Thursday, August 30, 2012

Can a deaf-mute ask "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

Here's William James on (and quoting) Mr. Ballard:

On the other hand, a deaf and dumb man can weave his tactile and visual images into a system of thought quite as effective and rational as that of a word-user. The question whether thought is possible without language has been a favorite topic of discussion among philosophers. Some interesting reminiscences of his childhood by Mr. Ballard, a deaf-mute instructor in the National College at Washington, show it to be perfectly possible. A few paragraphs may be quoted here.
"In consequence of the loss of my hearing in infancy, I was debarred from enjoying the advantages which children in the full possession of their senses derive from the exercises of the common primary school, from the every-day talk of their school-fellows and playmates, and from the conversation of their parents and other grown-up persons.
"I could convey my thoughts and feelings to my parents and brothers by natural signs or pantomime, and I could understand what they said to me by the same medium; our intercourse being, however, confined to the daily routine of home affairs and hardly going beyond the circle of my own observation. . . .
"My father adopted a course which he thought would, in some measure, compensate me for the loss of my hearing. It was that of taking me with him when business required him to ride abroad; and he took me more frequently than he did my brothers; giving, as the reason for his apparent partiality, that they could acquire information through the ear, while I depended solely upon my eye for acquaintance with affairs of the outside world. . . .
"I have a vivid recollection of the delight I felt in watching the different scenes we passed through, observing the various phases of nature, both animate and inanimate; though we did not, owing to my infirmity, engage in conversation. It was during those delightful rides, some two or three years before my initiation into the rudiments of written language, that I began to ask myself the question: How came the world into being? When this question occurred to my mind, I set myself to thinking it over a long time. My curiosity was awakened as to what was the origin of human life in its first appearance upon the earth, and of vegetable life as well, and also the cause of the existence of the earth, sun, moon, and stars.
"I remember at one time when my eye fell upon a very large old stump which we happened to pass in one of our rides, I asked myself, 'Is it possible that the first man that ever came into the world rose out of that stump? But that stump is only a remnant of a once noble magnificent tree, and how came that tree? Why, it came only by beginning to grow out of the ground just like those little trees now coming up.' And I dismissed from my mind, as an absurd idea, the connection between the origin of man and a decaying old stump. . . .
"I have no recollection of what it was that first suggested to me the question as to the origin of things. I had before this time gained ideas of the descent from parent to child, of the propagation of animals, and of the production of plants from seeds. The question that occurred to my mind was: whence came the first man, the first animal, and the first plant, at the remotest distance of time, before which there was no man, no animal, no plant; since I knew they all had a beginning and an end.
"It is impossible to state the exact order in which these different questions arose, i.e., about men, animals, plants, the earth, sun, moon, etc. The lower animals did not receive so much thought as was bestowed upon man and the earth; perhaps because I put man and beast in the same class, since I believed that man would be annihilated and there was no resurrection beyond the grave, - though I am told by my mother that, in answer to my question, in the case of a deceased uncle who looked to me like a person in sleep, she had tried to make me understand that he would awake in the far future. It was my belief that man and beast derived their being from the same source and were to be laid down in the dust in a state of annihilation. Considering the brute animal as of secondary importance, and allied to man on a lower level, man and the earth were the two things on which my mind dwelled most.
"I think I was five years old, when I began to understand the descent from parent to child and the propagation of animals. I was nearly eleven years old, when I entered the Institution where I was educated; and I remember distinctly that it was at least two years before this time that I began to ask myself the question as to the origin of the universe. My age was then about eight, not over nine years.
"Of the form of the earth, I had no idea in my childhood, except that, from a look at a map of the hemispheres, I inferred there were two immense disks of matter lying near each other. I also believed the sun and moon to be round, flat plates of illuminating matter; and for those luminaries I entertained a sort of reverence on account of their power of lighting and heating the earth. I thought from their coming up and going down, travelling across the sky in so regular a manner that there must be a certain something having power to govern their course. I believed the sun went into a hole at the west and came out of another at the east, travelling through a great tube in the earth, describing the same curve as it seemed to describe in the sky. The stars seemed to me to be tiny lights studded in the sky.
"The source from which the universe came was the question about which my mind revolved in a vain struggle to grasp it, or rather to fight the way up to attain to a satisfactory answer. When I had occupied myself with this subject a considerable time, I perceived that it was a matter much greater than my mind could comprehend; and I remember well that I became so appalled at its mystery and so bewildered at my inability to grapple with it that I laid the subject aside and out of my mind, glad to escape being, as it were, drawn into a vortex of inextricable confusion. Though I felt relieved at this escape, yet I could not resist the desire to know the truth; and I returned to the subject; but as before, I left it, after thinking it over for some time. In this state of perplexity, I hoped all the time to get at the truth, still believing that the more I gave thought to the subject, the more my mind would penetrate the mystery. Thus I was tossed like a shuttlecock, returning to the subject and recoiling from it, till I came to school.
"I remember that my mother once told me about a being up above, pointing her finger towards the sky and with a solemn look on her countenance. I do not recall the circumstance which led to this communication. When she mentioned the mysterious being up in the sky, I was eager to take hold of the subject, and plied her with questions concerning the form and appearance of this unknown being, asking if it was the sun, moon, or one of the stars. I knew she meant that there was a living one somewhere up in the sky; but when I realized that she could not answer my questions, I gave it up in despair, feeling sorrowful that I could not obtain a definite idea of the mysterious living one up in the sky.
"One day, while we were haying in a field, there was a series of heavy thunder-claps. I asked one of my brothers where they came from. He pointed to the sky and made a zigzag motion with his finger, signifying lightning. I imagined there was a great man somewhere in the blue vault, who made a loud noise with his voice out of it; and each time I heard a thunder-clap I was frightened, and looked up at the sky, fearing he was speaking a threatening word."
What seems odd about Ballard's claim that he wondered "How came the world into being?" when he was about eight or nine years old is that the thought seems to need some medium, be it behavior, words, pictures, or something else. But how would anyone pose this question in pictures, or gestures, or pantomime? It's not that it can't be done. Someone might draw the Earth in space and then someone looking puzzled, say. Or a series of objects followed by their origins (tree then seed, kitten then cat, etc.) ending with the universe (or some expanse of outer space) followed by a question mark or quizzical expression. But there is a lot of room for ambiguity in this kind of thing. If the artist or mime cannot tell us what they mean then why think they mean this rather than that, or that they mean anything beyond what we see?

