William Wright & Miss Hannah Thatcher

William Wright (1773-1860), whose professional career began in Bristol, England in 1796, moved to London and acquired a large practice in aural surgery that included the Duke of Wellington and other members of the nobility as patients. Eventually he became one of John Harrison Curtis’ fiercest and most outspoken rivals, rallying against the prevalence of quackery in aural surgery. Part of his early career included teaching deaf-mutes the elements of speech, an approach that was scarcely offered by other aurists of the day.

Continue reading William Wright & Miss Hannah Thatcher

From comme les monstres to hommes de la nature

The afternoon of 1799, drew attention to the Théâtre de la République, where just five weeks after Napoleon’s seizure of power, the dramatist Jean-Nicolas Bouilly (1763-1842) was showcasing his new play, L’Abbé de l’Épée.

Jean-Nicolas Bouilly

A comedy in five acts, the play dramatized a fictionalized version of the case of the Comte de Solar, a young deaf-mute who was found wandering in the Paris countryside, seen as a ragged savage and assumed to be abandoned by his poor peasant parents. Found by Abbé de l’Épée and taken under his care, the boy is taught to communicate through sign-language, upon which he uses to unfold his chilling tale: he is really an aristocrat, left to die, in a conspiracy to prevent him from receiving his inheritance.

Stirred with the scene of clemency and moved by the Abbé de l’Épée’s devotion to his pupils, the audience during the second performance stood up, shouted, and demanded the immediate release of Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard (1742-1822), the Director of the Institution Nationale des Sourdes-Mutes who was imprisoned in 1796 for the dissemination of illegal religious tracts.[1] Following a persistent campaign led by the deaf teacher Jean Massieu (1772-1846), Sicard was eventually granted amnesty by Napoleon in 1800.

As Jonathan Rée writes, the

[p]ublic agitation about the case brought to light dozens of other deaf and dumb children, abused, exposed, or confined, or exploited as meek and unprotesting chimney-sweeps, and the Abbé found himself converted into a public symbol of enlightened good works: the genial champion of poor little voiceless children, heralding an epoch where they would at last be able to enjoy their natural birthright.[2]

More significantly, the play raised questions about the relationship between language and the pre-lingustic homme de la nature.”[3]Deafness was associated in various ways: with madness, clairvoyance, illiteracy, savagery, supernatural insight, possession by the devil, and even with Christian benevolence and humility. To claim otherwise was to invoke all sorts of philosophical speculation that raised wider questions of French Enlightenment thought, particularly the images of the deaf as another aspect of the Rousseau and Condillac’s ‘noble savage.’ Even legal cases of deaf men on trial tended to leans towards the “philosophical” and offered “concerned parties an especially prime opportunity to grapple with the political implications of some of the most radical claims of Enlightenment epistemology and moral theory.”[4]

Like Rousseau, l’Épée felt there was a primordial human language that was innocent from its social constraints and able to express emotion more directly and purely. He argued that instead of being categorized with other “outsiders”—the aged, the indigent—whose social status and economic condition depended on the attitudes of “knowledgeable leaders” who defined the terms of their social integration, the deaf were better off understood in a class of their own.[5] They were not comme les monstres, he insisted, incapable of experiencing reason, memory, or judgement and thought to be no better than savages, but rather more as homme de la nature: representations of our primordial ancestors as Condillac and Rousseau argued.[6]


[1] Jonathan Rée, I See a Voice: Deafness, Language and the Senses—A Philosophical History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999), 182.

[2] Rée, I See a Voice, 150.

[3] Rosenfeld, “Deaf Men on Trial,” 166.

[4] Rosenfeld, “Deaf Men on Trial,” 158. For instance, the Caulier case—Parisan avocats argued he should not be held responsible for his crimes using an unusual line of argument: that the defendant was not violating any natural laws and that he did not know of societal laws. I.e. “that the duty of the prelinguistic individual was only to the prelinguistic law of nature.”

[5] Anne T. Quartararo, “The Perils of assimilation in Modern France: The Deaf Community, Social Status, and Educational Opportunity, 1815-1870,” Journal of Social History, vol.29, no.1 (Autumn 1995): 5-23; 5.

[6] Sophia Rosenfeld, “Deaf Men on Trial: Language and Deviancy in Late Eighteenth-Century France,” Eighteenth-Century Life vol.21, no.2 (1997): 157-175.

