The recently revived inquiry into the origin of language has its roots in the Enlightenment. The eighteenth century saw numerous works explicitly devoted to the origin of language(s) and still more, such as Condillac’s Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines (1746), that were centrally concerned with the subject. Most of these works were not founded on anthropological or even linguistic research; they were thought-experiments that sought to understand how perceptions and sensations could give rise to signs. (The most authoritative scholarly reference is still Hans Aarsleff’s papers collected in From Locke to Saussure, Minnesota UP, 1982.)

Equally characteristic of the Enlightenment are the attempts, begun somewhat earlier, to conceive of the origin of human society. Two of these, Thomas HobbesLeviathan (1651) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau‘s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754), may arguably be considered as defining the intellectual and chronological limits of the Enlightenment as an active intellectual force.

Hobbes and Rousseau are traditionally viewed as exemplifying opposite conceptions of human nature. For the first, the “state of nature” is one of universal strife, the war of all against all; for the second, it is an idyllic world not yet contaminated by the evils of human sociability that civilization brings to the fore.

Although this contradiction is well grounded in the works of both writers, the traditional view nonetheless reflects a superficial understanding of the problem of human interaction that their thought serves to illuminate. On the fundamental issue, Hobbes and Rousseau are essentially in agreement. Both anticipate and at the same time fall short of the mimetic model of human interaction that is the basis of Generative Anthropology, which situates the essential problem of human violence within the minimal social group (e.g., a hunting band), at a level intermediate between the family and the potentially hostile “state of nature.” The excessive optimism of Enlightenment social thought is a consequence of its failure to situate the human potential for mimetic violence at the very core of human interaction.

Despite their differences, Hobbes and Rousseau were more acutely aware of the phenomenon of mimetic desire than any theorist before René Girard. (Leviathan I, 13: “if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies”; Discours II: “the sociable man, always outside himself, only knows how to live in the opinion of others.”)  Both understood that it is the mimetic nature of human desire rather than scarcity or even inequality in itself that causes the particular problems of human society, and both made the need to hold this desire in check the sine qua non of a viable polity.  Yet both Hobbes and Rousseau expel mimetic desire and its attendant potential for violence from the central core of the human community into the “state of nature” of external relations among men–the gendered term “men” is necessary, as I will show below. The difference between Hobbes’ famous description of life anterior to the contractual establishment of “commonwealth” as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (ibid) and Rousseau’s picture of the healthy, happy “savage” is entirely attributable to their very different assessments of the intensity of these external relations. For both understand “society,” whether Rousseau’s société commencée or Hobbes’ commonwealth, as constituted by the coming together of isolated individuals rather than as the already-existing matrix of humanity.

This construction of human society, contrary as it may be to the ideas of modern anthropology, appears somewhat less radically atomistic if we attend to the gendered nature of the term “man.” A “man” in Hobbes’ terminology and even–less consistently–in Rousseau’s is not simply an atomic human being but the implicit head of a family, as is borne out by Hobbes’ description of the nuclear family as a miniature monarchy (II, 20: “Of Dominion Paternal, and Despotical”). However abstract may be Hobbes’ description of the “state of war,” we should imagine it as existing among patresfamilias rather than among humans in general. The model of the Western nuclear family is to blame for the failure of Enlightenment social thought to include potential competitors within the minimal social group. When rivals meet, it is as strangers, members of different (family) units. In Hobbes’ model, based on his own developed and demographically dense society, one comes upon strangers so regularly that one lives in a state of perpetual terror and hostility. In Rousseau’s model, which takes from preromantic ethnography the vision of a simpler and sparser world, one meets others so rarely that mimetic vanity has no opportunity to develop. The words seul (alone) and solitaire recur constantly in Rousseau’s description; he reproaches Hobbes with having situated in the “state of nature” the mimetic problems that, in his view, belong exclusively to constituted “society.”  In an anti-Hobbesian example, Rousseau’s “savage” confronted by an aggressor prefers abandoning his meal and finding another elsewhere to fighting for it.  But beneath their disagreement, the “social contract” functions similarly in both writers to unite persons only externally related to each other. It is no accident that their models of the constitution of human society focus on its highest-level structure, the state. Hobbes shares with Rousseau the Enlightenment’s characteristic failure to appreciate that the minimal human group must solve the problem of deferring internal mimetic conflict before an external “state of war” among groups or individuals can come into being.


