IS THOUGHT POSSIBLE WITHOUT LANGUAGE?
CASE OF A DEAF-MUTE
(Extracted from The Princeton Review, Jan.-June, 1881, pp. 104-28.)
THE relation of thought to language has engaged the attention of philosophical thinkers from the earliest times. And now, in the discussion of the Darwinian theory of evolution, it has come into new prominence, in its bearing upon the question of the difference between the brute and the human intelligence. This theory admits a difference only in degree, and not in kind. It does not take the quite extreme nominalistic ground, which makes a name, or word, to be the essence of a general notion,—since it claims for the brutes some sort of capacity for general ideas;—but it fully adopts the dictum of Condillac, that the art of reasoning is reducible to "Vart de bien parler" is nothing other than "une langue bien faite." Language it views as an organon, which serves, however, not as an instrument employed by the reason, but which constitutes, in its working, the reason itself. In short, the intellectual superiority of man depends essentially on the possession of language, and language is the product of faculties which man shares with the brute, only more highly developed in him. (Darwin: Descent of Man, Part I., Chaps. II. and VI; Huxley: Hume, Ch. V.) Prof. Max Muller has contended most strenuously, and with a profuse expenditure of erudition, that the nature of language, as disclosed by the researches of comparative philology, furnishes a triumphant refutation of the Darwinian views. The earliest roots are grounded in general conceptions: the names of objects, such as horse, man, bird, tree, etc., spring from roots significant of some general attribute of the species or class to which they are applied. Not only is a general conception the essential constituent of the word, but it is, he maintains, impossible of existence except as realized in and by the word—it is the life of which the articulate or other symbol is the body. And he draws the conclusion that the capability for general conceptions is a special faculty, differing in kind from anything manifested by the brutes, and therefore not to be accounted for as the product of evolution.
The argument, however, amounts to just this: that, because language begins with general ideas, therefore general ideas begin with language. It is plainly a non sequitur. As an argument, it is, indeed, worse than a failure: the very interesting and instructive facts adduced by the learned professor may fairly be taken so as even to lend their weight to the opposite side. What a thing begins with may be what it springs out of, and may have prior and independent existence.
In this and in other similar discussions, reference is made to the case of infant children and to that of uninstructed deaf-mutes. On the Darwinian view, children and deaf-mutes cannot be accorded the possession of any mental power or any form of mental action that distinguishes man from the brutes. (Huxley: Hume, Ch. V.) Prof. Max Muller is, so far, at one with the Darwinians, in that he ranks the mental processes of children and deaf-mutes in the same class with those of the brute-animals. Thus he says (in writings already referred to), "The uninstructed deaf and dumb, I believe, have never given any signs of reason, in the true sense of the word." "Brutes" are "irrational beings simply in the sense of devoid of forming and handling general concepts." And, "according to those who have best studied the subject, it is perfectly true that deaf and dumb persons, if left entirely to themselves, have no concepts, except such as can be expressed by less perfect symbols—and it is only by being taught that they acquire some kind of conceptual thought and language."
Philosophers of the ultra-nominalist school would, of course, concur in relegating the mental processes of untaught deaf-mutes to the same category with those of the brute creation. Archbishop Whately expresses their views in words as follows:—
"A deaf-mute, before he has been taught a language,—either the finger-language or reading,—cannot carry on a train of reasoning, any more than a brute. He differs, indeed, from a brute in possessing the mental capability of employing language; but he can no more make use of that capability, till he is in possession of some system of arbitrary general signs, than a person born blind from cataract can make use of his capacity of seeing till the cataract is removed. You will find, accordingly, if you question a deaf-mute who has been taught language after having grown up, that no such thing as a train of reasoning had ever passed through his mind before he was taught." (Whately: Lessons on Reasoning, I., VIII.)
The importance of an accurate ascertainment of the facts concerning the mind of the uninstructed deaf-mute is sufficiently evident. The following narrative is offered as a contribution for this end. The writer, Mr. Melville Ballard, has been for years an instructor in the Columbia Institution for Deaf-Mutes, at Washington, D. C, and is a graduate of the National Deaf-Mute College, the higher department of the same institution. It will be seen that he himself had, in his early years,—with no power of clothing his thought in any form of language,—put clearly before his mind the question concerning the first beginning of things; and had even, come to a vague notion of a power, of a nature undefined, as directing the motions of the heavenly bodies.
