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Things about the Arabick influence on John Locke and Daniel Defoe my first year philo class never taught me

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.


northanger said…
Senate Judiciary Committee on CSPAN3.

i need coffee.
northanger said…
i understand Mr. Gonzales that you gotta go.

{sorry, i'm talking to the tv}
northanger said…
Senator Orrin Hatch.

Roger Gathmann said…
North, up so early to watch such stuff!
So I hope the Dems are cool and ultramodern about questioning Gonzales. I pray for no speeches! I wish they would study some of the GREAT TRIAL FILMS - you might send them a message with a list of them. More Perry Mason - he was the lawyer, right? Raymond Burr, in other words, less Mr. And-another-thing.
northanger said…
I ♥ Feinstein!
(& i'm ♥ Leahy too)

i'm confused ... i'm not sure you're really the decider ... who is the decider? (something about constant equivication)

you haven't read my entire statement ...{gulp} maybe you did, i'm sorry.

northanger said…
hey Roggie, Raymond Burr is good. that's a good tv trial lawyer. honest.
northanger said…
btw, the 110th US Congress has nice & sparkly Dems that're cool and ultramodern.
northanger said…
everyone playing the Gonzo drinking game is officially drunk now.

what is this "code" bizness at TPMmuckraker?

coffee break!
northanger said…
who's that Texas senator comparing apples & oranges? John Cornyn.
Roger Gathmann said…
Texas is pretty subpar with its senators at the moment. Coryn is our senator solely and completely because he is white - ran against the conservative mayor of Dallas - who is black - and won on the ever popular Dixie platform, hey, I'm white! while being plainly several niches below said mayor in the IQ department.
Texas is a state of mind... lessness.
Roger Gathmann said…
Actually, in the pic in the nyt, I sorta felt sorry for Gonzales. He looks so lonely. It must be hard being Georgiepoo's friend and gofer. Like the loyal servants to the psycho rich in Raymond Chandler novels.
northanger said…
the ever popular Dixie platform, hey, I'm white!

LOL, i'm going to have to remember that one.

Roger, there are more worthy things that deserve your sympathies. just saying.
northanger said…
couple of weeks ago my dad said i sounded like Gonzales. i think i was equivocating. oh look!

weasel word

NOUN: An equivocal word used to deprive a statement of its force or to evade a direct commitment.

ETYMOLOGY: From the weasel's habit of sucking the contents out of an egg without breaking the shell.
northanger said…
i didn't even like the plan. but we did the plan, coz the plan was De Plan. & we deployed De Plan (did i say i didn't like this plan? ok) so we deployed De Plan coz ... well, gee i was busy with more important things at the time so i sorta don't recall me remembering that i didn't like the plan that got deployed even though i didn't like the plan in principle.
northanger said…
lunch break, until 2pm EDT.
Roger Gathmann said…
North, I like your summing up about de plan. You should become one of CNN's website writers!
northanger said…
i liked your elephants of Kilamanjoro, here's the Five Ws & One H & something from The Elephant's Child...

I Keep six honest serving-men:
  (They taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Where and When
  And How and Why and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
  I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
  I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five.
  For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
  For they are hungry men:
But different folk have different views:
  I know a person small —
She keeps ten million serving-men,
  Who get no rest at all!
She sends 'em abroad on her own affairs,
  From the second she opens her eyes —
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
  And seven million Whys!
northanger said…
wow. look at Sheldon's chart.
northanger said…
strike one, strike two, strike three. thank you Senator Schumer.
Roger Gathmann said…
North: I'm back, but briefly. Gotta interview a man with a dog today.
Please tell me that Gonzales is going to resign. Please!
northanger said…
sorry i rebooted! i think Gonzales is going to suck his thumb first.
Roger Gathmann said…
So then, the song for the G-man's hearing is from the New Pornographers, The Laws Have Changed
it was crime at the time
but the laws, we changed 'em

though the hero for hire's
forever the same one

introducing for the first time
Pharaoh on the microphone
sing all hail
what'll be revealed today
when we peer into the great unknown
from the line to the throne?
northanger said…
hey, righteous. (Salt-n-Pepa: wicked, wicked)