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1. Deafness, ideas and the language of thought
Psychology describes what was observed.144
The centrality of language to thought and to the construction of exchangeable information, scientific or otherwise, within a community meant that natural philosophers in the Royal Society were concerned with its transparency with regard to the world they studied, and that Cartesian thinkers in France took pains to depict it as a proof of substance dualism. In England, where this chapter begins before heading to France, the metaphysical constraint of demanding that language reflect the Baconian requirement of basing science on observation and induction led a number of members of the Royal Society to reflect on the three-fold relationship between language, ideas and knowledge. A case study for this enquiry concerned the ability of the deaf to bear in mind ideas which might, or might not, exist without language. In what follows, I shall explore the efforts to devise a language for the deaf, within the context of both the quest for a universal language and the philosophical debates on the nature of language and its relation to ideas.
In 1669, the Royal Society published a work by its Fellow William Holder (1616-1698) - ‘English phonetician, music theorist, composer, mathematician, and divine’.145 Entitled Elements of Speech: An Essay of Inquiry into The Natural Production of Letters: with An Appendix Concerning Persons Deaf and Dumb, the book was a practical guide dedicated to instructing the deaf and those who had become dumb ‘how to pronounce all Letters, and Syllables, and Words, and in a good measure to discern them by the Eye, when pronounced by another’.146 Holder had communicated ‘an Experiment, concerning Deafness’147 to the Royal Society in 1668, in which he recounted the case of a patient, ‘born Deaf, and continued Dumb till his Age of 10. or 11. years’.148 He studied the young patient’s ear, tried to understand the structure and role of the tympanum and noted that the boy could hear when one ‘beat a Drum fast and loud by him’.149 The same interest in the anatomy, physiology and typology of deafness, as well as a concern to mitigate its effects, can be traced in the treatise which Holder published a year later. Here, he took as a given that the precise description of pronunciation and the use of an elaborate phonetic vocabulary could enable those whose access to language was restricted by deafness to acquire a working knowledge of its sounds and to use it along with those who could hear. His treatise was thus not a theoretical disquisition on the nature of language and semantics. The system appears to have worked: the deaf-mute child Alexander Popham is recorded to have learned how to speak for a while. Holder believed that ‘the natural Elements of Speech’, that is, ‘Motions of the parts of the Mouth’, which he reproduced with the help of a plaster model,150 were artificial. Languages, he wrote, arose ‘when, by institution and agreement, such a composure of Letters, i.e. such a Word is intended to signifie such a certain thing’.151 It was precisely because language arose ‘by institution’, however, that it should be possible to communicate the rules of its system to those who had been unable to acquire them from birth onwards through hearing and imitating. Indeed, while language was ‘the most excellent Instrument for Communication … of our Thoughts and Notions’, speech was ‘nothing else, than A sensible Expression and Communication of the Notions of the Mind by several Discriminations of utterance of voice’.152
Holder focused on what made communication possible in spite of the shortcomings of language. He did not investigate the reasons which might explain, theoretically at least, what these limits might be, or why they might be inscribed within the very nature of language, as some believed to be the case. His was an empirical, not a theoretical undertaking. Others around him, however, did focus on these speculative questions. Holder belonged to a group of linguists at Oxford of whom another prominent member was George Dalgarno (1626-1687), author of the Ars signorum, a project for a universal language, and the Didascalocophus,153 a didactic treatise aimed at the deaf. Other members included the mathematician, grammarian and linguist John Wallis (1616-1703), who, in parallel with Holder, also worked with the deaf and dumb (he would take on Holder’s deaf-mute patient Alexander Popham after the boy’s relapse),154 and Seth Ward (1617-1689), Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, a student at Wadham of John Wilkins, Bishop of Chester (1614-1672). Ward and Wilkins together wrote a pamphlet, Vindiciae Academiarum, against proposals