Chronicle 178 dealt with the first paragraph of the second part of Condillac’sEssai sur les connaissances humaines (1746), the preliminary description of his famous thought-experiment in which two children generate human language. Aside from the biblical example of Adam and Eve, this scenario was no doubt inspired by Herodotus’ well-known anecdote about the Egyptian king Psammetichus who, in order to discover the most ancient language, has two children brought up in a language-free environment. Their first observed “word” being the Phrygian word for “bread,” Phrygian was credited with being the most ancient language. Condillac’s experiment is more radically conceived as a model for the origin of language itself.

Here are the details of the experiment. As with the previous selection, I am using Thomas Nugent’s 1756 translation, slightly modernized:

[Chap. 1] 1. So long as the abovementioned children lived apart, the operations of their minds were confined to perception and consciousness, which never cease to act while we are awake; to attention, which must have taken place whenever any perceptions affected them in a particular manner; to reminiscence, which was when they recollected some circumstances that had struck them before they had lost the connections formed by those circumstances; and to a very limited exercise of the imagination. For example, the perception of a particular want was connected with that of the object which had contributed to relieve it. But as this sort of connections were formed by chance, without deriving any strength from reflection, their duration was but short. One day the sensation of hunger put these children in mind of a tree loaded with fruit, which they had seen the day before; soon after this tree was forgotten, and the same sensation revived the idea of another object. Thus the habit of the imagination was not in their power; it was no more than the effect of the circumstances in which they were placed.

This passage reflects Condillac’s thesis that the acquisition of knowledge is impossible in the absence of signs. Associations of ideas in the absence of “reflection” are, in his view, confined to what we now call the “short-term” memory. In determining the content of these mental operations, Condillac sees the human being, as befits the children’s “fallen” state, not as a Lockean perception machine but as a needy organism. What is perceived is, in the first place, a lack; in a secular version of the Fall, the absent fruit tree becomes the object of the first common memory, but one which, in the absence of signs, cannot become an object of long-term knowledge.

2. When they came to live together, they had occasion to enlarge and improve those first operations because their mutual converse made them connect with the cries of each passion the perceptions which they naturally signified. They generally accompanied them with some motion, gesture or action whose expression was yet of a more sensible nature. For example, he who suffered by being deprived of an object which his wants had rendered necessary to him did not confine himself to cries or sounds only; he used some endeavors to obtain it, he moved his head, his arms, and every part of his body. The other, struck with this sight, fixed his eye on the same object and perceiving some inward emotions which he was not yet able to account for, he suffered in seeing his companion suffer. From that very instant he felt himself inclined to relieve him, and he followed this impression to the utmost of his power. Thus by instinct alone they asked and gave each other assistance. I say by instinct alone; for as yet there was no room for reflection. One of them did not say to himself, I must make such particular motions to render him sensible of my want, and to induce him to relieve me, nor the other, I see by his motions that he wants such a thing, and I will let him have it, but they both acted in consequence of the want which pressed them most.

This paragraph describes a prelinguistic “state of nature” where the “passions” are expressed by natural or “indexical” signs (sighs, tears) equivalent to animal “calls,” as well as by gestures. The author’s insistence on the children’s “endeavors to obtain” the object of desire by moving head, arms, etc., serves to emphasize that these signs are not simply involuntary; they reflect an intention to appropriate the appetitive object. I am able to understand such signs not only because my instincts would produce the same cries in similar circumstances but because my own physical efforts to appropriate the object would also be analogous to my companion’s. Yet the difference between voluntary and involuntary natural signs is not graspable by reflection in the absence of language.

Let us note once more the relevance of Condillac’s reference to the Genesis story.  This originary scenario is not based on sensation but on “needs.” The association of the two children, not otherwise motivated, is cemented by their sharing of “passions.” And however physical their “needs,” Condillac describes their mutual assistance in mimetic terms: “He suffered in seeing his companion suffer.” When he asserts that they act “by instinct alone,” he refers of course to their prelinguistic, prereflective state, but this state is implicitly distinguished from similar states in animals by its proto-human mimeticism. One does not aid the other by interpreting his actions, but “both acted in consequence of the want which pressed him most.” The only coherent reading of the last assertion is that, as a result of witnessing the other’s “need,” each acquired this need for himself, making it “the want which pressed him most.” A further turn of the mimetic screw would lead us directly to the familiar triangular impasse of mimetic desire, since the two “wants,” now equally pressing, could not normally be satisfied without conflict.

