In “The Unique Source of Religion and Morality” (Anthropoetics, I, 1), I explained religious faith by the WWII dictum that “there are no atheists in the foxholes”: that one calls on God at the moment of life-threatening violence because our very idea of the sacred was born in the context of life-threatening violence. There being no atheists in foxholes, those who would stimulate our faith strive to convince us that we are indeed in a foxhole rather than in the marquise’s salon. Hence Pascal describes humanity as a collection of prisoners in chains awaiting their turn as they see their fellows led out to execution. Anything that distracts us from what Heidegger would later call our “being-toward-death” is mere divertissement.
The principal component of this diversion, in our time far more generally than in Pascal’s (when the vast majority of the population were critically concerned with the material necessities of life), is vanity, or put less moralistically, the desire for recognition. Although history abounds in examples of courage and other virtues, by definition we lack examples of non-recognition; tales of unrecognized genius are bogus, since we only hear the tale once the genius has been recognized. To renounce vanity is thus to renounce worldly recognition sans exemple. The one form of suffering that even the Crucifixion fails to prepare us for is anonymity.
Because we possess a world of shared representations that are not material but formal, we are free to conceive the individual soul that houses a unique set of these representations as immortal. The Buddhist, in contrast to the Judeo-Christian, emphasizes the dissolution of the individual soul in the universality of the representations that compose it and with regard to which individual identity and desire are mere illusion. What both cases have in common is not survival but “immortality,” in the sense of access to the transtemporal realm exemplified in human experience by the sign.
For faith as with all fundamental elements of culture, originary analysis provides a minimal model or structure of understanding: faith is the mode of shared representation. However much animal signals may be learned, animals have no signs whose reference must be taken on faith. The originary act of faith is the deferral of violence; in the originary scene, the participants must accept on faith both the meaning of the others’ aborted gesture and the others’ faith in the meaning of their own. Each soul is inhabited by the “immortal” originary representation of the central object of desire as the “name-of-God.”
“Faith in one’s ideas” is not a common quality independent of the content of those ideas, whether they be the originary hypothesis or experiences of abduction by aliens. Although by definition faith can never wholly be justified by reason, the program that reason suggests to faith is its minimization–which is not to say its elimination. Positive empiricism does not do away with faith; it simply agrees, in the interest of achieving concrete “results,” not to concern itself with the faith that underlies the system of thought in which these results are expressed. That methodological considerations of this kind do not obviate the need for an originary hypothesis is the kernel of the hypothesis itself.
The faith of originary thinking is that the indispensable basis for human thought is the emergence of the human in and as an event; the claim of the originary hypothesis is to minimize a explanatory leap between animal and human that cannot be eliminated. Faith in originary thinking is faith that there is really no other way of thinking than originary thinking. Recognition of this truth would be tantamount to bridging the gap between the humanities that conceive the originary and the social sciences that do the thinking.
But the minimality of the originary hypothesis makes it poorly suited to an intellectual environment that requires cooperation among specialists in various disciplines. The old metaphysics can only be broken down by the slow work of empirical analysis for which this metaphysics itself provides the basis; even, or especially, the empirical discipline of anthropology resists an “anthropological” perspective. Disciplines are communities, and the first duty of a community is to protect its existence; this is a truth that GA puts too embarrassingly to the fore to make it congenial to any of these communities. Thus originary thinking can only flourish in the margins of today’s academy, or outside them altogether. Yet for its ideas to survive and prosper, they must be promoted by persons willing to anchor themselves in specific disciplines and conduct empirical research in the light of the originary hypothesis.
On this point, some positive news from both ends of campus.
First, the scientific: As I noted in Chronicle 168, Terrence Deacon’s explanation of the origin of language in The Symbolic Species (Norton, 1997), although not quite scenic, comes nonetheless far closer to the originary hypothesis than any previous account in the literature. Machiavellian Intelligence II (Cambridge, 1997) a follow-up volume to that discussed in Raymond Swing’s “Some Comments on Generative Anthropology” (Anthropoetics V, 2), provides further supporting material, less theoretically powerful but equally suggestive. In “Egalitarianism and Political Intelligence,” Christopher Boehm claims that the egalitarianism that distinguishes early human from primate society is based on the restriction of “alpha” males by a coalition that, unlike the fluctuating coalitions of ape societies, includes the entire human group: “Morality makes a radically egalitarian outcome possible for humans because morality involves a permanent coalition of an entire watchful community” (361). In “Social Intelligence and Language,” Esther Goody presents the origin of language as a social rather than simply cognitive phenomenon, one that permits cooperation through “shared meanings” (382) rather then “Machiavellian” deception.
Perhaps needless to say, neither Boehm nor Goody concern themselves with modeling as an event the paradoxical process in which the transition between deception and cooperation, dominance and egalitarianism is accomplished. Rather than conceive the emergence of “shared meaning” in a scene, Goody (373) refers to a computer simulation that purports to generate sign-meaning relationships from lengthy series of one-on-one communications (50,000 to establish twelve signs, in the example given). Once again, human scientists draw from empirical data tentatively and in gradualistic form conclusions that follow directly from the originary hypothesis. The latter is nevertheless made to appear increasingly plausible as a working hypothesis for empirical research.
On the humanistic side, as might be expected, corroboration is more nebulous. But it is surely not altogether coincidental that both UCLA and the University of Washington are holding colloquia this Spring–the latter quite a high-profile affair–on the subject of the Sacred and the Profane. There seems to be a clear trend in recent years toward acknowledging the centrality of the sacred to the domain of cultural study, if not of “cultural studies.”
GA was articulated by humanists rather than human scientists, but it bears allegiance to neither domain. To rely on any professional grouping to give value to originary thinking would violate the very principle of minimality by which originary thinking is defined. The only group that can be the object of our minimal faith is humanity itself.