The fundamental hypothesis of generative anthropology is that the function of representation in general and religious representation in particular is to defer mimetic violence. Although René Girard theorized the triangular structure of mimesis over forty years ago, his model was, and regrettably still is, too simple and elegant to be acceptable to an anthropological empiricism that seeks in the complexities of thick description a remedy against global uniformity. As opposed to physical scientists, for whom the shortest equation that describes a phenomenon within a given error tolerance is unequivocally the best, contemporary anthropologists fear that any general statement about the human risks neglecting, and therefore implicitly denigrating, some part of humanity. The theses presented in most anthropological papers are more scientific in style than in substance. The presentation of empirical data, along with copious citations of and references to other studies’ empirical data, often take the place of the rigorous application of Ockham’s razor. In most cases the “thesis” is not so much a predictive statement about reality as a suggested mode of classification both whose criteria and whose competitors go unmentioned.

Lest I be accused of calumny, I shall examine the work of the late Roy Rappaport, arguably the leading recent American anthropologist concerned with religion, whose final, posthumous book, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999), develops a general theory of religious phenomena specifically designated as anthropogenetic (“in the making of humanity”).

Rappaport begins by defining the human through language: “Our forbears became what might loosely be called “fully human” with the emergence of language” (4). He then proceeds to explain this emergence by means of a familiar Darwinian tautology: “It is obvious that the possession of language makes possible ways of life inconceivable to non-verbal creatures, and even proto-language . . . must have conferred important advantages upon the hominids among whom [it] developed” (4). The implication of this statement is that the origin of language is not qualitatively different than the origin of claws, teeth, the elephant’s trunk, or the giraffe’s neck, all of which “confer important advantages” on their possessors. A few pages later, however, Rappaport insists on the qualitative difference between language and any other adaptation:

But even such far-reaching claims as “Language is the foundation of the human way of life” do not do language’s importance justice, for its significance transcends the species in which it appeared. Leslie White used to say that the appearance of the symbol–by which he meant language–was not simply an evolutionary novelty enhancing the survival chances of a particular species, but the most radical innovation in the evolution of evolution itself since life first appeared. . . . With the symbol an entirely new form of information (in the widest sense of the word) appeared in the world.

. . . That language permits thought and communication to escape from the solid actualities of here and now to discover other realms, for instance, those of the possible, the plausible, the desirable, and the valuable, has already been emphasized. This was not quite correct. Language does not merely permitsuch thought but both requires it and makes it inevitable. (7-8; emphasis the author’s)

Not only is language described as the most radical innovation since life itself, it is specifically distinguished from any mere “evolutionary novelty enhancing the survival chances of a particular species.” This suggests, at the very least, the necessity of aspecific hypothesis concerning the circumstances in which this innovation might have emerged. Rappaport observes that, once language exists, humans can, indeed, must, think about such things as possibility and desire. This leads, however, not to an examination of the relationship between language and the mimetic conflict implicit in the possibilities of desire, but to the affirmation that language becomes not merely the motor of human adaptation but an adaptive force in itself:

adaptive systems can be defined as systems that operate (consciously or unconsciously) to preserve the true value of certain propositions about themselves in the face of perturbations tending to falsify them . . . [T]he propositions favored in human social systems are about such conceptions as God, Honor, Freedom, Fatherland, and The Good. That their preservation has often required great or even ultimate sacrifice on the parts of individuals hardly needs saying. Postulates concerning the unitary or triune nature of god are among those for whom countless individuals have sacrificed their lives or killed others . . . (9-10).

Here violence–a term that does not merit an entry in the book’s index–is associated with language, not because language is from the outset focused on deferring violence, but because the “preservation” of the “propositions favored” in language-possessing “adaptive systems” is so important that individuals must be sacrificed in large numbers to the necessity of maintaining them. Wars are fought over “propositions” because human evolution has made the preservation of these propositions the central adaptive trait to which everything else must be subordinated, and sacrificed when necessary. But because the link between the sacred propositions and the deferral of violence within the community is never made, no explanation can be given of the source of this violence, or of the frequency of violent conflict between defenders of different propositions. How could sacrificing “countless individuals” be adaptive unless the “propositions” to which the sacrifice is directed preserved the community from a still greater violence? Yet the implication of Rappaport’s text is rather that, although the lives in question are sacrificed to human rather than natural violence, human violence has no particular causal relation to the loss of fitness that would be occasioned by the non-preservation of the “propositions.” Although we kill people from other groups when they threaten our fundamental propositions, the adaptive value of these propositions is not presumed to have anything particular to do with preventing humans from killing other humans. The propositions promote a Durkheimian solidarity the contrary of which–breakdown in mimetic crisis–is never theorized explicitly.


