Here is an example from Italy: Rome and Naples (1889):

No three days pass that I do not read in the newspapers some terrific declamation against two celebrated authors of our day, one so brilliant, amiable, and lively, so French and so spiritael, that you forget to note his good sense, which is equal to his wit ; and the other, so broad and delicate, so rich in general ideas, so refined and so practical in the art of feeling and distinguishing delicate shades, so happily endowed, and so well instructed, that philosophy and erudition, the highest generalised conceptions, and the minutest literal philology are as Hebrew to him.

  • I'm going to assume that this is an error, as what you have posted is presumably a transcript, which has other more obvious errors in it. For example, the word "spiritael" [sic] which I imagine is a misspelling of "spiritual". See if you can get a proper transcript.
    – Astralbee
    Feb 10, 2020 at 15:01
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it appears to be based on a fallacy.
    – Astralbee
    Feb 10, 2020 at 15:02
  • Do you mean it's content? Feb 10, 2020 at 15:02
  • 1
    @Astralbee This is not a request for the definition of the word literal, but a question of how that word applies to the word philology.
    – user105719
    Feb 10, 2020 at 16:33
  • 1
    Here is the original book: Livre: Voyage en Italie. Naples et Rome / par H. Taine Taine, Hippolyte-Adolphe in French on the Bibliothèque Nationale's site called Gallica. When published, it was considered a big deal in 1874! :)
    – Lambie
    Feb 10, 2020 at 22:37

2 Answers 2


If you look up the filologia in Italian, it is used to mean:

filologia in Italian

the study of language and literature [in whatever language).

You often see, in this regard, in countries with Romance languages (such as French, Spanish, Portuguese), the use of the word philology to mean language and literature, in fact. I know this from years of seeing, for example, filologia inglesa.

For example, from Spanish: Mireya Hernández nació en Madrid en 1981. Es licenciada en Filología Inglesa. Hizo los cursos de doctorado y obtuvo el Diploma de Estudios Avanzados en Ciencias de la Información. Es traductora, lectora editorial y profesora de español e inglés. Meteoro es su primera novela. filologia inglesa

That means: She has a degree in English language and literature

So, in the translation cited in the question, literal "philology" is a very poor translation.

literal philology, therefore, might mean: the literal interpretation of language OR literal interpretation of language and literature. Usually, if you study language and literature, you are interested in figurative things, not so much literal ones.

I would also venture to say that when translator writes: are as Hebrew to him, this is hard to decipher in English.

In English, if we want to say someone does not know something, we say: It's Greek to him. So, what the author is saying is not very clear.

The word literal as compared to the word figurative, in disciplines involving language and literal.

Example: He's a damned cur.

cur is literally a dog, but historically and figuratively in English it was used to say a person behaved badly or rudely.

  • Thanks a lot for you explanations. Regardless the content (which for me is just an example), is it correct to use this combination in English? Does "literal philology" make sense? Feb 10, 2020 at 22:12
  • @HassanBashiri I would not say something like that. As I explained, philology is used differently in Romance languages and the translator did not know that. literal interpretation of literature or language. Thanks for the link.
    – Lambie
    Feb 10, 2020 at 22:18
  • Aha. Thanks again. I got it. Feb 10, 2020 at 22:19

We get the word philology from two Greek roots φιλειν (to love) + λογος (word), and one meaning of the word comes from the literal application of the Greek -- a love of learning in the sense of scholarship. This meaning is now rare to the point of obsolescence, having been supplanted by the label for the historical study of language. The passage you quote serves up several contrasts between the focus of different types of mental capacity: e.g., between "broad" understanding and "shades" of meaning and between "general" ideas and "refined" ideas. The final contrast is between the study of the very general ("highest generalised conceptions") and the very detailed and specific ("minutest ... philology"). But to get the right sense, philology must stand for scholarship in general and not just historical linguistics specifically, so the author signals his choice by saying "literal philology," assuming you know the meaning taken from the literal, original Greek.

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