How does Heidegger come to speak of Being? “Being” is in the first place a word, an element of language that cannot be understood before one understands what language is. But what does it mean to “understand what language is”? Both historical and synchronic linguistics have made great progress over the past century, but what language is can only be formulated in anthropological, indeed, in anthropogenic terms. Language cannot be considered as one biological attribute among others. The most unambiguous empirical differentiating sign of the human, language must be understood as the fundamental element of human ontology as well, lest we reduce the fact that we are the only creatures who ask the question of Being to an epiphenomenon. Unlike nonhuman systems of communication, language exists in history, and like history, language is a phenomenon whose birth defines the moment at which humans began to exist. The simple intuition that philosophical entities or “Ideas” such as Being, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful are in the first place words, so that their conceptual content can become a subject of discussion only once we have established what language is, is the foundation of generative anthropology. The novelty of these arguments to most readers confirms that generative anthropology is indeed a new way of thinking.
There are three accepted ways of thinking about the human. The oldest and most traditional is the religious or theological, which takes its point of departure from sacred doctrine and in the case of the “higher religions,” from a sacred text or texts. Bracketing the question of their sacred status, these doctrines provide hypotheses of origin, or more generally,anthropologies in which the essence of the human may be laid out in some detail, particularly in its ethical dimension.
The second way of thinking about the human is the philosophical or metaphysical. In its systematic form, metaphysics dates from Plato, who built his ontology on the givenness of the declarative sentence or proposition, that is, of mature language detached from its roots in originary, ostensive language. Since the late nineteenth century, traditional metaphysics, which follows Plato in positing its fundamental ontology a priori, has been succeeded by phenomenology, which extends Cartesian doubt to the totality of empirical knowledge, so that the individual, whose certitude is limited to the contents of his consciousness, elaborates what we would call his anthropology on the basis of intuition and introspective evidence. Phenomenology denies a basis in psychology and more generally in any physical substrate; it is concerned with the contents of consciousness, not with the emotional or neurological mechanisms that are the internal yet still worldly correlates of these contents.
As Heidegger’s title (Being and Time) implies and Sartre’s subtitle (Essay in Phenomenological Ontology) makes explicit, phenomenology is a springboard to ontology. For if our mental contents are our only source of knowledge, then, the empirical truths of the Understanding (Verstand) being bracketed, only the transcendental truths of Reason (Vernunft) remain. Similarly to traditional metaphysics, what phenomenology both in its original form and in the many avatars that have followed fails to take into account is that the transcendental relationship between the phenomenon of consciousness and its physical/psychological correlates, including the possibility of bracketing thus entailed, is a product of human representation. There is a foundational homology between the relationship of the signified/meaning of a word to its referent, on the one hand, and on the other, the relationship of the phenomenon of consciousness to its worldly correlates. I bracket the world in reflecting on the phenomena of my consciousness just as I bracket the world while reading a novel.
Yet it is no accident that the phenomenological age has also been the age of Freud. In limiting one’s purview to the contents of consciousness, one necessarily raises the possibility that these contents are dependent on “unconscious” processes, whether one attributes these processes to the biological substrate of the human psyche or to the “bad faith” of consciousness itself. Freud’s anthropology, despite his valiant attempt at a quasi-historical “scene of origin” for these unconscious processes in Totem and Taboo, is founded on an ontology in which communal phenomena, language in particular, are reduced to their manifestations in the individual. Jung’s “collective unconscious,” the best known attempt to introduce collective contents into Freudian discourse, ignores the reciprocity of collective experience and reduces the community to a set of “unconsciously” linked individuals. Once more, representation provides the explicative model; whatever mystery lies in Jungian symbols reflects the fact that although language is used by individuals, its meaning is a collective reality. Jung’s attribution of these symbols to an ultimately biological “unconscious” rather than to the ritual cultures that created them reflects the pervasiveness of the individual-centered phenomenological mode of thought.
