Monday Series: Objects of Philosophical Discourse: Deafness & Language in the 1600s IV

De loquea

John Wallis, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1701


While endeavours to create a universal language that was unambiguous and easy to learn were mainly directed toward the application of philosophical principles as outlined by Descartes and Bacon, some philosophers applied these schemes to design educational methods for reading and writing. Although there is a significant lack of literature probing analysis into Wallis’ work within the universal language projects and its application in teaching deaf-mutes how to speak, Wallis’ contributions are of particular importance in shedding light into the practices of education and the importance of speech over gestures during the seventeenth century.[1] Wallis’ Grammatica linguae anglicanae (1653), which presented a grammar of the English language for non-English speakers, also outlined his theories on philosophical language and the phonetic elements of English pronunciation. The preface, De loquea (On Speech) included a theory of sound through speech and argued that speech was a mystical process from which language was expressed.[2] The short treatise also detailed the organs of speech and presented a detailed analysis of how the phonetic elements of pronunciation could be useful for teaching deaf and dumb people the nature of speech.  In a 1662 letter to Robert Boyle (1627-1691), Wallis outlines his new project to teach a deaf how to speak and understand language. He writes:

I am now upon another work; as hard almost as to make Mr. Hobbes understand a demonstration.[3] It is to teach a person dumb and deaf [Daniel Whalley] to speak, and to understand a language: of which he could do either, the other would be more easy; but knowing neither, makes both the harder. And although the former may be thought the more difficult, the latter may perhaps require as much of time. For, if a considerable time be requisite for him, that can speak no one, to learn a second language; much more for him, that knows none, nor hath so much as the advantage of speech.[4]

The letter provides an expansion on Wallis’ thoughts and approaches to his ideas on language, communication, and the importance of speech. He implemented his theories in 1661, when he instructed twenty-five year old Daniel Whalley from Northampton, who had been deaf since the age of five, to understand the structural elements of language and speech.

Although Wallis’ goal was to teach Whalley how to speak, he first taught his pupil written language, using pantomime, pointing, natural signs, and fingerspelling.[5] While it was accepted convention among philosophers that letters were the basic units of speech, represented either in writing or fingerspelling, Wallis argued that fingerspelling should precede speech if his pupils were to grasp any sort of meaning behind the words. HIs methods consisted of a rigorous system that began with the memorization of long vocabulary lists in various categories and short phrases, moving on to the instruction of grammatical rules which were aided by fingerspelling. Wallis made it clear, however, that fingerspelling or another system of gestures and signs were not to replace speech. Though he admits that these “little actions and gestures” formed the foundation for the development of a good education, they were only necessary insofar as they provided a stepping stone towards instruction and understanding based on speech.[6] He writes to Boyle:

For as one, who knows very well how to write, and hath a good command of his hand, yet if he want either sight or light, will hardly write well; the like must be expected in a deaf man’s speaking; for, as then the eye guides the hand, so here, the ear the tongue. But as to the language, I know not but that he may, by writing, both express his own,  and understand the conception of others, as well as other men; and so to converse with men, as we do with the ancients, or persons distant, which is no small advantage in human affairs: and may very much supply the defect of speech.[7]

Only after the pupil learnt the meanings behind the words he expressed and the articulation of these words, that they could comprehend the language that they spoke. Drills, formal instruction and a strictly sequenced curriculum built upon a strong vocabulary could provide the necessary tenets for speech.

Like other philosophers who sought to instruct deaf-mutes, Wallis made no distinction between gestures and speech when instructing his pupils. Rather, he saw them both as integral to the education process, both providing necessary elements in shaping the pupil’s comprehension of his language as well as his skills in communication. Writing to Thomas Beverly in 1693, Wallis explains that in addition to writing, letters could be signified by

the position and motion of the fingers, hand, or any part of the body which may be in stead of written letters. For example, that the vowels may be noted by the ends of the  five fingers; the other letters b, c, d, &c by other positions and motion, as may seem convenient, and as may be agreed.[8]

This system was not unique to Wallis, however. It was not only introduced by Bonet’s work, but was prevalent among British philosophers at the time, especially those working on a universal character. Although Wallis did not doubt the importance of a universal character, or whether a philosophical language could be conceived, he placed a greater emphasis on writing as a way to bridge language and speech by teaching the deaf what words expressed in sign corresponded to sounds. This was groundbreaking for the education of deaf-mutes, for Wallis implied that all deaf-mutes should be provided instruction to read and write in order to master the elements of speech.