Well, one answer might be that the artist later tells us exactly what he meant. That might seem to settle it. But it doesn't necessarily, because there might seem to be a problem of too much content, too much sophistication to be quite plausible. Think of someone whose only idea of God (I'm not saying this is true of Ballard, but it might have been for all I know) is that his mother once told him (through pictures and gestures) about a being up above, pointing her finger towards the sky and with a solemn look on her countenance. Now imagine this person years later, having learned how to speak, telling us that he wondered then whether God was one person or three. It's not that he could not have had such a thought, nor even that it would have been highly improbable for such a thought to occur to him. It's more that it's hard to see how to attach the idea of this kind of theological speculation to the rudimentarily educated child.

In PI 284 Wittgenstein writes:
Look at a stone and imagine it having sensations. -- One says to oneself: How could one so much as get the idea of ascribing a sensation to a thing? One might as well ascribe it to a number! -- And now look at a wriggling fly and at once these difficulties vanish and pain seems able to get a foothold here, where before everything was, so to speak, too smooth for it.
I think there is something similar in the Ballard case. It's not that the cases are the same. After all, Ballard is a human being and sincerely avers that he had the thoughts in question. Why not believe him? One might say: Because I don't even know what it would mean to attribute such thoughts to someone in that condition (a child, deaf, illiterate, etc.). But what then if he or anyone else insists that they know what it means? "It means this thought attributed to that person, and here are some examples of ways in which he could have had the thought. What, they're ambiguous and open to interpretation? What isn't? The way we settle such matters is by appeal to first-person authority, and the authority in question is on my side, not yours."

Without dogmatic metaphysics I don't see how we can but concede that someone who talks like this might be right. The most we can do otherwise is to try to explain why this is so hard (for some people) to believe. We would have, I think, to take a good look at how much ambiguity there is in this case, and we should probably work carefully through the details of how the thinking is supposed to have arisen and how it is supposed to have proceeded, how Ballard could have kept track of his thoughts or his meaning, both at the time and in the years between then and when he learned to communicate his thoughts about such matters with others. It still seems as though it's going to come down to a matter of what strikes us as plausible, and that will vary from person to person. Each side might accuse the other of not really thinking, or of being in the grip of a picture. It might not be possible to reach any resolution.