3. And yet the same circumstances could not be frequently repeated, but they must have accustomed themselves at length to connect with the cries of the passions and with the different motions of the body those perceptions which were expressed in so sensible a manner. The more they grew familiar with those signs, the more they were in a capacity of reviving them at pleasure. Their memory began to acquire some sort of habit, they were able to command their imagination as they pleased, and insensibly they learned to do by reflection what they had hitherto done merely by instinct. At first both of them acquired the habit of discerning by those signs the sensations which each other felt at that moment, and afterwards they made use of them in order to let each other know their past sensations. For example, he who saw a place in which he had been frightened, mimicked those cries and movements which were the signs of fear in order to warn the other not to expose himself to the same danger.

It would be easy enough to deconstruct this model of the birth of the “symbolic” sign; if habit alone could transform the children’s instinctive cries and practical-instinctive gestures into signs, habit should do the same in animals as well. Only the children’s prior God-given humanity can justify this difference of outcome. Nor is this a satisfactory model of the origin of the linguistic sign. Words cannot be derived simply from the “cries of the passions.” Although we can–not without difficulty–voluntarily approximate our prelinguistic “cries” or “calls” such as laughter and tears in order to arouse a desired response in our interlocutor, such action, generally frowned on as dishonest, is very different from using language. (The difference is the point of the gag about the group of old friends who, having learned each other’s jokes by heart, decide to save time by numbering the jokes and just saying the number.)

Condillac’s scenario is nonetheless a groundbreaking contribution to the modern understanding of the origin of human language. By situating this origin specifically in the passage from the natural-indexical sign of need to its “arbitrary” linguistic counterpart, it focuses our attention on the possible motivations for this passage. Nor is it by chance that, in the unique concrete example of the just-quoted paragraph, what the speaker points out to his companion is not a source of food, as modern theoreticians such as Bickerton typically propose, but a place of fright and danger. It suffices to attach this fear to the “want that pressed them most” of the preceding paragraph to generate the originary hypothesis.

Condillac’s cooperative model of language refounds the fallen human species on the family begun by his two children, whose own child is the first “native speaker.”  Condillac suggests that the new baby, finding himself–not unlike the child in Lacan’s “mirror stage”–unable to perform the practical gestures of his parents, has recourse to verbal language more readily than they; whence what he describes as a gradual evolution favoring spoken over gestural language. This speculation anticipates our view today, with habituation to the “arbitrary” sounds of language replaced by the evolutionary development of the vocal tract. For Condillac as for Rousseau, language as the exemplary means of human communication is a “supplement” to the “lack” engendered by the Fall.  If in Condillac the critique of the “misuse” of language never puts in doubt, as it does in Rousseau, its essentially beneficial nature, this is because the human cooperation it promotes never itself becomes, as it does for his successor, a source of mimetic conflict. Yet, as we have seen, the elements of this conflict are present in germ even in the most constructive moments of his text.


In passing from Condillac to Rousseau, we reach the culmination of Enlightenment anthropology and the beginning of its transformation into the more paradoxical human vision of Romanticism. Where Condillac, like the General Semanticists of recent times, sees human conflict as the result of preventable misunderstandings of signs, Rousseau understands that any use of signs bears the potential for mimetic conflict.

The theoretical centrality of Rousseau’s ideas on human origin, as expressed in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754) and the posthumous Essay on the Origin of Languages, reflects his situation at the threshold of true modernity, just before the French Revolution and the rise of the modern market system. This central battleground of postmodern theorizing remains dominated by the deconstructive thinking of Jacques Derrida’s 1968 masterwork De la grammatologie [On Grammatology], which takes the Essay as its focal text. The deconstruction of Rousseau’s anthropological model may be seen as a supreme attempt by the postmodern heirs of the Enlightenment to deny significance to the historical lessons of Christianity and of the modern exchange system by equating Rousseau’s critique of language-as-“writing” with that of Western metaphysics in general. Yet whatever its political motivations, this analysis cannot be countered, as academic conservatives often seem to think, by yet more blatantly political gestures in the other direction. Derrida’s critique of Rousseau suggests despite itself a fundamental anthropology that can be countered only by a yet more fundamental anthropology, one that understands the historicity of human thought, including “metaphysics,” as characterized by the elaboration of ever more highly articulated and more “enabling” models of its own genesis. In coming weeks, I will attempt to define Rousseau’s contribution to mimetic anthropology as the key enabler of the Romantic illusion that mimesis is unnecessary to anthropology.