Jan Branson and Don Miller stress that Wallis laid the ground for the development of deaf education in Britain.[9] Explaining that Wallis placed education as a priority above all means for treating the deaf and dumb, including means to isolate them into asylums, Branson and Miller argue that Wallis made an explicit point not to teach articulation without teaching the pupil “our language,” meaning English, Latin, and other written languages.[10] Yet in Wallis’ autobiography, he makes it clear that De loquea was written to be a treatise on sounds rather than on writing:

I have Philosophically considered the Formation of all Sounds used in Articulate Speech…By what Organs, and in what Position each sound was formed; with the nice distinctions of each, (which in some letters of the same Organ, is very subtile) So that, by such Organs, in such Position, the Breath issuing from the Lungs, will form such Sounds, whether the person do or do not hear himself speak. Which was, I think, a new attempt, not before undertaken by any (that I knew of) before that time.[11]

Clearly Wallis was stressing the importance of speech as a means for communication. He did, however, suggest that deaf people had their own separate language, signing, and it was necessary to build upon that language in order to properly teach them how to read and write in the common vernacular.[12] Additionally, since Wallis had already established himself as a grammarian, he concentrated himself on designing effective means to educate the deaf the phonetics of sounds necessary for pronunciation. In all likelihood, it might be more accurate to define Wallis as the first modern phonetician as well as an educator for the deaf and dumb.

On May 14, 1662, Wallis gave a report to the Royal Society presenting an account of his initial progress with Whalley. At the request of the Society members, Wallis presented the young man at the next meeting on May 21 in order to demonstrate the effectiveness of his teaching skills in being the first to teach a deaf-mute to speak; Whalley was subsequently paraded in front of the King. Wallis’ success with Whalley attracted the attention of Anne Wharton (d. 1692) who consequently employed Wallis’ service in instructing her son, 12-year-old Alexander Popham, a deaf-mute from birth, to speak. While Whalley’s case earned Wallis success as a teacher of the deaf, his work with Popham ultimately enrolled him into a vociferous dispute with William Holder (1616-1697) over priority of credit for teaching Popham to speak.

Beginning in 1659 in Bletchington, England, Holder was employed to teach Whalley to speak, read, and write. Both Wallis and Holder emphasized the importance of using both speech and writing as an integral aspect for comprehension of language, but Holder concentrated more on the learning of the alphabet, arguing that the alphabet was linked to speech. Holder also developed special signs to enhance lipreading and articulation. Unlike Wallis, who favoured speech for educating deaf-mutes but saw it separate from general education, Holder merged all elements of speech and language as integral aspects for education. Whatever Holder’s effectiveness was in teaching Popham, it is evident that it was his departure from his pupil, rather than his methods, that prompted the boy’s family to employ Wallis in Holder’s absence, as Popham’s speech had lapsed during Holder’s absence. Around 1663, Wallis presented to the Royal Society his success with Popham, without providing a reference to Holder’s previous work. Wallis’ claim to priority was reflected in his letter to Boyle, which was printed in the Philosophical Transactions in 1670.[13] Outraged, Holder argued he had already provided an appendix to his Elements of Speech (1669), stating his priority. Additionally, he published a response to Wallis’ letter to Boyle, stating that Wallis had already known it was possible to teach deaf-mutes how to speak, having seen Holder’s account of his work with Popham in the Elements.[14] Wallis promptly produced a reply, sharply rebuking Holder’s accusations and stating that he was unaware of Holder’s work and that the letter originated in fact, from 1662, far earlier than Holder’s publication of the Elements.[15]

The dispute remained unsolved during the seventeenth century. The 2006 discovery of Alexander Popham’s notebook opens exciting insights for discovering the validity of both Wallis’ and Holder’s claims to priority.[16] It would be interesting to research this new source, but for the time being, clearly the dispute raises a wider question about the importance and nature of claiming priority. Besides the obvious, both Wallis and Holder appeared to have recognized the significance of not only presenting a successful account of their respective work in languages, but also in providing a means to effectively integrate the deaf into hearing society. A cure for deafness, long sought through the ages, could be interpreted as an educational project; only by teaching a deaf-mute to read, write, speak, and understand, the philosophers could in fact, present an alternative cure to complete hearing restoration. The significance of this was obviously not lost on the philosophers.


