Brief Follow up to Last Post

It occurs to me now, after a few minutes of thought, that the deaf person’s dilemma is an epistemological one: how do we know what we know.  Thinking about the congenitally blind person, it seems their dilemma is an ontological one: what is the nature of things.

This will require further thought of course, but I’ve got to get to class, so I’ll just leave you with that thought.


2 thoughts on “Brief Follow up to Last Post

  1. Ryan:

    Any living person must decide about the nature of truth. It’s essential to being human. It saved our very distant ancestors from eating poisonous foods or wandering into a wolf pack. As we become more sophisticated thinkers, we should ask ourselves how we know whatever we presume to be true. Even creatures with more primitive brains may have such an instinct: seeing a car, the crow on the curb may crouch and prepare to fly, but after measuring the car’s speed and trajectory may decide not to. We may infer that the crow recognizes something about the car’s ontology (“if it hits me, it’s really gonna hurt”).

    A key word in such conversations is “consciousness.” It turns out to be a very complex idea, with variable definitions. One such definition pertains to introspection, self-awareness, or some self concept. Since humans have the ability to self-identify, they are then capable of asking how they know a thing. A blind person may feel the roundness or softness of a thing. The way s/he “knows” about it has to do with tactile senses or auditory senses. A deaf person will see color or feel wetness. But when their knowledge increases, they may well ask, “once the light strikes the retina, how does the eye translate wave lengths into the perception of color?” Or “how do taste buds transfer a sense datum to the conscious brain?”

    Blind, deaf, or with full sensory abilities, we all should (and can) understand both the questions of ontology and epistemology.

    For some interesting, essential reading about the philosophical aspects of these ideas, you might start with John Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” Alternatively, check David Hume’s “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” These two documents are landmarks of empiricist philosophy.


    • I guess what I was really thinking about is how can we know anything (apart from instinct) if we don’t have a language to communicate it. Sacks is writing about the history of those who were born deaf and weren’t given the ability to communicate. He writes about the “dumb” mute who was considered unintelligent and therefore not taught to read or write and who, as a result, was unable to receive ideas from others and also formulate ideas of their own — or rather their own ideas were limited only to what they could see. Those who are born deaf today are more fortunate. Sign Language is recognized as a language equal to any spoken language and it is widely used. So my meaning wasn’t that those born deaf today are less able to learn or communicate ideas, but that without language it seems impossible to me that we could even ask the question “how do I know anything.” A blind person, on the other hand, lacks the ability to see an object and must therefore rely on mental, conceptual images. Again, I’m not saying that the blind are unable to grasp the nature of a thing. And I am not saying that the deaf are unable to ask epistemological questions. I am just saying that the lack of sight would seem to influence questions of ontology, whereas the lack of hearing (as far as it hinders communication of ideas) would seem to influence questions more epistemological in nature. In other words, if the deaf were never allowed any form of sign language (and I mean absolutely any form) how would such a person communicate? How would they learn the meaning of words and how to read? And without this, how could a person come to know anything in their own lifetime? At best what they “know” would be inferred by watching things happen. But without language as a context for what is observed, how accurate would their knowledge be?

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