Histories of Deaf Histories

One of the agendas of my dissertation is to build a steady bridge between scholarship from the history of medicine and scholarship from Deaf and Disability Studies. Granted, as part of my education at IHPST, my research has been lopsided, for I’ve concentrated more on the history of medicine and technologies (especially relating to medical professionalism and quackery) and not so much on Deaf Culture. That’s why I’m so excited to be here at Leeds, emerging myself into a different and unfamiliar scholarship in the hopes of writing a remarkably interdisciplinary dissertation. I’ll have a report from the conference once it’s finished.

On the top of histories of Deaf histories, Lennard Davis has emphasized 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.

This stance is interesting for it suggests that marganlized groups themselves have a history that is culturally and socially constructed (which other historians of deformity, insanity, etc., have already discussed). Margaret Winzer also notes that attitudes towards the deaf in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were based on defining economic and social conditions; the changing social climate—particularly in France—were thus manifested in the formation of schooling and general attitudes about education towards the deaf. She argues that while the educators recognized the importance of deaf education, the plight of the deaf as a group drew meager public attention, but this does not mean that deafness did not exist as a discourse.[3]

However, the experiences of the deaf were not only closely tied with pedagogical and philosophical examinations, but also with charitable influences as well as medical prospects. While the works of most historians of Deaf Histories have examined the tensions between the deaf body in related to the social body (Winzer, Padden & Humphries), particularly in terms of sign language and communication, others have focused on the concept of deafness as a cultural construction as well as a physical phenomenon (Baynton, Branson & Miller, Davis). These authors argue that as social and medical treatments for deafness became a subject of discourse, deafness thus became “visible” and the body of the deaf individual became a site of Foucaultdian power and social management. Branson and Miller argue that deafness was not merely a condition but a site for social transformation, which became firmly identified with “progress.”[4] In transforming the deaf from a site of philosophical and pedagogical experiments towards a site of the pathological, the deaf became “a measure of humanity’s control over its own destiny, a measure of the power of the scientific method.”[5] The deaf, to put it simply, became the mark of the triumph of medicine, as treatments of the deaf body revealing of the power and control of physicians and surgeons.


[2] Davis, Enforcing Normalcy, 51.

[3] Margaret Winzer, The History of Special Education .

[4] Branson and Miller, Damned for their Difference, 88.

[5] Branson and Miller, Damned for their Difference, 88.

Lives of the Deaf

From the middle ages until the nineteenth century, the deaf were categorized in the same class as other outcasts—beggars, wanderers, invalids—and portrayed as defective bodies capable of communicating only through crude gestures. Yet, as some scholars have duly noted, the experiences of the deaf were by no means uniform: Saint-Loup argues that the Middle Ages were in many respects an eventual period for the deaf in which rejection and integration existed simultaneously;[1] Cockayne argues the lives of the deaf in early modern England were not necessarily miserable, as deafness—especially if it was late-onset and not profound—would not have hindered the execution of many job tasks.[2] The lives of deaf individuals were diverse; even though many pre-lingually deaf individuals depended on their families or the communities for their subsistence, many of them married, worked, and lived full lives, though some of course, lived as outcasts.

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 the 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]

While the poor deaf and dumb may have suffered uncomprehending brutality, this was scarcely the case of deaf children born to the wealthy and aristocratic who had the privilege of private instructors to teach variations of artificial speech, finger-spelling, signs, or lip-reading, skills that would enable them to enrich their social status through communication.

Until the late eighteenth century, the education of the deaf was mainly a private enterprise catered to the children of the wealthy and aristocratic. For the most part these children were taught by esteemed educators and philosophers whose reputation soared with their success in getting the deaf and dumb to speak and communicate. The seventeenth century, in particular, saw a tremendous surge in British publications examining deafness in relation to theories about language, speech, and gestures. Among others, John Bulwer’s (1608-1656) 1648 publication of the first English treatise on finger-spelling, Philocopus, or the Deaf and Dumbe Man’s Friend, contended to the view that the uneducated deaf were “denied the means to express their humanity” and thus required an alternative, manual system useful for communication. Bulwer’s treatise sparked a flurry of activity within the Royal Society to discover the origins of language, speech, and the lack thereof in the deaf. Among others, John Wallis’ (1616-1703) De loquela (1653), George Dalgarno’s (1626-1687) Art of Communication (1680), and William Holder’s (1616-1698) Elements of Speech (1653), 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.[5] 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.

