You, Me & Helen Keller (Part 1) 

A person without sense perception would never learn anything or understand anything.1Bernard Lonergan, Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas (CWL 2), University of Toronto Press, 1997, p. 28.

In the next three installments, we build on the preliminary diagram introduced in Journeyism 5 with a dramatic illustration from the famous story of Helen Keller learning her first word.2These excerpts, abridged and edited, are adapted from Chapter 5, “The Grounding Language Universals, Shaping the Future of Language Studies, pp. 41-61.It reveals what happened to Helen on her way to acquiring knowledge. In a re-enactment based on her mature recollection of that time,3We would suggest that the supporting passages in this article, either written, or otherwise communicated 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. we note a significant correspondence to activities expressed in the preliminary diagram.

Seven-year-old Helen was blind, deaf and mute, and prior to April 7, 1887, had not demonstrated the usual capacity for naming things. Her teacher, Annie Sullivan, arrived on March 5 to face the challenge of someway bringing Helen to language. One of Annie’s early gestures was the signing of w-a-t-e-r into Helen’s hand. It was April 7 before it dawned on Helen what this gesturing meant. 

Between March 5 and April 7, then, Helen underwent a cumulative series of five core attitudes.4The first three core attitudes are illustrated in Journeyism 6 to 8. The final two core attitudes are illustrated in Journeyism 14 and 15. The moment of discovery was a hand washing. Immediately following, Helen hastened to the discovery of twenty or so words.

The First Core Attitude (To experience → To question)

Until the moment of discoveryHelen’s way of coping and communicating involved a familiarity with patterns of touch. “Although Helen quickly imitated the hand signs, she made no connection between them and the objects they symbolized …”5Joseph P. Lash, Helen and Teacher, Delacorte Press, New York, 1980, p. 256. She recalled, “I would imitate what I wanted.”6Helen Keller, The Story of My Life, New York: Doubleday, 1954, p. 35. 

Within the inarticulate blind girl – skin-deep and skin-shallow – there was a lightless viewpoint: she had, or was, a point of view. One might say, an alert “zone of view,” a zone of reviewing, reaching and dawning. Take, for instance, her view of water. There are the years of liquid-experiences, of drinking and washing, splashing and bathing, tasting and smelling, pouring and flowing, hot and cold. The sensation of Annie’s spelling of the word w-a-t-e-r worked simultaneously with cold water rushing over her hand, and all the memories of the varieties of liquid that Helen routinely experienced since birth. One can surmise Helen had “it” all together, where “it” is the vague “liquid entity” of her zone of view – and so with other fragments of experience. 

We home in on Helen’s sense experience in Diagram 1 with a triple sequence.7The triple sequence and analysis of it is borrowed from Philip McShane, A Brief History of Tongue, Vancouver: Axial Publishing, 1998, pp. 31-32, 34-37, 51-53, 55, and 73.

Diagram 1

The sequence z represents Helen’s normal flow of sensitive consciousness. 

The sequence x represents the added element in that consciousness due to Annie Sullivan’s hand touching. The first x, corresponding to Annie’s hand touching “w-a-t-e-r” is the aggregate of neurophysiological events consciously received by Helen. The sequence x is an irregular sequence, not in fact paralleling z, but far sparser. 

Helen’s “whole attention [became] fixed upon the motions of her fingers.”8Ibid., Helen and Teacher.  Image 1, below, represents the first core attitude.9This is the first of five core attitudes that can be associated with five meanings of the question why, the occurrence of which is termed the material cause. See Shaping the Future of Language Studies, Chapter 4, “Core Invariant Patterns of Quest in the Indo-European Tradition”, pp. 35-40.  Annie’s actions work on Helen’s sense of touch and imagination to provoke wonder (represented by the y sequence). As such, the arrow above points to Helen’s eventual desire to make sense of that experience.

Image 1 




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