The observation of wild children, re-captured after years in the forest or jungle, provides the most elementary disproof of the myth of ‘human nature’. These mirrors, in which man strives to recognize his own essence, exhibit none of those ‘human’ characteristics which he flatters himself are his by ‘nature’. The philosophical anthropologist finds himself confronted, not with natural man, in all the purity of his true origin, the veneer of civilization and culture stripped away, but with the grotesque travesty of a wolf, a bear or a sheep, mis-shapen, furry, running on all fours, howling, snarling and bleating. As Lucien Malson points out, in his book on Wolf Children, footnote1 there is no better demonstration that man has no nature, only a history, and that biological heredity has no psychological counterpart. (This is not to rule out, of course, the existence of innate capacities, as Chomsky argues; indeed, the plasticity of wild children, able to grow up as wolves or sheep, within their limits, seems to support this thesis.) The forms of human psychology—whose content are combinations of social practices to be specified differentially for each individual—are determined by the structures of society and history. A-social and a-historical feral man—savage in the true sense—is fated to be inhuman, an anomaly in the animal kingdom. The biological man is no more than the material support of social man; we can no more understand ‘man’ through biology or physiology, genetics or behaviourism, that we can understand language through phonetics.

The most valuable account of a recaptured ‘savage’—Victor of Aveyron—remains that written a century and a half ago by Jean Itard, published as an annexe to Malson’s book. Itard, the leading expert of his day on the education of deaf-mutes, was a disciple of Condillac, and it was in the methodical spirit of his mentor that he set about re-educating his savage. As Octave Mannoni shows, in the article which follows, his enterprise was doomed to failure, precisely because of the rigidity with which Itard conceived the encounter as one between culture (himself, the knowing tutor) and nature (the ignorant, untutored Victor). He himself, he assumed, had nothing to learn and Victor everything; his task was simply to impart what he knew methodically and systematically. Itard was absolutely unable to understand the (false) problem of how to effect the transition in Victor from an animal psychology—not an unskilled formation, in the slightest—to the psychology of an Enlightenment Frenchman. Octave Mannoni was himself trained as a philosopher, then worked in Madagascar as an anthropologist and later became a psycho-analyst, a member of the Ecole freudienne de Paris, headed by Jacques Lacan. He is the author of Freud: the Theory of the Unconscious, footnote2 an intellectual biography which treats the development of psychoanalytic theory within a Lacanian perspective, strikingly different from that employed by Ernest Jones in his classic work.

Mannoni is able to show both the value of Itard’s account as a description of a teaching strategy and the reasons for its inevitable failure. Indeed, as Mannoni observes, the reasons for the failure are so evident that it is not so much a mystery—the ideological background in its turn is all too clear—as a scandal that the same strategies dominate so much educational practice even today, as teacher after teacher re-enacts the dedication, missionary zeal, perseverance and final frustration of Itard. Society requires its myths both of the recalcitrance and the credulity of children, myths which, as Mannoni demonstrates, have their basis in the mechanism of the unconscious (especially that of ‘disavowal’) and the projection on to the children of the teacher’s fantasies. The interest of Itard’s account of the re-education of Victor lies in the light it throws both on the myth of the child of nature and on the myth of the teacher with the civilizing mission.