The case is an extraordinary one. The only instance on record that makes even
the faintest approach to this is given in an article by the late Dr. H. P. Peet,
in the American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb, Vol. VIII., (Hartford, 1856),
entitled "Notions of the Deaf and Dumb before Instruction." The article reports
the answers to a series of questions that had been proposed to the more advanced
pupils of the New York Institution for the Deaf and Dumb; and to this among
others: "Did you ever try to reflect about the origin of the world or its
inhabitants?" One of the replies, by a girl fifteen years old before coming
under instruction, was, "I tried to think, but could not do it. I thought the
inhabitants came from the South." Another one wrote, "It is impossible for me
to assert whether I had ever tried," &c. All the others stated that they had
not, or to the best of their recollection had not, reflected at all upon the
subject. The Twenty-second Annual Report of the American Asylum (Hartford,
1838) gives replies from pupils to a similar set of questions. To this one, "Had you reasoned or thought about the origin of the world, or the beings and
things it contains?" all the answers were decided negatives.
One well-authenticated instance is as good as a hundred for the purpose of determining the general capacity of the human mind in the circumstances supposed. Mr. Ballard is known, to those who know him at all, as a person of more than common clearness of perception and accuracy and vividness of recollection, as well as of a most scrupulous regard for truth; and has been especially careful to include, in this statement, nothing of which he was at all doubtful. There was apparently, in his case, a somewhat precocious development of the reflective faculties; which, the otherwise unaided, may have found a favoring circumstance in the isolation which shut him in to the company of his own thoughts. It is to be here remembered that the education of deaf-mutes commences ordinarily in immature age—commonly nowadays at as early an age as six or eight years,—and it is to be considered that such glimpses of thought in this direction as may not improbably have been experienced in some instances would not be likely to be retained in the recollection of after years.
We are not unfrequently told by educated deaf-mutes how, in their early years, the more striking and inaccessible objects and phenomena of nature awakened their wonder and curiosity, and were made the subject of various fanciful explanations, not unlike what may have been the germs of some of the myths that have obtained prevalence among men unenlightened by science. Their notions of this sort are interesting and worthy of attention; and are themselves evidence of a grade of intelligence quite above that of the brutes. Evidence of the like import is to be observed in the working of the language-making faculty, which, with the rare exceptions of the idiotic or imbecile, is always exercised by uneducated mutes, to a greater or less extent, through the medium of gestural signs. This is not a mere faculty of acquiring and using language; the signs are, for the most part, originated by themselves, are a creative product of their own minds, and they afford a more striking exhibition of innate endowment than does the mere acquisition of language on the part of those who hear and speak.
It is, however, with particular reference to the question whether thought is possible without language, that attention is now invited to the case of Mr. Ballard, as related in his own words.
NARRATION BY MR. BALLARD
"In consequence of the loss of my hearing in infancy,1 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 mother made the attempt to teach me to articulate by speaking loud close
to my ear, and also by making me look at her lips and try to repeat what she had
uttered. There was many a word of encouragement from the mother and many an
expression of discouragement on the part of the child; and she persevered,
hoping against hope, in this labor of love, until I was five years old, when she
gave it up as a hopeless task. She, however, renewed the attempt occasionally at
different periods afterwards.
"There was one thing to which she ever adhered, in our relations as mother and child. That was her endeavor for the molding of my character. She did not indulge me in anything on account of my privation. She did not suffer my misfortune to lead her to surrender her judgment to the fondness of her affection. She taught me to treat my brothers and sisters just as they were to treat me, and especially to respect their property in the playthings which belonged to them. An uncle of mine remonstrated with her in my behalf, saying that my brothers would be willing to gratify my humor. She answered him that she did not wish to have me grow up in the belief that I was a person different from others, having claims superior to theirs.
"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. He believed that observation would help to develop my faculties, and he also wished to see me deriving pleasure from some source.
"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; tho' 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.
"For my knowledge of the motives of my parents in their treatment of me
during my childhood, I am indebted to a long recital, given by my mother about
five years ago, of incidents of my early life and the details connected
"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, &c. 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,—the I am now 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 discs of matter lying near each other. I also believed the sun and moon to be two 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, traveling 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, traveling 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. Tho' 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 heard2 a thunder-clap I was frightened, and looked up at the sky, fearing he was speaking a threatening word.
"In the year after my admission into the school for deaf-mutes, at Hartford, Conn., I learned a few sentences every Sunday, such as 'God is great,' 'God is wise,' 'God is strong,' 'God is kind,' etc., and tho' I studied those simple words, I never acquired any idea of God as the Creator. I attended the chapel services, but they were almost unintelligible, owing to my imperfect knowledge of the sign-language as employed in the Institution. The second year I had a small catechism containing a series of questions and answers. The first question was, 'Who made this watch?' Answer: 'A man made it.' Second question: 'Who made that house?' Answer: 'Some men built it.' Third question: 'Who made the sun?' Answer: 'God created the sun, moon and stars.' Fourth question: 'Who made the earth?' Answer: 'God created the earth, sea, trees, grass and vegetables.'
