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

Conclusions: Disputes and Discourses

Whether or not the Wallis-Holder dispute was the central factor, the Royal Society saw a remarkable decline in the focus on language projects as well as instruction for deaf-mutes. Mullett cites several factors that may have contributed to this decline, including the lack of physiological information on deafness, the rise of Evangelical Christianity that advocated sign language efforts over speech, the passing of interested men, and the greater demand for a “cure.”[1] While these points are all relevant, it is likely that new projects with new epistemological focus started to take prominence among philosophers. The frustration with teaching deaf-mutes to speak may have also contributed to the decline, as well as the drastic shift in the narratives of the deaf from experiments to anecdotes. As a teacher of the deaf, Wallis did not succeed in teaching all of his deaf pupils to speak; he only managed to teach them to “understand a Language, and to express their Mind (tolerably well) in Writing.”[2] Bearing in mind that Wallis’ education process was essentially a two-fold one, the first in understanding language and the second in speech-training, the difficulty in transiting between the two levels might have eventually been made obvious to him.

What I have argued through this series is that the social perceptions of deafness and the rise of interest in language prompted philosophers to embark in new endeavours to not only create a universal means for communication, but to apply those principles in practice as well. While the construction of a universal language was one of the many goals pursued by philosophers, a universal character, at the very least, provided philosophers with a how-to to plan for their theories and experiments on language. The deaf and dumb were viewed as perfect portals from which theories about language, understanding and speech could be employed. The diversity and sophistication of seventeenth century linguistic ideas as well as the search for a demystified rationality dominated philosophical speculation into forming educational approaches for deaf-mutes. As Wallis’ work demonstrates, not only was there no distinction between using speech and signs—a distinction that would be made remarkably clear during the late eighteenth century—but that these approaches, used properly, provided a dualistic way for properly integrating deaf-mutes into hearing society.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for a new series!



[1] Mullett,  ” ‘An Arte to Make the Dumbe Speake, the Deafe to Heare,’ ” p.144-147.

[2] Quoted in Branson and Miller, Damned for their Difference, p.81.

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