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3 The New Philosophy, Sign Language, and the Search for the Perfect Language in the Seventeenth Century [O]ne must not forget that the relations of communication par excellence—linguistic exchanges—are also relations of symbolic power in which the power relations between speakers or their respective groups are actualized. —Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power We begin this history of the disablement of deaf people as most histories do, in ancient times. But the main focus is on the seventeenth century in Britain when, as outlined in chapter 2, in the battle of the sciences, the new philosophers triumphed over their more radical nonmechanistic fellows and the Royal Society provided legitimacy for rational progress. The seventeenth century was a time when philosophers engaged directly with deaf people in their search for an understanding of the contours of humanity and of the source and scope of human creativity. Mirzoeff has recently written that The constitution of deafness as a medicalized category of the body politic, and hence a social question, was the direct outcome of Enlightenment sensualist philosophy in general and the politics of the French Revolution in particular. (Mirzoeff 1995, 6) 66 ch03_GUPress_193022 3/21/02 9:20 AM Page 66 Although this excerpt is a neat summary of general trends in France and even provides a guide as we trace the way that philosophical speculation on deaf people eventually gives way, at least in part, to medical experimentation, it glosses over the broader international trends that preceded and encompassed the essentially French Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. In particular, it ignores the effect on the general French and European intellectual scenes of British writers such as Bacon, Wilkins, Dalgarno, Wallis, Hobbes, and Locke. By the time of the French Enlightenment, the British Enlightenment was well in the past.1 Here, we will focus on those British philosophers of the seventeenth century, of the British Enlightenment, who engaged directly with people who were deaf and with their sign languages. All of these philosophers were key players in the development of the Western intellectual tradition. Some were foundation members of the Royal Society. Their writings were influential far beyond Britain’s shores as they communicated freely with philosophers throughout Europe. Little has been written about these philosophers of language in relation to their engagement with deaf people and with sign languages. The small amount that has been written has often misrepresented the individuals and their work.2 Ancient and Medieval Attitudes toward Deaf People and Sign Language For a thousand years from Roman times to the dynamic days of the Renaissance when British and European philosophers rediscovered the secular philosophy of the Greeks and Romans, intellectual life and education were conducted through the church. The philosophers of these times sought understanding in the word of God. Knowledge came through reading and writing. Wisdom was in the text. Their central educational goal was to teach their pupils to read and write. These religious philosophers and teachers saw people who were deaf as part of God’s complex world. They did not see it as right or proper that they should change deaf people. That kind of change would require a miracle, the intervention of God. The fact that those who were deaf did not speak or hear was not regarded as a problem. These clerical scholars did not regard all language as linked to sound, not even St. Augustine, despite the fact that many writers have claimed that he said deaf people could not be saved because they could not hear the priests. On the The Search for the Perfect Language 67 ch03_GUPress_193022 3/21/02 9:20 AM Page 67 contrary, St. Augustine saw both signing and writing as viable avenues to knowledge and salvation (Zillman n.d.) because it was in the monasteries that many sign languages developed. These sign languages were not those used by deaf people but were sign languages developed by different orders of monks to cope with periods of silence when speaking was not allowed. Like the communities of feudal times and those of many nonWestern countries today, monks’ ways of communicating were flexible, adapting to the demands of their order and their members. The monasteries produced the first teachers of deaf people, teachers who taught through sign language. The venerable Bede, writing in the eighth century, describes how St. John of Beverley taught a boy who was deaf to speak, read, and write (Bede 1565, 115).3 Although John of Beverley’s ability to...


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