The third way of thinking about the human is the scientific; hypotheses about the human are proposed and empirical data are sought in order to either corroborate or disconfirm them. This is the founding model of the science taught in university departments of anthropology. However, anthropology, particularly in the United States, has been increasingly wary of universal theories of the human. The field is dominated by a multiculturalist ideology that insists on the equivalent value of all cultures and refuses to place them on an evolutionary scale. This effort at cultural neutrality reveals its naivety by its ready transformation into its opposite. To posit the equivalence of all cultures is to imply that those cultures that are more successful than others have no legitimate reason for their success, which is thereby exposed as illegitimate. Multiculturalism embodies an inverted scale of value that confers the highest moral value on the least successful cultures, considering those of the formerly colonized world as more worthy than the Western industrial society to which the anthropologists themselves belong. This combination of the condemnation of Western society with uncritical sympathy for its “victims” can be blamed for much of the ugliest behavior in the world today.
The evolution of academic anthropology demonstrates the impossibility of studying the human as a natural phenomenon. The gathering and classification of empirical data does not lend itself to the production of general theories. Anthropology’s abdication of its ostensible responsibility to formulate universal hypotheses about the human is not simply a passive consequence of the victimary politicization of academic thought. It is naïve to assume that we can insulate the study of the human from our moral intuition. We need not even evoke the colonial context of nineteenth-century ethnography or the European racism to which Boas’s anti-evolutionism was largely a reaction. These tendencies are themselves reflections of the fact that, just as philosophers are naïve in speaking of “Being” without recognizing the dependency of their thought on the historically constituted realm of human language, so anthropologists are naïve in defending tribal cultures against industrial cultures without recognizing that the moral intuition that drives and sustains this defense is itself a human trait dependent on language and sharing with it a common origin.
The inherent paradox of the social or human sciences comes to a head in the domain of fundamental anthropology, where the ability to generalize from specific empirical cases cannot suffice to found an autonomous science. But the same is true for the more narrowly focused human sciences. In the case of linguistics, for example, the triumphs of generative grammar in reducing a vast manifold of data to a manageable set of hypotheses stand in contrast to the superficiality of the various theories of language origin, none of which provides a fundamental understanding of the nature of language as a human phenomenon. An analogous contrast might be drawn between Noam Chomsky’s linguistic genius and the pathology of his political–which are really his anthropological–views.
What makes generative anthropology a new way of thinking is that its point of departure is a hypothesis concerning not the evolution of some feature of humanity but of the origin of the human as such. Such a hypothesis cannot be “scientific” in the generally accepted sense of the term; it is an a priori that postulates at the origin of the human a non-reproducible singularity, an event. The specific configuration of this event is of secondary importance; when we say that generative anthropology is founded on the originary hypothesis, the only necessary feature of this hypothesis is that there be one.
Yet this requirement is more constraining than first appears. What is lacking in the various hypotheses that have been offered for the emergence of genus Homo and of its specific traits such as erect posture, opposable thumb, tool use, or language itself, is an appreciation for the rupture that the use of representations, symbolic signs in Peirce’s terminology, effects with respect to all that has gone before. The fact that humans live in societies the simplest of which possesses a rich and varied fund of representations inspires students of language origin to conceive the passage from no representations toone representation as merely one stage like any other in the gradual emergence, in the course of hundreds of millennia, of the complex human cultures we know today. This way of thinking applies to the birth of human language Zeno’s paradox of the heap: a single grain is not a heap; if one keeps adding grains of sand, at some point there is a heap, yet there is no point at which adding a single grain can be said to change the status of the ensemble. But in contrast with the first grain of sand, the first sign of language is something never previously encountered. No gradual passage is possible from a “horizontal” world without representation to one to which the “vertical” dimension of representation has been added. Once there is a single symbolic sign, there is language, and the passage from one sign to the thousands of signs in mature languages is trivial in comparison to that between no signs and the first sign. In The Scenic Imagination I analyze a few of the many misguided attempts to finesse this transition.
What makes generative anthropology a new way of thinking is its recognition of the communal nature of representation and of the necessity for a hypothetical event to explain its beginnings. The necessary distinction between scientific and religious discourse makes it appear absurd to suggest that the human began in a punctual scene, yet this is the only adequate conceptualization of the origin of human representation. For every human use of representation is indeed an event, a historically unique moment that transforms the human universe and that can be not simply “remembered” but represented in its turn; the beginning of this discrete series of human events is the first event.
Of the three accepted ways of thinking outlined above, only the religious offers a version of such an event. For those who seek an alternative theory of human origin to those of creationists and “intelligent design” theorists whose hypotheses are founded, overtly or covertly, on dogmatic beliefs, the only valid alternative is the postulation of an originary event of the human, defined as the user of representations–the new way of thinking embodied in the originary hypothesis.