A recent post by Jim Collins to the GAlist asks a question fundamental to the intellectual status of generative anthropology: in what sense, if at all, is the originary hypothesis falsifiable?

Karl Popper‘s concept of falsifiability is a basic test of scientific hypotheses. A meaningful hypothesis about empirical reality must be falsifiable by empirical reality; otherwise, it makes no meaningful claim and can be shaved off by Ockham’s razor. Popper points out that no hypothesis can ever be confirmed by reality. His favorite example is that if the hypothesis is swans are white, then finding a single black swan falsifies the hypothesis, whereas finding any number of white swans can only corroborate, but not confirm it, since there may still be a black one yet undiscovered.

Popper, whose central examples were drawn from physics, attacked psychoanalysis as unfalsifiable and therefore meaningless because there is no empirical test of the unconscious motivations it alleges. What would constitute evidence that X does not have an Oedipus complex? Popper’s critique raises a methodological question that goes beyond the particulars of the Freudian system. Freudians are not interested in falsifying the Oedipus complex, but in using it as an explanatory mechanism. In the domain of meaning, which exists only in human language, falsifiability becomes a matter of internal coherence. A powerful explanation imposes its interpretative mechanism, obliging us to think in its terms. Freudian metapsychology is implausible and unwieldy, yet it is widely used because it provides some understanding of the mimetic structure of human desire, and in its Lacanian version, some insight into the relationship between desire and language.


We can turn Popper’s hard-nosed critique against him. His fundamental idea is that no scientific hypothesis can ever be shown to be true, that we use the best hypotheses available in full knowledge that they will some day be falsified and replaced by better ones. But this makes falsification a relative matter. Even if Newton‘s equations fail to match the empirical data, we cannot discard them until we find a set (say, Einstein‘s) that improve the match. Finding one black swan may falsify the white-swan theory, but in practice one would seek an ad hoc explanation (a fall in a tar-pit?) before tossing it out altogether. By the same token, if the Oedipus complex offers a coherent explanation for certain aspects of human behavior, before worrying about falsifying it, we should first seek a better one.

We should not confuse falsifiability with rigor. In Popper’s world, the strongest hypothesis is the most easily falsifiable one, the one that makes the most vulnerable claim on reality. In the anthropological world of meaning, the strength of a hypothesis is measured rather by its minimality. The more it explains with a minimum of presuppositions, the more powerful a claim it makes on our intuition. But we can make a still greater claim for minimality in the anthropological domain. The explanation of meanings and the meanings themselves are all part of the same anthropological universe. The minimal explanation is not simply the most efficient; in referring all meaningful events of human culture to a minimal basis, it approaches the historical understanding of the origin of human meaning in a unique event.

By positing such an event, the originary hypothesis transcends the pre-generative techniques of humanistic interpretation. But no direct physical evidence for this hypothesis is conceivable under present conditions. The evidence for the scene of origin is not an unambiguous physical trace; it is the whole of human culture. And even if we had a film of an event that took place exactly as I have hypothesized, how could we tell it was the first such event? The claim that the originary hypothesis is the minimal hypothesis consonant with the existence of its object, humanity appeals not to empirical corroboration but to a fundamental intuition: that the sign cannot arise unconsciously, since its use implies consciousness. The rest of GA, in principle if not in detail, follows from this premise.

Hypotheses of biological human origin that concentrate that origin in a single place, like African genesis or the “Eve” hypothesis, tend to corroborate the originary hypothesis. Those that do not, for example, by postulating the independent origin of humanity on several different continents, seem to me to confuse nature with culture. Biological species-formation always takes place in a single population; to claim that various prehuman populations became human in different places is to recognize the specificity of human cultural origin and to deny it with the same breath. If a theory of this sort nonetheless became established, it would be incompatible with the uniqueness of the originary event, although not with the overall thrust of the originary hypothesis.

The difference between anthropology as I understand it and natural science is that at its core the former depends on a mentalistic intuition of the human as understanding and creating meaning. Its faithfulness to this intuition makes GA not a new doctrine of positive anthropology, but a new way of thinking, neither social science nor humanistic interpretation, grounded on the minimal defining condition of humanity, the use of representations. GA‘s originary hypothesis is the first both to respect and to challenge on their own terrain religious doctrines of human origin, which remain the most powerful and universally influential. Religious thought insists on the specificity of the human, even if its postulation of transcendent figures and concepts makes it hard to find the minimal core of this specificity in our use of signs. Positive anthropology, in contrast, has been beating a retreat from foundational questions ever since the generation of Durkheim.

Even if human language began in ten places at once, even if its originary function was not the deferral of violence, the core of the hypothesis would remain: we could not have begun to use language unawares. Some, for example, would situate the origin of language in the interaction between mother and child. But can they constitute a plausible link from this intimate origin to the cultural activity of the community as a whole? Freud himself saw (in Totem and Taboo) the necessity of reconstructing the originary event. I invite Freudians to reflect for a moment whether one can explain the origin of human language and culture by observing the development of a child whose parents are already part of that culture.

When the intellectual community understands what is at stake in GA, it will not ask whether the originary hypothesis is falsifiable, but how human science has been able until now to resist formulating such an hypothesis. GA is a new way of thinking, but the challenge to which it responds is not of its own invention. Seen from its minimalist perspective, all previous modes of anthropological thought are founded on implicit hypotheses of origin. By making its own hypothesis explicit, GA acquires a rigor that adapts to the human world of meaning the real spirit of Popper’s criterion: the formulation of the most intellectually efficient hypothesis consonant with reality.

An explicit hypothesis of origin appears to many as a return to the naive absolutism of religious myths of origin that would prevent the circulation of cultural ideas essential to the generation of new degrees of freedom. But real diversity is not promoted by the refusal to see fundamental identities beneath superficial differences. Just as freedom is the consciousness of necessity, so diversity is the consciousness of identity. These paradoxical formulations pay tribute to the human power of thematization by means of signs. GA offers the first rigorous explanation of this paradoxicality that is the glory and the frustration of our never-ending enterprise of self-understanding.