Are you a Spenserian?

Colin Burrow

  • Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities by James Turner
    Princeton, 550 pp, £24.95, June 2014, ISBN 978 0 691 14564 8

All logophiles have their weaknesses. Mine is technical vocabulary drawn from handcrafts, especially if those words have an obscure or Germanic origin. Who could resist noggin – an abbreviation of nogging board, which carpenters now use to refer to a transverse piece of timber hidden behind a wall surface into which you can affix screws to support shelves? Where two planes of a board intersect at right angles there is a sharp arris, which careful craftsmen will plane down into a chamfer (the origins of these terms are French, ‘arête’ and ‘chanfrein’ respectively) to prevent cutting the fingers that will be drawn irresistibly to its crisp edge. The arris is not, of course, to be confused with an arras or embroidered hanging, through which the unfortunate Polonius gets it in the neck: that derives from the French town of Arras, which was from the later Middle Ages famous for its tapestries. My favourite bit of Hamlet is where the Player in his speech about Hecuba comes over all craftsmanly and urges the gods to attack the goddess Fortune and ‘Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,/And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven.’ Fellies are the curved sections of wood which make up the rim of a wheel (Old English felg), while the nave (cognate with Sanskrit nābhi or ‘navel’) is the central section into which the spokes and axle fit from different axes.

This kind of technolalia turns me on. Using a word like technolalia (‘technobabble’) gives an additional transgressive thrill because it’s not in the OED, and so offers the hope that I might have made it up – though, alas, I discover that William Gibson, father of cyberpunk, used it to describe an addiction to technology. Ah well, my usage is etymologically purer because it preserves the sense of the Greek root -laliá, meaning ‘chatter’. Shakespeare was a playwright, a word forged with contemptuous intent by Ben Jonson in 1605 by analogy with ‘wheelwright’, and a wordsmith or logodaedalus (to use another of Jonson’s coinages). He could make words and make things with words. He could smash Fortune’s wheel into its constituent lexical components. These processes are exciting.

Logophilia (said in the OED to date only from the 1980s) is an innocent recreational vice. But if someone were to reverse the same two Greek roots (logos, ‘word’, and philia, ‘love’) and call me a philologist I would feel uncomfortable. Philology, according to the OED, was first used in English by John Skelton in the 1520s of ‘the branch of knowledge that deals with the historical, linguistic, interpretative and critical aspects of literature’. The earliest usages of the word philologist in the 17th century are often qualified by an adjective of praise – ‘great’ or ‘learned’ – or by a suggestion that the philologist has an excess of discriminatory power (that he can be ‘nice’, in the sense of ‘over-precise’). Philology was indeed to become exceptionally nice in this refined sense. By the 1830s people were calling each other ‘mere philologists’. By the later 20th century someone who styled himself a philologist (it’s a distinctly blokeish role) would be an austere kind of a person. He might be an expert in tenth-century monastic cartularies whose chief expertise lay in Tibetan languages, about which he knew all that could be known and for which he would have long lost any enthusiasm. Anyone who wondered where the philia in his -ology had gone would discover the answer when they witnessed the sadistic gleam in his eye as he denounced someone else as an ignorant ass. In professional environments his misanthropy would be declared by sardonic resistance to change, particularly if it meant the softening of things that he believed should be ‘hard’. When I was younger a philologist was the kind of person who insisted at departmental meetings that compulsory elements should remain in the curriculum, and who did so with a zeal that was inversely proportionate to the popularity of those elements among undergraduates. Usually it was Anglo-Saxon, but any skill that required large-scale acts of memorisation and grammatical categorisation would do. He would snort at the word ‘postcolonial’ and regard novels as things chaps read on trains.

I exaggerate, but philologists have been caricatured more or less since they were invented. Seneca was one of the first Latin authors to use the word ‘philologus’. In his Moral Epistles, written in the 60s ad, he describes the ways different kinds of people read: ‘When Cicero’s book On the State is opened by a philologist, a scholar, or a follower of philosophy, each man pursues his investigation in his own way. The philosopher wonders that so much could have been said therein against justice. The philologist takes up the same book and comments on the text.’ Seneca sees the philologist as a humble pedant who misses the point of reading, which should be a moral activity:

All study of philosophy and all reading should be applied to the idea of living the happy life, that we should not hunt out archaic or far-fetched words and eccentric metaphors and figures of speech, but that we should seek precepts which will help us, utterance of courage and spirit which may at once be turned into facts. We should so learn them that words may become deeds.

