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

Avner Ben-Zaken

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Book Description

December 7, 2010 0801897394 978-0801897399 1

Commonly translated as "The Self-Taught Philosopher" or "The Improvement of Human Reason," Ibn-Tufayl's story Hayy Ibn-Yaqz n inspired debates about autodidacticism in a range of historical fields from classical Islamic philosophy through Renaissance humanism and the European Enlightenment. Avner Ben-Zaken's account of how the text traveled demonstrates the intricate ways in which autodidacticism was contested in and adapted to diverse cultural settings.

In tracing the circulation of the Hayy Ibn-Yaqz n, Ben-Zaken highlights its key place in four far-removed historical moments. He explains how autodidacticism intertwined with struggles over mysticism in twelfth-century Marrakesh, controversies about pedagogy in fourteenth-century Barcelona, quarrels concerning astrology in Renaissance Florence, and debates pertaining to experimentalism in seventeenth-century Oxford. In each site and period, Ben-Zaken recaptures the cultural context that stirred scholars to relate to Ḥayy Ibn-Yaqẓ n and demonstrates how the text moved among cultures, leaving in its wake translations, interpretations, and controversies as various as the societies themselves. Pleas for autodidacticism, Ben-Zaken shows, not only echoed within close philosophical discussions; they surfaced in struggles for control between individuals and establishments.

Presented as self-contained histories, these four moments together form a historical collage of autodidacticism across cultures from the late Medieval era to early modern times. The first book-length intellectual history of autodidacticism, this novel, thought-provoking work will interest a wide range of historians, including scholars of the history of science, philosophy, literature, Europe, and the Middle East.

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Editorial Reviews


A fascinating work of multi-cultural scholarship tracing the fortunes of a 12th century Arabic text in four eras of Western history.

(Bernard Bailyn, Harvard University)

This highly interesting volume can be described in three ways. First it is a historical analysis of the concept of autodidacticism. Second, it is the history of a particular book. Finally, the book is self-described as an exercise in interdisciplinarity... The method of this historiographic proposal is described as 'historical sampling,' whereby the appropriation of a text in various cultural contexts is displayed and compared. In all three of the abovementioned ways, the present reviewer judges the book to be a success. Moreover, it is written in such a lively style with rich detail that it is engrossing from start to finish.

(M. V. Dougherty Renaissance Quarterly)

Ben-Zaken sketches this backdrop to Hayy beautifully.

(Lydia Wilson Times Literary Supplement)

This engaging book is slight in size yet ambitious in scope and innovative in methodology... overall, this is a splendid and daring book!

(Peter Heath International Journal of Middle East Studies)

This book will inspire future scholars along three different paths. First,it encourages fuller development of the reception-history of Hayy Ibn-Yaqzan; second, it opens up new directions in the study of the wider themes of autodidacticism and experimental learning in the early modern world; and, finally, it illustrates a new, increasingly popular methodology in the practice of intellectual history that moves beyond the constraints of period, national literature, religious orientation, and even scholarly discipline to produce a thick description of the movement of ideas across time. This is an extraordinary accomplishment for a relatively slim monograph.

(Suzanne Conklin Akbari American Historical Review)

This is an impressive interdisciplinary achievement.

(Nicolai Sinai Journal of Islamic Studies)

A fascinating and deftly told story of the development of autodidacticism... This study opens an illuminating window to cross-cultural exchanges.

(Su Fang Ng Sixteenth Century Journal)

Reading Ḥayy Ibn-Yaqẓ n is a mesmerizing study that will enchant anyone interested in interdisciplinary cross-cultural explorations that transform the way we look at the past and the present.

(Justin Grosslight The Arts Fuse)

This whirlwind tour through five centuries does an immense amount of work in presenting of both the text itself and four contexts of reception. Ben-Zaken’s patient ‘de-layering’ of each generation’s use of the text uncovers new readings of all-contexts – the original work and of its repeated translations.

(Lydia Wilson British Journal for the History of Science)

About the Author

Avner Ben-Zaken is the chair of the humanities program at Ono College, Israel. He specializes in the cross-cultural history of science and is the author of Cross-Cultural Scientific Exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1560–1660, also published by Johns Hopkins.

Product Details

More About the Author

Avner Ben-Zaken is a historian of early-modern science who focuses on cross-cultural exchanges between West and East, covering the greater Mediterranean region. In 2004 he completed a doctoral degree in history of science at the University of California, Los-Angeles and until 2008 he served as a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. His works have dealt with the role scientific networks played in linking late medieval Islamic and Jewish scientific cultures to the rising new European sciences. His historiographical approach cuts through division into regional studies and goes beyond the focus on one particular culture, overarching such constructed disciplinary boundaries by focusing on the intense dialogue and collaboration that took place not only between cultures, but also between various disciplines.
He is the author of Cross-Cultural Scientific Exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1560--1660 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010); Reading Hayy Ibn-Yaqzan: Cross-Cultural History of Autodidacticism (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010); Communism as Cultural Imperialism (Tel-Aviv: Resling, 2006).

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