Since it was believed that language, encompassed with the ability to speak and hear, was directly linked to knowledge, seventeenth century philosophers argued to inquiry into the faculties of the deaf and mute individual would be to uncover the origins of language and its relation to understanding. It was 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. 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 [6]—and revaluated the meaning of language. Was language a necessary condition for the rational soul, as the philosopher John Wilkins (1614-1672), argued, in that it was miserable for a rational soul to be denied expression of its cogitations and discourse by gestures only signified that language was the symbol of ideas evolved to fit social needs?[7] Or was language closely intertwined with speech, such that the deaf could be taught to “hear” sounds and learn to speak with a thorough understanding of characters, as Wallis argued? Moreover, as Jan Branson and Don Miller note, to these philosophers,

the discursive process engaged by and with people who were deaf and mute became fascinating. The language of those who were mute suddenly had a philosophical status. Was it the original language? Did it hold the clue to the perfect language? If so, what was the status and role of deaf people in this possibility?  Was sign language similar? Did all people who could not speak use the same natural language? Were all people who could not speak of a kind? Were deaf people and their language singular categories?”[8]

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.

For more on 17th century philosophy and rationality, see my earlier series, “Objects of Philosophical Discourse: Deafness and Language in the 1600s.”


[1] Aude de Saint-Loup, “Images of the Deaf in Medieval Western Europe,” in Looking Back: A Reader on the History of Deaf Communities and their Sign Language, eds. Renate Fisher and Harlan Lane (Hamburg: Signum Press, 1993), 379-402.

[2] Emily Cockayne, “Experiences of the Deaf in Early Modern England” History Journal 46 (2003): 493-510.

[3] Cockayne, “Experiences of the Deaf in Early Modern England,” 496.

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

[5] 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. See in particular: Jaap Matt, Philosophical Languages in the Seventeenth Century: Dalgarno, Wilkins, Leibniz (Dordrecht & Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004); Noga Arikha, “Deafness, Ideas and the Language of Thought in the Late 1600s,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy vol. 13.2 (2005); Joseph L. Subbiondo, “Educational Reform in Seventeenth-Century England and John Wilkins’ Philosophical Language,” Language and Communication vol.21(2001): 273-284; and Christopher Kretz, “Duncan Campbell and the Discourses of Deafness,” Prose Studies vol.21.1 (2005): 39-52.

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

[7] 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), 130.

[8] Jan Branson and Don Miller, Damned for their Difference: The Cultural Construction of Deaf People as Disabled (Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2002), 72.

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

Conclusions: Disputes and Discourses

Whether or not the Wallis-Holder dispute was the central factor, the Royal Society saw a remarkable decline in the focus on language projects as well as instruction for deaf-mutes. Mullett cites several factors that may have contributed to this decline, including the lack of physiological information on deafness, the rise of Evangelical Christianity that advocated sign language efforts over speech, the passing of interested men, and the greater demand for a “cure.”[1] While these points are all relevant, it is likely that new projects with new epistemological focus started to take prominence among philosophers. The frustration with teaching deaf-mutes to speak may have also contributed to the decline, as well as the drastic shift in the narratives of the deaf from experiments to anecdotes. As a teacher of the deaf, Wallis did not succeed in teaching all of his deaf pupils to speak; he only managed to teach them to “understand a Language, and to express their Mind (tolerably well) in Writing.”[2] Bearing in mind that Wallis’ education process was essentially a two-fold one, the first in understanding language and the second in speech-training, the difficulty in transiting between the two levels might have eventually been made obvious to him.

What I have argued through this series is that the social perceptions of deafness and the rise of interest in language prompted philosophers to embark in new endeavours to not only create a universal means for communication, but to apply those principles in practice as well. While the construction of a universal language was one of the many goals pursued by philosophers, a universal character, at the very least, provided philosophers with a how-to to plan for their theories and experiments on language. The deaf and dumb were viewed as perfect portals from which theories about language, understanding and speech could be employed. The diversity and sophistication of seventeenth century linguistic ideas as well as the search for a demystified rationality dominated philosophical speculation into forming educational approaches for deaf-mutes. As Wallis’ work demonstrates, not only was there no distinction between using speech and signs—a distinction that would be made remarkably clear during the late eighteenth century—but that these approaches, used properly, provided a dualistic way for properly integrating deaf-mutes into hearing society.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for a new series!



[1] Mullett,  ” ‘An Arte to Make the Dumbe Speake, the Deafe to Heare,’ ” p.144-147.

[2] Quoted in Branson and Miller, Damned for their Difference, p.81.