The generous text: Animal intuition, human knowledge and written transmission in pliny’s books on medicine

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What do we know without being taught? The question is at least as old as Psammetichus, the Egyptian king who, Herodotus reports, sequestered two small children away in an attempt to determine the language they would speak in isolation from other human beings (it turned out to be Phrygian). Some seven hundred years later, Galen conducts a similar experiment to prove more conclusively that there is such a thing as untaught nature, not just in humans but in animals more generally. He takes a newborn goat away from its mother immediately after birth and waits a little while, then offers the kid a choice of honey, olive oil, wine, or milk. The milk wins out, to Galen’s satisfaction. He repeats the test when the goat reaches the grazing age, going on to conclude triumphantly that animal natures are untaught. By animal natures, Galen means to include human nature, too. The excursus is, in fact, designed to explain the principle behind erections (for Galen, in strong contrast with the Church Fathers, these are a sign of providential teleology). Yet automatic and intuitive behaviors raise as many questions as they answer, especially in the most rational of creatures. How is it, Galen wonders, that, even as children, we move our arms and legs without the slightest clue as to the mechanisms involved, manipulating muscles and joints still largely unmapped by skilled anatomists? Our ignorance becomes an obstacle only when things go wrong. Under these circumstances, we do indeed have recourse to a physician with anatomical knowledge, as Galen would be the first to admit. Our natures turn out, then, to be half untaught, half in need of teaching. The need to be taught is, in a basic sense, the void to be filled by medicine. The need for teaching is the motor of the genres under consideration in this volume. Yet in seeking to understand the claims that technical or didactic texts make to be useful, we must also ask what these claims tell us about the need for teaching in the first place. What motivates the creation of these texts?.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationKnowledge, Text and Practice in Ancient Technical Writing
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781316718575
ISBN (Print)9781107169432
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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