Eric Ormsby reviews James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, in The New Criterion. Well into the review we have this paragraph:
In several of his most intriguing asides, Turner discusses Thomas Jefferson’s abiding fascination with American Indian languages. On one occasion, in June of 1791, Jefferson and James Madison “squatted in a tiny Unquachog village on Long Island” to compile a wordlist of the now-extinct Quiripi language from the three old women who still spoke it. Jefferson sought to discover the origins of American Indians; he wondered whether they were ultimately of Asian origin or, less plausibly, whether they had originated in Wales, his own ancestral homeland. In any case, the image of two future American presidents hunkering down in a freezing wigwam on Long Island, driven purely by intellectual curiosity, seems to come from some alternative universe now forever lost to us.
That, of course, doesn't tell you much about that mysterious discipline, philology. Somewhat later he gives us this:
While Turner excels at pithy profiles, he is also quite superb at illuminating certain recurrent debates in the history of philology, such as the “Transcendentalist Controversy” in 1830s Massachusetts in which Ralph Waldo Emerson disputed Andrews Norton, his former teacher of divinity. The disagreement was over the age-old question of whether language developed by convention, Norton’s view, or was inherent in the things it denoted, as Emerson argued. It isn’t really so surprising that such a dispute would crop up in nineteenth-century New England: the very nature of discourse, let alone consensus on the interpretation of Scripture, depended upon its resolution. The most compelling such clash, which Turner describes at length, occurred between Friedrich Max Müller, the German-born scholar of Sanskrit who became Oxford’s first professor of comparative philology, and William Dwight Whitney, the first Yale professor of Sanskrit—both eminent authorities even if Müller had become a kind of academic superstar through his public lectures. (But Whitney’s Sanskrit grammar of 1879 is not only still in use, but still in print.) The dispute, yet again, centered on the origins of language. Müller had made fun of Darwin’s idea that language developed when humans first began imitating animal cries, calling it “the bow-wow theory.” Müller believed instead that language exhibited “natural significancy” and that its origins could be uncovered by a search of Sanskrit roots. Whitney argued for its basis in convention: “the fact that an American says ‘chicken’ and a Frenchwoman ‘poulet’ to refer to the same fowl is purely arbitrary: ‘gibbelblatt’ and ‘cronk’ would work just as well.” Though this was a trans-Atlantic debate, it might as well have been between Plato and the Sophists; such questions were perennial just because they were unanswerable.
I suppose one might conjecture that echos of that one remain with us today in the dispute between language nativists (that is, language is an instinct) vs. those who believe language is a purely cultural matter. But the opening paragraphs perhaps give a more useful gloss on this thing called "philology":
What language did Adam and Eve speak in the Garden of Eden? Today the question might seem not only quaint, but daft. Thus, the philologist Andreas Kempe could speculate, in his “Die Sprache des Paradises” (“The Language of Paradise”) of 1688, that in the Garden God spoke Swedish to Adam and Adam replied in Danish while the serpent—wouldn’t you know it?—seduced Eve in French. Others suggested Flemish, Old Norse, Tuscan dialect, and, of course, Hebrew. But as James Turner makes clear in his magisterial and witty history, which ranges from the ludicrous to the sublime, philologists regarded the question not just as one addressing the origins of language, but rather as seeking out the origins of what makes us human; it was a question at once urgent and essential.1 After all, animals do express themselves: they chitter and squeak, they bay and roar and whinny. But none of them, so far as we know, wields grammar and syntax; none of them is capable of articulate and reasoned discourse. We have long prided ourselves, perhaps excessively, on this distinction. But on the evidence Turner so amply provides, we might also wonder whether the true distinction lies not simply in our ability to utter rational speech, but in the sheer obsessive love of language itself; that is, in philology, the “love of words.”
This abiding passion for words, cultivated fervently from antiquity into modern times — or at least until around 1800, in Turner’s view — encompassed a huge range of subjects as it developed: not only grammar and syntax, but rhetoric, textual editing and commentary, etymology and lexicography, as well as, eventually, anthropology, archeology, biblical exegesis, linguistics, literary criticism, and even law. It comprised three large areas: textual philology, theories about the origins of language, and, much later, comparative studies of different related languages.
That last paragraph (actually, the beginning of a paragraph) gives a useful scope of the discipline.
Not, mind you, that I actually know what philology is. Philology is something I've heard about my entire adult life. I even met a philologist when I was at Johns Hopkins, Kemp Malone, but he'd been long retired at that point. So I've never studied under one, only under those who had studied under a philologist or two. So, I know more or less what the word means ('love of language') and have some sense of what kinds of questions interested philologist. But only "some sense", no more. The term doesn't set off the kind of intuitive resonance given off by, say, "linguistics", "geology", "cognitive psychology", or "evolutionary biology". It has its roots in an earlier world, one I can only look at, but not inhabit.
But then I feel a bit like that about some very recent discussions of cultural evolution, especially those micro-level discussions where "memes" and "attractors" are in play. While, yes, I do discuss such matters myself, I can't help but think that the bulk of those discussions are too deeply grounded in an earlier era, say, the mid-20th century or so, to make much headway in this century.