Philology is a branch of English academia, described on Wikipedia as "a combination of literary criticism, history, and linguistics". I am no expert, but its central premise appears to be that these three subjects are essentially indivisible for a proper understanding of a text.

Tolkien, in his letters, described himself as a philologist, as does Tom Shippey, one of the few academics to have made a serious study of Tolkien's work.

In the introduction to his book, JRR Tolkien: author of the century, Shippey states that the teaching and study of the subject is in decline and has practically vanished from universities. But he does not elaborate on the reasons why he believes this to be true or why it might have happened.

Is he correct? And if so, given the obvious utility of the subject (the value of the premise with which I opened this question seems pretty incontestable to me), why has it declined?

  • 11
    It's not in decline; it's just moved to Tumblr, where people are writing millions of words of thoroughly researched and cross-referenced meta on TV shows. :) – Lauren Ipsum Mar 8 '17 at 10:51
  • 6
    @Lauren jokes, but in reality the internet has brought modified philology to people en masse by removing the lofty barrier of "academic thought" from an ultimately human topic. – Aza Mar 8 '17 at 11:12
  • 7
    @Emrakul Honestly, my remark was barely in jest. I've learned a surprising amount about textual analysis from Sherlock meta. Mirrors and subtext and item codes — I have an English degree and we were never taught any of this in school! – Lauren Ipsum Mar 8 '17 at 12:11
  • 2
    "Tom Shippey, one of the few academics to have made a serious study of Tolkien's work." I've done a lot of research into Tolkien and I can tell you that there are more than a "few" academics who take Tolkien seriously. – user111 Mar 10 '17 at 20:44
  • Some of the interest in philology has been syphoned off by interest in linguistics. – kimchi lover Feb 2 at 15:58

I think C.S. Lewis himself gives a fairly exhaustive answer to this question in the The Abolition of Man. Lewis begins the first of the three essays that make up the book by looking at an elementary school textbook and showing how it has broken fundamentally with the entire Western tradition by interpreting a statement such as "the waterfall is sublime" not as an objective and just statement about the waterfall, and instead treating it as an a subjective statement about the observer's feelings.

If we view the statement "the waterfall is sublime" as a objective and just statement about the waterfall, that implies that objects in the world deserve a particular kind of response from us and that if we fail to give that response, it is because there is a defect in our appreciation -- a defect which education might seek to cure.

This implies a very different view of the relationship between language, thought, and reality than is implied by the idea that calling the waterfall sublime is merely an expression of the observer's feelings. Here language never describes reality at all, it only describes the observer's reactions. Language, and the reading of language, becomes entirely psychologized -- which is pretty much exactly what has happened in the study of literature. And in that environment, what would the place of philology be?

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.