The Magazine

In the Beginning .  .  .

How the study of words leads to thought

Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By SUSAN KRISTOL
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During the Reformation, humanists’ work on Christian texts and Hebrew scripture, studied at times with the assistance of Jewish teachers, could prove dangerous if their linguistic comparison of different translations of sacred books led to suggestions that the official text contained errors. This period, and the following century, were marked by a lack of formal boundaries between disciplines. It was a world populated by polymaths like Erasmus, Isaac Casaubon, and Joseph Scaliger. This is Turner’s favorite period, a golden age to which he hopes the humanities may one day return.

The scope of this review won’t allow a detailed treatment of all of the humanities disciplines discussed by Turner. Suffice it to say that, as time went on, philology became the possession of the academic world, not of erudite outsiders, and academic pursuits became more and more segregated from one another: “By 1800 philology strained against its own skin,” Turner explains. The dominant position of classical learning began to be threatened. With the rise of anthropological research in the latter part of the century, moreover, came an emphasis on ancient barbaric rites and customs—what Turner calls “the weirding of Greece and Rome.” No longer the unique source of moral lessons and paradigms, classical studies was toppled from its pedestal and became a modern discipline like any other. 

The change happened surprisingly quickly. Turner reports that at Harvard in 1856-57, the study of classics consumed 40 percent of students’ class time before senior year; by 1884-85, the Greek and Latin requirement had been eliminated entirely. He writes: “This revolution left teachers of Latin and Greek looking and feeling more like professors of geology or history” rather than defenders of a special area that was necessary for all educated men and women to know. The professional rigor that entered the field also transformed archaeology and ancient history. During this period, other parts of the philological world congealed into disciplines: art history, anthropology, and various types of religious studies. “Disciplinarity” had triumphed over the onetime “collective integrity” of the humanities.

Turner’s historical survey is thorough and covers a lot of ground, and an engaging sense of modesty emanates from the author himself. For those interested in intellectual history, Philology is worth reading. But Turner is most concerned about the detrimental effect that disciplinary divisions have had on humanistic learning, with scholars increasingly being forced to focus on narrow areas, seeking what I like to refer to as “a niche with a twist.” Turner does not say so, but this narrowing may be one cause of academics’ inability to make good on the promise of the APA’s motto that literature can “heal the soul.” 

Back in the 1960s and ’70s, the field of classics was under attack for being irrelevant to, say, the urban crisis or Watergate or the Vietnam war. But at least there were generalists who taught popular survey courses like “The Greek Hero” and Latinists who could bring Catullus’ poetry to life, or make a compelling (if controversial) case that the founding of Rome, as depicted by Virgil’s Aeneid, was a criminal act typical of a tyrannical, imperialist power. Although graduate students were warned against the great sin of being a popularizer, there was still a sense that the content of these great works of literature was being read and debated.

Today, although there are surely many exceptions, the trend in humanities seems to be the embrace of meta-literature (which is interested in showing how the text is self-conscious of its status as a text) rather than the central issues raised by the texts. A case in point is this course description for an upcoming freshman seminar at an Ivy League university:

The course covers a wide range of Greek literary and philosophical works as well as modern critical and philosophical writings on the Greeks. The focus throughout is on the status of language, the many forms of discourse that appear in literature, and the attempts the Greeks themselves made to overcome the perceived inadequacies and difficulties inherent in language as the medium of poetry and philosophy. The course inquires into the development of philosophy in the context of a culture infused with traditional, mythological accounts of the cosmos. It asks how poetic forms made an accommodation with philosophical discourse while creating an intense emotional effect on the audience; and discusses how these issues persist and are formulated in our own thinking.