[1] Wallis’ work is largely mentioned only in passing of the larger universal language schemes or within the context of his dispute with Holder. Sutton-Spence does provide a brief analysis of Wallis’ educational methods, but she does not delve further to parallel Wallis’ work as a proponent of universal language projects. Likewise, Branson and Miller analyze Wallis’ role as the founder of British education of the deaf, but their analysis of his place within the seventeenth century’s “search for the perfect language” are superficial  and they do not expand on their discussion of Wallis’ work on language.

[2] Branson and Miller, Damned for their Difference, p.79.

[3] This snide remark refers to Wallis’ quarrel with Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in which Wallis exposes Hobbes to be a mathematical buffoon with a penchant for error and deplorable geometrical solutions. Their dispute was made clear in the titles of their works: Wallis’ Due Correction for Mr. Hobbes…for not saying his Lessons right (Oxford, 1656) and Hobbes’ Markes of the Absurd Geometry, Rural Language, Scottish Church-Politics, and Barbarismes of John Wallis (London, 1657). Douglas Michael Jesseph’s Squaring the Circle: The War Between Hobbes and Wallis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999) presents an excellent account of Wallis and Hobbes’ “battle of the books.”

[4] John Wallis, “Letter to Boyle, Oxford, 30 December 1661/[9 January 1662],” in The Correspondence of John Wallis (1616-1703) Volume II, eds. Philip Beeley and Christoph J. Scriba (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p.47.

[5] Sutton-Spence, “British Manual Alphabets,” p.40.

[6] Branson and Miller, Damned for their Difference, p.80.

[7] Wallis, “Letter to Boyle,” p.49.

[8] Quoted in Sutton-Spence, “British Manual Alphabets,” p.34.

[9] Branson and Miller, Damned for their Difference, p.79.

[10] Branson and Miller, Damned for their Difference, p.80.

[11] Bodleian Library MS. Smith 3, reprinted in Christoph J. Scriba, “The Autobiography of John Wallis, F.R.S.,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London vol.25.1 (June 1970), p.41.

[12] Christopher Kretz, “Duncan Campbell and the Discourses of Deafness,” Prose Studies vol.21.1 (2005): 39-52.

[13] John Wallis, “A Letter of Dr. John Wallis to Robert Boyle Esq, Concerning the Said Doctor’s Essay of Teaching a Person Dumb and Deaf to Speak, and to Understand a Language,” Philosophical Transactions (1665-1678), vol. 5 (1670): 1087-1099.

[14] William Holder, A Supplement to the Philosophical Transactions of July 1670. With some Reflexions on Dr. John Wallis, his Letter there Inserted, (London: Printed for Henry Brome, 1678), p.2.

[15] John Wallis, A Defence of the Royal Society , and the Philosophical Transactions, particularly those of July, 1670; in answer to the cavils of Dr. William Holder (London: Printed by T.S. For Thomas Moore, 1678).

[16] For instance, see: Jane Elliott, “Find could end 350-year science dispute,” BBC Online


Monday Series: Objects of Philosophical Discourse: Deafness and Language in the 1600s III

A Society’s Interest

A fascination with language in the seventeenth century was spearheaded by philosophers participating in various linguistic projects, some of which questioned the origin of language, delved into the art of cryptography, debated methods of language teaching, and sought to construct a language that would serve as a universal means of communication.[1] The attempt to design a universal character, or a universal writing system, largely arose from an awareness of the problem of communicating with non-European languages. It was believed that a universal character would foster proper communication with foreigners by being based on concepts, as opposed to sounds. Thus, a universal character would directly represent ideas or concepts that were widely held by men across different languages, for by intending to be an “active aid to the progress of real studies,” it would thus have different spoken forms according to the natural language of the user while still maintaining the same universal concept.[2] Philosophers such as John Wilkins, Descartes, and Leibniz, additionally argued that universal language would be beneficial for reflecting philosophical principles; the construction of a rational and philosophical language based on a universal character would be an impetus for bridging the relation of ideas and its expressions. In doing so, such a philosophical language would rid itself of irregularities, idiosyncracies and ambiguities.[3] It would also provide a solid approach in finding means to communicate with the silent deaf and dumb.

