Is language required for human consciousness, by which I mean self-awareness?
Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness.
With these words Helen Keller began an essay in her book entitled The World I Live In (Essay 11: “Before the Soul Dawn”). She continues,
I did not know that I knew aught, or that I lived or acted or desired. I had neither will nor intellect. I was carried along to objects and acts by a certain blind natural impetus. I had a mind which caused me to feel anger, satisfaction, desire. These two facts led those about me to suppose that I willed and thought. I can remember all this, not because I knew that it was so, but because I have tactual memory. It enables me to remember that I never contracted my forehead in the act of thinking. I never viewed anything beforehand or chose it. I also recall tactually the fact that never in a start of the body or a heart-beat did I feel that I loved or cared for anything. My inner life, then, was a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without wonder or joy or faith.
Ms. Keller describes that famous moment when she realized that the finger-movements in her hand meant “water” in this way:
That word startled my soul, and it awoke, full of the spirit of the morning, full of joyous, exultant song. Until that day my mind had been like a darkened chamber, waiting for words to enter and light the lamp, which is thought.
After reading this book of essays I got Ms. Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life. Here she gives a more thorough account of that auspicious day. Ms. Sullivan, her teacher, had been with her for several weeks at this point, and taught her lots of words, but she had no comprehension that this was anything more than a game. One morning the two were spelling “doll” while holding an actual doll. Ms. Keller got exasperated and threw the doll on the floor, breaking it.
Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness.
The two went outside and ended up at the well-house where the profound moment happened; when the understanding that words have meanings swept through Ms. Keller’s consciousness. As they went back into the house,
I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.
I was very moved by this passage. The first experience Ms. Keller had after her breakthrough, other than the desire to learn as much as possible, was the complex human emotion of remorse. Somehow the use of language connected her in a profound way to the people and larger world around her. Is language the key to what makes us human?
I had never read these books before, and I recommend them to everyone as a way to gain a deeper appreciation of what it is to be human. The first impression you get is of the beautiful soul that inhabited the body of Helen Keller.
Second, you recognize that the human spirit can overcome all obstacles. What astounded me was her ability to visualize! She makes it clear that there is a physical world of vision, and a mental world of vision, and I bet that when you read her rhapsodies you’ll think as I did that the world of the mind is more beautiful and full than that of the physical. Through a lot of The World I Live In she is defensive about her ability to use words like “I see,” (clearly she was criticized for using such words), but reading her essays it is clear that she did see, and deeply.