Sometimes Your Problem Turns Out to Be Your Solution

I’ve been trying in my dissertation chapter on nineteenth-century philology and science to answer the question ‘What influence, if any, did comparative philology have on Charles Darwin?’ Specifically, on Darwin’s theory of common descent with modification. Darwin’s theory is really two theories rolled into one. ‘Common descent’ means all living things are genealogically related. ‘With modification’ means the traits of successful organisms get passed onto their offspring, leading the aggregate ‘pools’ of such traits to drift over time.

Schleicher’s  Stammbaum  of Indo-Germanic languages, 1853

Schleicher’s Stammbaum of Indo-Germanic languages, 1853

Darwin’s  Origin of Species , 1859

Darwin’s Origin of Species, 1859

One of the big problems I've had is coming up with a definition of philology which lets me decide in the mid-nineteenth-century context what is philology and what is not—which, if you know me already, is not an easy thing to do. One of the complicating things about philology as a practice of many philologists is its internal heterogeneity. Some philologists are exclusively interested in languages; others want to use it to trace the origins of various ‘nations'; some are in the middle. Basically, it's messy. 

This messiness is why definitions of philology used today are so bad. The job of my dissertation is not to clear up the messiness but perhaps to define precisely the limits of the mess, what all the things that make the mess up are, who made the mess c. 1760 and why it got cleaned up after 1920. And how a lot of poets looked at the mess and liked what they saw. Some literary critics today like the mess too, and want to make the mess all over again, but because they don’t really know about the mess, they’ll only be making an entirely new mess and saying it’s just like the old mess. An unrelated digression: if you duplicate a mess in a new location: can it be a mess? Some kind of order is implied in the copying, but a mess is defined by disorder. 

So this conceptual messiness has been a problem for my chapter. Because if you want to answer the question ‘What influence did x have on y?’ you need fairly clear definitions of x and to see this ‘influence' phlogiston that moves between them. But defining a mess is hard—it’s sort of part of the idea of a mess that it’s undefined. Defining influence is perhaps just as hard.

Stephen G. Alter, in Darwinism and the Linguistic Image, argues that there was no direct influence until after Darwin; instead, both philology and natural history lived in an environment where they shared habits of ‘genealogical thinking'. In other words, scientists/naturalists/what have you tended to look to the form of descent as a way of relating and classifying. I am not sure that's entirely true. All the pre-Darwinian methodical relational diagrams of organisms are structured by some other ordering principle: by geography, by features, etc. There is no historical dimension (i.e. descent) to these diagrams. If genealogical thinking was so widespread, the pervasiveness of non-genealogical diagrams would need an explanation.

As part of my effort to get rigorous about what is philology and what isn’t, I’ve been ignoring moments in philological texts where authors talk about the movements of ancient tribes and focusing instead on the explicit language-talk. I’ve been seeing these moments as a problem that requires defining away in my search for the ‘missing link' between philology and the theory of evolution itself.

But I was reading the other day about James Prichard. James Prichard’s Eastern Origin of the Celtic Nations (1831) was the first proper book of comparative philology produced in the English language, and it established a whole group of languages—the Celtic ones—as a branch of the family of Indo-European languages. I wondered what could have induced him to produce this book, so I read more about his biography. It turns out that Prichard was a physician by training and, according to his preface, saw Eastern Origin as a continuation of his work in Researches into the Physical History of Man, a book written to advance the monogenic thesis. In the nineteenth century, there was a debate between monogenists and polygenists. Monogenists believed that races shared the same origin (as the Bible describes). Polygenists believed that human races had completely separate beginnings. Monogenism was the more orthodox and widely-held position—it was in line with Biblical beliefs. So Eastern Origins, he states, is part of his pro-monogenic project.

I looked again at the next big book of Anglophone philology, Donaldson’s New Cratylus (1839). His preface mentions his hope that his book will contribute to acknowledgement of the fact that the races of man are ultimately one. I had ignored this the first time I read the book because I had initially been thinking of this stuff as an irrelevance—a problem that muddied up the philologyI had been looking for. Then I noticed that William Whewell’s Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840) treats comparative philology as a synonym for ethnology. The written evidence of these generic claims was just too much to ignore.

Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) heavily implied the common descent of human races. His Descent of Man (1871) argued it explicitly. Darwin was a monogenist. One of the ways of explaining the connection between Darwinism and comparative philology, then, is that they are genres of enquiry dedicated to precisely the same question: are we one or many?

Suddenly my problem—the messiness of a philology that cannot help speculating on the origins of nations and races—has begun to look like my solution. It is no surprise that Darwin drew his tree of life (the first one that formally historicised the relations between organisms) just seven years after Schleicher made the same diagrammatic innovation for languages. They apply the same method to the same question. Only the Realien—the primary materials studied—of the method are different. The real question is why it took so long for such diagrams to begin to appear.

This raises the possibility of a different way of looking at how areas/spheres/fields/kinds of knowledge are related: not by objects or methodologies but by their ultimate motivating questions. This is the case for these two fields—philology and the natural history of man—but may not be for others. What’s more, it may be a kind of relationship that is itself historical in its nature, only making sense around the middle of the nineteenth century. This is analogical to the idea, I think it’s Ralph Cohen’s insight, that not only genres are historical but so are the schemata of genre. In other words, the ways in which genres are interrelated, are themselves historical ways, not eternal ways. And what makes a genre a genre in 1700 is different from 1800. That question about kinds of relationship between genres of knowledge is a question I can’t answer in my dissertation but one that would be interesting to work on.