In a recent publication, Joseph Subbiondo remarks how a new paradigm of education that counteracted the traditional method of teaching based on the scholastic disputation emerged out of seventeenth century empiricism.[4] The society of learned men—the Oxford Circle, the Gresham College, the “Invisible College”—that eventually became the Royal Society took a strong interest in developing a universal language based on philosophical principles. Basing their direction from multiple sources, including Bacon’s ideas, Bonet’s treatise, as well as Descartes’ emphasis on a language based on the relationship between ideas, the philosophers focused on an awareness that language was arbitrary and could lead to erroneous confusion when communicating with a different vernacular. To correct the shortcomings of a natural language, they argued that an artificial language could provide a more precise link between language and the natural world. Analogies for a universal language were made to Chinese sinographs, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Arabic numerals, and algebraic formulas. Seth Ward (1617-1689) for instance, stated that his acquaintance with algebraic symbolism led him to resolve that “Symboles might be formed for every thing and notion…so that an Universall Character might easily be made wherin all Nations might communicate together, just as they do in number and species.”[5] The strong analogy drawn from algebraic symbols is unsurprising when we consider that many of the philosophers interested in language and working on proposals for a universal language were also brilliant mathematicians: Descartes, Ward, Wilkins, Wallis, Isaac Newton (1642-1727), and John Pell (1611-1695).

The seemingly popular interest in language projects led the Royal Society to commission several projects to develop a philosophical language that would be clear, precise, and unequivocal. Wilkins, for instance, was commissioned in 1662, finishing the project in 1668 with the publication of his Essay Towards a Real Character, and Philosophical Language. Later works, including Holder’s Elements of Speech and George Dalgarno’s Didascalocophus also began to integrate universal language concepts with science, education and philosophical language. Many of these projects sought to develop a philosophical system in which the elements of each word would provide an understanding for the parts of its referent; additionally, the actual composition of the words would denote the semantic features of the word, thus allowing for a more accurate representation of things in nature and the process of knowledge. As James Knowlson points out, in this way, “language would not only be a means of acquiring knowledge; it would itself be knowledge, since each ‘word’ would provide an accurate description of the thing signified.”[6]

All that was needed to attain a universal character and apply the language into practice was to extend the symbolic way of writing peculiar to mathematics so that all concepts were expressed in a uniform manner. Implicit in the notion of a universal character was the idea that by reversing the order of speaking and writing, there could be a way to bypass spoken words, “the obstacles to universal understanding.”[7] The construction of a universal language also created an illusion that a writing system, as opposed to a spoken language, could overcome all language barriers. Descartes had recognized the importance of such a distinction, stating in a 1629 letter to Mersenne that if such a universal language was to be sought, it would be better to build the new language upon some existing language. While he stressed in the letter the practical inconvenience of such a system—the awkwardness of learning grammar, the disagreeable sound combinations—Descartes pointed out that such a construction, or even its application, will only be found when a “true philosophy” had been found.[8] To Descartes, if there existed no “true philosophy,” likewise, there could not exist a philosophical language based on universal characters.

Acknowledging Descartes’ philosophical claim, various universal language schemes also combined with Bonet and Bulwer’s emphasis on gestures as a form of communication also attracted the attention of philosophers seeking to devise a progressive model of learning that contributed to their understanding on the progress of ideas and knowledge. In their search for an understanding of the contours of humanity, philosophers began to engage directly with deaf people.[9] Bulwer especially remarked that deaf-mutes could be taught how to speak by the eye, since the mouth and tongue were natural and convenient instruments of speech.[10] If the deaf could be taught to read and write, and consequently understand language, then they could, through their vision, translate that language through gestures, from which speech would naturally follow. Speech, according to Bulwer, was a voluntary action, and hearing the perception of motion, which meant that by making speech visible, deaf-mutes could thus be taught to “hear” and thus speak.

