In messing around in the vaults – the vaults under the surface of history and literature, as per the posts of last week - LI recently came across an article that piqued our curiosity. The article, by G.A. Russell, claims that an eleventh century Arabic philosopher, Ibn Tufayl, influenced both John Locke and Daniel Defoe through a book of philosophy he wrote which contains a parable about a boy who was raised by a gazelle on a desert island. Hayy Ibn Yaqzān was translated by the remarkable Edward Pococke in 1671 into Latin. Pococke gave it the wonderful title, Philosophus Autodidactus.
Since the Paul Bermans of the world are so hot on the trail of fascism in the intellectual history backgrounding Al Qaeda, I think it is intriguing that an ‘Arabick’ tale could show up in the background of two writers who so shaped the conjunction of the early capitalist ethos and democratic political theory.
The story goes like this. Pococke, as Robert Irwin points out in his recent book on Orientalism, was England’s heaviest arabist in the 17th century, a time when the Koran was officially banned. Pococke learned his Persian, Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew in the Netherlands – that was where you go if you wanted an education, in the 17th century. Of course, you could attend courses at Cambridge taught by Isaac Newton, but few did, and of those, none understood what the hell he was talking about. Pococke proceeded to translate Arabic texts into the language of scholarship, Latin, and to introduce coffee into England – for which we are all pathetically grateful. We know that Robert Boyle and John Locke both read Philosophus Autodidactus.
So, that is what I read and it is one of those things where you go huh. But now, thanks to the wonders of Google Books, I was able to call up a copy of Hayy Ibn Yaqzān, in a French translation by Leon Gauthier. And looking through it, what to my wondering eyes doth appear but this passage, on page five:
“If you want a comparison that will make you clearly grasp the difference between the perception, such as it is understood by that sect [the Sufis] and the perception as others understand it, imagine a person born blind, endowed however with a happy natural temperament, with a lively and firm intelligence, a sure memory, a straight sprite, who grew up from the time he was an infant in a city where he never stopped learning, by means of the senses he did dispose of, to know the inhabitants individually, the numerous species of beings, living as well as non-living, there, the steets and sidestreets, the houses, the steps, in such a manner as to be able to cross the city without a guid, and to recognize immediately those he met; the colors alone would not be known to him except by the names they bore, and by certain definitions that designated them. Suppose that he had arrived at this point and suddenly, his eyes were opened, he recovered his view, and he crosses the entire city, making a tour of it. He would find no object different from the idea he had made of it; he would encounter nothing he didn’t recognize, he would find the colors conformable to the descriptions of them that had been given to him; and in this there would only be two new important things for him, one the consequence of the other: a clarity, a greater brightness, and a great voluptuousness.”
This is six hundred years before Locke, but any student of the early modern era would recognize, in this story, the heart of the Molyneux problem – introduced by Locke in his Essay on Humane Understanding in book 2, chapter 9, like this:
I shall here insert a problem of that very ingenious and studious promoter of real knowledge, the learned and worthy Mr. Molyneux, which he was pleased to send me in a letter some months since; and it is this:- "Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and the other, which is the cube, which the sphere. Suppose then the cube and sphere placed on a table, and the blind man be made to see: quaere, whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube?" To which the acute and judicious proposer answers, "Not. For, though he has obtained the experience of how a globe, how a cube affects his touch, yet he has not yet obtained the experience, that what affects his touch so or so, must affect his sight so or so; or that a protuberant angle in the cube, that pressed his hand unequally, shall appear to his eye as it does in the cube."- I agree with this thinking gentleman, whom I am proud to call my friend, in his answer to this problem; and am of opinion that the blind man, at first sight, would not be able with certainty to say which was the globe, which the cube, whilst he only saw them; though he could unerringly name them by his touch, and certainly distinguish them by the difference of their figures felt. This I have set down, and leave with my reader, as an occasion for him to consider how much he may be beholden to experience, improvement, and acquired notions, where he thinks he had not the least use of, or help from them. And the rather, because this observing gentleman further adds, that "having, upon the occasion of my book, proposed this to divers very ingenious men, he hardly ever met with one that at first gave the answer to it which he thinks true, till by hearing his reasons they were convinced."
The problem has a long career. It was taken up by Berkeley, and many of the French philosophers. We see, in the man born blind who wanders about a city, the Molyneux problem by way of the Arabian Nights, with an ending that prefigures what Diderot will say in Lettre sur les aveugles.
Which I will go into tomorrow.