for educational reform by John Webster (1610-1682),155 set out by Webster in Academiarum Examen, or the Examination of the Academies.156 Together with Wallis, Ward had also helped Dalgarno in his early effort to devise an ‘investigation of Real Characters’ (the Ars signorum),157 which was sponsored by Samuel Hartlib (c.1600-1662). Boyle, for his part, had taught himself shorthand ‘in order to write up his experiments’,158 using a stenography,159 in effect a primitive, workaday version of the ‘Universal Character’ John Wilkins was developing at the time. The Royal Society had commissioned from Wilkins the Essay towards a Real Character and Philosophical Language in 1662,160 executed with the help of John Ray and Ray’s collaborator Francis Willughby (1635-1672) for the classification of animals and plants.161 In short, this was a tight-knit community of natural philosophers, theologians, grammarians and mathematicans, embarked on a variety of interconnected projects whose theoretical underpinnings, whether implicit or explicit, concerned the relation between the order of nature and the modalities and significance of the human capacity to classify this order, mentally, linguistically and scientifically.162
The preoccupation with the communicability of language, whether between individuals or between groups and nations, was thus intimately connected with a concern to find a way of reading the ‘book of nature’ and of communicating its contents in an intelligible way. There was intense disagreement - notably between Paracelsians, members of the Royal College of Physicians and scientists at the Royal Society163 - over how and whether this ‘book’ could be opened in the first place, and over what conditions were necessary for the communication of information to be possible. Webster complained in his Academiarum Examen that ‘Many do superficially and by way of Analogy (as they term it), acknowledge the Macrocosm to be the great unsealed book of God, and every creature, glory and power’; but no one could ‘read the legible characters that are onely written and impressed by the finger of the Almighty.’164 One possible remedy, thought Webster, for this alleged defect in the educational system of his day - an allegation that Wilkins and Ward vehemently attacked in their reply to Webster - would be ‘the discovery of the universal Character’, a universal semantic system for the benefit of ‘all mankind’, enabling ‘Nations of divers Languages’ to have ‘commerce and trafick one with another’ and share each others’ ‘sciences and skill’.165 It would, he wrote, ‘have repaired the ruines of Babell, and have been almost a Catholick Cure for the confusion of tongues’. The deaf and dumbs’ skill at using ‘signes and gestures to express their minds’ showed that it must be possible
to convey our notions and intentions one to another, without vocal and articular prolation, as some have all ready invented and practiced by Dactylogy, and doubtlesly might be brought to pass by the eies and motions of the face onely. Sir Kenelm Digby hath an apposite, though almost incredible story of one in Spain, which being deaf and dumb, was notwithstanding taught to speak and understand others, which certainly was performed chiefly by the eye.166
Digby’s account, in the section Of Bodies in his Two Treatises,167 of the deaf and dumb Spaniard Luis de Velasco, who had been able, ‘chien savant’-like, to lip-read and correctly render aloud Irish and Welsh words which he could not understand, was quite well known.168 Dalgarno referred to it in his Didascalocophus in terms which assumed the reader’s acquaintance with the anecdote, since he brushed over its details as if they were public knowledge.169 And unlike Webster - who was dismissive of contemporary scientific efforts that did not promise the utopia of complete knowledge and total communication between all peoples and between macrocosm and microcosm - Dalgarno told the story in order to show the invalidity of its status as an experiment and expose its unlikelihood. Digby was known to tell ‘fabulous and Hyperbolical’ stories, as he put it, though in this case, it was ‘not the esse, but the posse of the story, that I concern myself to maintain’.170 Dalgarno was concerned throughout the work with evaluating the respective powers of the senses of sight and hearing, of determining whether who, of the deaf and blind, were more disadvantaged. He wanted to show that ‘Dactylology’ and ‘Cheirology’ - a language of signs and a system of gestures respectively - might be the means with which the deaf-mute, given adequate instruction, could communicate, and that it was possible to instruct even those who had been deaf from birth to use this semantic system, this particular ‘Schematology’.
