The birth of the age of reason out of the meditations of a feral child

Hayy ben Yazdhan is a philosophical story, in which the framing devise is a consideration of the relationship between the world, the senses and the mind from a Sufi point of view, leading – as it has lead in many a philosophical text, all the way up to Quine’s Word and Object – to a children’s story. The story in Word and Object gives a rough and ready behavioralist account of a child associating words to things. The story in HBY is a bit more complicated, and combines two themes that were much loved, centuries on, in the Enlightenment. One is of the isolated man – either Robinson Crusoe, physically separated from his fellows, or the man born blind, the aveugle-né, for whom speculation about shape and color was not so much metaphysical as existential, a way, as Ibn Thofail puts it, for the blind man to be able to walk through the city. However, the story of the marooned baby whose cries, heard by a female gazelle, induce her to go over and nurse him, is rather… bizarre. The bizarre part isn’t imaging our proto-Mowgli hanging out with the other gazelles, and noticing differences. The Disney cartoon part stops when Mother Gazelle dies. Here we leap from Disney to Psycho, by way of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson. Our worldless gazelle raised boy does not know what death is. But he does know that something is wrong with the female gazelle. He knows that when his eyes are closed, or he puts his fingers in his ears, his sense of seeing and hearing is darkened. The unmoving female gazelle, he decides, has a similar problem on a more massive scale. Something is blocking her on the inside. So he decides to dissect her. He already has the idea that inside the body, this directing sense of senses must operate in some cavity – either in the head, or the chest, or the stomach. His hunch is that the directing sense must be in the center – thus, must be in the heart. With a sharp stone and some reeds that he has also sharpened, he opens up his mother, hoping that he can remove the obstruction that is causing her to act so funny. He is looking for something like a hand over her heart. First, he finds the lungs in the chest cavity. Then he finds the heart, but “it is covered by an extremely strong envelop.” Finally he cuts away enough of the lung and other obstructing tissue to get a good look at the naked heart, but he doesn’t see anything wrong.

Well, no matter how far our gazelle boy probes, he can’t find the obstruction or the sense organ he is looking for. Finally he decides that the thing that was there left. That the heart is the seat of the thing that was there, but that he is looking at, as it were, an empty house. And also, Ibn Thofail notes, the mother gazelle is beginning to stink. After watching a dead bird being buried by another bird, gazelle boy decides to do the same. Thus, he’s gone through cognitive science, anatomy, and the rudiments of civilization – before he’s even learned to speak! Pretty good for a marooned child.

The translation of the text into English by Simon Ockley, which is how Defoe knew about it, if he knew about it, can be read at your leisure here. Pococke’s Latin version is passed around in the 1680s. Ockley’s English version (“The Improvement of Human Reason: Exhibited in the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdhan”) comes out after the first edition of Locke’s Essay, in 1708

In 1719, Robinson Crusoe is published. In 1725, Wild Peter, the feral boy caught near Hamlin and shipped as a curiosity to England, was shown to the English court. In 1726, Defoe writes his Mere Nature Delineated, or a Body without a Soul. Being Observations upon the Young Forester lately brought to Town from Germany… And in 1731, the wild girl of Sogni was caught. From Locke to the marooned tabula rasa to the feral child, something might be going on here, some gnawing nighttime doppelganger of the Whig projector and bourgeois individual. Ho ho ho, the torches are burning low in the vault, the professor is growing incoherent and oddly hairy about the wrists, and the assistant has been riveted by the cry of wolves somewhere outside the crypt, which seem to be getting closer....


amie said…
LI, i don't know if today was a good or bad day, though it was not nearly as horrible as that day from five years ago that i cannot forget nor the ashen faces, mine among them.
it was not bad as what i feared, i was so very afraid of the worst, and that didn't happen - but what has happened? - but i cannot call it good when a scumbag like Sarkozy gets the majority of the vote. the anti-CBE demonstrations stopped short, they should have gone on - they had the chance - to run this scumbag out of public office.

i voted for SR, though i would have perhaps preferred to vote for MGB.

you have scumbag NS's 'economics' pegged, though i would add to it his continual 'evocation' of 'french identity', which is not just a smokescreen, it is scary stuff.

me, fool that i am, want to find the spell to conjure the ghosts from the city that a foreigner called the equivalent in history to vesuvius in nature, get the ghosts to speak...
roger said…
Amie, I had read all the anglosphere newspapers, which I should know better than to believe, give these unbelievable figures for Sarkozy's support. And S.R.'s campaign seemed, at certain points, out of control. But was the latter due to the elephants whispering to their buds in the press? Maybe.

The chances favor Sarkozy, but Royal just might bring it off. I was wrong about her.