For Rappaport it is the notion of the proposition that cannot be falsified that provides the connection between language and religion. Language permits one to talk about imaginary realities, hence, inevitably, about false realities. We can lie. Rappaport demurs from making the problem of lying the explicit cause of the emergence of religion, affirming instead that “religion emerged with language. As such, religion is as old as language, which is to say precisely as old as humanity” (16; emphasis the author’s). Yet the sole explanation he offers as to why indeed religion emerged along with language is that contained in the following italicized affirmations:

I will argue, among other things, that aspects of religion, particularly as generated in ritual, ameliorate problems of falsehood intrinsic to language to a degree sufficient to allow human sociability to have developed and to be maintained. (15; emphasis the author’s)

The tension between the hedging in this statement (“among other things,” “aspects,” “particularly as”) and its emphatic italicization reflect the contradiction between explaining the emergence of religion by the necessity to “ameliorate problems of falsehood” that can only be posterior to the origin of language and intuiting that religion and language are indissolubly linked moments of an unnamed originary scene. On the one hand, language has adaptive value; on the other, it poses “problems of falsehood” that only religion can resolve by affirming unfalsifiable truths. Rappaport’s favorite example of such an unfalsifiable truth is the Shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is One”) that he calls the “Ultimate Sacred Postulate” of Judaism, whose maintenance permits all lesser “postulates” to evolve while preserving the Jews as a religious community united around this linguistically unchanging, because unfalsifiable, kernel of faith. In Rappaport’s view, religion, and its core operation, ritual, function to protect humanity against excesses of language that would otherwise undermine sociality by creating confusion between lies and truth. Whereas Durkheim explained religion as a means for maintaining solidarity with respect to a society’s central ethical values, Rappaport sees it as a means to maintaining solidarity with respect to the society’s central propositions. Max Müller called mythology a disease of language; Rappaport, to the contrary, views mythical, that is, unfalsifiable, propositions as a cure for linguistic and social disunity.

But if language and religion are, as Rappaport affirms, truly coeval, then the “important advantages” conferred by language must at the outset have been identical with those of religion, that is, those obtained by asserting unfalsifiable propositions, rather than the cognitive advantages of language as a means for communicating about reality (“the food is over the hill”). If indeed language and religion emerged at the same time, then one cannot separate language’s adaptive advantages from the possibility of linguistically provoked disunion that religion is required to allay. The first assertions, in a proto-language that could not have articulated them in declarative sentences, must have been themselves religious and consequently, as Durkheim insists, useless as a means of understanding and communicating about empirical reality. Rather than as remedies for lying about empirical facts, the unfalsifiable propositions of religion result from the substitution of shared acts of signification for potentially violent acts of appropriation. What these propositions come into being to oppose is not another (falsifiable) kind of proposition, but a pre-human world lacking in shared symbolic signs of any kind, in which no communal meaning, and consequently no communal interdiction, is possible. Language emerges when the pecking-order control of mimetic conflict cannot withstand the mimetic pressure of a common desire; the first unfalsifiable proposition is not something like “God is one,” but simply “(do not seek to appropriate this because it is) God!”

We have from Rappaport that lying poses problems of social incoherence–let us say:intrasocial violence–from which religion protects us by making us agree on a core set of unfalsifiable “postulates” that may ultimately be reduced to a single one. We also know that the defense of these postulates has led to a great deal of intersocial violence. The most parsimonious hypothesis that accounts for these two phenomena is that the violence with which a given society defends its postulates against others is thesame violence against which these postulates protected it in the first place, that is, that it derives its energy from the same source. Both language and religion emerged in order to prevent the outbreak of mimetic violence, or, as I prefer to say, to “defer” it. Before lying could become a problem, that is, before the danger to the social order could be described in terms of a conflict between propositions, there must have been a potential conflict that could not yet express itself in propositions, even in the elementary forms of proto-language.

Rappaport concludes the introductory chapter of Ritual and Religion by redefining once again the problem that religion exists to solve, this time as that of “alternatives”:

The ability to imagine and establish alternative orders is not, on the face of it, problematic. Such an ability makes possible, or even itself constitutes, a quantum leap in adaptive flexibility . . . This enhanced flexibility has, however, an unavoidable but dangerous concomitant: increased grounds for disorder.

