What Does Helen Keller Reveal About Intelligence?

Robert J. Fitterer, in his relatively recent book called Love and Objectivity in Virtue Ethics, uses the example of Helen Keller to explain Bernard Lonergan’s theory of insight. Fundamental to Lonergan’s cognitive theory is the concept of insight. Insight, mentioned in the last post, is the grasping of some content, the coming to comprehend or understand some reality. It is the “Aha!” moment of the light bulb going off in your head, when you can say “Oh, I get it!”

Insights can be dramatic. I am reminded of my husband and I toiling over the NYTimes crossword puzzle night after night where we experience a lot of dramatic insights. But insights can also be more subtle and continuous. We are constantly experiencing insights throughout the day as we encounter both external reality and the reality of our minds.

Insights are the bridge between the concrete object and the abstraction of that object that exists in understanding, or, in other words, “insight is the link between sense and understanding; between presentation and implication; or, on a higher order, between ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing why.’ It is by insight that we grasp, within concrete particulars and states of affairs, the characteristics on which will hang generalizations, analogies, taxonomies, and theoretic constructs” (36).

Insights are one of the concepts that make up Lonergan’s “Generalized empirical method.” This method includes a discursive process between apprehension (perceiving the data), insights, and judgments (conclusions about the data). Included also in the GEM are memory, imagination, and attention. Insight is the link between perception and understanding, the difference between seeing something and understanding what it is. The GEM leads to decisions, choices, and actions

Fitterer uses the example of Helen Keller to illustrate how the process works. Helen Keller was famously blind and deaf, cut off from the world of sense save only through smell, taste, and touch. Anne Sullivan, Helen’s teacher, broke through Helen’s isolation and was able to teach her how to read and write, leading eventually to Helen becoming the first blind/deaf person to ever earn a bachelor’s degree.

In an event which has now become famous, Anne Sullivan took Helen’s hand one day and traced the signs for W-A-T-E-R as she ran water running over it. Helen describes it in “The Story of My Life:”

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away. I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me.

This “new sight” which Helen describes, explains Fitterer, is a prime example of the general empirical method at work, specifically in terms of the three cognitive operations of attention, understanding, and judgment.

The first act of intelligence is to pay attention to some data. Attention is intentional, a paying attention to something. “Attending is not itself an act of sense, but is a shift in intentional focus directed, according to Lonergan by the subject’s own concerns, wants, needs, and so on” (38). Keller showed attention when she turned her focus to the feeling of the signs for W-A-T-E-R on her hands and the experience of the cool, wet water flowing over her hands at the same time.

Second, attention can lead to an insight which grasps “the intelligibility immanent within experienced data or that may apply to these data” (38). An insight is a possible way of making sense of the data. It’s a possible means of explaining what it is which attention has apprehended. Helen describes this moment as a “misty consciousness” and a “thrill of returning thought” as she first becomes aware that the feeling of W-A-T-E-R on her hands is the sign for water.

However, the stage of insight is still a hypothetical stage. Further work must be done to confirm the insight. This third level of cognition is judgment whereby we “discern the actual from the possible, the real from the merely apparent.” Judgment is marked by assent, “an act of intelligent apprehension that fulfilled conditions compel affirmation” (39). For Helen, judgment came about by testing other tactile objects to see if they too had a different sign. Once she had run this little experiment, she could assent to the fact that the feeling of W-A-T-E-R on her hand did indeed mean “water.” This judgment completes the process by which Helen came to knowledge.

Judgment goes beyond insight in not just grasping what something is, but also why something is. This process is self-correcting as a person is attentive to more relevant data. As a person makes a judgment, their attention turns outward again, intentionally seeking out any other relevant data that may help answer “is this really the case?” For Helen, this attention led her back through her house, which she almost literally saw with new eyes as she experienced insight after insight concerning the familiar objects of her life.

The general empirical method seems like common sense and it is. Lonergan isn’t trying to event a way of coming to know, but rather simply describing how it is that we do come to know. The important implication is that by knowing how it is that we come to know, we can take conscious responsibility for it, or as Fitterer writes, we can “take a conscious process and turn it into a self-aware, self-critical method” (53).


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