Worlds Made by Words

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

The New Yorker once featured a cartoon depicting a college professor attempting to describe his occupation to his daughter. As the little girl listens, the bespectacled father declares: “Daddy works in a magical, faraway land called Academia.” The image evokes laughter, inasmuch as artist David Sipress skillfully plays upon a widely held view of the scholar: someone who labors in the proverbial “ivory tower” of academic isolation. Anthony Grafton’s Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West belies this stereotype and makes it clear that scholarship is a matter of anything but isolation.

Most contemporary scholars specialize in a particular subject area, have earned Ph.D.s by writing book-length works on original topics and defending them before committees of fellow scholars, and hope to achieve tenured teaching positions through significant research and publication. This is the traditional model of acquiring and disseminating knowledge, and it still flourishes in an age when information can be instantaneously transmitted anywhere. It is for this reason that Grafton’s book is so welcome. He seeks to understand where this model of scholarship came from and how it evolved into its current form.

Grafton’s book is by no means a complete narrative of scholarship in the West. The study of the history and methodology of scholarship is a field so vast that it would require a multivolume series, rather than a single tome, even to begin to do it justice. To cite one example, Stephen M. North’s impressive The Making of Knowledge in Composition: Portrait of an Emerging Field (1987) takes four hundred pages to survey the subject of writing in the 1980’s, and this topic represents only one subset of the larger field of English studies.

Worlds Made by Words comprises fifteen essays that illuminate the history of scholarship through a mixture of overview essays and articles on individuals. In chapters 1 through 9, which constitute the largest section of the book, Grafton explores the beginnings of modern European scholarship, a period lasting from about 1500 to the late 1700’s that has come to be known as the Republic of Letters. In the useful first chapter, “A Sketch Map of a Lost Continent,” Grafton outlines the origins and development of this phenomenon, which is also his own research specialty. Situating his discussion firmly in the political and social context of the time, Grafton makes one realize just how extraordinary a development the Republic of Letters actually was. At a time when Europe was distinguished by the impervious nature of its social structure, scholars enjoyed a kind of equality: In a world of sharp and well-defined social hierarchiesin which men and women wore formal costumes that graphically revealed their rank and occupationits citizens insisted that they were all equal, and that any special fame that one of them might enjoy had been earned by his or her own efforts.

Although freemasonry is often credited with instilling a kind of nascent European egalitarianism, Grafton implies that the same can be said for the scholarly fraternity. It was no doubt this perceived sense of equality among members of the Republic of Letters that was responsible for the openness with which they dealt with their subject matter. While contemporary scholars only publish the positive results of their research, their intellectual forebears felt free to commit their failures, as well as their successes, to print. It is a lesson in humility that modern academics would do well to learn.

One of the characteristics of these early modern scholars that drew them together was the fact that they all shared a thorough schooling in the classics: Greek, Latin, philosophy, logic, and history. It was the ubiquity of Latin in education that established it as the universal language in the Republic of Letters until the mid-seventeenth century, when Latin was supplanted by French. Even a towering figure such as Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), who formulated fundamental laws of gravitation, was firmly grounded in a classical syllabus and published his scientific investigations in Latin. Grafton also emphasizes the crucial fact that, unlike their modern counterparts, the scholars of this period were what he terms “generalists.” In a cross-fertilization of ideas largely absent in modern scholarship, even such specialists as theologians, physicians, and lawyers incorporated...

(The entire section is 1830 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

The New York Review of Books 56, no. 8 (May 14, 2009): 45-47.

Times Higher Education, April 16, 2009, p. 48-49.

The Times Literary Supplement, July 17, 2009, p. 7-8.

The Wall Street Journal, March 14, 2009, p. W8.