I have an essay in the most recent Chronicle of Higher Education, which, though it is not presented as such, is a sort of essay-review of two books that have recently been very important to me: James Turner's Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, and Sheldon Pollock, Benjamin A. Elman, and Ku-ming Kevin Chang (eds.), World Philology. The 'essay-review' genre is ill-defined, but I take it that it involves some explicit account of the main contributions of one or more books, but then launches off from this account to develop some independent but related interests of one's own. The article in the Chronicle is behind a paywall unfortunately, but I will post an excerpt of it here:
...As a historical fact, textual science does indeed often emerge out of a commitment to the divine inspiration of scripture. But it will complicate the common prejudice, which equates secularization and scientific progress, to note that in many cases this commitment in no way blocked the development of philological science. A fascinating case in point is the early history of Arabic philology. As Beatrice Gruendler explains, the newness of Arabic as a literary language at the time of the composition of the Qur'an forced its early interpreters to go and look for aid in understanding its subtle meanings among the archaic poets, and even among the practitioners of oral poetic traditions. She relates that early Muslim scholars, "[w]orking on a poetic heritage that preceded them by up to two centuries and was created in a Bedouin oral culture, ... pursued not only preservation and comparative analysis, but also authentication." They collected poetry from Bedouin informants and compiled lexica on the basis of this fieldwork. Gruendler writes that they also "showed a surprisingly modern interest in dialectal variants, which they likewise recorded in their books." As she notes, these philologists would have been perplexed by the dichotomy over which Nietzsche and Willamowitz-Moellendorff would later fight, between the conception of philology as the study of "a text as an artifact of the past," on the one hand, and on the other philology as the task of bringing a text alive in the present. "For all their veneration of the textual witnesses they gathered, their sharp-eyed testing of their authenticity, and their linguistic commentary on them, the Arabic philologists were devoted to extracting from these sources a usable language for the present."
The field research of the Arab linguists anticipates the proposals made by the German polymath G. W. Leibniz several hundred years later, at the end of the 17th century, for a sort of 'glottoprospecting' across the Russian Empire, a systematic collecting of samples of the Lord's Prayer in all the native languages of that vast geographical space. For Leibniz however, the interest was in linguistic diversity itself, rather than the richness of a single language. In general in the modern period we see two large shifts occurring in the study of language and its textual traces, both reflected in Leibniz's proposals for linguistic fieldwork. One is a move towards naturalism and an increasing assimilation of the task of linguistic research to other areas of natural science that are concerned with diversity, with botanical taxonomy the most important among these. Thus William Jones's research on the names of plant species in Sanskrit and other South Asian languages, carried out in the 1780s and 1790s, is at once an inquiry into the diversity of the names of things, and of the things themselves.
The second great shift in the modern period was from a scriptural hermeneutics that served to buttress and sustain religious faith, as had been the case in early Islam, to one that, whether or not this was the explicit intention of the hermeneuticists, had as its ultimate effect the historicization and relativization of revealed truths. Julius Caesar Scaliger argued in the 16th century, as Turner notes, that "[t]heological disputes all stem from ignorance of grammar." But increasingly the study of grammar, and of textual science in general, was serving not to secure particular doctrinal claims, but rather to call into question the exceptional authority among texts of the ones that lie at the heart of religious traditions. Perhaps no modern thinker represents this shift more vividly than Baruch Spinoza, whose Tractatus theologico-politicus of 1670 aimed, as Turner argues, "to undercut ecclesiastical authority in civil affairs. A good way to do this was to weaken its ultimate ground in a divinely inspired Bible. Spinoza combined metaphysical naturalism with Hebrew learning to turn the Bible into a product of human history."
What Turner perhaps does not emphasize enough is that the metaphysical naturalism ascending in Spinoza's era is precisely the basis of what would come to be called 'natural science'. For Spinoza, then, as for many others in the next few centuries, the study of nature and the study of texts were united in a single project: that of understanding how things, in the most general sense, came to be the way they are. Sometimes, the parallel and complementary nature of the two varieties of inquiry has been reflected in the pairing of 'natural' and 'civil' history, though often, particularly in the case of natural history, what has been included in this endeavor has not so much to do with reconstructing and accounting for past processes, as with enumerating individual instances of a given phenomena (for Leibniz, for example, natural history is the science of 'singular things'). But whether these terms are evoked or not, throughout the 18th and into the 19th century, the task of learning about how nature got to be the way it is, by decoding the traces of past processes in nature's current form, was seen as fundamentally the same project as accounting for the human past by the study of a particular subset of traces, the written ones, that have been passed down to the present.
