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  • "The Experiment Explained":Importance of Preceding Examples
  • J. A. Jacobs

In the last number of the ANNALS, Mr. Burnet has explained his "experiment;" but I must confess, with all respect, that the explanation has not made the matter clearer to my mind, and if anything, has only rendered his position more obscure. Mr. Burnet affirms, "that written words can be retained in the memory of a deaf mute, though not associated with any signs or even with any ideas." Unquestionably they may be. He further asks in confirmation of this position, which needed none, if I have not "been applied to, by many of my pupils, for the explanation of words and phrases which they had committed to memory for the express purpose of asking their meaning, and which of course, they could remember and repeat without associating them either with signs or even with ideas?" I reply that I have, every day of my life. Suppose the word to be elephant. Suppose the pupil to have seen the animal. By significant signs I recall the image or idea of the animal to his mind. He recognizes it. and the written name and idea are firmly fixed in his understanding and memory. When he sees the word henceforth, he will either think of the animal itself—that is, the thing—or most probably, he will think of the sign by which it was recalled, and which he and his teacher both afterward use when the animal is spoken of. But suppose the word memorized and whose meaning is asked of me by the pupil, be government. I can not show the meaning of this word to him by any visible object or objects, or by a picture, nor can I recall the idea by signs. A new and unknown idea must be conveyed to him by signs. When the idea is received and understood, a methodical, i. e., a significant sign, naturally embodying the series of explanatory signs used, as the spoken word would the series of explanatory words given to a hearing child, and representing the idea conveyed, is then given and established between the pupil and teacher for the word government. Now I ask, whenever he sees or thinks of this written word, is not the methodical sign as naturally and necessarily, neither more nor less, connected with the written word, as the articulate sound or word government is with the same written word in the mind of the speaking child? Are not the cases the same? Mr. Burnet admits that speaking persons think by the intermediation of "the articulation corresponding to each written word," repeated, either "aloud or mentally." The speaking child receives the meaning of written words through or by articulations; it is admitted that the latter are necessarily intermediate to thought for him in reading written words. If so, has the deaf-mute child a greater mental power of abstraction than the speaking child? The latter can not dismiss the articulate word by which he received the meaning of the written word; the former, Mr. Burnet holds, can dismiss the significant sign by which he received the meaning. How, I can not see. He had no idea of what government was previous to the explanation in signs; [End Page 56] his mind had never soared to such an idea; its elements in their simplest forms, hardly existed in his understanding. The idea has been awakened and fixed in his mind by the skillful use of gesticulatory language, a significant sign-word—not a "word-sign"—if I may so call it, has been established, not to recall the word merely, but the idea, which it does not merely recall, but most significantly expresses. The articulate word can not be dismissed from the mind of the speaking child, but the sign-word can, from the mind of the non-speaking child, and he acquires the unnatural and almost miraculous power of thinking in written words alone, altogether dissociated from signs, natural or methodical. They become to him the instruments and object of thought, but can not be to the·speaking child, not even to the greatest. philosopher. I repeat, how, I can not see. It...


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