Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages is the Urtext of deconstruction. Like many a posthumously published work, it is characteristic of its creator to the point of caricature. Although its history is unclear, it is difficult not to connect its unpublished status with its lack of discipline in the deployment of Rousseau’s trademark nature-culture dichotomy. The more rigorous Discourse on the Origin of Inequality is not only closer to our own minimalist ideal, it is closer to the text of deconstruction itself. But for a doctrine like deconstruction that denies scientific value to metaphysical constructions in any case, the more caricatural the better; concentration on the Essay at the expense of the Discourse makes it easier to overlook their commonality of aims and achievements as proto-scientific texts. To point this out is not to deconstruct the discourse of deconstruction, but rather to suggest that it is itself, à son corps défendant, a discourse of construction–an inadequate one, to be sure, but not so much more than our own, the chief measure of the difference being the underlying mensonge romantique of a discursive practice that claims to turn away from anthropology, from the construction of the human.

If the author of the Discourse, dixit Lévi-Strauss, is the creator of anthropology as a human science, the author of the Essay would seem to be a purveyor of the pseudo-anthropological myths that lie at the foundation of Western thought, most notably of the myth so precious to Derrida of the speaker’s presence to himself in his voice. The world of the Essay is not the state of nature of the first part of the Discourse but the social condition of the second part. Within this already-corrupt world where language has replaced le cri de la nature, the melodious voice serves as a supplement to man’s lost natural state.

There is no point in redoing Derrida’s deconstruction of this text. The greater challenge is to find in it, as in the Discourse, a lesson in originary anthropology.


As noted in Chronicle 185, the primary extrafamilial relationship among humans in the Essay is not determined by pity, as in the Discourse, but by a Hobbesian fear that is, not coincidentally, the first “passion” to be expressed in language. The scene in Chapter 3 expresses the Essay’s most brilliant anthropological insight:

Upon meeting others, a savage man will initially be frightened. Because of his fear he will see the others as taller and stronger than himself. He will give them the name of giants.

But in the context of this language of fear–to which I shall return below–there intervenes the “supplementary” sweetness of the voice that will be shown in Chapter 9 to characterize particularly the melodious, vocalic South in contrast to the harsh, consonantal North. This supplement is expressed primarily not in speech, but in song (Ch. 4). For the Essay is as much a polemic about music as it is a speculation about language.

Rousseau’s text contains the components of a model of the origin of human representation in two moments: (1) The birth of the sign as the making-sacred of an Other (“giant”) recognized as a potential source of mimetic conflict; (2) the peaceful elaboration of the sign in ritual performance. The jeu du supplément that creates song in compensation for the lost harmoniousness of nature is not a merely metaphysical operation; it reflects the passage from the purely formal emission of the sign to its institutional elaboration in ritual. No doubt Rousseau’s argument appeals not to the equilibrating construction of the musical supplement but to its naturalness, not to the sacrificial nature of ritual but to the erotic virtues of song:

… In the arid places where one could only obtain water from wells, men had to come together to dig them, or at least to reach agreement on their use. This must have been the origin of societies and languages in warm countries.There the first ties were formed among families; there were the first rendezvous of the two sexes. . . . There the first festivals took place. Feet skipped with joy, eager gestures no longer sufficed, the voice accompanied them with impassioned accents; pleasure and desire mingled and were felt together. There, finally, was the true cradle of nations: from the pure crystal of the fountains flowed the first fires of love. (Ch. 9, emphasis mine)

The anthropological lesson of Rousseau’s text is subordinated to its polemical intention. But in our proto-scientific reading, Rousseau’s preference for the Natural over the Social is stripped of its rhetorical moralizing to become a postulate of method, one not uncongenial to Durkheim’s sociology of religion: the sociologist focuses on the simplest forms of a given phenomenon because they most clearly reveal that phenomenon’s originary function. What is at issue for human science is not the moral valence of historical progress but its obscuring action for the study of fundamental human reality.

The contrast between the Essay and the Discourse on this point is instructive. The second Discourse is, like its cruder predecessor, the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, a paradoxical diatribe against human history, but it is not a polemic as such. Because its attacks on human society serve no cause, its critique is easily translated from the moral to the methodological domain; it suffices to change “good/bad” into “good/bad to study.” The transformation is all the more justified in that the resulting values have practical implications for scholarship, whereas the only way to put the original into practice would be to carry out the desire purportedly inspired in Voltaire by the Discourse to walk on all fours. (Or, under the influence of Rousseau’s Social Contract, to seek to realize the “general will” through political action; but that is another story.)