"This method of proceeding from the lower stages of intelligent construction to the act of creation began to clear away, in my mind, the mystery of the origin of the universe. I was now able to understand well the sign-language used by my instructors in their explanations. While the creation of the heavens and the earth was being related to us, the Creator was described as a great invisible spirit, seeing and knowing all things, and at whose creative word the world sprang into existence. As this truth was dawning on my mind, I felt a sensation of awe at the magnitude of the work done by the one ruling mind. From the uncertain perplexing round of speculation in which I had been groping back and back through the dark depths of time, seeking to discover the origin of the universe, I found myself translated into a world of light, wherein my mind was set at rest on this great question; and I felt as tho' I had become a new being. This revelation of the truth seemed to give a new dignity to everything, as deriving its existence from an almighty and wise Creator; and it seemed to elevate the world to a higher and more honorable place.
"It may be said, and perhaps to my reproach, that my inquiring disposition ought to have been satisfied. It was not so ; for when I had learned of the creation of the universe by the one great ruling spirit, I began to ask myself whence came the Creator, and set myself to inquiring after his nature and origin. While I revolve this question, I ask myself, "Shall we ever know the nature of God and comprehend his infinity after we enter his kingdom?" And would it not be better for us to say with the patriarch of old, ''Canst thou by searching find out God?"
That there may be no uncertainty as to how far Mr. Ballard may have been aided
by signs in his early mental processes, I will add some facts obtained from him
by personal inquiry. There were two brothers, of an age not far from his own,
with whom he was accustomed to communicate freely by signs, as well as with his
mother and sisters, and to some extent his father. A considerable vocabulary of
signs, determinate and fixed in form, while retaining the natural significance
of their origin, had by degrees grown up and become together with purely natural
pantomime the established means of communication. Thus, there were signs, not
only for the more common actions of men and animals, but for most of the
surrounding objects, animate and inanimate; the signs . for objects were
derived, for the most part, from some characteristic peculiarity of action and
movement, or from some feature pertaining to the shape and figure of the object.
The signs for actions, as well as for objects, were specific rather than generic; thus, there was no general sign for kill, or for make. Qualities were
indicated, so far as they could be, by significant action; color by pointing to
some object,—to the shirt-bosom, ordinarily, for white. Number of days was so
many sleeps; years were winters, described by the snow falling and accumulating
and then wasting away. Years of age were marked as stages of growth or of
increase of stature. There were, however, no specific signs by which time future
was distinguished from time past, the circumstances of the case being,
ordinarily, the only means of indication. The occasion for noting periods and points of time would commonly have
reference to the future. There were no signs for past or future time.
One or two incidents which Mr. Ballard relates will serve the present purpose better than any general statements. His brother once told him of an occurrence which he had just read the account of, from a newspaper, to others of the family. A man, while out hunting, discovered a squirrel and was preparing to fire at it, when the dog, in his excited capering, struck the trigger of the gun, and the man was killed. Young Ballard understands the story perfectly, and soon after tries to make it known by signs to the boys of the neighboring school, but without success; he then runs home, and brings the paper and shows them the paragraph, having asked his mother to point out and mark it. Again: his mother conveyed to him the idea that he was to go from home to a distant place for instruction in school, also of his return (for the vacation)", after the following fashion:—You go far yonder; ride day night; read-book; write; write fold [as a letter]; I unfold read glad; snow [falling flakes cold white] piled-up [hand gradually raised from near the ground] waste-away [hand gradually lowered,—that is to say, after one winter] you come-back glad.
That the train of thought pursued by Mr. Ballard in his boyhood, as he relates, was not dependent on the aid of signs of any kind, verbal or not verbal, is evident, not only from the scantiness of his vocabulary of signs, but from the fact that he did not make his thought the subject of communication with any one, and that the endeavors of his mother to give him some ideas of the Supreme Being and of a life beyond the grave were an entire failure.
It is clear that the mental processes he describes were of a high order of conceptual thought. They involved the possession and the handling of general notions,—notions, not only of men and animals, but of things as related by succession in a series, and of time as past, and of things as beginning and ceasing to exist. The attributes thus involved were distinctly and definitely apprehended.
The idea of a series of events or things running back indefinitely belongs clearly to thought of the higher order. It embraces in one view an indefinite number of particulars. The members of the series are not, and cannot be for the most part, represented individually and severally; but are apprehended merely as things similar to the small portion that are known and represented individually. They are apprehended also as having individual differences that are specifically unknown. There is in this way brought into exercise what we may call the compendious mode of thought: and this it is which distinguishes the higher from the lower operations of the intellect; and it obviously surpasses the capacity of the brutes.
