Monday Series: Objects of Philosophical Discourse: Deafness and Language in the 1600s

Welcome to yet another edition of this blog’s Monday Series. This series examines how philosophical interest in universal language amongst the early members of the Royal Society of London shaped both philosophical and social perceptions of deafness during the seventeenth century.



The seventeenth century saw a tremendous surge in British publications examining deafness in relation to theories about language, speech, and gestures. Among others, John Wallis’ De loquela (1653), George Delgarno’s Art of Communication (1680), and William Holder’s Elements of Speech (1699), actively probed to unlock the mysteries of language and human understanding by recruiting deaf individuals as objects of study for their philosophical and pedagogical aims. These works emerged from the intellectual background of seventeenth century linguistics to project philosophically constructed languages in order to replace arbitrary and conventional ones by proposing a need for a universal character or language understood by all.[1] Language, considered to be the condition for the transmission of empirical knowledge, was believed to be inseparable from speech; in separating the two, philosophers counteracted the deep-seated conviction that the muted deaf were incapable of reason or education.

This series examines how philosophical interest in language amongst the early members of the Royal Society of London shaped both philosophical and social perceptions of deafness by building upon Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) arguments for a universal language. Inspired by Chinese sinographs, Bacon drew attention to the possibility of representing things by “real characters” instead of sounds, arguing that words could only imperfectly express things. The existence of real characters demonstrated that the order between writing and speaking could be reversed, effectively fostering an effective form of communication that would solve the problem of language diversity.[2] Bacon’s De Augmentis Scientiarum (1632), which explores his ideas on communication, became the bedrock whereby theories on universal language flourished during the seventeenth century. The Baconian requirement of basing science on observation and induction led to a three-fold relationship between language, ideas and knowledge.[3] For instance, John Wilkins (1614-1672), who would become the Royal Society’s first secretary, presented ideas on a universal language that would be constructed to better reveal philosophical truth about nature. Since it was believed that language commonly expressed notions about material reality, a growing concern about the misrepresentation of nature also fuelled the growth of philosophical discourse for a universal language. In short, a proper universal and philosophical language was required in an age that favoured empiricism and experimentalism.

Plate from Bulwer's Chirologia, or the Natvrall Langvage of the Hand

Bacon’s ideas also influenced new philosophical discourses on gestures and communication, evoking new educational enterprises for deaf-mutes. John Bulwer (1606-1656) in his Chirologia, or the Natvrall Langvage of the Hand (1644), for instance, drew upon Bacon’s notion that gesture serves as an effective means of communication between people with different vernacular tongues: “It speakes all languages and as an universall character of Reason, is generally understood and knowne by all Nations, among the formal differences of their Tongue.”[4] The idea that the deaf could communicate without speech revoked the Aristotelian imperatives about the divine origins of speech—Those born deaf are in all cases dumb; they can make vocal noises but they cannot speak[5]—and revaluated the meaning of language. Wilkins thought it was miserable for a rational soul to be denied expression of its cogitations and argued discourse by gestures signified that language was the symbol of ideas evolved to fit social needs.[6] The mathematician John Wallis (1616-1703), on the other hand, disregarded lip-reading as implausible for deaf persons and sparingly used fingerspelling in his instruction. From the Society’s early experiments on acoustics and the propagation of sound, Wallis argued the deaf could be taught to hear sounds and effectively learn to speak. However, he indicated that speech could only successful after a thorough understanding of characters, which in turn could be made possible by a universal language.

In the hands of these philosophers, the deaf, who were long subjected to and defined by myth and superstition, were constructed as the gateway whereby philosophers could invoke new theories about language and its relation to ideas. Schemes and proposals for a universal language provided means whereby instructors could teach their deaf pupils a way to comprehend the natural world around them. Wallis, in particular, was concerned his pupils not taught to articulate without knowing the meanings of the words; without comprehension, he argued the deaf would be no better than parrots. As this series shall show, these philosophical and educational enterprises exemplified by Wallis’ De loquela provided a new epistemological interest that tied together universal language schemes and the emphasis on knowledge with the education and instruction of deaf-mutes.


[1] The 1970s and 1980s saw a remarkable increase in scholarship on seventeenth century language projects. Some of these authoritative sources include Charles F. Mullet’s ” ‘An Arte to Make the Dumbe to Speake, the Deafe to Heare’: A Seventeenth-Century Goal,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences vol.26.2 (April 1971): 123-149, Vivien Salmon’s The Works of Francis Lodwick (London: Longman Books, 1970), James Knowlson’s Universal Language Schemes in England and France 1600-1800 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1975), Mary M. Slaughter, Universal Languages and Scientific Taxonomy in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), and Andrew Large, The Artificial Language Movement (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1985). Recent scholarship has delved upon these works, probing the various language projects that emerged during the seventeenth century, particularly the ties it had with the Royal Society of London, the progresses made in algebraic formulas, as well as new voyages of discoveries that exposed Europeans to various indigenous languages. Some of these works are credited in other footnotes in this paper.

[2] Jaap Matt, Philosophical Languages in the Seventeenth Century: Dalgarno, Wilkins, Leibniz (Dordrecht & Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004), p.19.

[3] Noga Arikha, “Deafness, Ideas and the Language of Thought in the Late 1600s,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy vol. 13.2 (2005), p.235.

[4] John Bulwer, Chirologia: or the Natural Language of the Hand (London: Printed by Thomas Harper, 1644, p.16.

[5] Aristotle, De Historia Animalium IV, 9.

[6] Charles F. Mullett, “ ‘An Arte to Make the Dumbe to Speake, the Deafe to Hear’: A Seventeenth-Century Goal,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences vol.26.2 (April 1971), p.130.



Latest Comments

  1. Thony C. says:

    I’m glad that you’ve started blogging again, welcome back 😉


  2. Jai Virdi says:

    I’ve missed blogging. And am very happy to be back–thanks for the warm welcome!


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