You, Me & Helen Keller (Part 4)1These excerpts, abridged and edited, are taken from Chapter 5, “The Grounding Language Universals,” Shaping the Future of Language Studies, pp. 41-61.

Now we turn to our description of what happened to Helen Keller once she had acquired knowledge. As a result of her discovery, her questions probed the practical value of her new-found knowledge in ways that could be simply expressed as what will I do? Again, we find key elements of decision-making that surface in our re-enactment of events based on Helen’s mature reflections on her experience at that time2We would suggest that the supporting passages in this article, written in retrospect by a more mature and articulate Helen, accurately express the strength of resolve in the young Helen at the time of these events. to bear a striking parallel both to Aquinas’ experience as well as to topics noted in our sample syllabus.

Recalling elements from Aquinas’ experience, Helen’s core attitudes have evolved to a point in which her consent to language learning has suddenly become the center of her life. It happens that Helen’s spontaneous deliberation at this point in her journey of discovery discloses that there is a means to an end – that knowledge is a consequence of her having achieved a judgment of fact. And Helen’s “mind was full of the prospective joys”3Op. cit., Helen Keller, The Story of My Life, 39. that that consequence brings.

Thus, Helen deliberates on possibilities for an end of which the initial acquisition of language provides the means. Her goal is to choose an end that is responsible, good, worthwhile, of value. Helen’s wonder is practical and, although she could not articulate that wonder in language, later she recalled: “unless I turn my glad thoughts into practical living and till my own field, I cannot reap a kernel of the good.”4Helen Keller, The World I Live In, The New York Review of Books, 2003, 128-29.

Sense, Images + Known Facts

As a result, the first group in a series of attitude shifts within the action mode of wonder reflects Helen’s on-the-spot desire and consent (to her new reality). And Helen’s mood shift to this mode of wonder is caused by the fact that she “knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over [her] hand. That living word awakened [her] soul, gave it life, hope, joy, set it free!”5Op. cit., The Story of My Life, 20.

Helen reflects on other known facts: she quickly affirms that her blindness and deafness are “barriers that could in time be swept away,”6Op cit., Joseph P. Lash, Helen and Teacher, 257. because she discovers that, in fact, she can draw on the sense perceptions of smell, taste and touch and achieve the same result as if she could see and hear. The first attitude shift in the action mode of wonder, then, simultaneously carries Helen further forward to a state of alert sensibility that ushers forth images of possibilities: “As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me.”7Op. cit., The Story of My Life, 20.


The prompting of fresh senses and images along with her possession of known facts propels Helen to the second shift in attitude. Suddenly her “field of inquiry [had] broadened”8Ibid., 25. in an urgent search to discover by what means she would go forward in her life. Helen’s practical search spontaneously percolates in what-to-do questions creatively directed toward her new future, to what might be; yet at this stage of her deliberations, she has no concrete idea of what course of action she might take.

Direct Insight

Her practical what-to-do search rapidly leads to the third attitude shift, an achievement of direct insight into her known facts, senses, and images, to bring to light possible ideas for a plan of action. She pulls together numerous direct insights that occur because of “a habit learned suddenly at that first moment of release and rush into the light. With the first word I used intelligently, I learned to live, to think, to hope.”9Op. cit., The World I Live In, 128.

Formulated Possibilities

That new habit is an achievement in Helen that finds its expression in at least one clearly formulated possibility, a plan that marks the fourth attitude shift: “I had now the key to all language, and I was eager to learn to use it.”10Op. cit., The Story of My Life, 25. In her deliberations to this point, Helen acknowledges, “At the beginning I was only a little mass of possibilities.”11Ibid., 33. Out of that “mass of possibilities” Helen reaches consent, the achievement of which is the prospect of an exciting new direction in her life: “I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought.”12Ibid., 20.

Helen’s what-to-do search yields a possibility for action, but she has yet to act on it. A further series of attitude shifts in Helen lie ahead. This draws out an important distinction made by Aquinas: the process of arriving at consent “involves a special relationship to that which is preferred to something else, and accordingly a choice still remains open after consent. For it may well happen that deliberation discloses several means, and since each of these meets with approval, consent is given to each.”13Op. cit., Summa Theologiae.

In proclaiming herself to be “a little mass of possibilities,” Helen’s deliberation, indeed, could have disclosed several means of which she would have approved. But as it so happens, and not surprisingly given the magnitude of the circumstances, Helen had hit upon one means that met with her overwhelming approval, “to learn,” and to that she gave her resounding consent upon leaving the well-house, dizzied and excited by her “soul’s sudden awakening.”

This deep change in Helen’s life carries her forward to the cusp of a momentous attitude shift that occurs in showing preference; but the process of the action mode of wonder is as yet incomplete, for as Aquinas observed, “a choice still remains open after consent.”

The image below represents the fourth stage of Helen’s state of wonder in action mode described above. The what-to-do-wonder is the fourth of five basic attitudes that can be associated with five meanings of the word why. It is the fourth drive toward making sense of our experience, the occurrence of which we associate with the exemplary cause. The arrow below the boxes denotes the upward movement of this attitude shift.

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