However, while the recognition that deaf-mutes could be taught to speak opened up philosophical discourses on the nature of understanding and language, it did not necessarily translate to mean that philosophers were able to explain the nature of the linguistic faculty. Noga Arikha argues that there is no clear indication as to what a theory of language would underlie: “What the theory would be of was unclear, since it needed not just to prove that, but to explain how a deaf person could be taught how to speak.”[11] This is an important point, for it would appear that in light of the Royal Society’s focus on language schemes and its emphasis on experimentation instruction for deaf-mutes were mainly controlled experiments to test the validity of a universal language scheme. Wallis in particular, emphasized the value of a well-conducted experiment, writing to Henry Oldenburg (1619-1677), the secretary of the Royal Society, that “Experiment will be the best judge.”[12] He was also adamant that his pupils receive a proper understanding of not only what they read and wrote, but on how the movement of the mouth and vocal chords would lead to sound and thus comprehension.


[1] Andrew Large, The Artificial Language Movement (New York: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1985), p.5.

[2] Knowlson, Universal Language Schemes, p.42.

[3] Large, The Artificial Language Movement, p.14.

[4] Joseph L. Subbiondo, “Educational Reform in Seventeenth-Century England and John Wilkins’ Philosophical Language,” Language and Communication vol.21(2001): 273-284.

[5] Seth Ward and John Wilkins, Vindicaie acdemiarum: Containing Some Briefe Animadversions upon Mr. Webster’s Book, Stiled, The Examination of Academies (Oxford, 1654), quoted in Knowlson, Universal Language Schemes, p.22.

[6] Knowlson, Universal Language Schemes, p.8.

[7] Jaap Maat, Philosophical Languages in the Seventeenth Century: Dalgarno, Wilkins, Leibniz (Dordrecht & Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004), p.21.

[8] Maat, Philosophical Languages in the Seventeenth Century, p.28.

[9] Jan Branson and Don Miller, Damned for their Difference: The Cultural Construction of Deaf People as Disabled (Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2002), p.66.

[10] Mullett, ” ‘An Arte to Make the Dumbe to Speake, the Deaf to Heare,'” p.132.

[11] Noga Arikha, “Deafness, Ideas, and the Language of Thought in the Late 1600s,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy vol.13.2 (2005), p.248.

[12] Quoted in J.F. Scott, “The Reverent John Wallis, F.R.S. (1616-1703). Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London vol.15 (July 1960), p.62.


Monday Series: Objects of Philosophical Discourse: Deafness and Language in the 1600s II

By Speech and Signs

Historian Lennard Davis has emphasized that the deaf person has historically served as an icon for complex intersections of subject, class, and the body.[1] This construction and awareness of the connection to language relied on deafness becoming visible for the first time as an articulation in a set of practices. According to Davis, prior to the mid-seventeenth century, the deaf were rarely constructed as a group; while we may come across a historical record of a deaf individual, he points out that there is no significant discourse constructed on deafness. “The reason for this discursive nonexistence,” he explains,

is that, then as now, most deaf people were born to hearing families, and were therefore isolated in their deafness. Without a sense of group solidarity and without a social category of disability, they were mainly seen as isolated deviations of the norm, as we might now consider, for example, people who are missing an arm. For these deaf,  there were no schools, no teachers, no discourse, in effect, no deafness.[2]

Davis continues, somewhat ambiguously, to explain that though deafness did not “exist,” authors who wrote on deafness did so within a set of practices whereby deafness could be evaluated. In short, deafness and mutism became tied with theories of language and intellect, evaluated and adopted into pedagogical efforts to instruct and educate the deaf.

Prior to 1750, when opportunities for deaf-mutes to be literate were becoming widespread, the situation of the deaf was a calamity: unable to acquire speech, the deaf were forced into a state of isolation and removed from the two-way communication prevalent in hearing society. Some even believed that the deaf were literally incapable of absorbing divine worlds, as they were metaphorically deaf to the Word of God.[3] As Oliver Sacks describes these experiences, deaf-mutes were

confined to a few rudimentary signs and gestures; cut off, except in large cities, even from the community of their own kind; deprived of literacy and education, all knowledge of the world; forced to do the most menial work; living alone, often close to destitution; treated by the law and society as little better than imbeciles—the lot of the deaf was manifestly dreadful.[4]

