Gabble, Twitter and Hoot

Ian Hacking

  • I See a Voice: A Philosophical History of Language, Deafness and the Senses by Jonathan Rée
    HarperCollins, 399 pp, £19.99, January 1999, ISBN 0 00 255793 2

Jonathan Rée takes some tomfoolery from Shakespeare for his title and uses it to create his own striking metaphor. The middle part of his book is about sign languages for the deaf: voices that one sees. The same trope served Oliver Sacks in Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf (1989), but there is more to it than that for Rée. The quotation is from Bottom’s burlesque of love at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The swain says, ‘I see a voice’ – his lover’s – and then goes to the chink in the wall, or rather in the actor, Wall, ‘To spy an I can hear my This be’s face.’ Is this inversion of sight and sound mere silliness, or a more thoughtful playfulness on Shakespeare’s part? The plays – as befits the stage – are full of plays on voice, and for Rée this play is perfect. Although his subtitle refers to the five senses, it is two that preoccupy him, sight and hearing, and sound more than light. He would invert their roles in epistemology, if he could; he can’t, but at least he combats the philosopher’s obsession with vision as the model for perception, and in the modern period, for any type of thought. He also subverts, with barely concealed contempt, the Post-Modern doctrine that the text’s the thing, the notion that writing is paramount and speaking mere air.

The first third of the book is described as ‘a history of metaphysics’. The system-builders have given philosophy a reputation for being abstruse; the analysts have given it a reputation for technical obsession with minutiae; the Post-Moderns have given it a reputation for being unintelligible. All three reputations have been hard-earned and are well-deserved. Yet a lot of philosophy starts with children’s curiosity. Rée engagingly begins by trying to recall the philosophical notions and conundrums of his childhood. Not out of narcissism, but out of sharing, for he thinks that the idea that our knowledge is based on the five senses, and the idea that the voice is the perfect means for expressing our inner feelings, are ones that ‘practically all of us must, as children, have formed or rediscovered for ourselves’. This child’s garden of philosophy provides ‘the subject-matter for an emphatically non-chronological kind of history’. Good warning: his history of metaphysics is not what you get in books on the history of philosophy. It may not be until page 379 that the penny will drop, for there Rée seems to say in passing that metaphysics consists of ‘the more or less unconscious myths, maxims and metaphors we live by’, Oh.

One of the pleasures of the book is that its topics are made personal. They are not the topics formally studied in the schools, but the thoughts of fascinated (and fascinating) individuals with childlike curiosities. The two senses that seem to bring us knowledge from afar are vision and hearing (even Aristotle taught that). The boy that was Jonathan Rée began by wondering what it would be like to be blind or deaf, and which would be worse. (Boy’s conclusion: blind, of course.) But then more thoughts. Just how do these two senses, and their objects, differ? Certain sounds are, or decompose into, definite musical notes, which in turn recompose into harmonics. Could the same thing happen with light, with the colours of Newton’s spectrum serving the role of pure notes? Rée takes us through fantastic instruments, such as a colour harpsichord designed by a Parisian Jesuit, one Father Castel. His Harpsichord for the Eyes was exhibited in Paris in 1734, after ten wearying years of unsuccessful prototypes. A successor, advertised but cancelled for a concert in Soho Square in 1757, had 500 lamps and 60 discs of coloured lamps. All that anyone saw at a performance were flashes of coloured light. Light, as we say, is physically a different type of wave from sound, and allows of no harmonics. Nevertheless, Scriabin wrote a part for the light-keyboard to be played in an orchestral suite first performed in New York in 1915. When the Royal Festival Hall opened in 1951 it was complete with a light console, descended from these experiments. But we had to wait for the end of the century. Robert Wilson, designer/director of Philip Glass’s Monsters of Grace, ‘a digital opera in three dimensions’ which has toured North America and Europe since it opened last year, says of this work: ‘I’m not giving you puzzles to solve, only pictures to hear.’

Some of the tales that Rée includes within his metaphysics remind us that Western sensibilities, however gross they may still seem to the more sensitive among us, have changed for the better. The same Castel tells of a prince of Halle (Handel’s birthplace) bored out of his mind until visited by an itinerant musician with a harpsichord guaranteed to cure melancholia. Cats whose cries were of different pitches were tied to a board so that pressing a harpsichord key would drive a tack into their rears; a score was written and performed; the ensuing cacophony of pain cheered the depressed prince up no end. ‘Who,’ Castel wrote, ‘could fail to laugh at such a thing?’

