Dialogues of the deaf

Roy Porter gives a thunderous ovation to a brilliant story of signs in their times
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The Independent Culture
Which would be the greater calamity: losing your sight or your hearing? That is one of the first "philosophical" questions Jonathan Ree remembers posing to himself when a child. Many of us must have done the same, and we probably came up with the same answer. Being blind would be more ghastly, because it is to sight that we owe the sense of spatial solidity which anchors us in the world and maps out the boundaries between self and not-self. After all, if deaf, we could always still read superb books such as I See a Voice.

The infant philosopher's answer nevertheless points, even if in a negative way, to the special qualities of hearing on the spectrum of the senses. Sound is uniquely insubstantial and disembodied. A note, once sung, fades and is gone for ever - unlike what Keats regarded as the permanence in the visibility of his Grecian urn, a joy for ever. Sounds - nature's waifs and strays, suggests Ree - are frustratingly fleeting, if exquisite in their purity.

Yet my sound, my voice, is the very quintessence of my unique being: my tongue, my witness, my say. God addressed Adam, the possessed are tormented by diabolical voices, magical spells are always uttered, and all the world over people have believed that the soul lies in the voice. What could be more personal?

That grasp of the special union of self and sound, explains Jonathan Ree, accounts for the dreadful plight of the deaf in former times. It was always assumed that because the deaf had no language, the consequence was exclusion from intelligence. In medieval times, the deaf were thought dumb as well - in all senses. While there could be glory in blindness (Oedipus, Samson, Milton), deafness was only deprivation: without speech, no reason.

That is why such store was set, from the time of the scientific revolution, on strategies for defeating deafness. Pioneer educators vied to find ways of making words visible, above all through ingenious finger-spelling techniques. Thanks to handsigns, deaf-mutes would learn to read and write and thereby become reasonable creatures (and good Christians).

In France, Germany and Britain, experts set up deaf schools. And even if the jealousy between rival systems was far from edifying, Enlightenment philanthropists, parading their talking deaf, could congratulate themselves on having delivered yet another class of unfortunates from their sorry fate.

The trouble, as Ree shows, was that these pedagogic schemes, wedded to manual alphabets, were unbelievably cumbersome and failed to meet their inventors' expectations. All too often deaf children, taught to "speak", never got beyond parrotting. So others tried another tack. No one who had worked with the deaf could fail to notice that they readily communicated with each other anyway. Since the deaf had spontaneously evolved sign- languages of their own, why not capitalise on this, and instruct them by means of an improved sign language?

From around 1800, notably in France and the US, champions like Thomas Gallaudet passionately preached the gospel of the sign. The opposite camp, later represented by Alexander Graham Bell - not accidentally, also the inventor of the telephone - stood up for the superiority of finger-languages, lip-reading and voice-training, beating pupils caught doing anything so disgracefully retrograde as communicating through gesture.

Both sides had their point. "Gesturalists" could say they were simply building on what came naturally. "Oralists" claimed that the deaf person who could lip-read and speak a bit would win acceptance in the community at large and thus be spared a lifetime's exclusion.

As Ree also notes, more was at stake than mere practicalities. The education of the deaf had become a theatre of philosophical conflict, part of the war raging ever since Plato over the origins of language. Leading 18th- century thinkers like the Abbe Condillac deprecated as silly and superstitious the old notion of language being either God-given or a natural attribute, albeit scrambled at the Tower of Babel. It was, rather, a syntactical convention, dictated by utility. French (or, some claimed, English), being the most rational and polished tongue on offer, was what the deaf really needed.

By contrast, Rousseau and the early Romantics looked back to the noble savage as the paragon of pure humanity. The earliest humans had not yet developed articulate speech, expressing themselves through the unfeigned eloquence of gesture. Hence it followed that the gestures of the deaf were not crude and barbaric but the very noblest tongue of all: pliable, simple, sincere. Unlike clumsy vocalised sentences, the supple signs of the deaf could convey many different messages.

Sign language was thus like dance, a spontaneous rhetoric of the embodied self. Within such controversies, the deaf were reduced to pawns in the games of opposing philologists, theologians and anthropologists - all, of course, blessed with hearing and convinced they knew best.

The sorry moral of these dialogues of the deaf is elaborated in Ree's closing section. Long a leader of the "radical philosophy" movement and an enfant terrible among British philosophers, he offers some caustic reflections on the pretensions of philosophy past and present. Doubtless there has been something admirable in the heroic struggles of philosophers to understand the world - Descartes with his doctrine of ideas, Locke with his empiricism, Kant with his demonstration of the indissolubility of intellect and sense.

But the great philosophers have also been guilty of astonishingly crass pontifications. Lessing's insistence on the aesthetic polarity between painting and poetry, Hegel's claim that visual arts, bogged down in materiality, are inferior to poetry, and the ancient quarrel between champions of speech and written language - all such "grey-faced" thinkers, Ree implies, do not even possess the "common sense" of folk metaphysics.

It's not that Ree calls for an end to philosophy, but he certainly has no patience with final-solution theory-building on the one hand, or the kind of trivialising which passes for philosophy on the Anglo-American campus on the other. In line with Husserl's phenomenology, real philosophy should be engaged with the interpretation of everyday life, seeking to elucidate the queries the infant Ree posed. His watchword: "Behind the grand procession of great dead philosophers, the permanent puzzlements of ordinary human experience." Whether or not philosophy is beyond redemption, I See a Voice is a joy to read: bold, crisp in style, effortlessly erudite, slyly humorous, passionate and humane. It is a work which gives the lie to Ree's own characterisation of the poverty of philosophy.