Hobbes, as the founder of Enlightenment political thinking, is not concerned to create a scenario for the origin of language. His remarks surrounding the “invention . . . of speech” (I, 3 – 4) nonetheless already reveal the generative paradox that Rousseau will make explicit. (The glosses in brackets are from the original text.)

Those . . . faculties . . . which seem proper to man only . . . proceed all from the invention of words, and speech. For besides sense, and thoughts, and the train of thoughts, the mind of man has no other motion; though by the help of speech, and method, the same faculties may be improved to such a height, as to distinguish men from all other living creatures.[Infinite] Whatsoever we imagine is finite. Therefore there is no idea, or conception of any thing we call infinite. . . . When we say any thing is infinite, we signify only, that we are not able to conceive the ends, and bounds of the things named; having no conception of the thing, but of our own inability. And therefore the name of God is used, not to make us conceive him, for he is incomprehensible; and his greatness, and power are unconceivable; but that we may honour him. . . .

[Chapter 4: Of Speech] [Original of speech] But the most noble and profitable invention of all other, was that of SPEECH, consisting of names or appellations, and their connexion; whereby men register their thoughts; recall them when they are past; and also declare them one to another for mutual utility and conversation; without which, there had been amongst men, neither commonwealth, nor society, nor contract, nor peace, no more than amongst lions, bears, and wolves. The first author of speech was God himself; that instructed Adam how to name such creatures as he presented to his sight […]

To sum up these consecutive paragraphs in Hobbes’ text, we find

(1) speech is what sets us above other animals;(2) the name of God–the first “name” or word mentioned in the text–does not designate a concept but serves to “honor” or worship God;

(3) without speech we would not have the “peace” of human culture but would live in a state of violence like wolves;

(4) God is the source of speech.

A superficial reading of this passage with regard to the origin of language, seeing only (4), would dismiss Hobbes as a “creationist,” but the humanistically trained reader will note that before God “authors” speech in (4), he has already been named by humans in (2). The symmetry of the two references to God is accentuated by the fact that (3) is only an elaboration of (1) that makes more explicit language’s role in deferring violence. (4) follows naturally from (3): having been told that speech was a “noble . . . invention,” we expect to learn whose invention it was. (2), in contrast, does not follow from (1) at all. It concludes a chapter (I, 3) entitled “Of the Consequence or Train of Imaginations,” where Hobbes discusses what he calls in the quoted passage our “train of thoughts”; (2)’s raison d’être appears to be to conclude the chapter with discussion of an unimaginable entity, the infinite, as a limiting case. But the infinite is the only “imagination” in the chapter to become associated with a “name,” that is, with a speech act, the capacity for which distinguishes man among all creatures.

Thus, in the order of the text, the God who is the author of speech has already been named by us, not as a concept, but in a vocative–we may say, an ostensive–act of honoring. The connection of these ideas is, to be sure, not elaborated into an explicit anthropological model, but it is sufficiently rigorous to warrant our “honouring” Hobbes himself as the first substantial predecessor of Generative Anthropology.


By the time the question of the origin of language reaches Rousseau, the “sandwich” between the two mentions of God in Hobbes’ text has been tightened into a paradox. This most anthropologically sophisticated of Enlightenment thinkers was far more aware than Condillac or Maupertuis of the paradoxical difficulty of the task of reconstructing the origin of the sign without presupposing what one is attempting to generate. (Discours I: “If men needed speech in order to learn to think, they needed even more to know how to think in order to find speech.”) By making this paradox explicit, Rousseau makes it clear that the significance of language origin for the Enlightenment in its mature, post-Lockean phase is to permit opening up a space, unavailable in Hobbes, in which the human can be defined prior to the emergence of mimetic desire.  The equation of the origin of the human with the origin of language thereby allows the construction of a parsimonious “secular” model of the emergence of human difference to replace the revealed creation story of Judeo-Christian tradition–the anthropological value of which we should not make the Voltairean error of dismissing.

If Hobbes is not yet concerned to open this prelapsarian space, Rousseau is interested in the space as humanity’s true habitat rather than in its function as the locus of (language) origin.  Condillac’s straightforward Enlightenment atomism can only be conceived in a primordial utopia.  This sets the stage for the nineteenth century’s turn away from a priori models to more narrowly historical, and national, conceptions of “origin”–a phenomenon already visible in Rousseau’s own posthumous “Essai sur l’origine des langues.”

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This discussion will be continued over the next few Chronicles, in which I intend to deal with Locke, Condillac, Rousseau, and Herder as theoreticians of the origin of language.