In the matter of general notions, as this term is commonly applied, we are to distinguish two operations, of a widely different order. Merely to recognize a thing newly presented as similar to a thing or things previously known, and in this sense of the same class, is an operation of the lower order. But a thought such as finds expression in a general proposition—that is to say, in a proposition that predicates something of a whole class of objects, or of an indefinite portion of a class—is of a higher and quite different order. The former cannot be denied to the brutes, and it makes up a large part of the ordinary thinking of men. The distinctive characteristic of the latter is that it brings into exercise what I have described as the compendious mode of thought. Whenever we employ a general proposition of even the simplest character—such, for instance, as. All men are mortal; All sheep eat grass; Some men are unwise; Some sheep are black,—we embrace, in a comprehensive survey, an indefinite number of objects, which cannot by any possibility be all at one time individually represented—which we apprehend only collectively as an assemblage of things similar to what we have known individually and at the' same time differenced by peculiarities that are not definitely known or represented.
In any use of general words, just so far as the object or objects signified are regarded as appertaining to a class indefinite in the number and the variety of the things it embraces, just so far, and so far only, is the operation of the higher order as above described. Such action belongs to what Leibnitz designated as symbolical knowledge, in his division of knowledge into symbolical and intuitive. Even individual objects that are cognized as highly complex in their composition—as, for instance, a polygon of a thousand sides—can be apprehended all at once only compendiously or symbolically, and not intuitively. Indeed, every complex object of sense-perception may, for the human intellect, be made an object of this kind of cognition. Not till we come to a full understanding of the nature and import of symbolical cognition, and duly emphasize this element and assign to it its rightful place in the operations of the mind, can we justly distinguish between what is peculiar to man and what he has in common with lower forms of intelligence.
There are, indeed, different grades of general notions, according as the points of similarity on which they depend are more or less obvious—more or less easily apprehended, or by faculties of a lower or higher order. The notion of a horse or of a tree is more easily formed than the more generic notion of an animal or of a plant; and far more easily than the notions expressed by such terms as beautiful, wise, true, just, convenient, hurtful, civilized, and others that depend on still more tenuous similarities. But the difficulty lies wholly in the recognition or apprehension of the points of similarity. The difference, if not throughout a matter simply of degree, yet stands upon no single broad line of demarcation. Some resemblances are obtrusive, and obvious to sense-perception and the lowest forms of the understanding: others are more subtle and require a higher development of the intellect or sensibilities, or imply faculties and endowments, it may be, of a distinctly higher nature, in order to apprehend them. The process, in the formation of the general notion, is, however, always the same, except as regards the initial step, namely, the recognition of the resemblance. This once attained, the process of classification, and that of handling the notions thus formed, is in all cases, and may be in all respects, the same. Unless we can find a dividing line that marks off plainly classes of a lower from those of a higher order, we cannot make a distinction between representation and concept, as grounded in the nature or character of the classes to which the notions correspond. Objects the most concrete and the most obvious to sense are subject to the higher functions of thought as well as to the lower operations of intelligence.
On the subject of conceptual knowledge, there are sundry traditional prepossessions that have too long survived and still wait to be swept away. The nominalist contends that, as nothing exists, so nothing can be conceived, but individual objects. We cannot conceive of a triangle that is neither right-angled, acute-angled, nor obtuse-angled; neither equilateral, isosceles, nor scalene;—nor can we conceive of a horse that is of neither this nor that color, figure, &c. Now, while we cannot think of a triangle as being neither equilateral, isosceles, nor scalene, we can think of a group of three triangles that are severally equilateral, isosceles and scalene; and we can think of an individual triangle as one of this group, and yet indeterminate as to which one. We can, further, think of a group made up of an indefinite number of triangles, all alike as triangular figures, but all unlike and differenced as individual triangles,—the group embracing all possible triangles, and the number and the individual differenced being of course not all distinctly apprehended. We can think of a single triangle as a some one indeterminate individual in such a group, that is to say, as either this or that definitely represented, or as some other quite indeterminately apprehended. It is not more difficult to think of a group of things than of a single thing, especially if the thing be at all complex—and every individual thing is so in a greater or less degree. And the notion of what we call an individual thing is a product of the mind's operation, as truly as that of a group of things. A concept, then, may be defined as the notion of a group of things that are recognized as related by certain common features of similarity, and are apprehended as indefinite in number and in respect to individual variations. When we think of a single thing as coming under a concept, as simply one of a certain class, but otherwise indefinite, there comes into exercise, over and above the symbolical or compendious operation, what, for want of any established designation, we may venture to call the alternative, or perhaps better, the disjunctive, mode of thought,—the thing being apprehended as either this, that, or the other, but undetermined as to which it may be, or as perhaps some one of many others that are not at all represented. So also is it when we think of some, as a not individualized, an indeterminate, portion of a class.
The element of indefiniteness in the concept, as just now defined involves
the disjunctive mode of thought.
In symbolical cognition, we have a kind of knowledge that is separated by a wide chasm from all that is of a lower kind, and with no steps for a gradual passage from one to the other.
