a different strain of the philological tradition was getting started. The Library of Alexandria collected many thousands of scrolls, which had been proliferating for a few hundred years. Many were duplicates with small differences; some were sloppy copies; others were outright forgeries or fakes. This created a major problem: which version of Homer or Aeschylus or Aristotle was correct? Librarians and scholars developed textual philology to figure it out. The first librarian at Alexandria, Zenodotus, compared multiple Homeric manuscripts to edit what could be called the first “standard editions” of the Iliad and Odyssey. Zenodotus’ successors refined his methods, adding such innovations as textual commentaries, historical chronologies, and glossaries to aid in editing and interpreting a work.

The teaching of grammar and rhetoric survived the fall of the Roman Empire, but philological scholarship struggled. Texts continued to be copied and chronologies made, but in general the medieval scholastics focused on philosophy and theology. They preferred logic to history, prescription to description. Only in 14th-century Italy, with the rise of erudite humanists like Petrarch, did true philological scholarship emerge from its long hibernation. Humanists who were educated in grammar and rhetoric and cared about a pure Latin style began to study classical authors more closely. They realized not only that their own medieval Latin differed from classical Latin, but also that classical Latin itself had evolved over time. They salvaged and emended old manuscripts, and they began to use historical and linguistic analysis to prove which documents were forgeries, and why.

The historical piece was new to Renaissance philology. Renaissance humanists sensed the gulf separating them from the classical past and developed the tripartite division of Western history — ancient, medieval, modern — that we still use today. As they began to explore the differences between their own time and the ancient past, they realized that they could use historical context to help explain and interpret a text. And vice versa: they could use a text to help understand the society that produced it. Antiquarian research into buildings, coins, and other material relics became a part of this larger philological project, whose goal was to recapture antiquity.

Turner follows the development of philology through the late 18th century, discussing famous men like Erasmus as well as more obscure names such as Joseph Scaliger and Richard Bentley. Everyone who considered himself a scholar in early modern Europe was, almost by default, a philologist. Various writers better known for their work in political science or philosophy, including Hugo Grotius, Hobbes, and Spinoza, also engaged in biblical philology, helping to situate the Bible as a product of human history no different from any other ancient text. By the end of the 17th century, it was possible to doubt that Moses had written the early books of the Old Testament — and to wonder who had actually written them, and when, and how they had been compiled into a single text.

Philology entered its golden age in the 18th century. Its methods had been refined and polished to a high degree of sophistication, and its subject matter had grown to encompass the traditional topics of classical and biblical philology as well as more recent authors like Shakespeare and Milton and languages as diverse as Anglo-Saxon and Arabic. But there were as yet no divisions between separate fields or specialties, allowing scholars easily to adapt ideas to new purposes.

It is probably no coincidence that philology’s grandest ambitions and greatest achievements date to this period. Sir William Jones noticed similarities among Sanskrit, Persian, Greek, and Latin, and hypothesized the existence of a common ancestral language (now called Proto-Indo-European). Antiquarians such as Robert Wood published lavish volumes full of sketches and measurements of ancient ruins and began the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Edward Gibbon combined the methods of antiquarian research with the grand narrative style of philosophical history to produce the kind of evidence-based narrative that we now call “history.” Classical and biblical philologists enlarged their vision from recovering texts to reconstructing worlds, producing the Altertumswissenschaft (“science of antiquity”) that examined classical culture and society as a whole as well as the biblical “higher criticism” that investigated broad questions of authorship, origins, and meaning.

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The long story of philology’s development up to about 1800 occupies one-third of Turner’s book. The remaining two-thirds trace the complicated process of fragmentation that took place over the following century, as the common methods shared by philological scholarship proved unable to hold its diverse and growing subject matter together. “Philology and its allied studies […] began as thickly interconnected enterprises, if not actually as a single one, and are thus properly studied together,” Turner writes. “Around 1800, they began to fragment. By the end of the century, the pieces stood apart from each other as independent disciplines, properly treated one by one.” The internal pressures of an expanding field of knowledge pushed these subjects apart, while the external pressures of new scholarly structures and institutions (such as professional organizations and the research university) helped erect high walls between them.

Turner mirrors this fragmentation in the structure of his book. Up to 1800, his history unfolds in a steady stream of chronological chapters. After 1800, he chops time periods into the separate fields or disciplines that developed out of the original philological tradition: linguistics, literature, classics and history, and biblical philology for the early 19th century; and linguistics, literature, classics and history, anthropology, and religious studies for the second half of the century. This organization effectively proves one of his main points, which is that the 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.”

In other words, the old philological center did not hold, but neither do the lines that have been drawn between the supposedly distinct humanistic disciplines. Various scholars and ideas recur in multiple fields, and Turner’s separate disciplinary chapters often trace different versions of the same story. Unfortunately, this results in chapters that can feel dull and repetitive and that seem actively to frustrate the kind of cross-disciplinary synthesis and comparative perspective that could provide actual insight about the history of the humanities. Turner stays so deep inside his subject — there is almost nothing about the concurrent development of philosophy, the natural sciences, or the social sciences, or about the brave world beyond scholarship — that one develops a distinct sense of claustrophobia.

Turner does not say whether he meant to reproduce the features of a contemporary humanities discipline quite so faithfully. He does say that he believes “the humanities disciplines must shift their shapes, even drastically shrink in number” if they hope to survive in the modern research university. They could probably be condensed into one large department based on shared scholarly methods, or perhaps a few smaller ones, grouped by geography or time period. Yet not even Turner’s suggestion of drastically condensed humanities disciplines can solve the problem of pointlessness that pervades much humanistic scholarship — especially intellectual histories of scholarship such as this one. There is no life, and no sense that anything particularly important is at stake.

Turner’s neglect of philosophy in his history of the humanities is a sign and symptom of the problem. He claims that philosophy and philology pursue different methods and different kinds of conclusions, and he tells the history of philology as if fundamental philosophical problems rarely reared their head. Yet the gulf he posits between the subjects has never been particularly wide or deep; they are not really so different as he claims. Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza are among the philosophers whom Turner mentions for their contributions to philology — not a bad list. At its best, philosophy builds from the concrete examples of daily life, just as philology expands beyond individual words to encompass whole worlds. Both ultimately aim at a greater knowledge of human nature and culture, which is what makes them humanities. Questions of meaning and interpretation — that is, the basic humanistic questions — lie precisely on the porous boundary between them. What humanistic scholarship needs is not fewer disciplines, though that may help it regain its former breadth, but a reinvigorated faith that it is competent to discuss fundamental philosophical questions about the meaning and purpose of life.

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Scott Spillman is a doctoral student in American history at Stanford University.