Thursday, April 24, 2014

Philology by James Turner

Philology is defined as "the multifaceted study of texts, languages, and the phenomenon of language itself". According to this book, it's also the parent of disciplines such as history, literature, and basically most of the humanities (except Philosophy).

Personally, I've never heard of Philology before this book. But after reading it, I can say that... Oxford's Philosophy, Politics and Economics course sounds absolutely fascinating. It's not covered in the book (it's only mentioned at the end), but I took a look at the course on the website and it looks good.

Now back to the book. This book is a survey of the history of philology. It doesn't try to go in-depth, which seeing as its 576 pages in total, might be a good thing. Philology has had a really long and interesting history, but it has always been a broad-ranging subject. It was only when philologists began to specialise in areas such as History and Archaeology and so on that it started to be forgotten.

But think about it, do we need a Jack or all trades or a master of one? It's not a simple question (for example, I want my doctor to be a master of the field of medicine, not a Jack of all trades), but I would say that with the internet connecting us, a broad base of knowledge is beginning to become essential. Sure, we'll need (and we should) specialise in one thing, if only because it'll give us something unique to brag about in our resumes, but it's only smart to know about a lot of other things as well. Like Philology (although that does restrict things, albeit a broader base of things).

So that means, perhaps in 20 years time, the norm for humanities students would be to have a minor in philology, as well as an area of specialisation. I mean, I think it would really help a literature student if she knew the history of the time period of the piece she's analysing, and a history student could always use literature sources as a secondary source. It's all interconnected.

The writing in this book is a bit dense, and since it's a technical subject, is a little hard to read. However, there were times where I chuckled, as the author occasionally tried to inject some light-heartedness into the book. For example, I love this description of Athanasius Kircher:

"Take Alexander Pope's dictum, "a little learning is a dangerous thing"; imagine it walking on two legs and you have Kircher in his wilder moments."

And of course, this bit of information is going to be useful to know in the future (when talking to friends about their coffee addiction):

"Oxford's Arabist, Rev. Edward Pococke, protege of John Selden, set the model for the modern scholar by downing endless cups of coffee."

So while the subject matter might be heavy, this book isn't as unreadable as you'd expect. If you have an interest in the humanities and its origins, you should definitely pick up this book.

Disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.

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