Tuesday, May 20, 2014

James Turner's "Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities"

James Turner, a historian, is Cavanaugh Professor of Humanities at the University of Notre Dame.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, and reported the following:
Today, almost everybody who goes to college takes courses in the humanities—English lit, art history, classics, history, etc. That wasn’t always true. The humanities didn’t exist in American or British universities until fairly late in the nineteenth century. But where did they come from? My curiosity about that question eventually took me to ancient Greece and from there on a long journey back to the twentieth century. The result of this adventure is Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. Surprisingly, Philology is the first history of humanistic learning in the West as an integral whole. Parts of the story have been told (and often told well), but never stitched together. For me, research for the book was the most exciting voyage of a lifetime in scholarship, as I learned all sorts of curious stuff I’d never before dreamed about. Who knew that military engineers played an indispensable part in creating modern archaeology? I hope readers share my excitement.

Page 99 is actually pretty typical, in that it crosses continents and decades in two or three paragraphs. The topic happens to be the beginnings of modern linguistics, and the page jumps from British colonial officials studying Sanskrit in India to early investigators of Native American tongues. On another random page (301), readers will discover how excavation of primitive flint tools alongside bones of extinct animals in a cave in Devonshire paradoxically helped to birth the modern discipline of history. Opening yet another (83), we find an Anglican clergyman compiling a path-breaking work of Old English scholarship while on the lam to escape execution for treason.

Who might be interested in reading Philology? Well, anyone interested in how modern knowledge and modern liberal education came to take the shape they did. Likewise, anyone who follows current arguments over the relevance of the humanities and their possible futures. Understanding where the humanities came from, after all, is essential to informed debate about where they might and should go.
Learn more about Philology at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue