Simplicity is the greatest of intellectual virtues. It is enshrined in the principle of minimality, also known as Ockham’s razor after the 14th century English philosopher William of Ockham: mental entities should not be multiplied without necessity. There are an infinite number of possible theoretical models for a given set of observations; all other things being equal, the simplest is the best.
The essential innovation of generative anthropology is nothing other than the radical application of the principle of minimality. Instead of looking at the human empirically as a fuzzy collection of various traits, GA takes seriously attempts at definition like Aristotle’s zoon logon exon. Why, after all, even think of defining the human? Would anyone try to define a dog or an elephant? The human is subject to definition because it is not a mere empirical biological entity. For philosophy, unproblematically up to Kant, problematically thereafter, what I call the human was defined as Reason (Vernunft) or Spirit (Geist). Unlike philosophy, GA does not renounce the specificity of the human for the simplicity of the concept because it recognizes that the generation of entities like Reason or Spirit is anything but simple. The originary hypothesis conceives of the human in minimal terms as emerging from a single event in a prehuman world.
Ockham’s razor only operates when the explanatory goal is independent of the means to accomplish it. Intellectual simplicity is analogous to cost-effectiveness in the market. If greater efficiency allows me to sell for $1 a widget for which my competitor cannot charge less than $1.50, I will win away his customers because they have no reason to prefer his widget to mine. But in the cultural sphere, the virtue of simplicity is less unambiguous. Culture is not a matter of setting goals and then finding the most efficient way to reach them. The purpose of culture, from films to religious rites, is the deferral of violence, or in Pascal‘s term, le divertissement — diversion, entertainment. Even if all narratives perform essentially the same cultural function, one cannot argue that a short story is therefore preferable to a novel because it accomplishes this function more efficiently. On the contrary, our tendency is to value the novel more highly because it keeps us entertained longer. It takes a sophisticated reader to value a sonnet by Mallarmé as much as a 300-page novel.
Science is not supposed to be a cultural operation; its goal is to construct explanatory models, the simpler the better. But “theory,” the contemporary synonym for what I call anthropology, is a more problematic object. Is theory science or culture? I have spoken in these columns about the “spirit of the humanities” that respects the paradoxical generation of the human. But paradox is not normally considered to be simple; one might say, on the contrary, that paradox is another name for indefinite complexity.
Generative anthropology may well be the first theory that claims maximal simplicity for a structure that it understands as paradoxical. It is the same simplicity of paradox that one finds in religious rhetoric, in statements like the recently discussed credo quia absurdum. The statement is pithy, its content paradoxical. But this is not theory, certainly not rigorous theory, any more than other sublime cultural moments are theory. GA is concerned with rigor, not pithiness; but a rigorously minimal model of the human must include the paradox from which the human emerged and which is reconstructed in every subsequent emergence of the human–in every meaningful human act.
We may now explain the anomalous conjunction of GA’s minimal simplicity and the maximal resistance it tends to arouse.
The cloying self-righteousness of the politically correct should not prevent us from recognizing the significance of multiculturalism in contemporary society. The real point of multiculturalism is that culture is in itself a multiple activity. Since its point is to create complexity, it cannot be reduced to a fixed canon without losing its effectiveness; it must be continually renewed. Whether contemporary Western society can or should continue to pursue effectively the noble goals of the High Culture created by the Greeks is a controversial question–one we should probably answer in the negative. But High or low, culture must evolve or die. Multiculturalism offers a simple solution to the problem of cultural multiplicity: the more the merrier.
This position looks as innocuous as the inclusion of different kinds of music in one’s record collection. But even the most frivolous culture contains an implicit anthropology; it is impossible wholly to separate culture from the theory of culture. As Pope put it, “the proper study of mankind is man,” where the word proper means not merely appropriate but characteristic. Humanity is properly understood as the species that studies itself. And thus it should not surprise us that not merely cultural but theoretical works might follow the cultural logic of multiplicity and deferral rather than the scientific one of explicative simplicity.
Where does this leave generative anthropology? We cannot know the answer to this question a priori. Originary thinking must take its chances in the world. But as we practice it, we must recognize the possibility–perhaps a first in human history–that the most rigorous theory of the human might prove itself inacceptable, and even be forgotten, on the grounds of its insufficiency as a cultural phenomenon, of its untenable simplicity.