There is, however, something about such cognition that seems paradoxical, and which perhaps no analysis may be able fully to explain. An essential part of the object of such cognition is known merely as a something that might be distinctly represented and intuitively known. To know a thing in this way is to know it, in some sense, as a thing that we do not know. A part of the object of symbolical knowledge is consciously unknown. We have what is quite similar in the case of efforts of the memory. We do indeed know something about what we are trying to remember, but there is still something that we do not know, and of which we have a notion or knowledge as a thing unknown. It may perhaps be said that, in this part of the object, the notion we have of an unknown something is, itself, simply an extremely general notion. This, however, cannot be admitted: for it would be a self-evident absurdity to explain a general notion, as such, by representing it as composed in part of a general notion of a particular kind or of any kind,—the absurdity of a circle in definition. But, if the element which I have tried to describe, and have pointed out as involved in all rational thinking, should prove to be, after all, inexplicable and mysterious, it is yet real; and is not to be ignored, even if we cannot explain it to full satisfaction. The solution of the difficulty seems to me, however, to be this: that what, by an after act of reflection, may be brought under a general notion is, in and during the act of symbolical cognition, apprehended simply as an individual thing related to actual and possible knowledge as above explained;—and it is known as a thing that is unknown: that is to say, is known positively, as a thing related in the way mentioned, and negatively, as a thing not more specifically known or represented, and thus in this sense unknown.
In the ordinary handling of general conceptions, it is not necessary to have a perfectly distinct apprehension or knowledge of the points of similarity on which the conception is grounded,—that is to say, of the content of the concept. It is only requisite that the apprehension be so clear as to suffice for the recognition of objects as belonging to one and the same class, and for distinguishing different classes of which one and the same object may be a member. And general words may be serviceably and intelligently enough employed, without even such clear apprehension, provided such apprehension be ready to suggest itself so far as occasion may require.
It is requisite for a general conception—is necessary in symbolical cognition—that there be something, either presented or represented to the mind, upon which to hang—by which to hold—that which is not represented, and all that which is compendiously and indeterminately apprehended. Words serve in this way and to this end; but along with the word and serving the same end, there ordinarily goes something more—some mental image, or representation. Such image, in the case of a given word, will not, ordinarily, be the same for different persons, nor for the same person at different times. It will commonly embrace, together with more or less of the marks or characters common to the class, others which are accidental and peculiar to certain individuals within the class. For objects having visible form, it may be a shadowy outline of the figure characteristic of the class, or it may be a distinct picture of some individual that is familiarly known. With the same person, it may, as I just now said, vary from time to time: thus, to one who had just before attended a horse-fair, or a horse-race, the word horse could hardly come into mind at all without suggesting the image of some of the individual horses he had so lately seen. The word savage, or barbarian, probably suggests to most minds an image that is quite special, or even individual, and that is consciously inadequate, and also consciously includes what is unessential, as measured by the real and proper meaning of the word; and in other instances the case is the same. Now, the image that thus goes with a name can serve as well without a name. That is to say, it can serve for thought; tho', of course, not for expression. For some orders of conceptions, a name, or some determinate symbol, is, as concerns thought, of more importance, and for others, of less. The name is not in any case essential to the formation of the general conception; the application of the name comes of necessity after the formation of the conception.
If there were a convenient term by which to designate the determinate and represented part of a general conception (aside from the name), as distinguished from the indeterminate and unrepresented part, it would help to relieve one of the difficulties with which the treatment of this subject is beset.3 The thing to be designated is a shifting and variable thing: not only different for different persons, but changing even from moment to moment as one thinks more carefully and intently and apprehends the conception more distinctly. It differs thus from the mental representation of a name, inasmuch as the latter is a more fixed thing than the former commonly is. It differs also by ordinarily including more or less of the distinctive attributes that mark the given conception:—in so doing, it is made to be something more than merely an internal symbol, something other than a bare sign, inasmuch as it includes more or less of what is signified.
To disprove the doctrine that a word, or name, is essential to the existence of a general notion, I have now to offer an argument which, I think, will be seen to be quite unanswerable; tho', strange to say, it has, unless I greatly mistake, never been brought forward in all the interminable discussion to which this subject has given occasion. What is a word? When we speak of the word horse, man, or any other,—when we say "this word," or "that word,"—we mean, not a single, individual utterance, at a particular time, nor a single copy in writing or print. When a word is repeated in speech or writing, we call it the same word; evidently it is not the same individual thing. Not only so, a word admits of great variation in pronunciation and voice and tone and manner of utterance, when spoken, and in form and color, when written or printed, while it is still recognized as the same word. When we call it the same, we mean simply that it is fashioned after the same type—marked by the same general characteristics;—just as we may say, of two horses, "this is the same animal as that," meaning, of course, an animal of the same species. The difference in the word horse, from the mouth of two persons, may be fully as great as that between two actual horses. We know a given word—considered now with reference to the external form—simply as a thing of a certain type to which every single instance is conformed. It is thus a general object of thought, and the notion we have of it is a general notion, and it is only through such general notion that we recognize the word as the same in the repeated instances of its occurrence. We have really to acquire a general notion of the external form of a given word before we can attach meaning to it and have it as an auxiliary to a general notion of any sort. But, the notion of the word, being thus a general notion, would by the doctrine in question, require another word to constitute it such—which we know it does not,—and that, again, would require still another, and so on, in a regressus ad infinitum. That all this should ever have been overlooked is owing mainly to the ambiguous use of this that, the same, &c.
