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Savage or Solitary?: The Wild Child and Rousseau's Man of Nature

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 62, Number 2, April 2001
pp. 245-263 | 10.1353/jhi.2001.0021

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Journal of the History of Ideas 62.2 (2001) 245-263

Savage man, left by Nature to bare instinct alone ... will then begin with purely animal functions.... His desires do not exceed his physical needs; the only goods he knows in the Universe are food, a female, and rest.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discours sur les origines et fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes (1755)

Left by nature to instinct alone, this child performs only purely animal functions ... his desires do not exceed his physical needs. The only goods he knows in the universe are food, rest, and independence.

Pierre-Joseph Bonnaterre, Notice Historique sur le sauvage de l'Aveyron (1800)

Rousseau's Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men imagines a state of nature in which a creature bearing an "exact physical resemblance" to human beings leads a "simple, solitary, uniform existence." Frequent reference to the observed behavior of a variety of "savage" tribes and to various animal species are brought to bear in the attempt to imagine the life led by the conjectured "natural man," but neither the "primitive" nor the beast are appropriate analogues; the "savage" is sociable while natural man is isolated and autonomous and animals as imagined in the Discourse do not possess the innate potential to develop those faculties the text identifies as specifically human. Rousseau refers to another possible prototype in a brief note to the Discourse that touches on several instances of children "discovered" after spending prolonged periods in the wild, apart from human contact. It is noteworthy that although incorporated within Rousseau's text, these cases are not taken as possible models for the isolated existence of natural man, particularly as the Discourse itself came to be a principal source for scientists who had the unique opportunity to examine one of the most famous of all so-called wild children when he was "found" in 1800.

How did Rousseau's image of original human nature come to serve as a diagnostic template for the severe linguistic, cognitive, and affective impairments associated with such rare cases of extreme isolation? Rather than clarifying the condition of these unfortunate children, the use of Rousseau in this context raises important questions about the Discourse itself, particularly about the extent to which the imaginary anthropology Rousseau advanced in that text presents association and interdependence as the inescapably necessary matrix for the development of human forms of life. Scientific documents that adopted Rousseau's language and reasoning in order to describe the unusual case of an individual profoundly damaged in his capacity to learn, to communicate, and to interact effectively with others also inadvertently raise questions central to interpretation of the Discourse. How is a "state of nature" Rousseau notoriously identified as no longer existing and as perhaps never having existed to be understood? Is the conjectural history of the Discourse a theoretical reconstruction of human origins, or a deconstruction of such genealogies? While the case history of Victor of Aveyron cannot resolve such theoretical disputes, it offers a valuable framework within which to reconsider just how Rousseau's speculations are "better suited to elucidate the Nature of things than to show their genuine origins" (139/133).

I. "A child cut off from all of society ... scrutinized down to the slightest movements he might make"

In 1798, after several attempts at capture, the naked young boy first glimpsed running and foraging in the forests around the village of Lacaune in the south of France was seized and put on display in the town square. He neither spoke nor showed any sign of hearing or understanding the language of the villagers. At first opportunity he fled back to the woods. He was recaptured a year later, in July of 1799, but fled again, this time through the forest and over the mountains into Aveyron. When in January of 1800 he wandered into a tanner's workshop in the village of Saint-Sernin (perhaps seeking the warmth of the fire burning there, or urged on by hunger), he was taken in hand by local authorities, transferred to a nearby orphanage (where he made several unsuccessful efforts to escape), and ultimately became the charge of a medical and...



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