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

By Speech and Signs

Historian Lennard Davis has emphasized that the deaf person has historically served as an icon for complex intersections of subject, class, and the body.[1] This construction and awareness of the connection to language relied on deafness becoming visible for the first time as an articulation in a set of practices. According to Davis, prior to the mid-seventeenth century, the deaf were rarely constructed as a group; while we may come across a historical record of a deaf individual, he points out that there is no significant discourse constructed on deafness. “The reason for this discursive nonexistence,” he explains,

is that, then as now, most deaf people were born to hearing families, and were therefore isolated in their deafness. Without a sense of group solidarity and without a social category of disability, they were mainly seen as isolated deviations of the norm, as we might now consider, for example, people who are missing an arm. For these deaf,  there were no schools, no teachers, no discourse, in effect, no deafness.[2]

Davis continues, somewhat ambiguously, to explain that though deafness did not “exist,” authors who wrote on deafness did so within a set of practices whereby deafness could be evaluated. In short, deafness and mutism became tied with theories of language and intellect, evaluated and adopted into pedagogical efforts to instruct and educate the deaf.

Prior to 1750, when opportunities for deaf-mutes to be literate were becoming widespread, the situation of the deaf was a calamity: unable to acquire speech, the deaf were forced into a state of isolation and removed from the two-way communication prevalent in hearing society. Some even believed that the deaf were literally incapable of absorbing divine worlds, as they were metaphorically deaf to the Word of God.[3] As Oliver Sacks describes these experiences, deaf-mutes were

confined to a few rudimentary signs and gestures; cut off, except in large cities, even from the community of their own kind; deprived of literacy and education, all knowledge of the world; forced to do the most menial work; living alone, often close to destitution; treated by the law and society as little better than imbeciles—the lot of the deaf was manifestly dreadful.[4]

It is the deprivation of all the knowledge of the world that attracted the curiosity and compassion from philosophers seeking to uncover the foundations of knowledge and understanding. Since it was believed that language, encompassed with the ability to speak and hear, was directly linked to knowledge, to enquiry into the faculties of the deaf and mute individual would be to uncover the origins of language and its relation to understanding. Many philosophers who wrote diary entries on their experiences with some sort of temporary deafness, such as Ralph Josselin (1616-1683), John Dee (1527-1608), Robert Hooke (1635-1703), and Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), remarked on how their hearing loss affected their communication with others and their grasp of understanding of the realities around them.[5] Philosophers probing the nature of language also acknowledged that deafness and mutism provided clues whereby they could construct theories of knowledge and rationality. Additionally, a growing recognition that remarked on the ability of the deaf to read and write further propelled studies on how to properly instruct the deaf to communicate through signs or speech.

One of the first recollections describing the ability of a deaf man to read and write is provided in the work of Rudolphus Agricola (1443-1485), a Dutch humanist and philosopher.

Agricola (Alfred Gudeman: Imagines philologorum. Berlin/Leipzig: Teubner 1911, S. 4.)

Published posthumously in 1528, Agricola’s De Inventione Dialectia was revived by the Italian mathematician and physician Girolamo Cardano (Jerome Cardan, 1501-1576), who in turn elaborated on the uniqueness of deaf people to communicate through gestures, reading, and writing, rather than by hearing or speech. Cardano’s work shaped the connection between written characters and ideas, associating written words with the concepts they represented in order to enhance understanding.[6] Moreover, as Susan Plann points out, the works of these Renaissance thinkers influenced an epistemological shift that favoured thinking by “eye” and occasioned the start of the Spanish involvement in instruction for the deaf.[7] The novelty of the idea that speech could be separated from thinking possibly circulated through monasteries and intrigued those interested in the connection between language and human understanding.

Girolamo Cardano

Cardano’s work set forth important principles in teaching deaf-mutes that provided a possible stimulation for Spain’s efforts in teaching deaf-mutes sign language and speech.[8] Although the history of deaf education and the formation of sign language is difficult to trace, historians argue it is largely rooted in what is believed to be the first published work on the subject, the Spanish monk Juan Pablo Bonet’s Reducción de las letras y arte para ensenar a ablar los mudos (1620).[9] Bonet was influenced by the Benedictine monk Pedro Ponce de León (1520-1584), who had heard Cardano’s efforts and employed his own methods of instruction to some of Spain’s wealthiest families. Using conventional gestural signs instead of a formal method of fingerspelling or lip-reading, Ponce’s achievements were renowned more for its recognition that disability did not hinder learning, rather than his success in teaching speech and language.[10] Carrying on with Ponce’s method of signs, Bonet created a methodology for instruction that incorporated various elements of dactylogoy, signs, writing, and speech. He also placed great emphasis on lip-reading, which he argued could be taught to stimulate speech; a flexible leather tongue was also used to imitate the positions of the living tongue.[11] His philosophic system was not only published but also applied into practice.

