Helen Keller’s story is fascinating insofar as it reveals a real transformation through the power language. She is not utterly without thought prior to her awakening at the well. She describes herself as sensing, as having emotions, and even as having cognizance, for instance, of the difference between being indoors and without.1
She even had little signs she used prior to Miss Sullivan’s visit, but these signs were much like the animals signs which D. Q. McInery mentions in Philosophical Psychology, rudimentary, mimetic imitations of reality–indexes of pleasure and pain. McInery gives the example of an animal warning another by acting dangerous.
The big change for Helen occurs when the word for water and its reality are united within her. The word makes water not just a thing to ask for when she is thirsty, but something knowable in its own right.
In having a word for a thing, the thing itself gains a certain dignity insofar as it is an object we now consider (philosophy begins in wonder…not in asking for a glass of water).
Through language, we simultaneously consider not just water here and now, but the idea of water irrespective of time. Thus in having a word, we simultaneously know that it refers, but does not refer simply or solely to the thing before us–not only to that, but to all such things. It is perhaps for this reason that Aristotle says that words are not signs of the things in the world first, but first signs of the affections (pathos) of our soul.3
What a remarkable thing that a child who is taught the word blue can move from that color blue to an infinite variety of shades, each distinct, and yet know there is something similar. The child neither thinks blue is the word or the blue thing “out there,” but truly grasps a dynamic and mysterious universal.4
Thus the triadic structure of word, thing, and person (or word, concept, self) introduces man to a world. For man alone of the natural creatures there exists a world. Man alone internalizes the relations and existences of things. Words provide distance from reality so that one is not stuck pointing at and considering concrete particulars. In doing so, in creating that distance, words facilitate the formation of concepts, and simultaneously create a unique intimacy with the world. Through otherness of word there is world. Perhaps this is why words facilitated Socrates’ ‘second sailing’ described in the Phaedo.
This pattern has its primordial origin in the Trinity, world without end. The fundamental human act, our “symbol mongering” is a result of being made in the image of God, whose Son is the Eternal Image of the Father, from whom proceeds the Spirit of Love which unites them both.
1 Helen Keller, The Story of My Life from: http://www.afb.org/MyLife/book.asp?ch=HK-toc
2 D. Q. McInerny. Philosophical Psychology, Elmhurst, PA: The Alcuin Press, 1999.
3 Aristotle, On Interpretation, 16a.
4 Walker Percy, “The Delta Factor,” in The Message in the Bottle, Picador, 1975, 43.