The Self-Taught Philosopher: How a 900-year-old Arabic tale inspired the Enlightenment

Naheed Mustafa tells the story of Ibn Tufayl, a philosopher-physician from the 12th century. He wrote a novel called "Hayy ibn Yaqzan" -- which may be the most influential story you've never heard.
Imaginary debate between Averroes And Porphyry. Monfredo de Monte Imperiali "Liber de herbis", 14th century. Reproduction in "Inventions et decouvertes au Moyen-Age", Samuel Sadaune (Wikipedia (CC))

Our contemporary values and ideals are generally seen as the product of the Enlightenment. Individual rights, independent thinking, empiricism and rationalism are traced to the debates and discussions held by the great European thinkers of the 17th and 18th century: Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Kant among others. But these thinkers owe a debt to a figure from 12th century Spain: a philosopher-physician named Ibn Tufayl who wrote a story called Hayy ibn Yaqzan — which may be the most important story you've never heard.

**This episode originally aired May 16, 2017.

​Avner Ben-Zaken is a scholar of Ibn Tufayl's story, Hayy ibn Yaqzan, and says the text is unlike anything that came before it: "It's incredibly radical. Not only for medieval times, even for today. To argue that a person, in order to get perfect knowledge, has to go through a process of only, exclusively, first-hand experience, not relying at all on any tradition — not scientific tradition, not philosophical tradition, definitely not religious tradition — that the person, in order to know the best, has to know through first-hand experience, all the knowledge that exists in the world and that you cannot really just cite knowledge and trust writers or just develop something scientific built on assumptions from the past, that we have to start afresh every time when we do scientific or philosophical investigation, it's incredible for medieval time. It is radical even for today." 

Guests in this episode: 

  • Lenn Goodman, Professor of Philosophy, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee.
  • Avner Ben-Zaken, History of Science, Ono Academic College, Tel Aviv, Israel.

Further reading: 

  • Ibn Tufayl's Hayy ibn Yaqzan: A Philosophical Tale, translated by Lenn Goodman, University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  • Reading Hayy ibn Yaqzan, Avner Ben-Zaken, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.
  • Cross-Cultural Scientific Exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1560–1660, Avner Ben-Zaken, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

**This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa & Nicola Luksic. Thanks to Chris Howden for his readings from Hayy Ibn Yaqzan.


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