No actual society is utopian. It may, therefore, be difficult for any society’s members not to imagine orders in at least some respects preferable to those under which they do live and labor. If they can conceive of better orders, how are their actions to be kept in sufficient conformity to the prevailing order for that order to persist? The conception of the possible is always in some degree the enemy of the actual. As such it may be a first step toward the disruption of prevailing social and conceptual orders, whether they may be . . . (17-18)

Once again, disorder is said to emerge from the possibilities inherent in language rather than from the desire that language both defers and generates. In attributing the danger to the social order to the language-user’s inherent ability to “conceive of better orders,” Rappaport once more stands the relationship between language and order on its head. Language did not come into being as an adaptive ability to conceive of alternatives that subsequently comes into conflict with the established order, but as a means for deferring the “alternatives” to the social order that are posed by each individual’s desire to appropriate the (sacred) object of everyone’s desire. Only once this crucial problem is solved can language become a means of representing both empirical reality and its “alternatives.” This fetichization of language and semiotic categories persists throughout Rappaport’s book.


I submit that there is a better way to talk about the relationship between language, ritual, and the sacred, one that begins not with a set of concepts but with a hypothetical scene from which all cultural phenomena are eventually derived. The scenic hypothesis has among its other advantages that of avoiding purely verbal disputes about whether animals have “ritual” or “language.” Whether or not one uses these terms to refer to animal behavior, what distinguishes the human is its historical derivation from an originary scene. Human ritual may then be characterized not as the assimilation of the extraneous element of independently-evolved language into the more general structure of ritual, but as the attempt to reproduce this scene, that is, as a historical phenomenon, in contrast with biologically driven animal rituals. In the general case, ritual goes beyond the minimal energy required to generate linguistic signs, although poetry shows that language itself can become an object of repetition. It is less important to establish boundaries between the categories of language and ritual than to understand the specific position of cultural phenomena with respect to their ultimate origin. If language, ritual, the sacred, desire, and all other fundamental categories of the human emerged in the same scene, then we can examine each historical case with respect to how it performs the fundamental operation of this scene: the deferral of mimetic violence through representation. Human institutions, as opposed to the behavior patterns of animals, are scenic; they constitute themselves as totalities rather than as sets of piecemeal relations. This is as true of economic exchange as of religion.

The scene is a model of generative human interaction; its product is representation, the establishment of the sign, or system of signs, as a separate, transcendent mode of being that brings the things of this world into the central focus of human culture. The fundamental task of anthropology is to explain the emergence of this realm, which has no counterpart in the behavior of other creatures. Conversely, once we are in possession of a model of this emergence, that is, of an originary hypothesis, we need have no fear that any phenomenon of human culture will falsify it.


What is central to generative anthropology and missing from mainstream anthropology is mimetic violence. The negativity that Rappaport presents in cognitive terms as lying or alternatives is in the first place rivalry over an object of desire. What mainstream anthropology refuses to countenance is that the human comes into existence as a means to defer intrasocietal conflict. The simplest definition of the human is as the species that itself poses the greatest danger for its own survival. For the human thus defined by the reflexivity of crisis, language and culture are means for deferring this danger. The originary scenic structure of representation arises when the species, in focusing on itself as its own greatest threat, discovers that the postponement of this threat depends on the interdiction of shared appetite through an entirely new form of relationship that replaces the appetitive by the representational or transcendental.

In order to ward off the danger of mimetic violence, humanity can survive only by turning its attention to a transcendental center. The refusal of mainstream anthropology to recognize the danger of mimetic violence reflects the Enlightenment denial of transcendence that was originally constitutive of the social sciences. Rappaport, although far more sympathetic than most to ritual and to religion in general, understands the sign in the Piercean rather than the Saussurean mode, as part of the same world as its object; he defines religion not as the subsistent guarantee of the vertical transcendence of the sign, but as a means for bringing order to an already “ritualized” horizontal world, one into which the human, for a reason never explained, injects the phenomenon of representation. What is necessary, however, is to recognize not merely the radical newness of transcendence, but its specific pertinence both to human language and to the other forms of human culture. What is needed, in a word, is not an anthropology of religion or the sacred, but simply an anthropology of the human that offers a model of how the defining phenomenon of representation first emerged. In any such model of the human, language and the sacred will be not merely coeval, but identical in their central core.

(Abridged version of a lecture delivered at Catholic University, March 2003)