Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities by James Turner - review by Adam Smyth

Adam Smyth

In the Beginning was the Word

Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities


Princeton University Press 550pp £24.95 order from our bookshop

The prospect of nearly six hundred pages on the history of philology may not quicken everyone’s pulse: philology ‘comes coated with the dust of the library’, James Turner admits, ‘and totters along with arthritic creakiness’. But this is a swashbuckling book that vaults across two thousand years of intellectual history to offer a genealogy of modern academic disciplines. Philology means, literally, a love of words and of learning – in Turner’s more precise definition, ‘the multifaceted study of texts, languages, and the phenomenon of language itself’ – and this book tells the life story of the modern humanities. It also makes an impassioned case for the fact that scholars need to remember these origins in order for their subjects to survive.

Turner’s Philology reads like a caffeine-fuelled love letter to the great polymaths of the past: flawed heroes of wide-ranging erudition such as the scholar of ancient India Sir William ‘Oriental’ Jones (1746–94), or the American Charles Eliot Norton (1827–1908), who published on Donne, Dante, medieval architecture, art history and classical

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