It is the deprivation of all the knowledge of the world that attracted the curiosity and compassion from philosophers seeking to uncover the foundations of knowledge and understanding. Since it was believed that language, encompassed with the ability to speak and hear, was directly linked to knowledge, to enquiry into the faculties of the deaf and mute individual would be to uncover the origins of language and its relation to understanding. Many philosophers who wrote diary entries on their experiences with some sort of temporary deafness, such as Ralph Josselin (1616-1683), John Dee (1527-1608), Robert Hooke (1635-1703), and Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), remarked on how their hearing loss affected their communication with others and their grasp of understanding of the realities around them.[5] Philosophers probing the nature of language also acknowledged that deafness and mutism provided clues whereby they could construct theories of knowledge and rationality. Additionally, a growing recognition that remarked on the ability of the deaf to read and write further propelled studies on how to properly instruct the deaf to communicate through signs or speech.

One of the first recollections describing the ability of a deaf man to read and write is provided in the work of Rudolphus Agricola (1443-1485), a Dutch humanist and philosopher.

Agricola (Alfred Gudeman: Imagines philologorum. Berlin/Leipzig: Teubner 1911, S. 4.)

Published posthumously in 1528, Agricola’s De Inventione Dialectia was revived by the Italian mathematician and physician Girolamo Cardano (Jerome Cardan, 1501-1576), who in turn elaborated on the uniqueness of deaf people to communicate through gestures, reading, and writing, rather than by hearing or speech. Cardano’s work shaped the connection between written characters and ideas, associating written words with the concepts they represented in order to enhance understanding.[6] Moreover, as Susan Plann points out, the works of these Renaissance thinkers influenced an epistemological shift that favoured thinking by “eye” and occasioned the start of the Spanish involvement in instruction for the deaf.[7] The novelty of the idea that speech could be separated from thinking possibly circulated through monasteries and intrigued those interested in the connection between language and human understanding.

Girolamo Cardano

Cardano’s work set forth important principles in teaching deaf-mutes that provided a possible stimulation for Spain’s efforts in teaching deaf-mutes sign language and speech.[8] Although the history of deaf education and the formation of sign language is difficult to trace, historians argue it is largely rooted in what is believed to be the first published work on the subject, the Spanish monk Juan Pablo Bonet’s Reducción de las letras y arte para ensenar a ablar los mudos (1620).[9] Bonet was influenced by the Benedictine monk Pedro Ponce de León (1520-1584), who had heard Cardano’s efforts and employed his own methods of instruction to some of Spain’s wealthiest families. Using conventional gestural signs instead of a formal method of fingerspelling or lip-reading, Ponce’s achievements were renowned more for its recognition that disability did not hinder learning, rather than his success in teaching speech and language.[10] Carrying on with Ponce’s method of signs, Bonet created a methodology for instruction that incorporated various elements of dactylogoy, signs, writing, and speech. He also placed great emphasis on lip-reading, which he argued could be taught to stimulate speech; a flexible leather tongue was also used to imitate the positions of the living tongue.[11] His philosophic system was not only published but also applied into practice.

Juan Pablo Bonet (Free recreation of José Zaragoza, deaf painter and impressor, for the book of Miguel Granell i Forcadell, Homenaje a Juan Pablo Bonet, Madrid:Imprenta del Colegio Nacional de Sordomudos y Ciegos, 1929)

Word of the Spanish success in deaf education eventually began to gain notoriety and Bonet’s work eventually provided the British with practical methodologies for teaching the deaf. In 1623, Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1663), courtier and diplomat to Charles I, toured Spain and became acquainted with the nobleman Luis de Velasco (1511-1564) who was trained under Bonet. Impressed with hearing the deaf man speak, Digby corresponded with a few of his countrymen, especially Wallis, on the nature of teaching deaf individuals to speak. Additionally, in order to discover how Bonet performed his “miracle” in teaching the deaf how to speak, Digby recommended his countrymen to read Bonet’s Reducción de las letras.[12] Digby also published in 1644 an account of Bonet’s works in Treatise on the Nature of Bodies, which not only praised the accomplishments in Spain in educating the deaf, but effectively standardized Bonet’s manual alphabet in Britain, which became commonplace and was even employed by Wallis himself.  Though historians presume Wallis was familiar with Bonet’s work and applied aspects of it in his own teachings, Wallis himself may have claimed not to have known Bonet.[13]

