- Friedrich Max Müller and the Role of Philology in Victorian Thought ed. by John R. Davis, Angus Nicholls
John R. Davis and Angus Nicholls’s Friedrich Max Müller and the Role of Philology in Victorian Thought reevaluates the work and influence of the “most influential comparative philologist in Victorian Britain” (1). The contributors to this volume are affiliated with institutions in the U. K., Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Italy, and they specialize in subjects as diverse as English, German, comparative literature, applied linguistics, history, philosophy, and religious studies. The international and interdisciplinary nature of the contributors reflects the main focus of the volume: Friedrich Max Müller (1823–1900), a Sanskrit scholar who was born in Germany, studied in both Germany and France, held the prestigious Professorship in Comparative Philology at the University of Oxford, and exchanged opinions with all manner of scholars. All of the essays in this volume were originally published in 2016 as a special issue of Publications of the English Goethe Society, an organization of which Müller was the first president. The topics covered vary from language and thought to metaphor, myth, mythology, and religion. Of these, the last subject is given the greatest emphasis, for, even though Müller’s philological work intersected with many disciplines, it was in religious studies that he made—as Davis and Nicholls argue—“a significant and lasting contribution, though not always in ways that were intended” (30).
Part 1 of the volume is called “Friedrich Max Müller on Language, Metaphor, Religion and Myth.” The general objectives of this cluster of essays are, first, to consider why Müller’s theoretical work in these areas was discarded by the end of the nineteenth century and, second, to demonstrate how it nevertheless “helped to define and establish new disciplinary and intellectual landscapes” (29). Exemplifying this double purpose is the chapter by Andreas Musolff on Müller’s idea of mythology as diseased language, along with the role that metaphor is said to have played in language’s alleged fall. Müller’s theory of metaphor may be “outdated” today, Musolff concludes, but “his questions on the intra- and intercultural transmission and understanding of metaphor still pose a challenge to philosophical and linguistic metaphor theories” (67). Marjorie Lorch and Paula Hellal take a similar approach in their discussion of Müller’s idea of “the interdependence of language and thought.” On the one hand, “Müller was relatively unique in successfully transmitting linguistic ideas to the medical and scientific research communities”; on the other, his claim drew increasing criticism as the empirical fields of study developed toward the end of the nineteenth century (44). The case of aphasia, for instance, demonstrated how patients maintained their intellectual capacity except for their ability to use words correctly. [End Page 686]
Müller’s philology-based theorization of various subjects often defies clear systematization. This tendency comes in part from the diverse nature of his work, as he frequently gave public lectures, published articles in journals intended for a general (if educated) audience, and wrote numerous private letters expounding on his views. A strategy frequently taken in part 1 of the volume is therefore to locate Müller on the intellectual map of Victorian thought by examining his interactions with other scholars. Pascale Rabault-Feuerhahn’s essay, for instance, evaluates Müller “as the founder of comparative mythology” by examining his correspondence with Angelo De Gubernatis, “his most zealous promotor in Italy” (78). In like manner, Robert A. Segal compares Müller with Edward Burnett Tylor and other contemporary scholars to point out that his attitude toward religion and myth, “pitting” the one against the other, was “atypical” even in his own day (68). In her chapter “‘Language is our Rubicon’: Max Müller’s Quarrel with Hensleigh Wedgwood,” Michela Piattelli considers Müller’s view on the origin of language through the intellectual debates he...