You, Me & Helen Keller (Part 2)

This installment continues to build on our diagram in Journeyism 5 of how you and I come to knowledge based on the famous story of Helen Keller learning her first word.1These excerpts, abridged and edited, are taken from Chapter 5 of Shaping the Future of Language Studies. We hope our three-part description of this powerful event in Helen’s life will lend further support to your journey through our forthcoming empirical exercises.

What-Questions (To question To understand)

Helen’s struggle at this stage of her journey could be summed up in the words, “What the heck is going on?” The “heck” hints at moods and moodswings, for we must struggle here with the reality of Helen having no words, only minded moods. In fact, Helen is struggling for phantasm. Phantasm is involved in the genesis of names and the meaning they represent.2 Lonergan’s introduction of the frontispiece of Insight has a quotation from Aristotle (De Anima, III, 7) that includes the key word phantasmasi, “insight into phantasm.” This fact is fundamental to the view of Aristotle, Aquinas and Lonergan.

Why do we start the y sequence later than the sequence x? We allow for the possibility that the initial addition of the x sequence to Helen’s life was accepted as merely the addition of a game, a finger game. After a couple of weeks, especially with the shift of locale and of style of life, the fun would surely fade!

No doubt the fun was replaced by Helen’s struggle to make sense of such things as ‘mug’ and ‘milk;’ “they had given her trouble. She confused the nouns with the verb ‘drink.’3Op. cit., Helen and Teacher. This struggle could be observed in her body language, simultaneously connoting confusion and frustration. Helen recalls, “Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words ‘m-u-g’ and ‘w-a-t-e-r.’ Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that ‘m-u-g’ is mug and that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ is water, but I persisted in confounding the two.”4Ibid., The Story of My Life, p. 36.

But the state of wonder begins to dominate, stimulated by memories of prolonged contact with varieties of liquids throughout her childhood, and further awakened by the added element impressed on her consciousness due to the frequent hand touching of Annie. This aggregate of neurophysiological events was intussuscepted into Helen’s normal flow of sensitive consciousness.

And so Helen’s moods and moodswings were aroused by the desire to make sense of her experience: “What is going on?” At some stage in the five weeks leading up to the breakthrough on that April day, Helen’s stretching quest shifted to a why question. Her attitude took on the dynamic of a subcutaneous quest; a fuller meaning was lurking subcutaneously. This attitude brings us to our y sequence, diagrammed as coming in later:

That sequence represents Helen’s stretching “why?” which began at some stage in the five weeks: perhaps the sequence has only one member, a blossoming “y” on that wondrous April day. She struggled for insight into phantasm with an actively, self-directed desire to the ‘what’ of why-answers, toward an ‘it’ that was a vague liquid entity. Helen “whatted” over sequences, in a manner that can be expressed by “why?”: why the hand shaping?

The second attitude calls for the possession of a concept, in search of a cause.5Please see Journeyism 9. Concept, rule, form, essence, definition all have the same meaning.

So, y is hovering over, in, the pair x and z. And then comes the dawning, lifting Helen into a new human horizon: X POINTS TO Z, one aggregate of sensitive events points to another. Well, not quite. The pointing is more complex: x points to z within Helen’s zoneview. The vague liquidentity as thus meant-held by Helen has A NAME.

The name means, points. To what does the name point? It points to Helen’s zoneview. It points to the grasp of something splashing, soaping, smelling over years. What does “water” point to? Most obviously, it points to water of some kind. What does “water” mean? It means either “just any water” or perhaps “what we commonly mean by water.”

If Helen’s grasp of what we commonly mean by water is “similar in all respects, then they do not differ in idea, in essence, in nature, or in any accidental characteristic; there is mere material multiplication. [Thus, Helen’s discovery of the name and meaning for ‘water’] can be accounted for by the reflection of intellect back to phantasm where the many instances of the one idea are represented.”6Op. cit., Verbum, p. 27.

Phantasm, then, is involved in the genesis7Ibid. of names and the meaning they represent.

We have classified a particular attitude by summing it up in the word “whatting.” The attitude in Helen that we named “whatting” led her to the basic insight of language. And so 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, converged in a drive of at least one, if not more, why questions toward the named identity of the liquid entity.

The motion of Annie’s fingers and the sensation of liquidity had combined to provide an image or diagram, that served, in the words of Aquinas, as examples in which she may – by inspection, as it were – reach that which she is striving to understand. And so for Lonergan,

One cannot understand without understanding something; and the something understood, the something whose intelligibility is actuated, is the phantasm.8Op. cit., Verbum, pp. 28-9. This reinforces our point above about the need for sense experience: “a person without sense perception would never learn anything or understand anything.”

For Helen and ourselves, then, the act of formulating is a personal inner achievement resulting from direct insight into phantasm,9The key passage is ibid., pp. 41-42. the goal towards which what and why questions are directed.10Ibid., 25. Of course, prolonged self-attention would be needed to reach the level of refinement described by Lonergan here about the tricky relationship between phantasm and insight: “The act of intellect with respect to phantasm is an insight…. insight is to phantasm as form is to matter; but in that proportion, form is related to prime matter, but insight is related to sensible qualities; strictly, then, it is not true that insight is grasp of form; rather, insight is the grasp of the object in an inward aspect such that the mind, pivoting on the insight, is able to conceive, not without labor, the…concepts of form and matter.” In other words, what– and whyquestions seek to formulate an idea of what a thing is, in other words, a concept. 11Aquinas named the achievement of that goal an inner word. For the many references to inner word in Aquinas one might begin with Lonergan’s seven elements in “The General Notion of the Inner Word,” ibid., pp. 13-24. Lonergan notes the influence of Aristotle in Aquinas’ thought: “Four other works of recognized standing divide inner words into the two classes of definitions and judgments, and three of these recall the parallel of the Aristotelian twofold operation of the mind.” Lonergan thus footnotes this statement with: De veritate, q. 4, a. 2 c.; q. 3., a. 2 c.; De potentia, q. 8, a. 1 c.; q. 9, a. 5 c.; Quaestiones quodlibetales, 5, a. 9 c.; Super Ioannem, c. 1, lect. 1., ibid., p. 17. The inner word is a formulation or definition or concept.

The image below represents the second stage of Helen’s state of wonder dominated by her what-attitude. The what-question is the second of five basic attitudes that can be associated with five meanings of the word why. It is the second drive toward making sense of our experience, the occurrence of which we associate with the formal cause. The arrow at the bottom denotes the relationship between the first and second stages. The arrow above the box indicates that the process of Helen’s conscious struggle to learn her first word is still not complete – a further, third, mindful stage exists in her drive to master her first word.


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