Now, an actual horse is an object of sense-perception, and of representation in memory and imagination, just as is the word horse. And a general notion of the one has no more need of extraneous aid for its apprehension than that of the other. The doctrine here opposed is that at least the mental image of a word is an indispensable element in the concept. The truth, and the whole truth, is that words and the mental representation of the same bring with them, on many accounts which need not here be specified, immense practical advantages;—and the same is true, in a greater or less degree, of any other uniform set or system of symbols. But this does not in the least affect the validity of the argument just presented; the bare statement of which carries the evidence of its conclusiveness.
It would hardly be proper to pass without notice the explanation of general notions that has recently been put forth by Mr. Francis Galton. He is favorably known as an experimenter and an author who has contributed to physiology and to psychology some valuable concrete facts. For this we can thank him without accepting all his inferences and reasonings. He has invented a method of obtaining, by photography, what he calls "composite portraits." By means of successive instantaneous exposures, very faint and singly imperceptible impressions of the features of a number of persons are superimposed, and thus a picture is obtained that gives a general average of all, only the common traits being distinctly brought out, and the individual diversities being indistinct or evanescent in proportion to the infrequency of their occurrence. When the individuals are of a common type of feature, as, for instance, by family resemblance, or as when character is written in the lines of the face in the case of certain criminal classes, it has been found possible, by a proper selection of specimens, to bring this common type distinctly to view in the composite portrait. All this is, so far, interesting and not without value. But, as is natural to one in the flush of a successful discovery, Mr. Galton has conceived an exaggerated estimate of the importance and the various applicability of what he has produced. In particular he thinks it of value as illustrating the mental process of generalization. The matter derives additional importance in consequence of the endorsement of the idea by Mr. Huxley, in his recent sketch of the life and philosophy of David Hume (Chap. IV.). Mr. Huxley, as does Hume, recognizes nothing as existing in mind other than impressions and ideas; the ideas being copies of impressions. He ranks "abstract or general ideas" under the category of "memories;" and defines them particularly as the "generic ideas which are formed from several similar, but not identical, complex experiences." They are a result of the repetition of impressions from individual objects; the common features being thus blended together and mutually reinforced by their greater frequency of repetition, while the individual diversities, by their less frequent occurrence, fall away and disappear from the view. This he illustrates by referring to "what takes place in the formation of compound photographs," meaning, of course, the process of Mr. Galton, as just described.
It must, however, be added, in justice to Mr. Huxley, that he gives expression to some misgiving as to the entire adequacy of this explanation, in the hesitating admission conveyed in his remarks on the nominalistic doctrine of Berkeley, as follows:—"But the subject is an abstruse one; and I must content myself with the remark, that tho' Berkeley's view appears to be largely applicable to such general ideas as are formed after language has been acquired, and to all the more abstract sort of conceptions, yet that general ideas of sensible objects may nevertheless be produced in the way indicated, and may exist independently of language."
Of this way of explaining general ideas, it is to be said, in the first place, that, even if the analogy should hold good to the extent that is claimed for it, the explanation nevertheless, fails to reach the heart of the matter. It applies only to the represented and determinate part of a general conception: the existence of the other and essentially distinctive part is wholly ignored. In a concept there is something other than a memory—something that is not to be explained as a congeries of impressions, or as the accumulated effect of repeated impressions.
But the analogy is, at best, quite defective, and goes only a very little
way. Repeated sense-impressions do not make an idea more vivid; they simply
tend to fix it in the memory: faint impressions, ever so many times repeated,
never make a vivid idea. With these qualifications noted, there is, indeed, to
be recognized a real analogy, so far as concerns certain operations of the
memory. That is to say, there may be, in the memory, a blending and a mutual
reinforcing of similar impressions. But there is a law of the memory that breaks
in with fatal consequence upon the analogy, as concerns general conceptions.
Recent impressions are more vivid, and stronger every way, than earlier
impressions, and tend to supersede and obliterate them for the time being.
According to the memory theory, therefore, individual diversities recently
impressed would make a prominent figure in the general idea, or would even
wholly supersede it. Moreover, in the compound photograph, the individual
impression disappears, or rather in fact never appears; while, on the contrary,
individual impressions on the mind may remain perfectly distinct alongside of
the general idea to the formation of which they may have contributed.
