Author: James Turner

Publisher: Princeton University Press

ISBN: 978-0-691-14564-8

The fluent and highly accessible way in which James Turner, Cavanaugh Professor of Humanities at the University of Notre Dame, recounts the evolution of the science of philology makes for relatively easy reading, which is especially exceptional when one considers the complexity of the subject matter of this 550-page book.

Attention-grabbing from the start, Professor Turner begins his prologue by discussing a highly apposite adage of the leading humanistic scholar, Erasmus of Rotterdam, namely: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog [knows] one big thing.” He explains the importance and relevance of the adage to a central issue of this work: whether humanistic scholarship in the West consists of many disciplines, or just one overarching discipline. Clearly, Turner is a dab hand at unpacking multidimensional and intertwined concepts that might otherwise leave the reader floundering in the midst of an academic maze.

His competence and ease in exploring a subject to which he has devoted much of his own academic career instils a sense of trust in the reader that this is an expert who is not only on intimate terms with his material, but who is also vitally concerned with conveying his understanding of the matter to his readers, no matter how new they are to the field. While in no way being condescending towards his audience, Turner explains even the most fundamental of ideas and practices in a pragmatic and fulsome way that gives heart and feeling to Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. Making no undue assumptions as to the pre-existing level of understanding among his audience, he animates and informs all aspects of the evolution of philology, leaving no stone unturned in his portrayal of the history of the discipline, from the time of the ancient Greeks to the modern day.

Turner has a delightful sense of humor—he manifests none of the academic stuffiness that is typically associated with the science of philology, and is, in fact, prone to take the mickey out of pedantic claptrap. For instance, he personifies the appearance of philology in academic circles in Northern America and the British Isles as tottering “along with arthritic creakiness. One would not be startled to see its gaunt torso clad in a frock coat.” The author traces the development of the science from its once “chic” and “dashing” form to its present state of apparent decrepitude with the ease and fluency of a skilled rhetorician who is a master of his art.

He shows how, from philology’s once all-embracing encompassment of the study of all language and languages, as well as of all texts, the seeming deterioration of the discipline into its present attenuated state came about through its birthing of the many disciplines that currently comprise not only the humanities, but also the social sciences. By giving rise to a plethora of children, as many parents have done since time immemorial, it can clearly be seen to have sacrificed some of its own integrity so that it could give life to a host of new entities, each strong and growing by leaps and bounds in its own right.

In addition to the present volume, Professor Turner has also authored The Liberal Education of Charles Eliot Norton and Religion Enters the Academy, as well as coauthored The Sacred and the Secular University. He is well-known for the depth of his professional insight and for the fluency and accessibility of his writing, of which the present volume is yet another memorable instance.

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