Capturing 'the rustle of a star'

I See a Voice
September 24, 1999

In 18th-century France, a new way of educating deaf children and adults was developed. For the first time in history, sign language was recognised as a valid means of communication. Philosophers such as Condillac, Condorcet, and Rousseau witnessed these developments and used them to further their own theories. Deaf people were viewed as necessarily mute, since speech required the ability to hear one's own voice as well as others', but mastery of sign language provided deaf people with voices of their own.

Jonathan Ree, a philosopher and historian, has written an ambitious, entertaining and sometimes frustrating book that uses deafness and the lack of speech as a jumping-off point to attempt no less than a philosophical history of the senses. The book comprises three parts: the first is a discussion of commonplace views of the five senses, in particular the alleged autonomy of the senses. The second, by far the largest portion of the book, treats several centuries of the role of deafness, deaf people, and sign languages in society and education. The third is an attempt to synthesise the previous two parts with an argument in favour of phenomenological approaches to metaphysics.

It is difficult to summarise in detail a work covering such diverse subjects as synesthesia, language origins, expression, perception, writing systems, Dickens and Dvor k, Leonardo and Locke, time and space.

The book is very engagingly written. From the perspective of a non-philosopher reading a philosophical work, Ree's discussions of philosophical theories regarding the senses are unusually accessible. I came to the end of the book with a sense of having understood some of the basic precepts of phenomenology.

Cognitive psychologists talk about "top-down" vs "bottom-up" processing, and assume that both kinds of processes are involved in perception.

Top-down processing, informed by rationalism, is essentially the idea that one's expectations colour one's perceptions. Bottom-up processing, informed by empiricism, occurs because of the necessity to have actual sensory input. Phenomenology is an attempt to synthesise the two approaches.

In terms of the history of deafness and sign language, Ree covers some familiar ground that has been discussed by Harlan Lane, Jack Gannon and Douglas Baynton, but he delves more deeply than any of those authors into specific details of the history, while at the same time putting a philosophical spin on the historical record. Thus, both specialists and newcomers to the fields covered are likely to come away from the book with knowledge and insights into the ways in which philosophical paradigms have influenced the lives of deaf people.

It is surprising that given the lucid writing style in individual chapters, the book does not entirely cohere. The digressions are fascinating, but they appear to be essays that the author just could not bear to leave out.

Even when one may understand in retrospect why a particular chapter is there, it does not connect as transparently as one might like, especially given the promissory note in the introduction. It is also surprising, given Ree's obvious concern with the concept of voice, that he does not discuss mutism that does not result from deafness.

A more serious and probably understandable weakness in the book is the discussions of linguistics and sign-language structure. While he has a rare understanding of the consequences of deafness and some aspects of sign language, Ree does not have a linguist's appreciation of the ways in which even spoken languages can vary. He suggests, for example, that the visual gestural modality requires specificity in the grammar that is not required in spoken language, such as the need to specify the width of a road.

However, a broader perspective reveals that in every language there are ideas that must be expressed grammatically, others that can be expressed grammatically but are not required to be, and still others that cannot be expressed grammatically though they can still be expressed periphrastically. It is commonplace to find that a trade-off between complexity and requirements in one are of the grammar vs simplicity and optionality in another. Navaho, which has been compared in some respects to American Sign Language, requires that verbs of handling be inflected for the size and shape of the objects being handled; Japanese has well over 100 ways of counting things depending on a semantic classification.

Such discriminations can be expressed lexically but not grammatically in English: compare verbs such as "carry" vs "lug" (it is very strange to say "I lugged a feather"), or measure phrases such as "a cup of coffee" or "a sheet of paper". In Navaho or ASL or Japanese, the grammar requires a systematicity in expression. In Hidatsa, an American Indian language spoken in North Dakota, verbs are inflected for the degree of certainty with which one states the sentence. Someone who uses the "I know for sure" particle and is proven wrong is considered a liar, whereas someone who uses the "I think" particle and is proven wrong has simply been misinformed.

English cannot express this notion with inflection and must instead use periphrasis. By the same token, English grammar requires that nouns be specified for singular or plural number; Japanese and ASL do not, though both have optional plural inflections on some nouns. English and French require verbs to agree with their subjects; ASL and some African languages require verbs to agree with their objects as well. Even iconicity varies within spoken languages; it is buried in English but more overt in the ideophones of languages such as Xhosa.

It is perhaps unfair to expect Ree to have read as deeply in the linguistics of signed languages as he has in philosophy or history. Still, in contrast to his broad and deep explorations of other topics, he has relied on only a few sources, some of which are not particularly representative of the field. From the beginning of modern sign language research more than 30 years ago, theoretical and formal perspectives have mattered greatly to many scholars in the field. William Stokoe, the founder of modern sign linguistics who in recent years has been railing against formal linguistics, was himself the first person to develop a formalism for describing the structure of signs. In recent years, there has been a great deal of exciting work relating the study of signed languages to formal theories of syntax, morphology, phonology and linguistic typology in a symbiotic relationship such that the theories guide investigations into sign language structure, but at the same time the study of sign languages force linguists to re-examine at a fundamental level their tacit assumptions about how language works.

Despite regrettable lapses in linguistic sophistication, this book on the whole is both useful and enjoyable; reflecting on deafness and sign language can stimulate philosophical reflection and psychological sensibilities. Ree begins his ruminations on the senses by recalling a childhood memory of asking himself if he would rather be blind or deaf. He always chose deafness, even though blind people have voices. There are indeed compensations for lacking a sense; deaf people have the freedom to imagine, in the words of deaf poet Robert Panara, "the rustle of a star".

Susan Fischer is research professor, National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, United States.

I See a Voice: Language, Deafness and the Senses - a Philosophical History

Author - Jonathan Ree
ISBN - 0 00 255793 2
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £19.99
Pages - 399

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