A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Michael Drout: The Decline and Hoped Rebirth of Germanic Philology

Michael Drout gave a fascinating keynote address at Mythmoot IV. Honestly, the last thing I expected to hear was a call to action.

Edited to add:  A video recording of the talk is now online.

We 120 were a big audience, by Germanic-philology standards, but it was not always so. In 1848, Jakob Grimm was Guest of Honor at the Frankfurter Nationalversammlung where they wrote the Constitution. “Who is a German?” was the defining question for 150 years of European history. Philology was a tool in this nationalistic task, and Jakob Grimm was the master philologist.

Grimm’s work wasn’t confined to an ivory tower.  His methods made it possible to read long-dead languages, and thereby investigate cultural history in words. Success in application makes something important. Because it had real-world effects, philology dominated scholarship before WWII the way physics did afterwards. But philology was basically wiped out, between 1945 and 1951, an effort that was enthusiastically supported by literary scholars who wanted to erase their Nazi-sympathizing pasts. It doesn’t exist any more as a requirement for an English degree.

Apart from institutional antipathy, another problem that bedevils philology is the absence of good textbooks. You can’t learn it without a good teacher. It’s taught by the apprentice method, which is unsurpassable for quality of education, but, being highly susceptible to Baumol’s disease, isn’t a good way to rebuild an entire field of study. Professor Drout stated ex cathedra that current philologists are fewer and less capable than their predecessors. He bolstered the assertion with examples of archaeological discoveries that were more-or-less predicted by philological analyses of ancient texts, and said that such skill has vanished, now. (I’ll take his word for it; but some day I’d like to see all the predictions that didn’t come true.) “How do we know that?” asked Timdalf, which was a very good question. Drout’s answer is that he sees signs of it all through the old literature — many parts of reviews and commentary aren’t explained because everybody knew them. There are traces all through the journals of vanished networks of communication and understanding. We have no referents for them.

Professor Drout next developed his story with a diatribe against Literary Theory. He’s not so well educated as his predecessors because he had to learn Theory to get a job. Even from my brief incursion into the field, I know what he’s talking about.  “The theorists tried to destroy philology, which cursed them as it died.”

The general decay of literary studies is a consequence of losing the academic rigor that philology brought. Literary Theory doesn’t have much of it. Here is Professor Drout’s call to arms: let us, Signum University faculty, students, and scholars in its orbit, restore philology to its proper place.  The old philologists didn’t completely understand this a hundred years ago, but now we know philology is grounded in neuroscience. Philology is a way for literary studies to catch up with the rest of the academy in rigor. Without a philological foundation, no theoretical treatment should be taken too seriously. In conclusion, he suggested that we, the Tolkien fans who have become philology fans, are like gardeners who are watering the seeds, against the day when philology sprouts again.

The conclusion was inspiring. The last thing we expected from a plenary talk was to be charged with a mission. (It wouldn’t be the last of the weekend!). Not all the eyes in the audience were dry when Professor Drout finished.

I was left with two questions to ponder.

  1. Professor Drout is one of the best at speaking Anglo-Saxon that I’ve ever heard. He’s so good at it that he can sell recordings. Seth Lerer is the other; both are philologists, not just literary critics. It seems likely that studying philology is necessary to pronounce an ancient language well. Is it sufficient? Or are other skills needed, too?
  2. The knowledge that philologists used to have isn’t well-represented by a chain of facts. It’s a network. This seems like the sort of thing Google Scholar was invented for. Might it be possible to program a neural net with the corpus of the technical literature, which can then serve as an assistant to someone who wants to reproduce and extend the old discipline?



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1 Comment

  1. So if philology is grounded in neuroscience, is theory grounded in neurosis? (just kidding, Sorina)

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