The concern with the ability of human language to signify adequately, in this sensitive period of adjustment to new modes of learning and discovering, was matched with varying definitions of what was most characteristic of language.171 On one view, it was fallen, but could be improved upon, as Dalgarno thought,172 for example by weeding out scholastic obscurities. On another view, it was fallen because fragmented into innumerable versions; but it was also possible to return to the pure, Adamic unity of word and thing of the kind Webster wished for, by investigating etymologies (as suggested by Jakob Boehme), and by creating, as Wilkins tried to do,173 a ‘philosophical language’ based on a ‘real character’. Such a ‘real character’ consisted in the elaborate classification of concepts which would reflect reality and the ‘syntactical relations between concepts’,174 just as mathematics or Chinese ideograms did. Joseph Glanvill (to whom we shall return in Part II) would attack the conceit of mistaking ‘the infusions of education, for the principles of universal nature’, which denoted the absence ‘of a scientifical Theory’.175 On yet another view, taken by John Locke,176 one could evaluate language not as what it had once been, nor as what it should be, but by trying to understand its relation to the formation of knowledge.177
The manifest pragmatism of performing a complete analysis of language and semantics,178 rather than a chimerical reconstruction or ideal construction, matched the pragmatism which drove the scientific programme of the Royal Society. It was through our senses, primarily vision, that we could acquire knowledge of the book of nature - just as language was the key to reading the book of Scripture and, for some, to unlocking its secrets. But the relation of our senses to our ability to decipher signs must itself be an object of investigation. Our senses provided the information; yet that information had to be processed by the mind, which somehow bridged the different kinds of information which each sense delivered and unified them into one concept, sign or universal. The chief characteristic of the human mind was, then, its ability to process sense-data and use language, an intricate system of abstract signs inaccessible to animal minds. Holder accepted that ‘Thousands of Signes may be invented and agreed upon, and learnt, and practiced’ - from bells and trumpet calls to facial expressions, pointing and knocking - which the dumb were good at using and which animals made use of too, ‘to Call, Warne, Chide, Cherish, Threaten, &c., especially within their own kinds’. Nevertheless, the human voice and the alphabet were the ‘chief’ of all signs. Only man was endowed with speech,
as with an Instrument suitable to the Excellency of his Soul, for the most easie, speedy, certain, full communication of the Infinite variety of his Thoughts, by the ready Commerce between the Tongue and the Ear. And if some Animals, as Parrots, Magpies, &c. may seem to be capable of the same discriminations, yet we see, that their souls are too narrow to use so great an Engine.179
That animals could not express themselves in the way that humans could was at first an Aristotelian assumption, and, as we shall see later on, it held water despite the contrary assertions made in the sixteenth century by Michel de Montaigne and Pierre Charron (1541-1603).180 We humans had the prerogative of language, through which we made use of our reasoning faculties. For Holder, Wallis and Dalgarno, sign-language was a human language too, a semantic system constructed on the basis of an analysis of semantic function. For the physician John Bulwer, the author of a Chirologia, or, the Naturall Language of the Hand, a Philocopus, or the Deaf and Dumbe Mans Friend and a Pathomyotamia, or, A Dissection of the Dignificative Muscles of the Affections of the Minde,181 natural language consisted of the languages of the body; and their various versions could be catalogued, grouped, analysed and used to teach the deaf and dumb how to communicate. Gesture was a declamatory technique, and like all techniques, it could be mastered.182 Controlled, modulated gesture, like controlled, modulated voice, was the rhetorician’s tool. Nature could be read without the use of instituted signs; eloquence, however, required nature to be tamed.
Natural, sign-free expression was one mode of expression, however limited; it might also have been the starting-point for any language and indeed for any sign language. The question then arose of whether thought might actually exist without language - of whether it was possible to conceive of thought as independent of semantics. If so, it was even possible to say that thought was clearer when it was not rendered ‘into’ language. If our language was so imperfect, and if the Hermetic tradition, as Webster was inclined to believe,183 revealed the truths obscured by thought-processes steeped in scholastic logic, the shortcomings of human reason were equal to the inadequacy of language in the task of understanding the universe. Inversely, if language was adequate, an analysis was needed of the operations through which we came to know and describe the world verbally.
The very notion that a deaf and dumb person could actually learn how to speak was difficult to comprehend theoretically, especially if one did not use the plausible notion, favoured for example by Bulwer, that all senses were equivalent. There had been attempts at teaching the deaf how to speak and read from the sixteenth century onwards;184 and the idea that the body could by default stand in for the voice goes back at least to Plato.185 The same applies to blindness and William Molyneux’s question to Locke as to whether someone who had been blind from birth could, if his vision were restored, visually differentiate a cube from a globe, both of which he had previously distinguished through touch.186
Views about the nature of language in the seventeenth century were inseparable from a metaphysical standpoint with regard to God, soul and body, the traditional subjects of philosophy and those which Descartes had revolutionized. But individual discussions of linguistic function such as those of Dalgarno, Holder, Wallis and Wilkins were meant to accomplish particular, potentially concrete and in a specific sense ‘scientific’ tasks, not philosophical ones.187 On the whole, these men, as one commentator has put it, have not been ‘remembered for their scientific accomplishments’, although ‘they had an interest in certainty relative to a scientific theory’.188 Their discussions rested on some assumptions about language and raised philosophical questions precisely because an empirical approach could not elucidate the nature of the relation of word and thing,189 in a way that theorists, including the Port Royal thinkers, tried to do. Indeed, the first paragraph of the first part of the Logique by Antoine Arnauld (1612-1694) and Pierre Nicole (1625-1695) established that: ‘Since we cannot know anything outside outselves without the mediation of the ideas within ourselves, thoughts we can have about our ideas might be the most important part of logic, because it is the foundation of everything else.’190
Earlier, Francis Bacon had developed his theory of language, understanding oral but also written and gestural language as the means for the communication of ‘rational knowledge’.191 Gesture enabled communication between the deaf and dumb and between people ‘that understand not one another’s language’.192 Both words and gestures were ‘notes of cogitations’.193 But whereas words were ‘the tokens current and accepted for conceits, as moneys are for values’,194 gestures, like hieroglyphics, bore a similarity to the concept they pointed to, like ‘impresses and emblems’, and ‘an affinity with the things signified’.195 For Bacon, the bodily language of the deaf and dumb would have been superior to the spoken word, which, as a result of the curse of Babel, required grammar in order to function. In his view, as for some of the later creators of a universal character, languages and their grammars resulted from ‘the second general curse, which was the confusion of tongues’.196 Language was our organ of expression, and it functioned well enough; but its grammar was arbitrary and imperfect, and so reflected the inadequacy with which the intellect interpreted sense-data. Errors of judgement were due to these errors of the intellect.197 Logical propositions did not capture the subtleties of the natural world precisely because ‘arguments consist of propositions, and propositions of words’, which were the mere tokens of things.
