Reading Hayy Ibn-Yaqzan: A Cross-Cultural History of Autodidacticism

October 30, 2020
Reading Hayy Ibn-Yaqzan: A Cross-Cultural History of Autodidacticism

Commonly translated as "The Self-Taught Philosopher" or "TheImprovement of Human Reason," Ibn-Tufayl's story "Hayy Ibn-Yaqzan"inspired debates about autodidacticism in a range of historicalfields from classical Islamic philosophy through Renaissancehumanism and the European Enlightenment. Avner Ben-Zaken's accountof how the text traveled demonstrates the intricate ways in whichautodidacticism was contested in and adapted to diverse culturalsettings.In tracing the circulation of the "Hayy Ibn-Yaqzan," Ben-Zakenhighlights its key place in four far-removed historical moments. Heexplains how autodidacticism intertwined with struggles overmysticism in twelfth-century Marrakesh, controversies aboutpedagogy in fourteenth-century Barcelona, quarrels concerningastrology in Renaissance Florence, and debates pertaining toexperimentalism in seventeenth-century Oxford. In each site andperiod, Ben-Zaken recaptures the cultural context that stirredscholars to relate to "Ḥayy Ibn-Yaqẓan" and demonstrates how thetext moved among cultures, leaving in its wake translations,interpretations, and controversies as various as the societiesthemselves. Pleas for autodidacticism, Ben-Zaken shows, not onlyechoed within close philosophical discussions; they surfaced instruggles for control between individuals and establishments.Presented as self-contained histories, these four momentstogether form a historical collage of autodidacticism acrosscultures from the late Medieval era to early modern times. Thefirst book-length intellectual history of autodidacticism, thisnovel, thought-provoking work will interest a wide range ofhistorians, including scholars of the history of science,philosophy, literature, Europe, and the Middle East.