In Philology James Turner attempts a heroic defence of this misunderstood breed. He argues that philology lies at the heart of all the academic disciplines currently called ‘humanities’. He suggests that subjects as apparently diverse as anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, comparative religion, classical studies, English literature and history all have their origins in the traditions of philological scholarship. At their institutional beginnings, he suggests, all these subjects were concerned in one way or another with the interpretation of texts and words in relation to their historical context. Turner traces a genealogy from the rise of textual criticism among Alexandrian critics in the third century bc through to the historical and philological investigations undertaken by Renaissance humanists, when ‘philologists awoke to the possibility of anachronism.’ This ‘growing mindfulness of cultural variance between historical periods’ was refined by 19th-century German Altertumswissenschaft, a word in itself enough to send a tingle down the spine of a Germanically inclined logophile: it means the scientific study of historical alterity, or the difference of the past, and was used by Barthold Niebuhr to describe the exacting method of contextual analysis followed in his epoch-making Roman History (1828-31). This interest in historical alterity led gradually to what Turner calls ‘the weirding of Greece and Rome’. He traces the spread of this kind of historically contextual study through 19th-century Britain and the United States, and shows the way German comparative mythographers – the kind of people whom George Eliot’s Casaubon had failed to read, and whose discoveries render his Key to All Mythologies vain – fuelled the rise of anthropological and archaeological study of classical civilisations. Scholarly societies and journals proliferated through the 1860s and after, bringing into being the fractured world of diverse, often mutually incomprehending humanities departments that dominate English and North American universities today. Turner insists that beneath all these distinct disciplines lies ‘the philologist’s need to establish precise contexts for understanding texts’.

His hero is the Harvard scholar Charles Eliot Norton (1827-1908), the subject of one of his previous books, whom he regards as a philologist in the grand, pre-disciplinary sense. Norton completed James Russell Lowell’s edition of Donne’s poems, wrote a commentary on Dante’s Vita Nuova and created a distinct discipline of art history at Harvard – as well as being a friend and advocate of Ruskin. All of his apparently miscellaneous skills were, Turner argues, united by an interest in philology and Altertumswissenschaft: Norton wanted to understand texts and artworks in the light of their historical contexts, and this led him to an omnivorous curiosity about the past which is both Turner’s ideal and the principal scholarly virtue he himself displays in this substantial survey of the growth of scholarship.

Only a brute would resist his argument, since the volume of evidence he has amassed really does warrant the use of the verb ‘amass’, and his purpose is manifestly good. Turner wants to remind people who work in the humanities that if they view their own activities in the historical context he describes, they will see that they have a common core of interests, and, by implication, that they should fight less and range and collaborate more widely. We are all, whether we want to believe it or not, influenced by philology and Altertumswissenschaft. Anyone who has sat through a departmental meeting of an English faculty in which an early medievalist refuses to see that she has any common ground with a postcolonial theorist, and in which each competes to have their particular style of literary study dominate the structures of teaching and learning; anyone who has spent time (and boy it passes slowly) in the deeper and danker circle of hell that is a committee meeting to determine the apportionment of research funding, and who has witnessed economic historians making disciplinary declarations of independence purely in order to ensure that their students get more money than other people’s students; anyone, indeed, who has sniffed the odours of intellectual self-interest and material poverty that can drift through the corridors of even the best-regulated modern university, will find much to welcome in Turner’s argument.

But is it true? The tiny bit of philologist in me is tempted to situate what Turner says in its own historical context. His is an academic 19th-century historian’s history of the humanities. His picture of relatively undifferentiated subject areas evolving in the 19th century into distinct specialisms incapable of interbreeding has more than a faint flavour of Darwinism (‘work like this evolved into modern theoretical linguistics in the 19th century’). It’s also a bit Whiggish. Anyone from the past who did not appreciate the pastness of the past is treated to a dose of irony. Nineteenth-century Oxbridge dons are a favourite target: ‘Oxbridge philologists still thought of the ancients as like long-dead English gentlemen with odd taste in clothing.’ Meanwhile history, led by philology towards a narrow focus on the contextualisation of documents, ‘contracted a serious case of rigour’. He is decidedly squeamish about later 20th-century literary criticism: ‘Having identified themselves as anti-philology, scholars of modern literature cut themselves off from the cross-disciplinary breadth of philological erudition.’ So much for transhistorical logophiliac aesthetes like me, though in fact I would regard historical contextualisation of documents as one of the many rickety spokes which tenuously connect my nave to my fellies.