For Bacon, the necessity of interpretation and its arbitrariness coexisted. It was the recognition of the limits of the intellect (rather than those of the senses) that, according to him, could allow one to base the pursuit of knowledge on firm ground by revising the errors that undermined the efficacy of language. His position implied a commitment to the notion that there could be such a thing as a true account of nature, but that the form in which such an account existed was liable to be problematic. Although it could be improved upon, it was discourse that was the source of confusion and error, not perception, nor the human capacity to find out how things worked. There were echoes of this notion in Hobbes, for whom the understanding was ‘nothing else, than conception caused by speech’.198 Words were the means ‘whereby men register their Thoughts; and recall them when they are past; and also declare them one to another for mutuall utility and conversation’.199 But while names signified concepts and speech transformed thought into words,200 names themselves were ‘of inconstant signification’.201 To reason, moreover, was to deduce or induce these words from each other, from particulars to universals and back; and the process was not error-proof.202
The notion that truth and falsity were primarily features of propositions, rather than of facts, amounted to an emphasis on the linguistic basis of our knowledge of the world and on its grammatical and mentally effected configuration. For Hobbes, scientific knowledge was inductive and thus merely hypothetical. It consisted in the possibility, inscribed within the very nature of language,203 of inferring general facts from particular cases.204 Whether Hobbes was sceptical of the Royal Society’s programme for scientific investigation because it could only be shared through discourse, or whether it was the very arbitrariness of linguistic constructs and their dependence upon logical and grammatical rules that signified, in his view, the inevitability of epistemological opacity, is not a question that can be addressed here. But it is important to point out how connected the two issues were in the minds of those figures whose discussion of the nature of knowledge took place not merely in a continuum with the traditional concerns of philosophy, but also within the context of debates about the status of a novel kind of scientific enquiry, which was yielding new information about the structure of the physical world.
Dalgarno, in contrast to Bacon’s view of Babel as the farewell to linguistic purity and unity, and with none of the concern he had displayed in the Ars signorum to reflect in philosophical terms on the fallibility of language, along the lines followed by Hobbes, stated in his Didascalocophus that ‘tho there be no affinity between the words of some languages; yet there is something of a Natural and Universal Grammar runs thro all Languages, wherein all agree’.205 Languages, he thought, along with his ‘worthy friend Dr. Wallis’,206 were ‘guided by the instinct of Nature’. Many words were formed as if ‘there is something Symbolizing, and Analogous to the notions of the things; which makes them both more Emphatic, and easy to the memory’. Written words, however, were ‘a meer arbitrary Institution’, and ‘because speaking being before writing, has more of Nature and less of Art in it.’207 Both Dalgarno and Holder, in devising in their manuals a method for teaching language to the deaf from scratch as well as a sign-language that would enable the deaf-mute to communicate, manifested little if any doubt about the feasibility of their project, born, clearly, of the mix of ‘Art’ and ‘Nature’, and aimed at the improvement of the latter. The notion of a sign-language in Dalgarno was conceived on the same grounds as was the ‘shorthand’ in his earlier Ars signorum, which originated, he said in the Didascalocophus, from his awareness that Hebrew alone was diphthong-free, hence probably very close to Adam’s tongue.208 It was the compactness of Hebrew that gave it its elevated status, in the same way that the elegance of a mathematical demonstration was a function of its concision. Dalgarno seemed committed to the idea that there once was an Adamic language, now lost, but preserved to some extent in Hebrew and a plausible source of inspiration for new methods of communication.
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