Thesis ID: CBB120032710

The Rise of Philology in Britain: Explaining the Progress of Knowledge, 1750–1859 (2021)


McMullan, Luke Anthony (Author)
Siskin, Clifford (Advisor)

New York University
Siskin, Clifford
Publication date: 2021
Language: English

Publication Date: 2021
Physical Details: 282

The historiography of philology—known in criticism as the philological turn—has long treated philologists’ intellectual practices and the objects they studied as historical hallmarks of philology. The practice-based definitions of philology produced by this treatment allow critics to emphasize continuities between philology and the contemporary humanities. But they also often lack historical specificity, and sometimes lead to anachronism when historical texts are misidentified as philological. The result is a distorted picture of philology’s history. “The Rise of Philology in Britain” redresses that critical neglect by departing from the twin focus on practices and objects that has dominated the historiography. Instead, this dissertation examines the purposes and rationales that drove and defined philological enquiry from its rise in the mid-eighteenth century to its heyday in the mid-nineteenth century. Rather than work backwards from a set of textual characteristics presumed to have belonged to philology, this dissertation assembles its historical corpus from texts that explicitly invoked philology and the concepts associated with it. The resulting analysis breaks with consensus about philology’s history. Philology’s rise in Britain began not in the late eighteenth century but around 1750, when the relative frequency of philology in the English print corpus began a rapid rise, which would be sustained until the 1880s. Furthermore, in the eighteenth century, a text’s philological status depended neither on the practices of its writer(s) nor on the objects they studied. Philology was not about texts and languages. Instead, it was about the progress of knowledge. In terms of historical coverage, philology’s enquiry into progress ranged from the most distant antiquity to the present day, and the parts of knowledge it analyzed extended beyond those that are today considered parts of the humanities. The broader implications of this finding for the eighteenth century are explored via the conceptual dynamics of philology’s changing relationship with encyclopedias. For most of the century, philology was strongly associated with the phrase universal literature. Yet as the century went on, encyclopedias began to describe more thoroughly the progress of the various arts and sciences they defined, and hence took on some of philology’s remit. Universal literature was increasingly used to describe encyclopedias after the 1770s, and this reflected the encyclopedia genre’s incorporation of philology’s function: explaining the progress of knowledge. While the notion of philology that circulates in today’s critical literature evokes language families, manuscript collation, and painstaking etymology, the histories of languages did not become objects of philological inquiry until the 1780s. And then, the study of languages did not replace an earlier kind of philology. Rather, languages were annexed to philology’s framework for the study of knowledge’s progress, when it was realized that they exhibited their own historically legible progress and, therefore, could be treated as media that showed the progress of other domains. By 1859, the relative frequency of philology in the English print corpus was approaching its peak, and comparative philology enjoyed enormous intellectual prestige. This was the year of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Whereas philology and species transmutation, in the critical literature about their relationship, have usually been characterized as two separate fields, they were in fact a single hybrid, or amalgamated, field. From the 1830s to the 1860s, this hybrid field worked to answer a single question: whether the origin(s) of humankind had been many or one. The crucial factor for whether a work belonged to philology was whether it described some part of knowledge in terms of its historical origin or its progress. This dissertation recovers that fact and locates it at the center of philology’s history in Britain. In doing so, it improves our understanding of the rise of philology in the mid-eighteenth century and the changes it underwent for the next hundred years. Today, any attempt to reckon with philology’s legacy for the humanities must consider the role of progress in contemporary knowledge production in the humanities and elsewhere.

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Authors & Contributors
Alter, Stephen G.
Brian, Eric
Dunér, David Immanuel
Dupré, Sven
Eddy, Matthew D.
Harrison, Peter
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte
Historiographia Linguistica: International Journal for the History of the Language Sciences
Early Science and Medicine: A Journal for the Study of Science, Technology and Medicine in the Pre-modern Period
History of Psychiatry
Isis: International Review Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
American Philosophical Society
University of Toronto
Carocci Editore
Cornell University Press
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
University of Texas at Austin
Linguistics; philology
Language and languages
Encyclopedias and dictionaries
Science and literature
Discipline formation
Darwin, Charles Robert
Blair, Hugh
Condorcet, Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de
Diderot, Denis
Grimm, Jacob Ludwig Karl
Holmes, Oliver Wendell
Time Periods
18th century
19th century
17th century
16th century
20th century
21st century
Great Britain
Scandinavia; Nordic countries

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