Sunday, 18 December 2011

Helen Keller realises everything has a name

I have the pleasure of working sometimes with young people who want to improve their ability to read and write. Today I wanted to talk to a group about concepts. We read about Helen Keller and how she first began to attach a word to the concept of 'water'. There's a moving film adaptation of Helen Keller's life story here, in which we see the moment when she realised the connection between the word water scratched on the palm of her hand and the actual flow of water from a pump.

Here's a quote from a book called Science, Order, and Creativity, by David Bohm and F. David Peat, Bantam Books, 1987:
Here the case of Helen Keller, who was taught by Anne Sullivan, is particularly illuminating. When Sullivan came to teach this child, who had been blind and deaf from an early age and was therefore unable to speak, she realized that she would have to give Helen unrestricted love and total attention.
The key step was to teach Helen to form a communicable concept. This she could never have learned before, because she had not been able to communicate with other people to any significant extent. Sullivan, therefore, caused Helen, as if in a game, to come into contact with water in a wide variety of different forms and contexts, each time scratching the word water on the palm of her hand. For a long time, Helen did not grasp what this was all about. But suddenly, she realized that all these different experiences referred to one substance in many aspects, which was symbolized by the word water on the palm of her hand... Thus the different experiences were implied in some sense as being equal, by the common experience of the word water being scratched on her hand. It is worthwhile bringing out in more detail just what was involved in this extraordinary act of creative perception. Up to that moment, Helen Keller had perhaps been able to form concepts of some kind, but she could not symbolize them in a way that was communicable and subject to linguistic organization. The constant scratching of the word water on the palm, in connection with the many apparently radically different experiences, was suddenly perceived as meaning that, in some fundamental sense, these experiences were essentially the same.

To return, for a moment, to the idea of a metaphor, A could represent her experience of water standing still in a pail, while B would represent her experience of water flowing out of a pump. As Helen herself said, she initially saw no relationship between these experiences. At this stage, her perception may be put as A not= B. Yet the same word "water" was scratched on her hand in both cases. This puzzled her very much, for it meant in some way Anne Sullivan wanted to communicate that an equivalence existed between two very different experiences, in other words that A = B.

Eventually, Helen suddenly perceived (of course, entirely nonverbally, since she had as yet no linguistic terms to express her perception) that A and B were basically similar, in being different forms of the same substance, which was represented symbolically by the word "water" scratched on her palm. At this point, there must have been in Helen a state of vibrant tension, and indeed of intense creative perceptive energy, which was in essence similar to that arising in a poet who is suddenly aware of a new metaphor. However, in the case of Helen Keller, the metaphor did not stop here, but went on to undergo a further rapid unfoldment and development. Thus, as she herself said later, she suddenly realized that everything has a name.
I've always loved words. And now I see that they are not just great for enabling us to to communicate with others, but, even more crucially, are essential for allowing us to think. Ayn Rand says:
Concepts and, therefore, language are primarily a tool of cognition—not of communication, as is usually assumed. Communication is merely the consequence, not the cause nor the primary purpose of concept-formation—a crucial consequence, of invaluable importance to men, but still only a consequence. Cognition precedes communication ; the necessary pre-condition of communication is that one have something to communicate. (This is true even of communication among animals, or of communication by grunts and growls among inarticulate men, let alone of communication by means of so complex and exacting a tool as language.) The primary purpose of concepts and of language is to provide man with a system of cognitive classification and organization, which enables him to acquire knowledge on an unlimited scale; this means: to keep order in man’s mind and enable him to think.


Anonymous said...


parlance said...

Hi, Anonymous.
Your comment ended up in the spam folder, but I'm taking a chance that it's not really spam, because it's so amusing.