On Philology: Interview with James Turner

By Amelia Harrington

James Turner, Cavanaugh Professor of the Humanities Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, received the 2015 Christian Gauss Award for Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton University Press, 2014). Established in 1950 to honor Princeton scholar and former Phi Beta Kappa President Christian Gauss, the award is presented to exemplary books in the field of literary scholarship or criticism. Past winners of the prize include Harold Bloom, Christopher Benfey, Marjorie Garber, and Claudia Johnson.

Turner received his BA summa cum laude, MA, and a PhD in history from Harvard University. He specializes in the intellectual history of Britain, Ireland, and America; his previous books include The Liberal Education of Charles Eliot Norton (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), Language, Religion, Knowledge: Past and Present (University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), and The Future of Christian Learning: An Evangelical and Catholic Dialogue with Mark A. Noll (Brazos Press, 2008). Turner has taught at the University of Michigan and served as the founding director of the Erasmus Institute.

Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities is the first history to span the chronology of Western humanistic learning. From ancient Greece to the twentieth century, Turner tells the story of philology and how it became the modern Humanities. As Steve Donoghue notes in Open Letters Monthly: “It’s a stupendous work of scholarship and synergy, and nobody knows better than its author the uphill struggle before it. . . . The end result is the best and liveliest book (indeed, one of the only books of its kind that I know of) about philology ever written.” The intellectual passion with which Turner engages his subject makes Philology a pleasure to read. 


In this history, you span many centuries of humanistic learning and intellectual life. Did your interest in philology begin with a particular time, place, or person that eventually led you to write this book?

TURNER: My interest in philology began with a puzzle. The modern humanities disciplines, as we know them, had never formed a part of higher education (or “lower,” for that matter); and they had never provided categories for scholarly research. Then, beginning about the middle of the nineteenth century, our present-day humanities disciplines rapidly developed in British, Irish, and North American universities. Where did they come from? In investigating early teachers of the modern humanities, I noticed that these men and (a few) women typically approached their subjects with methods borrowed from a very old source: philology and related studies. That observation was the “aha” moment that led me deep into the history of philology and its role as the seedbed of the modern humanities. 

Reviewers have remarked on the readability and entertaining style of Philology. Adam Smythe of Literary Review wrote that it “reads like a caffeine-fueled love letter to the great polymaths of the past.” How do you make a complex subject like philology comprehensible and engaging for readers outside of academia?

TURNER: Well, I did consume a lot of caffeine in the course of research and writing. The key to making any complex subject accessible to ordinary readers is to write for them. A lot of professors, unfortunately, get buried in their special subjects and write in the language of their fellow professors in those sub-fields. I try to scrub out jargon and use everyday words. I try to recognize the background knowledge that non-specialists may not have and provide it when needed. Polysyllabic words and long, complicated sentences put up barriers to anyone’s understanding; so I try to avoid them. Human life, maybe especially the scholar’s life, has comic moments as well as noble ones and tragic ones. If some episode makes me laugh, other readers may also find it funny, so I tell them. And often an anecdote makes a point more memorably than a generalization does. The late Roman aristocrat who kept Christian literature at one end of his library where ladies sat and kept his pagan books in another section where only men sat–well, that guy’s library says volumes (so to speak) about the fraught relationship between early Christianity and classical learning. I spend a lot of time hacking away at my bad prose to produce readable sentences. I hope that the work isn’t visible in the finished product, and I’m glad that a lot of readers appreciated the results.

In an interview with Five Books, you were asked to provide an example of an area overlooked by modern scholars. You mention a little-known Latin play published in France by the 16th century Scottish scholar George Buchanan. What can an education system – specifically an integrated philology – do to keep works like this from disappearing into the margins of history?

TURNER: Buchanan’s drama is ignored by literary scholars today because it is too cosmopolitan to fall within any present-day specialty. Despite its place of publication, it isn’t “French literature” because it isn’t in French. Despite its author, it isn’t “British literature” because it isn’t in English. Despite being in Latin, it isn’t “classics” because it wasn’t written by an ancient Roman. Before philology fragmented into specialized disciplines in the nineteenth century, there was no disciplinary bar to studying a work like Buchanan’s. I’m very reluctant to speculate on what might or might not happen in today’s very different circumstances. But I can say that those circumstances needlessly confine scholars. Some very distinguished academicssuch as the eminent Sankritist Sheldon Pollocktoday advocate a revival of philology as, more or less, the master humanistic discipline. Should something like that occur, boundary-crossing texts like Buchanan’s play might again get the attention of scholars. 

Your book explains how philology has changed over time; how does it also offer clues as to why such changes occurred and what changes may be ahead?

TURNER: Of all the changes that my book examines, the most fundamental by far occurred when philology fractured into the modern humanities. In the English-speaking world, this happened between about 1850 and 1910. The most important reason for that change, Philology shows, was the emergence of the modern principle of disciplinary specialization in colleges and universities. Now, the reasons for this rise of disciplinarity are not yet well understood. I hope eventually to write about it. I doubt I’ll find a simple answer. And I strongly suspect that at least some of the roots of disciplinarity lay outside the academy, in broader economic and social processes. As to prophesying the future, I plead incompetence. My book does show that our present structures of academic knowledge came into existence at a particular time, not so long ago, and that they are the contingent products of specific historical changes. So it makes sense that the ways we divide up knowledge will continue to change. But I don’t think Philology offers any real clues as to how that change will work out. If readers do find evidence in my book of what the future holds, I’d be delighted to hear!

What over-arching message or impression do you want readers to carry with them from Philology?

TURNER: Readers are a perverse lot. They’ve always found their own meanings in my books, some of which surprised me. Recently I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in several group discussions of Philology at universities in this country and Europe, and, once again, I’m helpless to impose my will on my readers. I can say that the strongest impression the author carried away from writing Philology was the remarkable coherence in methods and approach that still unify the modern humanities disciplines, inherited from their shared philological past.


What does receiving the Christian Gauss Award mean for you and your book?

TURNER: In disciplinary terms, I’m a historian. I have a PhD in history; I’ve always worn the label “history professor”; the courses I’ve taught have always been listed under “history.” The Christian Gauss Award recognizes “books in the field of literary scholarship or criticism.” I like to think that a historian winning the Gauss Award vindicates Philology‘s most basic claim: that today’s humanities disciplines “are modern, artificial creations—where made-up lines pretend to divide the single sandbox in which we all play into each boy’s or girl’s own inviolable kingdom.”

Amelia Harrington is a junior at Randolph College majoring in English literature and dabbling in everything else. Randolph College is home to the Delta of Virginia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.