Considered as a general history of the humanities, though, the big weakness of Turner’s study lies in its treatment of philosophy, which he insists isn’t really one of the humanities because it isn’t at root philological. Bernard Williams’s fusion of philosophical argument and careful reconstruction of Greek alterity in Shame and Necessity, to take one example, indicates why philosophers might, if they weren’t such philosophical souls, emit a yawp of displeasure at being summarily banished from the polis of the humanities. Some kinds of philosopher do clearly do something like philology in order to understand what ancient thinkers thought. Perhaps other kinds of present-day philosopher, who operate with canons of credibility that are transhistorical and truth-related, and some of whom, who knows, might be too hung up on working out what Dummett thought about Frege for their own wider intellectual wellbeing, could be regarded as doing something different from the kinds of historically oriented study with which Turner is principally concerned. But a genealogy of the humanities that excludes philosophy is a bit like a genealogy of mankind that excludes Abel. Some idea of what is true and good has been the central justifying end of most humanistic disciplines in most periods. Indeed you could say without too much exaggeration that the humanities as we know them were born out of a volatile marriage between philosophical ideals and philological methods. Nineteenth-century dons such as Benjamin Jowett, who had their say in arguments over biblical scholarship in ways that Turner would see as centrally philological, would also have thought of themselves as being able not just to translate Plato but to do philosophy, and thereby contribute to a general cultural Bildung in which the whole person was educated, not just in history, but in how to behave, live and rule.

Over the past century, of course, it has become difficult to talk about ‘the good’ and ‘the true’ and ‘culture’, let alone ‘ruling’, without slapping those words in the handcuffs of scare-quotes and marching them off to the ideological deconstruction chamber. But the suspicion that surrounds those large abstractions has arisen because newer forms of philosophy have reshaped ways of understanding cultural and linguistic phenomena throughout the humanities. Arendt, Beauvoir, Foucault, Marx, Heidegger, Derrida, Rorty, even J.L. Austin, were all philosophers of one kind or another, and their influence over multiple disciplines is not an aberration brought about by a decadent excess of counterphilological prejudice. It is a continuation of the long-standing connection between philosophical and other ways of thinking about human behaviour, history and culture, among which the philological-contextual mode of analysis is only one.

In the field of literary study it would be impossible to get everyone to agree about anything, but if you wanted to come up with a form of words that more or less captured what most people in literature departments today thought they were up to it would not be ‘we all are interested in the contextual analysis of texts.’ If you were to inch up the scale of abstraction towards philosophy you might just come up with a formula that would satisfy most literary scholars. When F.R. Leavis and Terry Eagleton are both sitting on different coloured clouds in heaven they’ll probably spend the first few millennia with their angelical backs to each other in a cherubic semblance of a huff; but after a few centuries inhaling the harmony-inducing air of the empyrean they may eventually (and philosophically) be able to agree that literary study matters principally because it is a provocation to ethical and political thought. Even Coleridge (nearby, but obscured by the fumes of the AAA-grade opiates available only on the other side) would sleepily nod in accord. Sir Philip Sidney, frisking around with his sword, would probably mutter that literature was certainly spoudaioteros, more serious, and more philosophical, than history, and that students of the humanities should watch out in case they all turn into historians delving into mouse-eaten old records. Literary study has always been pulled between rhetorical, ethical, philosophical and philological currents, and none of them has ever fully predominated. That is probably what gives it its vitality.

And elsewhere in the humanities the marriage between philosophy and philology has often been rocky. This isn’t surprising. A belief in the ethical and aesthetic value of past thought and writing and art almost necessarily prompts increasingly sophisticated attempts to understand the conditions of its production, understanding of which can in turn come to be regarded as an end in itself. Behold: a philological method gradually drifts away from Seneca’s belief that ‘all study of philosophy and all reading should be applied to the idea of living the happy life’ in order to go off whoring after grants for archaeological research. This isn’t just a story about the complex relationship between philosophical ideas and philological method in the evolution of the humanities. It’s a version of a more general story about what tends to happen to the desire to understand, which is perhaps the core motive underlying all forms of academic activity inside and beyond the humanities.