It is not to be doubted that blended memories of similar things are possible and of frequent occurrence. And, again, it need not be questioned that the naturalist sometimes does, as Mr. Huxley says, make up for his own mind a distinct image which represents, in some sort, the average of a number of varying specimens ; he does this purposely, and to subserve for himself a valuable end. But it is not the fact that the represented part of a concept is usually limited to the common characters, the points of similarity, that go to the making of the class. Most certainly, it is not made up by an average that gives the mean between individual variations.
The illustration, obviously, and indeed confessedly as explained by Mr. Galton, can apply strictly to only a very limited and select portion out of the whole wide field of general ideas ; namely, to those of a highly concrete description, and those in which the similarities greatly preponderate over the diversities. What sort of an average, as a result of individual impressions should we have for such a concept as that of an instrument, or of a thing, or an animal, or even of a person To make the illustration hold good throughout, it would be necessary also to superadd a neutralizing influence: thus, for instance, in the general idea of a horse, we should have to dispose of the attribute of color in some way not provided for by the analogy of the compound photograph.
Enough, now, of this. It is all of a piece with the various other ways of explaining, or trying to explain, mental phenomena by means of analogies drawn from the material world, which have constantly misled and deluded philosophers and psychologists, as well as others. As for Mr. Huxley, it will not be claimed, on his behalf, that he has given to the facts of consciousness the thorough study that he has bestowed upon the natural sciences. He, certainly, has not, in this department, followed the method of positive science, the rule of induction, which requires, above everything else, a comprehensive survey inclusive of all the facts in the given field of inquiry. Tho' his gropings in this field, with David Hume as pioneer, have been earnest and serious, we know that the special studies in the pursuit of which he has achieved success and won renown have lain in quite another region and been concerned with phenomena of a quite different order. The misfortune is that the prestige gained by this success. lends weight to his opinions on these subjects, of which he has not obtained a mastery, and for which his special studies tend, in certain ways, to incapacitate him, and which are subjects of the greatest difficulty and of the highest importance.
Before concluding, it remains for us to give some consideration to the case of "our poor relations," the brute animals. As may be inferred from what has been premised, I cannot absolutely deny them the possession of general ideas—cannot exclude them from all that we designate by that term. In a sense they have them; and in a sense they have them not. It is not for the want of a sufficient stock of general ideas, and these of a sufficiently high order, that they attain to no greater proficiency in the way of language than they do. The provision in the former respect goes far beyond their attainment in the latter. In this I agree to a certain extent with Mr. Darwin and Mr. Huxley. It is at another point that the view I take diverges from theirs. So far as it may be possible to reconcile the conflicting opinions, by determining and setting in the proper light whatever of truth there may be on either side, it is desirable, of course, to do so.
It cannot reasonably be questioned that animals of the more intelligent orders recognize multitudes of objects according to their kinds, when new to them as individual objects. A dog knows a bone as a bone and not a bit of wood, even tho' he has never seen the same bone before. He knows his own kind from human beings, and vice versa; and knows various other animals as of the kinds of which they are. He knows a gentleman from a beggar; and sometimes an honest man from a thief. He knows what it is to go and come, to fetch and carry, to pursue and to stop, to keep watch; and so of various other actions. He knows things by single qualities: knows them, for instance, as hot or cold, and as having an odor which he likes; that is to say, he may recognize objects, when he sees them, as having these qualities. Domestic animals, too, understand the meaning of many words and other signs of ideas; and it is possible to train them to understand many more than they often do. The words and various other signs employed in the case of trained animals are, many of them, entirely arbitrary and artificial. By repetition and the law of association they are made to suggest the ideas, just as words suggest ideas to our minds. It is true the words or signs are addressed to them, for the most part, if not solely, in the way of command. But animals are able, themselves, to use signs for the purpose of making known their wants, or at least as a means of obtaining what they want ; and the more intelligent and docile can easily be taught to use arbitrary signs in this manner.
We probably can find no evidence that any of the animals can understand language of any kind used in the way of directly communicating information; much less that they can themselves so use it. This may require a more distinct knowledge than they possess, of their own minds and of other minds as knowing agents,—a knowledge that comes from self-consciousness, such as they have not. They can obtain information through signs; but that is a different thing from understanding a sign as made with the intent of giving information.
Their knowledge and use of language is, also, probably limited to single
words or other single signs, and to phrases which they apprehend in singleness,
without cognizance of the component words or parts of the phrase, and thus
without the power of making or of understanding a new combination. Thus, suppose
the most intelligent and proficient parrot to understand the two phrases, black
sheep and white dog, we have no evidence that from this he would be able to make
out, still less to make up, the new combinations, white sheep and black dog. In
the article, by Dr. Samuel Wilkes, entitled "Notes on the History of my Parrot
as related to the Nature of Language," in the Journal of Mental Science for
July, 1879, we find, as the result of his observations, that phrases were
apprehended in no other
way than as single expressions. This is made quite evident by the occasional
incongruous blending of different phrases that included some words in common.