What we have in this history of metaphysics is a series of scenes, skilfully presented. It may seem odd to speak of ‘scenes’ in a work whose heroes are hearing and sound, because scenes are visual. But that is all right. Scenes in plays are occasions for speaking. In the period before television, radio plays were the norm; when I was a child, the Lux Radio Theatre was a weekly fixture, not to mention The Lone Ranger and The Shadow. I first heard the line ‘Out, vile jelly!’ on a radio Lear at a tender age, and it moved and terrified me more than all the subsequent enactments of thumbs gouging out eyes that I have seen. Very well, here is a book emphasising sounds that consists of scenes, but where is the philosophy? The first part of the book, the history of metaphysics, and the third, called ‘a philosophical history’, are most comfortably read as reflections on the phenomena of sight and hearing, what it is like to see and feel, the shared experiences, the ways these two senses are encoded in language. Husserl is briefly mentioned but much admired. ‘These confusions in the philosophy of experience were not to be sorted out till the 20th century, when Husserl demonstrated that the notion of the world could never be attained by piecing together the separate deliverances of the various senses.’

The scenes are accompanied by much acute observation. We have the words ‘sound’ and ‘sounds’ for what we hear; there is no similar over-arching common word for what we see. We have an open-ended vocabulary for sounds, unlike anything parallel in the world of light. Loud ones peal, swell, boom, thunder, roar, resound, rend the air, fill the skies; they are noisy, sonorous, clangorous, deafening, piercing, enough to wake the dead. Animals bark, bellow, snort, squeak, mew, bleat, moo, caw, coo, gabble, twitter and hoot. One may not have noticed how different this is from what we say about light, but some readers may ask ‘so what?’

Philosophers of a traditional stripe do cross the stage. There is an excellent discussion of the problem set John Locke by his correspondent Molyneux: supposing a man born blind, who can tell a cube from a sphere by touch, would he, if granted his sight by surgery or miracle, be able to recognise the objects just by looking? Bishop Berkeley, nowadays regarded as a brilliant but utterly wobbly philosopher, not surprisingly gets a better report here than is common. Berkeley had the wit to challenge the belief, common to Aristotle and children, that hearing is of events at a distance: ‘Bodies and external things are not properly the object of hearing; but only sounds.’ Rée takes this to be ‘a good point: it is indeed quite plausible to think of hearing as a contact sense’. (The Merchant of Venice is quoted: ‘sit and let the sounds of music/Creep in our ears.’) The philosophically inclined will agree that it is plausible, but is it true? Is it not true that I hear the waterfall? We say both that I hear the cackle of the goose, which I suppose is a sound, and that I hear the goose. Is it true that the latter is less apt, less revealing of our place in the world, than the former? The reader will find no answer here, nor argument that we ought not to want an answer.

If the aim is only to reflect on what it is like to hear, no answer may be demanded. But the question ‘what is true?’ becomes more pressing, I think, for the other topic of Rée’s history of metaphysics, the idea that the voice is the perfect means for expressing inner feelings. What is said is excellent. We are reminded of the connection between voice and spirit. Yet the experiences which we have, at least in the Western tradition, that underlie this notion of the inner are less well presented than Rée’s phenomenology of hearing. And what seems to me to be the biggest, and also most childlike, philosophical issue about the inner voice hardly surfaces at all.

Let me explain. We have the strongest of temptations to connect thinking and speaking. One of the dozen or so basic philosophical questions that occur readily to children about the age of six is whether we can think without words. A marvellous text of 1587, cited by the OED, captures most perfectly our temptation both to connect and to distinguish thought and speech: ‘There is ... a dubble Speech ... the one in the mynd, ... the other the sounding image there of ... vttered by our mouth and termed the Speech of the Voyce.’ That is from a translation of the writings of Philippe de Mornay, the great Huguenot leader (1549-1623). One fancies sitting him down with Wittgenstein, who might begin: ‘Say: “Yes, this pen is blunt. Oh well, it’ll do.” First, thinking it; then without thought; then just think the thought without the words.’ (Wittgenstein does not figure in this book.)