The Essay, in contrast to the Discourse, is overtly polemical. Its purpose in declaring melody more natural than harmony is to endorse the Italian musical style (which Rousseau himself practiced) over the French style championed by Rameau. The other variants on the nature-culture dichotomy in the text may be read as so many corroborations of this endorsement. The purely speculative preference of the Discourse for the primitive over the civilized is replaced in the Essay by a geographical preference for the South (Italy) over the North (France) and for a public, ritual culture mediated by song over a private, secular culture that communicates (if at all) through writing.  To consider this text in methodological terms is not simply to sacrifice its practical implications but to translate it from the musical realm where these implications are operative into that of cultural analysis; when this is done, the Essay’s greater  concreteness makes it a more specific guide than the Discourse. Whatever our view of the author’s ethico-musical preference, we can hardly avoid making it our methodological preference, as over a century of ethnology has shown. Even the paradoxical turn of the argument that makes it so apt for deconstruction may be understood in methodological terms. Rousseau’s own use of writing as a supplement to the lost state of nature translates into the literate ethnologist’s analytical insight into the operations of oral cultures that is inaccessible to the participants in these cultures themselves.


In the concluding chapter (20) of the Essay, entitled “Relationships between Languages and Governments,” Rousseau’s model of ethical origin is given a communal (and political) context; southern societies where a general can address his entire army in public are favorably compared with unfree northern societies where language is  private and might just as well be written as spoken. Combined with the “giant” scenario of Chapter 3, this collective scene becomes a model of the origin of language. As in Condillac, language is generated in that scene by fear of danger rather than positive appetite. But where Condillac understood the linguistic sign as emerging from the increasingly voluntary rationalization of the prehuman “call” elicited by this fear–and where Herder, a generation after Rousseau, will separate the linguistic sign not merely from this cri de la nature but from the danger that motivated it–for Rousseau the danger posed by the “giants” displaces the sign ab ovo from any natural relationship with its referent. The no-longer-natural quality of the context in which the sign emerges is figured by the metaphoric nature of the sign itself. In the absence of a contrasting word for “man,” “giant” can convey no well-defined meaning. But insofar as Rousseau’s scenario is a model of glossogenesis, the same could be said of any first word. What is conveyed by “giant” is not simply greater than normal size but supernaturalness, in other words, sacrality. The Différance with which language begins is not, pace Derrida, Saussuriandifference, but the sacred that defers violence.

The text presents the speaker as isolated before a number of fearsome potential enemies, like Rousseau himself confronting the accord unanime (see Chronicle 183). But the dynamic of the glossogenetic situation implies that it is rather the speaker and his interlocutors who would be the more numerous. In the Hobbesian world of the Essay, it would not even be far-fetched to trace the aggression directed outward at the giant-victims to the mimetic rivalries within the proto-community.

The danger represented by the Other-as-giant is that constituted in Girard’s model by the scapegoat or emissary victim. Were the “giants” encountered in the concluding chapter of the Essay, the general’s voice would transform his soldiers into a Girardian lynch mob. But the structure of Rousseau’s scene in Chapter 3 is that of GA’s originary hypothesis. Designation of the “giants” is in the first place linguistic representation. The victim is made sacred by the sign before he is made a victim. Whatever one may subsequently do to giants, one first hesitates before their incarnation of supernatural force.


Rousseau may be deemed the first modern thinker because he is the first whose thought reflects, avant la lettre, the dynamic of bourgeois society. In his writings, the elements of originary anthropology and even of its methodology are all present in implicit form. We are no longer required, as in Hobbes, to solicit them from the structural “unconscious” of his text. But we are still obliged to piece them together; they are not yet combined in an even inchoate synthesis. As a man of the Enlightenment, Rousseau remains committed to regenerating, in opposition to religious tradition, the collective from the individual; he cannot yet conceive their common and interdependent origin. Such a conception, inspired by the maturing of the market system, first emerges unambiguously over a century later, in the work of Durkheim.