Self-Consciousness and Feral Children

6_12_Cvr6_truffaut_ph5In discussions about identity, philosophers often mention the influence of others on a self. In our most recent readings about self-consciousness, Hegel says, “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.” He then goes into a discussion of the interaction between two beings and how the interaction is what makes them fully self-conscious. So if this reaction never existed, what would be the result?

Besides philosophy, this issue is analyzed from a sociological perspective in the cases of feral children. One of the first cases was in 1800 when a boy who had been living in the woods his whole life was discovered and captured. At the time, he was around 11 or 12. He could not speak nor did he seem to comprehend language. Overall, he seemed to be missing some component that makes beings human. Although some originally thought he was deaf and dumb and could never be civilized, a physician named Jean Marc Gaspard Itard took custody over him and named him Victor. As he interacted more and more with Itard and others, Victor became more self aware and also empathetic toward others. In 1970, A film was released in France about this event. It was called L’Enfant Sauvage and later released in English speaking countries as The Wild Child (click to view the movie trailer). Victor’s story demonstrates the important effect others have on forming self-consciousness.

5 responses to “Self-Consciousness and Feral Children

  1. Cool topic! Reading your post was really interesting. The case of feral children really does emphasize the importance of other people in forming our own self consciousness. What boggles my mind is the whole process that follows after the initial process of recognition. So being acknowledged by other consciousnesses is essential, as we see in the case feral children what happens without it, but then we have to fight to the death in order to prove that we are not dependent on this acknowledgement? It is an odd relationship we have with other consciousnesses, first they provide us with something absolutely essential to being human and we are dependent on them for this. Then, via this dependence, other consciousnesses provide a sort of enemy we have to overcome in order to become truly independent. But I guess our relationships with other people aren’t any less odd, so the logic fits.

  2. Yes, it is definitely an interesting dynamic, especially because at this time in France (where Victor was found and raised), many French philosophers believed that humans were the cause of human evil, so a person who grew up outside of that would be an example of the morally ideal. When they found Victor, his behavior confused them because it did not conform to their beliefs. One physician who believed this, named Philippe Pinel said Victor must be an exception or brain dead and that was why he did not fit the beliefs they had. Itard was the one who said that Victor was actually a normal child and that this is what would happen if a child grew up outside of society. It is interesting how the philosophy changed after that, considering that Hegel published his writings about seven years later.

  3. Very interesting point. I liked how you included a the quote from Hegel that, “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.” Your example about Victor was an excellent application of the reading. However, by choosing Victor as your example, it would seem you believe that there is no acknowledgement of others via animals? Or perhaps could it be that animals inhabit a different sphere of self-consciousness and acknowledgement?

  4. As we saw this week, Rousseau is an example of the philosophical perspective that you mention, Orli — that man is good in the state of nature, and degenerates in society. (Remember that the order we’re reading Rousseau messes up the timeline a bit and actually came before Hegel.)

    Also, Luke, your question about the capacity for non-human animals to provide recognition is a big topic of debate. Notice that Hegel uses the term “consciousness” throughout, leaving open the possibility of other kinds of consciousnesses. (Though it is clear that he means human life in later stages.) There has also been a lot of development in terms of animal consciousness since this time (see our own Frans de Waal for an example, or closer to home in the philosophy department with the work of Cindy Willett, specifically her recent book Interspecies Ethics). The philosopher I mentioned in my comment on your post, Kojeve, who was influential in the resurgence of interest in Hegel in France in the past century, has been criticized for giving too “anthropocentric” a reading of Hegel. The critique is that with his explicitly Marxist overtones he leaves out the potential for animal consciousness and focuses too much on the human element.

  5. When we began reading Rousseau, I quickly noticed that Rousseau’s philosophy on nature vs. society exemplified the philosophy that was mentioned in sociology class. Like in math, it seems that it only takes one counterexample to refute a theory. It was interesting to me to see the quick change between the philosophies we have studied, and to know what the possible catalyst was.

    This example, along with the conflicting philosophies we studied successfully demonstrates the fluidity of philosophy. I find it interesting that philosophers always have new and additional things to say about timeless topics. For example, no matter how many times people ask “Who am I?” philosophers will always have things to add. There is no right answer to most questions philosophers puzzle, so it is a field that will never fade away. This example hits upon what I believe is one of the basic components of philosophy.

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