(Image: “MS. Bodl. 602, fol. 18v” (detail): a bestiary illustration from St. Albans, England, 13th century. Courtesy of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.)
The Early Modern Studies and History of Science & Technology Programmes present
“Anthromythology: Ourangutan, Myth, and Man in the work of Rousseau”
a lecture by Emma Planinc, University of Toronto
Following from international travel literatures and reports of the great apes circulated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, natural scientists and philosophes in France struggled to account for the uniquity of the human being. This lecture addresses the accounts of the ourangutan that were circulated in eighteenth century France, which gradually moved from mythic affiliations with the satyr to more “factual” or scientific descriptions of their behaviours and forms. I next discuss the varying ways in which ourangutans were fit into taxonomies of natural creatures. Carl Linnaeus’s taxonomy reflected such a deep ambiguity about the formal distinction of man from the great apes that he simply wrote “nosce te ipsum [know thyself]” next to the human being in his Table of the Animal Kingdom, in which man and ape were grouped together in the genera of Anthropomorpha. This same dictum, to know ourselves, served as the starting point of Rousseau’s Second Discourse. The remainder of the lecture will be spent outlining Rousseau’s reinvocation of mythology to disentangle man from ourangutan. Where once the ourangutan was previously seen as mythic, man instead became, in Rousseau’s work, the mythic satyr.
Emma Planinc is a doctoral candidate of Political Theory in the Political Science Department at the University of Toronto. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Political Theory, The Review of Politics, and the Canadian Journal of Political Science.