I found out this week that the idea of the “Noble Savage” is erroneously attributed to Jean Jacques Rosseau. I haven’t read much Rosseau myself, so I’m familiar with the general shape of his ideas through the filters of later interpreters. But even if I’d consumed the great man’s oeuvre in totality I wonder if the urban myth is so powerful that I’d impute to him the concept anyhow?
Which got me thinking, quite often people in the sciences are unfamiliar with the great works of the past in their primary form. I haven’t read a word of Isaac Newton, but that’s not very important to me because I’ve taken courses which cover mechanics. I only recently read The Origin of Species with any level of understanding, but ultimately much of Charles Darwin’s thinking has become seamlessly interleaved into the body of modern evolutionary biology. In contrast in the humanities the past seems very fresh, and the “readings” of original authors can give one a very distorted impression of the primary source.