What became apparent to these scholars was not only that the deaf could be taught to read, write, and communicate with gestures, but also that they were capable of speech. Bonet’s emphasis on language provided a reminder that teaching deaf-mutes required a recognition of the relation between communication and thought.[14] Speech was also possible, Bonet stressed, with the proper instruction of the movements of the tongue, which required the deaf and mute to master on his own after he learned how to do so by working his teeth, lips and palate properly. To Bonet, as for Wallis, lipreading was defective and unnecessary unless used as an early form of instruction; to rely upon it would be to undermine the work of the instructor, for it not only failed to provide comprehension of ideas, but it was essentially useless in the dark. Whether or not Wallis acknowledged his debt to Bonet, he recognized that the deaf were capable of developing the ability to use language and articulate their thoughts through speech: “why should it be thought impossible, that the eye, (though with some disadvantage), might as well apply such complications of letters or other characters to represent the various conceptions of the mind, as the ear like a complication of sounds?”[15]

While these early efforts in education demonstrated that the deaf were capable of learning how to communicate by signs or speech, they also introduced new questions into the relationship between language and thought. Moreover, within the context of the growing epistemological interest in universal language, deafness provided a portal whereby philosophers could experiment with their theories on language and thought.


[1] Lennard Davis, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body (New York & London: Verson Books, 1995).

[2] Davis, Enforcing Normalcy, p.51.

[3] Emily Cockayne, “Experiences of the Deaf in Early Modern England,” The Historical Journal vol.46.3 (Sept. 2003), p.496.

[4] Oliver Sacks, Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), p.14.

[5] Cockayne, “Experiences of the Deaf in Early Modern England,” p.497.

[6] Mark Marschark, Patricia Elizabeth Spence, Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p.11.

[7] Susan Plann, A Silent Minority: Deaf Education in Spain, 1550-1835 (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997).

[8] Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle, “Deaf Signs, Renaissance Texts,” in Joseph Marino and Melinda W. Schlitt (eds) Perspectives on Early Modern and Modern Intellectual History (New York: Boydell & Brewer, 2001), p.164.

[9] Simplification of the Letters of the Alphabet, and a Method of Teaching Deaf Mutes to Speak.

[10] Margaret Winzer, The History of Special Education: From Isolation to Integration (Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1993), p.32.

[11] Winzer, The History of Special Education, p.32.

[12] Mullett, ” ‘An Arte to Make the Dumbe Speake, the Deafe to Heare,'” p.124.

[13] Rachel Sutton-Spence, “British Manual Alphabets in the Education of Deaf People Since the 17th Century, ” in Leila Frances Monaghan (ed) Many Ways to be Deaf: International Variation in Deaf Communities (Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2003), p.40.

[14] Mullett, ” ‘An Arte to Make the Dumbe Speake, the Deafe to Heare,’ ” p.128.

[15] Quoted in Marschark, Lang, and Albertini, Educating Deaf Students, p.23.


Monday Series: Objects of Philosophical Discourse: Deafness and Language in the 1600s

Welcome to yet another edition of this blog’s Monday Series. This series examines how philosophical interest in universal language amongst the early members of the Royal Society of London shaped both philosophical and social perceptions of deafness during the seventeenth century.



The seventeenth century saw a tremendous surge in British publications examining deafness in relation to theories about language, speech, and gestures. Among others, John Wallis’ De loquela (1653), George Delgarno’s Art of Communication (1680), and William Holder’s Elements of Speech (1699), actively probed to unlock the mysteries of language and human understanding by recruiting deaf individuals as objects of study for their philosophical and pedagogical aims. These works emerged from the intellectual background of seventeenth century linguistics to project philosophically constructed languages in order to replace arbitrary and conventional ones by proposing a need for a universal character or language understood by all.[1] Language, considered to be the condition for the transmission of empirical knowledge, was believed to be inseparable from speech; in separating the two, philosophers counteracted the deep-seated conviction that the muted deaf were incapable of reason or education.