Typically, today, we see humanists attempting to get in on the action of the natural scientists down the hall, which is to say to mount the gravy train of grant-seeking that favors work purporting to be of some scientific relevance. Thus marginal Husserlians will attempt to show that phenomenology is relevant to the latest research in neuroscience, and scholars who work on the Scientific Revolution will plead that their own research is relevant for understanding the latest developments in the biotech sector. It is all a bluff, of course, a strategy of keeping two books in which we tell the money-givers one thing, while believing something entirely different about why what matters to us is important. The sad irony of this arrangement is that until not too long ago the cachet flowed in precisely the opposite direction: the natural scientists went to considerable lengths to show that what they were doing was continuous with the interests of the people we would think of today as the humanists.
A full explanation of how this reversal occurred has something to do with the loss of the idea of history as a broad category that straddles the subsequent two-cultures divide. Consider for example the French naturalist Georges Cuvier, writing in 1798 on the occasion of the discovery of some woolly mammoth remains in the Paris region: "Henceforth it will be necessary to add, to the history of the animals that exist at present in each country, that of animals that have lived or been transported there in the past." Here, by 'history', Cuvier has in mind, as Leibniz had before him, simply the enumeration of singular things. But he adds that this endeavor must also include 'history' in our sense, the reconstruction of the past:
For... it will be necessary for naturalists to do for the history of nature what antiquarians do for the history of the techniques and customs of peoples; the former will have to go and search among the ruins of the globe for the remains of organisms that lived at its surface, just as the latter dig in the ruins of cities in order to unearth the monuments of the taste, the genius, and the customs of the men who lived there. These antiquities of nature, if they may be so termed, will provide the physical history of the globe with monuments as useful and reliable as ordinary antiquities provide for the political and moral history of nations.
Not so many years later, the English naturalist Charles Lyell will argue at length that the most suitable disciplinary comparison for geology is, again, history, by which “we obtain a more profound insight into human nature, by instituting a comparison between the present and former states of society.” But, he continues, "far more astonishing and unexpected are the connections brought to light, when we carry back our researches into the history of nature. The form of a coast, the configuration of the interior of a country, the existence and extent of lakes, valleys, and mountains, can often be traced to the former prevalence of earthquakes and volcanoes in regions which have long been undisturbed."
Lyell, in effect, is promoting a science of reading the Earth. We should, perhaps, not exaggerate the radicality of the famous decline of the Renaissance preoccupation with the 'book of nature'. It is true that after the 16th century few people continued to believe that there are literally meanings encoded in the natural world, by a divine author, which we must learn to decipher. But this does not mean that science in its modern incarnation has been engaged in something that is entirely different from reading. As Lyell still understood well into the 19th century, what researchers in at least some central domains of natural science do is not completely separate from what human scientists do: both are interested in coming to understand the present from traces left, intentionally or unintentionally, by authors, or indeed by blind natural processes, in the past.
In light of these precedents, my humble proposal for the restructuring of the disciplines, and moreover for solving the two-cultures problem, is this: there will be a single, unified, scientific discipline dedicated to accounting for the present state of the world through reconstructing the past by whatever means available to us: texts, stone tools, burial mounds, tree rings, sediment deposits, fossils, cosmic background radiation. This discipline can be housed institutionally in what will be called the 'faculty of history', and mechanisms can be put in place to ensure that the textual scholars do not retreat into their own little world, as if the sort of traces they happen to study had nothing to do with the other sorts. There can in turn be a 'faculty of the atemporal sciences', in which researchers work on mathematical proofs, debate the finer points of epistemic modals, and search out the very most general laws describing those things that do not change. Here too mechanisms should be put in place to prevent ghettoization, and, in addition, compulsory instruction in the history of these activities will ensure that no one ever forgets that in the end there are no truly atemporal sciences, but all emerge from peculiar and contingent historical legacies. There can, finally, if desired, be a 'faculty of new stuff', where researchers develop new lightweight materials and better passwords and robots that journey through our entrails, and try to imagine what is to come next in entertainment, lifestyle, and so on. Here, too, training in how things got to be this way should be compulsory, as the only truly reliable guide to how things are going to be from here.
History, I mean, should be elevated to its rightful place, as the reigning science in the emerging universities of the 21st century. It is the best hope for an exit from the current dérive of the humanities, and, much more than this, it is the best hope for overcoming the false and arbitrary rift between the human and the natural sciences. History is considerably larger than philology, yet philology itself may be much larger than it is now perceived to be. Pollock notes that philology "has been everywhere that texts have been, indeed, in a way that we have yet to fully grasp, everywhere that language has been." This ubiquity was however grasped, for example, by the early Islamic field linguists who went out to build their lexica from the oral poetry of the Bedouins. Nor, at other times in history, as for Leibniz and William Jones, was the boundary of the genealogist's project set at the limits of language, but indeed extended to all the things named in language, to the world itself. In their diminished self-understanding, today's humanists have relinquished all these things to the natural scientists, who for the most part do not know what to make of them. By rediscovering its unity with philology in the shared project of history, natural science stands to gain as much as the humanities do: to rediscover its lofty purpose of enabling us to make sense of the world, and of our place in it.