It has been tempting to say that voice is what marks us off from everything else in the world. We see this even in the work of those who would bring us closer to other members of the animal kingdom, those who try to teach chimpanzees to speak, or who urge a certain affinity for dolphins. Some months ago I suggested unguardedly in public that voice makes us us; I was thereupon deemed to be a very bad thing indeed, because I had implied that deaf people who are mute are less than human. Rée is quite safe from that rebuke, for the middle – and by far the longest – part of the book is called ‘a history of science’: it recounts the slow discovery of ways to introduce the deaf to language. In many times and places deafness has prevented children from learning to speak, and hence from having a voice. They were deprived by ignorance, prejudice and sometimes malice. Deaf children are now taught to speak, although a dispute continues as to whether their language should be signed or spoken.

Much of this story is told in other places, not only by Oliver Sacks, but, more extensively, by Harlan Lane, a noted deaf activist. Lane was a dedicated spokesman for a cause, however; and Sacks was taking the part of the deaf at Gallaudet University, a bastion of signing. Rée’s history is perhaps more telling than theirs because he is more distanced. His flair for presenting scenes truly finds its home in this sequence of sketches. One also gets, what is not so easy to come by unless one knows the parents of a deaf child, the heart-rending disputes between the advocates of sign language and those who insist that deaf children must learn the language spoken around them. Dogmatists on the one side insist that a child must be introduced to its proper culture, deaf culture, which lives in signing, and kept from speech, which is alien. Dogmatists on the other side insist that a child must be preserved from the culture of signing, in order to become part of a larger world. Families are torn apart, not knowing which way to go. Rée tells us how this sort of thing has come to pass, but I would have liked so delicate and empathetic an observer to have assumed the role of a moralist, dedicating a chapter to the ethics of deaf language learning and teaching.

There is one respect in which Rée’s concluding discussion, in this part, diverges from most of what is debated nowadays. Chomsky’s powerful thesis of universalism predicts that all human beings inherit the same basic grammatical structure, which enables them to acquire, at lightning speed, the grammar of the language spoken around them – i.e. the depth grammar of every language is the same. Hence although the surface grammar of, for example, American Sign Language seems to differ in many ways from English, the depth grammar must be identical. Rée does not mention this issue. I see now that that’s right; he is a phenomenologist and his topic is voice. Depth grammar is never voiced. Rée is delighted by a different finding. All spoken languages have something like the same number of sounds, or distinct phonemes. We all know there are more sounds to English than are represented by the 26 letters of the alphabet, but any given dialect will have only thirty-five to forty (or so) recognised sounds. What about well-articulated sign languages – of which American Sign Language is the most intensely studied? To outsiders it seems to be a continuum of movement. But research confirms that thirty-five to forty positions and movements are recognised. Just as we hear the distinct phonemes of our own language, so deaf signers see the distinct ‘phonemes’ of theirs. The last chapter of Rée’s history of science could have ended QED: I see a voice, a visible but phonetic voice.

Voice, we are tempted to say, is the birthright of the human race, what marks us off from all other creatures. But it probably does matter whether you take voice (including signed ‘voice’) as the defining mark, or, with Chomsky and Descartes, think that mark is something more abstract, language. Certainly, the Cartesian-Chomskian position is richer. Descartes was able to conclude a priori that the signs used by those born deaf and who are dumb form a language.

Voice curiously goes off in more directions than language. Judaism, Christianity and Islam interact with God by his voice. The voice of God fills holy texts. Our poets imbue creatures with voice; the Romantics endow not only rocks and streams with voices but also ‘the city’s voice is soft with solitude.’ And voice is not always innocent. Hearing voices is a sign of madness, and has sometimes (wrongly) been taken as a sure sign of schizophrenia. We do not say that each of us has our own language, but we do say that each of us has our own voice (or must find it). Which is, among other things, literally true; I always find it amazing how I can recognise a voice on a telephone, even a friend with whom I’ve lost touch for decades, and also people whom I’ve never met, such as the editor of the LRB. In our democratic ideal, each person should have a voice, one vote. In a multicultural world, there are many voices – which is altogether different from saying there are many languages. Carol Gilligan argues for something peculiar to women in her book, In a Different Voice.

Rée has done a marvellous job of reminding us that ‘voice’ is such a powerful word. Even when we can get better sense without it, we miss it. Ecclesiastes, according to the Authorised Version, warns you not to badmouth the rich, even in your own bedroom, ‘for a bird of the air will carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.’ I’m sure it is a little easier to understand the Jerusalem Bible of 1966 – ‘a bird of the air will carry the news/indiscretion sprouts wings’ – but the older translation resonates in its peculiar way with voice.

