Language and Evolution: Homepage Robin Allott
Nishida Kitaro The One True Good
Time and Consciousness or Presentation

HELEN KELLER: LANGUAGE AND CONSCIOUSNESS

"When I learned the meaning of 'I' and 'me' and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me".

Helen Keller was born in 1880 in Alabama, the daughter of a newspaper editor. At the age of 1 1/2 she fell ill and became deaf, blind and functionally dumb, existence reduced to black silence. All that was left was touch, feeling faces or clothes to recognise people, touching lips. As she grew older she became wild and violent. In March 1887, when she was nearly seven, her parents, on the advice of Alexander Graham Bell, engaged a teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan. Anne Sullivan came from a background of extreme misery and poverty, blind from the age of five; the family broke up and she was sent to a poorhouse; she went to the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston where she was rude and badly behaved, but improved following operations which partially restored her sight. With this background she was well placed to understand Helen Keller's problems. After first struggling to control Helen's screaming, kicking and biting, Anne taught her the manual alphabet.

"It was the third of March, 1887, three months before I was seven years old. The morning after my teacher came she gave me a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institution had sent it and Laura Bridgman had dressed it; but I did not know this until afterward. When I had played with it a little while, Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word "d-o-l-l." I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. Running downstairs to my mother I held up my hand and made the letter for doll. I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation. One day [a month later],while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled "d-o-l-l" and tried to make me understand that "d-o-l-l" applied to both. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten--a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.

Helen learned a further 30 words on that first day. Anne continued to teach Helen, using the manual alphabet to spell out in complete sentences a description of what was happening around them. Within two years Helen learnt to read and write in Braille; she also learnt to speak, imperfectly, by placing her fingers on Anne Sullivan's lips and larynx to feel the movements and vibrations.

In 1888 they went together to the Perkins Institute for the Blind and in 1894 to the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York. When Helen went on to Radcliffe College, Anne acted as interpreter, spelling out the lectures into her hand and transcribing books into Braille. At Radcliffe she studied German, French, Greek and other subjects. She received her degree in 1904. While Helen was still at Radcliffe she wrote her first book, The Story of My Life. In The World I Live In she said: "When I learned the meaning of 'I' and 'me' and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me".

Mark Twain wrote to her:

"I must steal half a moment from my work to say how glad I am to have your book, and how highly I value it, both for its own sake and as a remembrancer of an affectionate friendship which has subsisted between us for nine years without a break, and without a single act of violence that I can call to mind.

I am charmed with your book -- enchanted. You are a wonderful creature, the most wonderful in the world -- you and your other half together -- Miss Sullivan, I mean, for it took the pair of you to make a complete and perfect whole. How she stands out in her letters! her brilliancy, penetration, originality, wisdom, character, and the fine literary competencies of her pen -- they are all there."

Helen Keller's later life was devoted to helping the deaf and blind. With the aid of a translator (her voice was not generally intelligible), she toured the world giving lectures both on the education of the deaf and blind and also on other topics; she became a suffragette and a socialist and spoke against involvement in World War I. During World War II she visited servicemen who had lost their sight or hearing. After the war she spent much of her time fund-raising for organizations working with the blind and deaf; she helped set up the American Foundation for the Blind; in 1932 she became a vice-president of the Royal National Institute for the Blind. She worked to make Braille the standard for printed communication with the blind. She wrote a number of books including The Story of My Life (1903) and Helen Keller's Journal (1938).

Throughout her life she relied greatly on Anne Sullivan, 'Teacher'. After Anne Sullivan went blind and died of cancer in 1936, Helen Keller wrote in her journal:

"I ache all over as I remember how she grew thinner and thinner. The torturing sense that a world had been burnt out with Teacher's passing. I still perceived a lameness in my spirit, an essential part of me torn away. Deaf-blind a second time. Teacher and the 49 years I had begun and ended under her inspiring leadership. Teacher mended the broken lyre of my life and gave me mental concepts to replace sight and hearing. The joy of knowing irradiated my darkness. My deep-rooted feeling that I am not deaf and blind - the few dark, silent years I shall be here do not matter. I realise that mortals are only tiny drops lost in an ocean of time."

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NOTES AND EXTRACTS:

1. The "black silence" of the deaf, blind and mute is similar in many respects to the situation of acutely autistic children where there are associated difficulties with language and the children seem to lack what has been called "a theory of mind". For them every moment becomes like wandering through a Chamber of Horrors, unknown and unexpected horrors. Is that soft and furry thing a rat - or a bedroom slipper? Is that unfamiliar noise an attacker - or someone coughing? Is that cold breeze a ghost - or a window left open? Is that bright light an explosion or a fire - or a fluorescent tube lighting up? It can be unpleasant when we hear too sharply, birds, the wind, a creaking door etc. [Extracted from Autism and the Motor Theory of Language

2. "The most remarkable single feature in that progress has been the evolution of self-consciousness in the development of man... it has substituted the possibility of conscious control of evolution for the previous mechanism of the blind chances, of variation aided by the equally blind sifting process of natural selection." (Blakemore and Greenfield 1987: x)

2. Consciousness makes possible long-range anticipation of events; consciousness has added a new awareness of time; humanity has acquired the ability to categorize experience in terms of past and future. Conscious awareness has been an enormous asset; its raison d'être is perfection of control over the environment. In adaptability conscious man exceeds all other species.(Granit 1977: 74) The direction has been towards greater complexity as a means of increasing adaptability to environmental change and towards increased ability to manipulate and modify the environment in the interests of survival.[Extracted from The Evolutionary Significance of Human Life]

3. "If it be maintained that .. self-consciousness, abstraction etc. are peculiar to man, it may well be that these are incidental results of other highly-advanced intellectual faculties; and these again are mainly the result of the continued use of a highly-developed language." [Darwin The Descent of Man I:2]. Self awareness is closely associated with the language capacity. It is doubtful whether one can construct an adequate account of human consciousness without including in it the language capacity.