Juan Pablo Bonet (Free recreation of José Zaragoza, deaf painter and impressor, for the book of Miguel Granell i Forcadell, Homenaje a Juan Pablo Bonet, Madrid:Imprenta del Colegio Nacional de Sordomudos y Ciegos, 1929)

Word of the Spanish success in deaf education eventually began to gain notoriety and Bonet’s work eventually provided the British with practical methodologies for teaching the deaf. In 1623, Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1663), courtier and diplomat to Charles I, toured Spain and became acquainted with the nobleman Luis de Velasco (1511-1564) who was trained under Bonet. Impressed with hearing the deaf man speak, Digby corresponded with a few of his countrymen, especially Wallis, on the nature of teaching deaf individuals to speak. Additionally, in order to discover how Bonet performed his “miracle” in teaching the deaf how to speak, Digby recommended his countrymen to read Bonet’s Reducción de las letras.[12] Digby also published in 1644 an account of Bonet’s works in Treatise on the Nature of Bodies, which not only praised the accomplishments in Spain in educating the deaf, but effectively standardized Bonet’s manual alphabet in Britain, which became commonplace and was even employed by Wallis himself.  Though historians presume Wallis was familiar with Bonet’s work and applied aspects of it in his own teachings, Wallis himself may have claimed not to have known Bonet.[13]

What became apparent to these scholars was not only that the deaf could be taught to read, write, and communicate with gestures, but also that they were capable of speech. Bonet’s emphasis on language provided a reminder that teaching deaf-mutes required a recognition of the relation between communication and thought.[14] Speech was also possible, Bonet stressed, with the proper instruction of the movements of the tongue, which required the deaf and mute to master on his own after he learned how to do so by working his teeth, lips and palate properly. To Bonet, as for Wallis, lipreading was defective and unnecessary unless used as an early form of instruction; to rely upon it would be to undermine the work of the instructor, for it not only failed to provide comprehension of ideas, but it was essentially useless in the dark. Whether or not Wallis acknowledged his debt to Bonet, he recognized that the deaf were capable of developing the ability to use language and articulate their thoughts through speech: “why should it be thought impossible, that the eye, (though with some disadvantage), might as well apply such complications of letters or other characters to represent the various conceptions of the mind, as the ear like a complication of sounds?”[15]

While these early efforts in education demonstrated that the deaf were capable of learning how to communicate by signs or speech, they also introduced new questions into the relationship between language and thought. Moreover, within the context of the growing epistemological interest in universal language, deafness provided a portal whereby philosophers could experiment with their theories on language and thought.


[1] Lennard Davis, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body (New York & London: Verson Books, 1995).

[2] Davis, Enforcing Normalcy, p.51.

[3] Emily Cockayne, “Experiences of the Deaf in Early Modern England,” The Historical Journal vol.46.3 (Sept. 2003), p.496.

[4] Oliver Sacks, Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), p.14.

[5] Cockayne, “Experiences of the Deaf in Early Modern England,” p.497.

[6] Mark Marschark, Patricia Elizabeth Spence, Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p.11.

[7] Susan Plann, A Silent Minority: Deaf Education in Spain, 1550-1835 (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997).

[8] Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle, “Deaf Signs, Renaissance Texts,” in Joseph Marino and Melinda W. Schlitt (eds) Perspectives on Early Modern and Modern Intellectual History (New York: Boydell & Brewer, 2001), p.164.

[9] Simplification of the Letters of the Alphabet, and a Method of Teaching Deaf Mutes to Speak.

[10] Margaret Winzer, The History of Special Education: From Isolation to Integration (Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1993), p.32.

[11] Winzer, The History of Special Education, p.32.

[12] Mullett, ” ‘An Arte to Make the Dumbe Speake, the Deafe to Heare,'” p.124.

[13] Rachel Sutton-Spence, “British Manual Alphabets in the Education of Deaf People Since the 17th Century, ” in Leila Frances Monaghan (ed) Many Ways to be Deaf: International Variation in Deaf Communities (Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2003), p.40.

[14] Mullett, ” ‘An Arte to Make the Dumbe Speake, the Deafe to Heare,’ ” p.128.

[15] Quoted in Marschark, Lang, and Albertini, Educating Deaf Students, p.23.


Latest Comments

  1. AQ says:

    Vocational rehabilitation did and still does take a lot of effort, from the people trying to figure out how to provide effective services AND from the people with disabilities trying to figure out how to interface with normal life in “other than normal” ways. Kudos to the pioneers out there trying to make it work, from the 1600s to the 2010s.


  2. Gary Siegle says:

    Several years ago, my wife, who is deaf, is an AI Teacher and asked if I would like to go with her to a Deaf Conference in Houston. She needed her yearly requirements of credits. As it turned out, I had the pleasure of eating breakfast (one on one) with Dr. Mark Marschark to discuss with him, at that time, my many dissertation topics. He was kind enough to explain that I needed to really narrow my topic. Long story short, a topic found me for which I have been working/researching on for almost the last two years. My study will utilize differential research in terms of deaf and hearing students. I recently submitted chapters 1 and 3 to my mentor and subsequently started working on chapter 2, the dreaded literature review. Part of the lit review will discuss cruel treatment of the Deaf by a hearing society. As a hearing person, some of the things I have been discovering appall me. Even though many things happened some two thousand years ago, it is suffice to say that we still have a lot to learn from the Deaf. “The real handicap of deafness does not lie in the ear, it lies in the mind.” ~ Marlee Matlin


    • Jai Virdi says:

      Hi Gary,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, I agree that many of these treatments were cruel–though they were conducted in the name of science and experimentation. Could you share some of these sources? I would love to look them over.



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