Luckily, the preacher’s words have not been heeded. On the other hand, the bird of the air can be shot down, even when the speaking is in a most public place. I think we have all heard of Helen Keller (1880-1968), deaf and blind, and taught to write with great fluency and even to read lips with her fingers. Rée describes her as able to articulate enough to be understood at least by those accustomed to her voice. (Eleanor Roosevelt, like many others, could not understand a word she said.) By chance, the other day I came across a newspaper dated 8 February 1913, reporting her ‘début as a public speaker’ – at a socialist rally. ‘We are all blind and deaf until our eyes are open,’ she is reported as saying. ‘If we had a penetrating vision we would not endure what we see in the world today. The lands, the life, the machinery belong to the few ... The rich are willing to do everything for the poor, except give them their rights.’ The dramatisation of Keller’s story, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Miracle Worker by William Gibson, has not a trace of these concerns. I discovered that you can find many of her political speeches in a rare volume published by a radical press, but a 1998 book about Keller’s public speaking, which does include three political lectures, conveys her firm feminism, yet gives only a vague suggestion of her passionate hatred for the capitalist order. Voice is all too rich in irony. Keller became a legend, while the real woman who learned to talk fiery socialism in public has largely been silenced by a mix of ideology and sentimentality.

The first chapter in Rée’s short ‘history of philosophy’ is called ‘Intellect and Sensation from Kant to Aristotle and Husserl’ and the inversion of chronology makes sense (Aristotle and Husserl were closer to getting things right than Kant), but 17 pages is not long enough even for a few of Rée’s telling scenes. Then we move to aesthetics, and end with a chapter called ‘A Voice of Your Own’. This does have a fascinating scene: the supposed invention of quotation marks, the French guillemets, by a printer called Guillaume, the English inverted commas by English printers. That is followed by the battles of the authors against the tyranny of quotation marks. Which leads into a reflection on how so much of what we say and think, even about ourselves, is an interweaving of the sayings of others. ‘Strictly speaking,’ Rée enigmatically concludes, ‘we have no such thing as a voice of our own.’ I should have thought that strictly speaking we do.

Thus he concludes – but not without an afterword. Recall that the book is subtitled ‘A Philosophical History’. What is that? ‘A discipline that may not yet exist (despite some prototypes by Foucault and Deleuze), but whose arrival is long overdue.’ It will devote itself to ‘metaphysical notions that have infiltrated common sense and become real forces in the world’. Three pages earlier we were told that metaphysics consists of the more or less unconscious myths, maxims and metaphors we live by, in which case one would have thought all metaphysical notions had infiltrated common sense. Rée tells us that philosophical history will not be chronological. Like cinema, it will cut between close and distant perspectives. It will use the methods of autobiography, fiction, historical research and philosophical criticism. It will fall under the broad framework of phenomenology, and will have learned from the teachings of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. Here is the last sentence of the text: ‘With luck then, a philosophical history will allow us to catch hold of the idea of scientific objectivity before it has broken away from subjective experience, and observe it in its pristine state, at the moment when abstraction enters our lives, and sense begins to separate itself from sound.’ There we have it: the myth of the pristine state.

There is no such state. The best ongoing investigation of scientific objectivity with which I am acquainted is being conducted under the label of ‘historical epistemology’ by Lorraine Daston and her colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Scientific objectivity has a history all right. Daston studies the effect of the camera on our notions of objectivity (the objective lens, no longer the subjective eye), or the effect of massive international projects in the 19th century to get data about gravity or meteorology from hundreds of observers all over the world (and thus free of subjectivity). Myriad practices like these moulded our conception of objectivity, and I am sure Jonathan Rée would welcome this work. But one thing it teaches, as an aside, is: no pristine state.

In ‘Little Gidding’, T.S. Eliot’s stranger remarks that ‘last year’s words belong to last year’s language/and next year’s words await another voice.’ It is surely true that too much philosophy speaks last year’s language, and that Rée is trying to find another voice. So I would like to have been able to end with a French saying, ‘une nouvelle voix, une nouvelle voie.’ But the new way, for which Rée longs, is not shown here. Philosophical history does not spring into being on these pages. We have wonderful scenes, exhibits to listen to. We have a generous and gentle meditation on the senses. We have a caring account of the faltering but uplifting progress of an applied science, a pedagogy that changes the life of those born deaf. But we do not yet hear the face of a new way to do philosophy.