The desire to understand a text, a work of art, an inscription, a period, or a specific piece of human behaviour, can readily lose sight of its end. It can innocently lose itself in detail, or it can become a desire to show that one has understood better than anyone else, and turn interpersonally competitive and aggressive. It can also mutate into a desire to create a tribe of the like-minded who can protect and extend one’s own form of understanding. And in the dark nether reaches of the academic mind it can become a form of ego-building, in which the accumulation of increasingly complex historical details as a proxy for understanding creates a little zone in which the scholar believes him or herself to be the only person who possesses proper knowledge. A knee-jerk defence of the humanities might locate their main value in the intellectual activity of understanding the past in whatever form, which draws us out of ourselves, broadens the vision, and leads to all those beneficent pieties uttered at speech days in minor public schools, which even some Tory cabinet ministers seem able to parrot. But perhaps the moral value of the disciplines we call the humanities actually lies in the care and self-consciousness with which the desire to understand is regulated, in finding ways to cajole it away from egoism and self-inflation so that idealism and learning, thinking and knowing, can co-operate.

It isn’t easy. When I write a commentary on a text I’m aware that I know things that have the potential to generate a toxic cloud of dullness which could obscure the poem I am supposed to be explicating. I know stuff about the practice of sonnet writing in 1609, stuff about the history of words, stuff about the history of gender and sexuality. When I set that down in the form of a commentary on Shakespeare’s sonnets I also know that explication can be the most excruciating form of bardicide. Holding back on philological learning in order not to drown out the little voice inside which keeps on saying ‘the reason you are doing this is because this poem is fascinating beyond anything you could begin to create,’ and letting readers see why it might be worth knowing more in order to understand better is what I think I am doing. The novelistic representations of professors of the humanities as randomly lecherous egoists (campus novels, passim), or as idealists done down by unjust rivals (Stoner), or as people so preoccupied with learning as to have lost all connection with humanity (Casaubon), are illustrations of how readily the desire to understand can lose itself in institutionalised amnesia about the ends of reading and of knowledge. These fictions have probably arisen because academics manifest in unusually public ways the general tendency of desire to turn into something else in the course of its realisation. The caricature philologist could be regarded as a person in whom the desire to understand has suffered its final metamorphosis: the means used to pursue the end have entirely obliterated the end itself. We take the risk of becoming that person whenever we interpret more than casually. We owe it to ourselves to back off from time to time, and remind ourselves of our own ends.

Turner probably wouldn’t argue too much with this, since his concern is to encourage the humanities not to kill themselves off by overspecialisation. His pessimistic conclusion, though, is that the differentiation of academic disciplines that began in earnest in the 1860s has now become an intellectual straitjacket, and that ‘the rise of modern academic disciplines in the 19th century … fractured learning.’ It might look that way if you concentrate, as he chiefly does, on the institutional practices of universities and on the public and published profiles of scholars. Certainly it would be difficult for a member of an anthropology or a modern languages department today to publish an essay on an inscription she had stumbled across on a Greek island in the journal called Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, because nowadays there are people who spend their lives understanding such physical artefacts. But if one eavesdropped on the conversations of people with degrees in the humanities, social sciences or the theoretical and experimental sciences, or even of people who were just interested in books, one would probably find a lot less disciplinary isolation and a lot more interdisciplinary curiosity and knowledge than Turner finds expressed in academic journals and institutional structures.

This layer of general interest in knowing about humanity – call it culture – can all sometimes go wrong when academic specialisms waltz into the room. My mother, who was the children’s writer Diana Wynne Jones (and whose eightieth birthday recently prompted what must be the ultimate public recognition in the form of a Google doodle: the techies in California clearly like reading fantasy), once said at a dinner with a group of American academics that she loved The Faerie Queene. ‘Oh, are you a Spenserian?’ came the eager reply. When my mother said, no, she just liked reading Spenser and liked his fantastical imagination, the light went out in her dining companions’ eyes. Yes, academic disciplines are a wet sock to the imagination, but not everything we do is contained within their soggy outlines.