Lives of the Deaf

From the middle ages until the nineteenth century, the deaf were categorized in the same class as other outcasts—beggars, wanderers, invalids—and portrayed as defective bodies capable of communicating only through crude gestures. Yet, as some scholars have duly noted, the experiences of the deaf were by no means uniform: Saint-Loup argues that the Middle Ages were in many respects an eventual period for the deaf in which rejection and integration existed simultaneously;[1] Cockayne argues the lives of the deaf in early modern England were not necessarily miserable, as deafness—especially if it was late-onset and not profound—would not have hindered the execution of many job tasks.[2] The lives of deaf individuals were diverse; even though many pre-lingually deaf individuals depended on their families or the communities for their subsistence, many of them married, worked, and lived full lives, though some of course, lived as outcasts.

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 the 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]

While the poor deaf and dumb may have suffered uncomprehending brutality, this was scarcely the case of deaf children born to the wealthy and aristocratic who had the privilege of private instructors to teach variations of artificial speech, finger-spelling, signs, or lip-reading, skills that would enable them to enrich their social status through communication.

Until the late eighteenth century, the education of the deaf was mainly a private enterprise catered to the children of the wealthy and aristocratic. For the most part these children were taught by esteemed educators and philosophers whose reputation soared with their success in getting the deaf and dumb to speak and communicate. The seventeenth century, in particular, saw a tremendous surge in British publications examining deafness in relation to theories about language, speech, and gestures. Among others, John Bulwer’s (1608-1656) 1648 publication of the first English treatise on finger-spelling, Philocopus, or the Deaf and Dumbe Man’s Friend, contended to the view that the uneducated deaf were “denied the means to express their humanity” and thus required an alternative, manual system useful for communication. Bulwer’s treatise sparked a flurry of activity within the Royal Society to discover the origins of language, speech, and the lack thereof in the deaf. Among others, John Wallis’ (1616-1703) De loquela (1653), George Dalgarno’s (1626-1687) Art of Communication (1680), and William Holder’s (1616-1698) Elements of Speech (1653), 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.[5] 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.

Since it was believed that language, encompassed with the ability to speak and hear, was directly linked to knowledge, seventeenth century philosophers argued to inquiry into the faculties of the deaf and mute individual would be to uncover the origins of language and its relation to understanding. It was 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. 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 [6]—and revaluated the meaning of language. Was language a necessary condition for the rational soul, as the philosopher John Wilkins (1614-1672), argued, in that it was miserable for a rational soul to be denied expression of its cogitations and discourse by gestures only signified that language was the symbol of ideas evolved to fit social needs?[7] Or was language closely intertwined with speech, such that the deaf could be taught to “hear” sounds and learn to speak with a thorough understanding of characters, as Wallis argued? Moreover, as Jan Branson and Don Miller note, to these philosophers,

the discursive process engaged by and with people who were deaf and mute became fascinating. The language of those who were mute suddenly had a philosophical status. Was it the original language? Did it hold the clue to the perfect language? If so, what was the status and role of deaf people in this possibility?  Was sign language similar? Did all people who could not speak use the same natural language? Were all people who could not speak of a kind? Were deaf people and their language singular categories?”[8]

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.

For more on 17th century philosophy and rationality, see my earlier series, “Objects of Philosophical Discourse: Deafness and Language in the 1600s.”


[1] Aude de Saint-Loup, “Images of the Deaf in Medieval Western Europe,” in Looking Back: A Reader on the History of Deaf Communities and their Sign Language, eds. Renate Fisher and Harlan Lane (Hamburg: Signum Press, 1993), 379-402.

[2] Emily Cockayne, “Experiences of the Deaf in Early Modern England” History Journal 46 (2003): 493-510.

[3] Cockayne, “Experiences of the Deaf in Early Modern England,” 496.

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

[5] 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. See in particular: Jaap Matt, Philosophical Languages in the Seventeenth Century: Dalgarno, Wilkins, Leibniz (Dordrecht & Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004); Noga Arikha, “Deafness, Ideas and the Language of Thought in the Late 1600s,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy vol. 13.2 (2005); Joseph L. Subbiondo, “Educational Reform in Seventeenth-Century England and John Wilkins’ Philosophical Language,” Language and Communication vol.21(2001): 273-284; and Christopher Kretz, “Duncan Campbell and the Discourses of Deafness,” Prose Studies vol.21.1 (2005): 39-52.

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

[7] 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), 130.

[8] Jan Branson and Don Miller, Damned for their Difference: The Cultural Construction of Deaf People as Disabled (Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2002), 72.

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