You, Me & Helen Keller (Part 3)

This installment completes our illustration 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.

Is-Questions (To question To know)

And so now we push on to grapple with a further third attitude, present in Helen’s puzzling, but regularly unnoticed. There is a long history of that lack of attention, of which, fortunately, Aquinas avoided. He distinguished the existence of two acts of understanding: the direct act and the reflective act. The first act he referred to as the expression of a first inner word occurs at the level of “whatting.” The second act, the attitude we speak of here, he referred to as the expression of a second inner word that occurs at the level of “ising.”2In this installment I draw heavily on Lonergan’s Verbum. For a full account of the meaning of is-questions see Chapter 2, “Verbum: Reflection and Judgement,” pp. 60-105.

In other words, what Aquinas discovered empirically was a distinction between the meaning of what– and why-questions, and the meaning of is-questions. For Aquinas, “both acts of understanding have their instrumental or material causes,” but, as we have seen, “the direct act has this cause in a schematic image or phantasm, while the reflective act reviews not only imagination but also sense experience, and direct acts of understanding, and definitions, to find in all taken together the sufficient ground or evidence for a judgment of fact.

Hence, while the direct act of understanding generates in definition the expression of the intelligibility of the phantasm, the reflective act generates in judgment the expression of consciously possessed truth through which reality is both known and known to be known.”3Ibid., pp. 60-61. In Aquinas’s terms: the first inner word answers the question, Quid sit? The second inner word answers the question, An sit?4Quid sit? [What is it?] An sit? [Is it so?]

Helen, then, is on the trail of expressing a second inner word. She puzzles, What is this sequence of Annie’s hand-shapings? Signing? Notice that “signing” here is qualified by a question mark, marking this different attitude from the previous whatting question mark. This second case, poise, question markedness, is a case of is?-poise. There was little hesitation in Helen and she moved spontaneously into a new poise, an is-attitude.

Our problem here, of course, is hesitation, where we give that word a very positive meaning of sticking, being stuck. By we, we mean Helen and ourselves shifting without hesitation to the is-ing attitude. And so we scrutinize this most difficult core attitude further.

We have explored how Helen had achieved a direct insight, had formulated a first inner word and had arrived at a possible answer to the name and meaning of w-a-t-e-r. Recall that Aquinas distinguished her what-attitude to be possession of a cause in a schematic image or phantasm yielding a solution or a hypothesis. But what happened next?

She was not certain about her “hypothesis.” Spontaneously, her core humanity was not content to leave things at that. She wanted to know if her hypothesis or “idea” was correct. In fact, she spontaneously wondered further, nursed a different question, seeking a higher formulation for truth: Is this it? Have I got it? Helen’s is-questions, then, expressed or revealed a desire in her for correct affirmation. And so she spontaneously reviewed not only her imagination but also her sense experience, her direct acts of understanding, and definitions, to find in all taken together the sufficient ground or evidence for a judgment of fact.

The judgment of fact is the third of five basic attitudes that can be associated with five meanings of the word why. Earlier, Helen whatted over sequences, in a manner that can be expressed by “why?”: why the hand shaping? She was a searcher, searching for regularity, for ruledness, for sense. Now we identify a further attitude noted with Helen’s “signing?” question mark.

The answer to the mark in Helen is the remark, “Yes!” In that activity of identifying, the idea is represented by another cause, an activity that is variously called noun-ing, naming, it-ing, thing-ing, is-ing. At the moment of Helen’s Yes!-achievement, Annie observed amazedly, “A new light came into her face.” And, of course, Helen recalled that moment with a new joy, exclaiming “I knew that water meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand”5Op. cit., Helen and Teacher, pp. 256-7. “the mystery of language was revealed to me.”6Op. cit., The Story of My Life.

The image below represents the third stage in Helen’s stages of wonder described above. We have all experienced for ourselves that when we respond to is-questions, we typically come up with “yes” or “no” answers. Where we consistently arrive at some sort of solution or description or explanation in response to our what-questions, we would notice that our is-questions invariably end with a “Yes,” or a “No,” or an “I don’t know.”7Op. cit., Thinking Woman, pp. 65-66. I draw the reader’s attention to further refinements of Lonergan on the is-attitude that are beyond the elementary scope of this chapter. See Insight, Chapter IX, especially “6. Probable Judgments,” pp. 299-304 [324-29]. Or we might notice our own spontaneous gestures in answer to is-questions – a nod, a shake of the head, a shrug of the shoulders.

The arrow below the box denotes the relationship between the second and third stages. The is-wonder is the third of five basic attitudes that can be associated with five meanings of the word why. It is the fifth drive toward making sense of our experience, the occurrence of which we associate with the efficient cause. For Helen and ourselves, sense experience, the light of intellect, insight into phantasm, act of defining thought, reflective reasoning and understanding, acts of judgment are all core psychological facts.8It is important to note at this stage that the three core attitudes we have identified so far, taken together, are the dynamic underpinning for the activities of “syllogizing,” and “logic.” These activities have been commonly mistaken to mean the laws of “reason.” I cannot enlarge on that topic here, except to quote Lonergan’s caution in Insight: “A little learning is a dangerous thing, and the adage has, perhaps, its most abundant illustrations from the application of logic…. A familiarity with the elements of logic can be obtained by a very modest effort and in a very short time. Until one has made notable progress in cognitional analysis [knowledge of our core dynamics of wonder], one is constantly tempted to mistake the rules of logic for the laws of thought.” (Insight, p. 573) With that in mind, I take this opportunity, then, to direct the reader to luminous introductions to “syllogizing” and “logic” in op. cit., A Brief History of Tongue, Chapter 2, “How Language: Works?,” pp. 57-65 and op. cit., Introducing Critical Thinking, Chapter 26, “Fallacies,” pp. 100-104 and Chapter 27, “The Function of Logic,” pp. 104-108. For advanced treatment, see Bernard Lonergan, “The Form of Inference,” Collection, (CWL 4), University of Toronto Press, 1988, Chapter 1.

At this stage of our venture, we have an enlarged thematic identification of the first three core attitudes on the basis of asking: What happened to Helen Keller? How do we as infants move from babbling to talk? We have drawn attention to the fact that these three core attitudes spontaneously arose in Helen, and arise in our infant selves, in a series of shifts from babbling to talk. Helen observed: “[W]hatever the process, the result is wonderful.”9Op. cit., The Story of My Life, p. 25. I include the context of that quote here as Helen compares her language acquisition to those children who hear: “I had now the key to all language, and I was eager to learn to use it. Children who hear acquire language without any particular effort; the words that fall from others’ lips they catch on the wing, as it were, delightedly, while the little deaf child must trap them by a slow and often painful process.” So, too, the process itself.

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