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Lord Monboddo’s Ourang-Outang and the Origin and Progress of Language

  • Stefaan BlanckeEmail author
Chapter
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Part of the Interdisciplinary Evolution Research book series (IDER, volume 1)

Abstract

During the Enlightenment, the great apes from Africa and Southeast Asia sparked an intense debate about whether these animals should be considered human or not. Language played an important part in these discussions. Not only did the protagonists (anatomists, taxonomists, and philosophers) differ in their opinion over whether language should be regarded an essential part of human nature, but they also thought differently about the linguistic competence of the great apes. After briefly sketching this debate, I will focus on one eccentric voice, Lord Monboddo. This Scottish judge claimed that the Ourang-Outang were humans living in a primitive state and that the study of these creatures could tell us many things about the nature of man, his origins, and the progress of language. Monboddo was convinced that the Ourang-Outang had both the physical and mental capacities to acquire language and at one point even suggested an experiment in which a young ape would be taught to speak. Monboddo’s worldview was built upon ancient Greek philosophy and the Great Chain of Being. Nevertheless, his ideas about the great apes still sound familiar to modern ears.

Keywords

Great apes Enlightenment Nature of man Language 

Notes

Acknowledgements

The research for this chapter was funded by Ghent University (BOF13/24 J/089).

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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy and Moral SciencesGhent UniversityGhentBelgium

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