You, Me & Helen Keller (Part 1)

In our next three installments, we build on the diagram in Journeyism 5 with a well-known event to provide a dramatic illustration of how you and I come to knowledge. It’s based on the famous story of Helen Keller learning her first word.1These excerpts, abridged and edited, are taken from Chapter 5, “The Grounding Language Universals, Shaping the Future of Language Studies, pp. 41-61. Of course, an illustration is no substitute for direct experience. However, we hope our three-part description of this momentous event in Helen’s life will lend further support to your journey through our forthcoming empirical exercises.

Sensible Experience – (To experience To question)

Seven-year-old Helen was blind, deaf and mute, and as a result, prior to April 7th, 1887, she had not demonstrated the usual capacity for naming things. Annie Sullivan arrived on March 5th 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 7th before it dawned on Helen what this gesturing was about. Between March 5th and April 7th a cumulative series of core attitudes arose in Helen, in a series of shifts from babbling to talk, out of which a first word was correctly understood.

The moment of discovery was a hand washing. Immediately following, Helen hastened to the discovery of twenty or so words. This making sense, by way of understanding and using words, allowed her to greatly expand her ability to communicate with her teacher and her family. Later, when she learned to read and to write, she had access to the written records of human meanings with which to bring about an astonishing enrichment to her life.

The steady stream of sense experience is the first core attitude that occurred in Helen. Recalling Aristotle’s observation, Lonergan notes,

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

Helen’s days were lived out in what may be described as habits that were conditioned by routine biological patterns for which physical well being, play, and fun for its own sake were her goal. While she did demonstrate emotions, feelings, insecurities and longings, she recalls that her way of coping and communicating involved a familiarity with patterns of touch: “I would imitate what I wanted.”3Helen Keller, The Story of My Life, New York: Doubleday, 1954, p. 35. Her teacher, Annie, observed, “When she wants to know the name of anything, she points to it and pats my hand,”4Joseph P. Lash, Helen and Teacher, Delacorte Press, New York, 1980, p. 51. [however, “a]lthough Helen quickly imitated the hand signs, she made no connection between them and the objects they symbolized…”5Ibid. 256.

And so within the inarticulate blind girl – skin-deep and skin-shallow – there was a lightless viewpoint: she had, or was, a point of view. Or should we rather say a zone of view, a zone of reviewing, reaching, dawning? Certainly it is fair to say Helen was not ‘mindless’. There was within Helen a reaching and a frustration distinctly beyond the subtle sensitivity of a cat, great or small. Take, for instance, Helen’s 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, soapy and soupy. 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. Helen, one can surmise, had “it” all together, where “it” is the vague “liquidentity” of her viewzone – and so with other fragments of experience.

Let us home in on Helen’s sense experience with a diagram. We have a triple sequence:6The 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.

What do the first two sequences represent? The sequence z represents Helen’s normal flow of sensitive consciousness. The sequence x represents the added element in that consciousness due to the hand-touchings of Annie Sullivan. The first x, corresponding to Annie’s hand-touchings 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. Annie’s hand touching had riveted Helen’s attention; her “whole attention [was] fixed upon the motions of her fingers.”7Ibid., Helen and Teacher.

The diagram below represents the first stage of Helen’s experience – a dominance of the senses which provoked wonder. It marks the beginning to making sense of our experience, the occurrence of which we associate with the material cause.8An expanded discussion of causes is necessary and relevant to our investigation. However, in this context, it would take us too far afield. Please see Shaping the Future of Language Studies, Chapter 4, “Core Invariant Patterns of Quest in the Indo-European Tradition”, especially pp. 35-40. Note the arrow (above) shows that Helen’s conscious struggle to learn her first word is only beginning; as her wonder is aroused, further “mindful” activity lies ahead.



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