Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2014


The forgotten origins of the modern humanities

James Turner. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014; 576 pp; ISBN: 978-0-69114-564-8, cloth, $35 USD.

Many today do not recognize the word, but “philology” was for centuries nearly synonymous with humanistic intellectual life, encompassing not only the study of Greek and Roman literature and the Bible but also all other studies of language and literature, as well as religion, history, culture, art, archae­ology, and more. In short, philology was the queen of the human sciences. How did it become little more than an archaic word? In Philology James Turner tells the fascinating, forgotten story of how the study of languages and texts led to the modern humanities and the modern university. This compelling narrative traces the development of huma­nistic learning from its beginning among ancient Greek scholars and rhetoricians, through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, to the English-speaking world of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Turner shows how evolving researches into the texts, languages, and physical artifacts of the past led, over many centuries, to sophisticated comparative methods and a deep historical awareness of the uniqueness of earlier ages. But around 1800, he explains, these interlinked philological and antiquarian studies began to fragment into distinct academic fields. These fissures resulted, within a century or so, in the new, independent “disciplines” that we now call the humanities. Yet the separation of these disciplines only obscured, rather than erased, their common features. The humanities today face a crisis of relevance, if not of meaning and purpose. Understanding their common origins — and what they still share — has never been more urgent.

Information made available by the publisher.