30 September 2014

The Desk Chair Review of Books: A Man Without Words

A Man Without WordsA Man Without Words by Susan Schaller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A certain episode of Radiolab featured this story as a way of considering the power and necessity of language for human flourishing. (You can listen at this link). Schaller tells the story of a young man she meets almost by accident at a class for deaf students at a university in California in the 1970s. After interacting with him briefly, she discovers that his inability to communicate is not ignorance about the particular signs of American Sign Language, but is actually a consequence of the fact that he was never taught any language at all. Her attempts to sign and communicate are simply mimed back to her by this obviously intelligent but clearly bewildered 27 year old, who observed everything around him intently but could make no connection between what was being done by others and their intention to communicate with him.
The story tells briefly how this young man, referred to as Ildefonso in the book, comes first to grasp language as an adult. This begins an odyssey not only for Ildefonso, but for Susan his teacher; she was charting new territory in a field that had long regarded languageless adults as unteachable.

My interest in the story derives not only from the remarkable story itself, but also from the philosophical writings of a 20th century novelist, Walker Percy. Percy was fascinated by semiotics, or "sign theory" first enunciated by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. Semiotic theory gave Percy the means to develop a philosophical anthropology that was both scientifically grounded but that avoided a reductionist materialism that dismissed language as a mere epiphenomenon of neural activity. In The Message in the Bottle How Queer Man is How Queer Language Is and What One Has to Do With the Other, his collection of linguistic essays, he attempts to show how language defies comprehension in terms of linear, stimulus/response patterns, and that "meaning" is irreducibly threefold: sign, concept, and speaker cannot be broken down into a more fundamental binary interaction. In other words, language is an utterly unique phenomenon in the history of the cosmos, and science cannot explain it simply in terms of material and efficient causes.

One point of contact between Schaller's experiences with Ildefonso and Percy's linguistic theory was the moment that Ildefonso "gets" the fact that gestures "mean" concepts. Percy recounts a similar moment: the famous event in which Helen Keller, with water running over one hand and the sign for water traced on her other hand first realizes that "water" isn't just a sensation, but a name. Both Helen and Ildefonso enter the human community at that moment, and in Ildefonso's case, a lifetime of confusion and isolation is washed away in an instantaneous flood of tears.
Schaller writes with great passion for her subject matter, and her research into the ways in which languageless adults have been misunderstood in the past allows her to bring a fresh eye to much of human history and the study of language. Her love for the Deaf community also shines through and gave me insight into a segment of our society of which I know little to nothing. Highly recommended for parents of deaf children and all men of good will!

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