The only faculties mentioned by the writer as concerned in the linguistic performances of this parrot were those of articulation, imitation, and the association of ideas. Any object or circumstance with which a word, or any kind of sound, had become associated, awakened by its recurrence a propensity to reproduce the sound. The utterances were made, however, many times, for purposes such as some of those for which human language is employed.
It is to be remarked, however, that to understand or to produce a new combination is nothing more than to bring one and the same object under two or more general ideas at the same time; or, it may be, under only a singular and a general idea; and possibly this is not quite beyond the reach of the lower order of intelligence. If, for instance, we suppose a pack of dogs to know each other's names, let the master of the dogs call one by name and command some action, here would be a combination of a singular name with a general word; and this, we may believe, might be understood by all the other dogs as well as by the one addressed, even tho', as a combination, it might be new to some of them. Some well-authenticated cases are related in which dogs have seemed to understand a combination as a combination; and possibly some of the instances were really what they thus seemed to be.
With these mere hints on the subject of brute intelligence, I have simply to remark, in brief, that a very considerable development of language is supposable, with no higher grade of capacity than what may suffice for the recognition of objects according to kinds—for the handling of general ideas to this extent. Moreover, a large part of the ordinary language of mankind requires no higher capacity. But anything of the nature of what we have referred to as compendious thought, and thus of symbolical knowledge, is entirely beyond and cannot be conceived as developed out of the lower intelligence of the brutes. The brutes can infer and reason, after a fashion, from instance to instance, and are thus able to learn something by experience; but they cannot apprehend a general law as such. The mind of man is capable of something higher than what Mr. Huxley calls "potential beliefs of memory," and ''potential beliefs of expectation ;" higher, even, than these as raised to the dignity of actual belief by being put into a form of words.
Allowing to the brutes the utmost that can be claimed for them, is it not still plain that man has faculties which we cannot conceive as developed out of or as simply exaltations in degree of anything that he possesses in common with the lower animals? We know, if we know anything, that phenomena of consciousness are things wholly unlike matter and motion, whatever we may think of the relation between the one and the other. We know, also, that among phenomena of consciousness there are some wholly unlike others, so that they cannot be conceived as developed out of them; nor all as developed out of a common element. We know, for instance, that perceptions of color and colored extension, are, as phenomena of consciousness, quite distinct and different from those of either touch, taste, smell, or sound. Whatever may be the similarity in the way in which the impressions are produced, or in the structure of the organs, and whatever may be the dependence upon organic action,—that is to say, however they may be allied physiologically,—yet, as sensations or perceptions, those of the eye are different in themselves, and imply a special gift or power not implied in those of the ear, or the hand, or the tongue. Is it not thus with the acts of the reason as compared with the working of the lower faculties? That the two have some elements in common does not prove them to be throughout of the same order, or render it possible for one to be developed out of the other. And if the eye of the soul, the higher reason, by which we look through the universe of things, cannot look in upon itself and clearly discern its own nature and its own processes, we ought not, therefore, forgetting what it does, to deny its essential superiority, and to assimilate it to those lower and subsidiary faculties which we can bring under its scrutiny. That by which we understand all things—must it not be of a nature essentially superior to aught that is understood by it?
If man has special endowments which set him in a rank above all other creatures on this globe of the earth, it cannot be well for him to renounce, disown, or barter away his birthright. Would not a true science, that should comprehend all the phenomena and all the facts, be able to characterize man by some other marks than as the two-handed family of the Primates?
The design of this article was to present the facts of an individual case. The remarks into which I have been led, at greater length than I intended, have been added, not, certainly, with any idea that they amount to a thorough discussion of the subject, but as suggestions, offered with the view of contributing towards clearing away some errors of long standing, which have made this subject a so fruitful, and at the same time so fruitless, theme of disputation.
1 He became deaf at the age of less than seventeen months, in
consequence of a fall down a flight of stairs. Those who lose hearing at so
early an age are not found by their instructors to have any appreciable
advantage over those deaf from birth.
Readers interested in the questions of heredity may desire to be informed of the fact that Mr. Ballard comes from a family of the old Puritan stock of New England. His home was Fryeburg, Me. A great grandfather was Simon Frye, who was a lawyer and a judge of some court. Otherwise his ancestors, so far as he knows, have not been members of the learned professions.
2 Not literally heard, of course. Deaf-mutes are quick to perceive shocks and jars that can be felt, even when so slight as to be unnoticed by those who can hear.
3 Concept-image, or concept-phantasm, is perhaps as good a term as can be devised.