This series examines how philosophical interest in language amongst the early members of the Royal Society of London shaped both philosophical and social perceptions of deafness by building upon Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) arguments for a universal language. Inspired by Chinese sinographs, Bacon drew attention to the possibility of representing things by “real characters” instead of sounds, arguing that words could only imperfectly express things. The existence of real characters demonstrated that the order between writing and speaking could be reversed, effectively fostering an effective form of communication that would solve the problem of language diversity.[2] Bacon’s De Augmentis Scientiarum (1632), which explores his ideas on communication, became the bedrock whereby theories on universal language flourished during the seventeenth century. The Baconian requirement of basing science on observation and induction led to a three-fold relationship between language, ideas and knowledge.[3] For instance, John Wilkins (1614-1672), who would become the Royal Society’s first secretary, presented ideas on a universal language that would be constructed to better reveal philosophical truth about nature. Since it was believed that language commonly expressed notions about material reality, a growing concern about the misrepresentation of nature also fuelled the growth of philosophical discourse for a universal language. In short, a proper universal and philosophical language was required in an age that favoured empiricism and experimentalism.

Plate from Bulwer's Chirologia, or the Natvrall Langvage of the Hand

Bacon’s ideas also influenced new philosophical discourses on gestures and communication, evoking new educational enterprises for deaf-mutes. John Bulwer (1606-1656) in his Chirologia, or the Natvrall Langvage of the Hand (1644), for instance, drew upon Bacon’s notion that gesture serves as an effective means of communication between people with different vernacular tongues: “It speakes all languages and as an universall character of Reason, is generally understood and knowne by all Nations, among the formal differences of their Tongue.”[4] The idea that the deaf could communicate without speech revoked the Aristotelian imperatives about the divine origins of speech—Those born deaf are in all cases dumb; they can make vocal noises but they cannot speak[5]—and revaluated the meaning of language. Wilkins thought it was miserable for a rational soul to be denied expression of its cogitations and argued discourse by gestures signified that language was the symbol of ideas evolved to fit social needs.[6] The mathematician John Wallis (1616-1703), on the other hand, disregarded lip-reading as implausible for deaf persons and sparingly used fingerspelling in his instruction. From the Society’s early experiments on acoustics and the propagation of sound, Wallis argued the deaf could be taught to hear sounds and effectively learn to speak. However, he indicated that speech could only successful after a thorough understanding of characters, which in turn could be made possible by a universal language.

In the hands of these philosophers, the deaf, who were long subjected to and defined by myth and superstition, were constructed as the gateway whereby philosophers could invoke new theories about language and its relation to ideas. Schemes and proposals for a universal language provided means whereby instructors could teach their deaf pupils a way to comprehend the natural world around them. Wallis, in particular, was concerned his pupils not taught to articulate without knowing the meanings of the words; without comprehension, he argued the deaf would be no better than parrots. As this series shall show, these philosophical and educational enterprises exemplified by Wallis’ De loquela provided a new epistemological interest that tied together universal language schemes and the emphasis on knowledge with the education and instruction of deaf-mutes.


[1] The 1970s and 1980s saw a remarkable increase in scholarship on seventeenth century language projects. Some of these authoritative sources include Charles F. Mullet’s ” ‘An Arte to Make the Dumbe to Speake, the Deafe to Heare’: A Seventeenth-Century Goal,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences vol.26.2 (April 1971): 123-149, Vivien Salmon’s The Works of Francis Lodwick (London: Longman Books, 1970), James Knowlson’s Universal Language Schemes in England and France 1600-1800 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1975), Mary M. Slaughter, Universal Languages and Scientific Taxonomy in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), and Andrew Large, The Artificial Language Movement (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1985). Recent scholarship has delved upon these works, probing the various language projects that emerged during the seventeenth century, particularly the ties it had with the Royal Society of London, the progresses made in algebraic formulas, as well as new voyages of discoveries that exposed Europeans to various indigenous languages. Some of these works are credited in other footnotes in this paper.

[2] Jaap Matt, Philosophical Languages in the Seventeenth Century: Dalgarno, Wilkins, Leibniz (Dordrecht & Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004), p.19.

[3] Noga Arikha, “Deafness, Ideas and the Language of Thought in the Late 1600s,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy vol. 13.2 (2005), p.235.

[4] John Bulwer, Chirologia: or the Natural Language of the Hand (London: Printed by Thomas Harper, 1644, p.16.

[5] Aristotle, De Historia Animalium IV, 9.

[6] Charles F. Mullett, “ ‘An Arte to Make the Dumbe to Speake, the Deafe to Hear’: A Seventeenth-Century Goal,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences vol.26.2 (April 1971), p.130.