4. At the foundation of being human is the evolution and development of language; language made possible both the development of the individual consciousness - we use words to become aware of ourselves - and also of the social consciousness. With the birth of self-awareness came perception of the self of others, of their self-awareness. The ever growing extent and complexity of human culture - manifested necessarily in the group, the human society, and not possible for the individual in total isolation - was founded on the development of language. It is language which made the existence of moral codes possible, allowed the perception of kinship systems, laid the basis for continuing social structures, allowed religions to be founded and science to progress. With group feeling probably an elaboration of the mother-infant relation, language made possible the growth of the group solidarity, the social consciousness characteristic of humanity. [Extracted from The Great Mosaic Eye: The Role of Language]. Before science, there must be consciousness and we perceive the natural world only through consciousness;

5. The essential problem of philosophy is the problem of the whole of which we are part, our bodies and brains as part of nature. Philosophy can advance as science increasingly tackles the physiological and neurological foundations of human behaviour. Ultimately 'understanding the mind may not be as intricate as our vanity hoped or our intellect feared' (Llinas) Without a new input from the brain sciences, philosophy, a discipline founded on language and on the manipulation of the meaning of words and sentences,is in practice in no better position to explain its primitive concepts,e.g. 'meaning', than it is to explain the nature of the colour 'red'. Philosophy cannot by verbal manipulation arrive at any deeper understanding of 'mind', 'thought', 'belief', 'knowledge', The power of words in this context will come from their reality as neural patterning, with a real relation to the processes or states to which the words refer. On this approach, the word 'consciousness' is a real neural organisation which has a real relation to the neural organisation (activity?) which is seen as constituting consciousness. [Extracted from The Power of Words]

6. There is intensive but inconclusive discussion in progress (for example at the massively attended Tucson conferences but also in many other fora and journals) on the nature and origin of consciousness. The absence of consensus is demonstrated by the proliferation of competing books, papers and theories. Some think that brains cause consciousness in exactly the same sense that stomachs cause digestion (Searle); others that in essence the brain is a parallel computer, functioning in terms of competing multiple drafts with no single centre in charge but many working in parallel to make sense of events and prepare decisions (Dennett). Even the identification of the problem is sharply debated, from Chalmers' description of the Hard Problem of Consciousness to Patricia Churchland's view that there are other equally hard problems in understanding human functioning and that the time has not yet arrived for treating the question of consciousness separately before much more progress has been made, for example, in understanding the neurological basis of motor control.

7. Velmans argues that since perceptions of the physical world are constructs of perceptual processing, they are therefore part of the contents of consciousness, which means that both dualist and reductionist models of consciousness have to be rejected. Instead he proposes a "reflexive" model of the way consciousness relates to the brain and the physical world. This suggests that if ideas about consciousness are to be translated at some stage into neural terms, the most promising approach would be to attempt to suggest what researchers might look for using PET, fMRI and MEG scanning techniques, for example using these techniques to get a clearer idea of absolute and relative timing in activation of different brain areas. It seems plausible that, as the human brain became relatively larger than that of other primates, time delays within the brain would increase and leave open the possibility of mirroring within the brain, reflection (note also the work of Gallese and his colleagues on mirror neurons). Human consciousness then might be seen as the physical possibility of the perception of perception within a large enough brain, a reverberation of perceptual processes.[perception] For an excellent recent book which considers the neural basis of consciousness see Rodney Cotterill's Enchanted Looms (1998)Cambridge University Press.

8. William James wrote about the significance of introspection; introspection was out of fashion but recently has had a revival. It is perhaps the best (? and only) approach for arriving at a better understanding of consciousness. Many who are writing and have written on consciousness give the impression that they are word-constipated or consciousness-blind, or at best partially sighted. There is no reason to believe that a purely verbal approach to the study of consciousness can produce useful results or that typical psychological research paradigms can demonstrate anything of importance. Perhaps we should pay more attention to traditional Yoga and Sufi practical experience of the types and hierarchies of consciousness.

9. The investigation of consciousness should be set in the context of evolutionary theory. Both consciousness and language are ultimately part of physical and physiological reality. If, as seems probable, consciousness emerged in tandem with the human acquisition of the capacity for language, as it appears to have done in Helen Keller's case, then studies of the physiological/neurological origin and functioning of language are directly relevant. The Motor Theory of Language Origin and Function(Cortona 1988) proposes that language originated as an exaptation of previously existing systems which had evolved for motor control, interlinking motor, perceptual and articulatory processes and programs.

BACKGROUND REFERENCES