One last point: there is thinking and there is thinking. A child who says "Where did the world come from?" might not mean what a physicist who asks the same question means. And a physicist might not mean what a philosopher might mean by the same words (depending on the philosopher). The child might not really mean anything in fact, but only be playing with words. Or she might be somewhere between meaning the question and not meaning it, perhaps not being quite sure whether it's legitimate or not as a question. (And not being sure doesn't mean being uncertain--she might have given the question's meaning no thought at all, just as we usually speak without stopping and thinking about our words.) I'm reading Jim Holt's entertaining Why Does the World Exist? at the moment (which is also good for its references to University of Virginia people such as Anthony Woozley and Peter Heath), and he makes it clear that this and similar questions can be approached in a variety of ways and have different significance for different people. If someone asks the question but cannot say whether a theological or a logical or a physical answer (or something else) would be more appropriate then do they really know what they are saying? Have they really thought about it? It depends what you count as really thinking, it seems to me. But it's hard to imagine Holt's book translated into pictures and gestures that a child might understand.


  1. Perhaps this is to go out of the way, but I would like to investigate this thread (PI §342) through a Benjaminian perspective presented in "The Task of the Translator", where "No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener" - and thus maybe: no thought for the human. Because are we not trying to humanize an inhuman quality that is projected involuntarily through such bafflements as "Where did the world come from?"? Drawing on the thoughts of a deaf-mute just makes this inhuman quality more apparent: because here it is always already foreign to most of us (the last part of the three sentences: "no symphony for the listener", is taken away, leaving such bafflements a somewhat "missing" quality in order for us to consider more adequately this inhuman quality).
    The searching for the secret that resides in things before we attain to them a "human" dimension - regardless of having all senses to do this - is perhaps immensely human; and it is to dehumanize to find out what this "sixth sense" (for lack of a better word) is; perhaps impossible. So I think this is the "last layer" Wittgenstein cannot make us peel of our understanding of e.g. the telephone in Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics.
    Therefore I think you are right when you say "there is thinking and there is thinking". But perhaps not when you say "The child might not really mean anything in fact, but only be playing with words". Because that sounds like portraying too easily an inhuman quality in the child's mind, "not meaning anything" - that is either all too hard, or all too easy to do.

    I hope my comment is not totally off topic and not too long, and consider everyone here much smarter than I because I am only a second year student of philosophy. Nonetheless I hope my odd angle will be replied to and taken seriously.

  2. Thanks, Rohmanski.

    I ought to read Benjamin before replying, but let me try a quick response now. First of all, your comment is not at all too long, and odd angles are often helpful. I don't know how inhuman it is to be baffled by the origin of the world. The answer to that question probably depends on what you mean by human. It isn't ordinary, even if many or most people feel this bafflement at some time. Does that relate to your point?

    And as for children possibly not meaning anything, I had in mind a child (merely) playing with words. But I might be overlooking a more important or interesting possibility here. I'll have to think about this some more.

  3. Thank you for your reply.

    Yes, perhaps my angle is helpful, perhaps a needless radicalization of something intuitive, ordinary. What I am trying to say is that there is a certain inhuman quality that we humans have a tendency to project out of ourselves so to speak, e.g. at/into the world, into a "thing", towards an origination, etc. Feasibly, we should investigate the grammar of 'human' before exploring this more "trying-to-be-somewhat-transcendental" angle, which is directed at a more "ordinary obscurity", I should like to call it. Perhaps that is just playing with words! However, the Benjamin essay moves something in me that I think is not "just" a Wittgensteinian temptation towards something abstract. But is something more profound - at least in a anthropological context. I hope you understand my grasping at straws is not just the hypostatizing of a form of mystical (in)human nature. However, I think it is probably not your overlooking something important, but simply a taste for different kinds of writings. I tell myself I like both the style of Wittgenstein and Benjamin. Perhaps they are contradictory, and I have not found this out yet.
    In short: it is a delicate balance between grasping a philosophical-historical human nature and giving too much space to a mystical (in)human nature. I think this balance is what makes it hard to give a concise summary of the (grammatical) problems associated with how e.g. a deaf-mute understands - or cannot understand - "language" in the same way normal people understand "language".

  4. Thanks. This makes me want to read Benjamin, but until I do so I don't think I can really reply properly.

  5. To me, that is a big compliment :) - I hope you will (enjoy him).