Thinking about the material world is monistic; thinking about the human is dualistic. Our dualism is monism deferred; the transcendent overlay of representation shields us from the mimetic conflict generated in the material world of appetite. To espouse dualism is to claim an ontological realm for the sign, as I did in the previous Chronicle on transcendence. And certainly the human is indissociable from the transcendent realm of representation. Yet as we use signs and representations, we still inhabit the world of things, and the Forms or Ideas we postulate can subsist only as inscribed in material reality. We can assert the independence of the world of ideas from the material one only so long as we survive in the latter, nor have we any guarantee that even the most peaceful and technically advanced human society can prevent the cosmos from returning to a prehuman state.
The transcendent ontology of the sign is not a supernatural addition to the material world but a supplement that humanity invents or discovers in inventing or discovering itself as the species that can avert self-destruction only by constituting itself as a community. I need not repeat here the details of the originary hypothesis, whose core, as must always be emphasized, is nothing but the affirmation that there was indeed an originary event in which the “transcendent” or “vertical” realm of signs emerged to defer potential mimetic violence. This moment signals the transition from appetitive mimesis to mimetic desire, which is coeval with the sign that designates its object as belonging to the transcendent universe of the sacred.
It does not suffice to lay to rest the issue of monism vs. dualism to claim that if the second layer of the dualist ontology can be shown to derive from the first, then there is really only one mode of being. Our very ability to raise the question exemplifies the emancipation of the world of representation from the material causality of the natural world. The impossibility of finding an independent criterion to establish whether this world deserves its own ontological status is the equivalent of a Kantian antinomy. Indeed, it is the anthropological basis for Kant’s antinomies, which all ultimately concern the human relationship to transcendence.
Philosophy proper begins with the doctrine of Ideas, the ontological endorsement of transcendence. Plato created his “new way of thinking” because he realized that although the real world is always with us, it is the transcendent world of representations that makes us human. The early pre-Socratics reflected on reality as though it simply embodied categories of thought. It is charitable to view their speculations on the composition of the universe (Water? Fire? Earth, Air, Fire, and Water?) as primitive scientific hypotheses; they are better understood as attempts to reduce the universe to one or more concepts. Heraclitus and Parmenides raise the issue of the contrast between the permanence of concepts/Ideas and their changing worldly content, resulting in some provocative projections of the human condition onto nature (“war is the father of all things”), but their notions of “being” and “non-being,” “truth” and “opinion” do not belong to a conceptual realm shared with one’s fellow citizens. Unlike the concepts that provide the material for Socrates’ endless discussions, the “way of truth” as the object of Parmenides’ oracular vaticinations cannot be reasoned about by those who participate in the linguistic community’s collective self-understanding. Socrates and Plato begin the praxis of philosophy proper, the analysis of our common use of words or “ideas” as a privileged anthropological means of understanding “being.” The Ideas, all avatars of the Good, exist in language, not in the technical sense in which it is viewed by linguistics, but as our primary instrument of survival in a world where our instincts no longer suffice. Unlike Aristotle, Kant, or Hegel, Socrates was not concerned with producing a systematic understanding of the cultural and/or natural universe. The limits of Plato’s own “system” are those of the idealized political order of the Republic; the Good is that of the polis, the highest form of social organization he could conceive.
The goal of philosophical reflection is to understand how the individual member of the community can come to experience the Good, which is that of the community as a whole. By elucidating our universal agreement on the words that define our ethical norms, philosophy seeks to demonstrate that the harmony of the originary scene remains the truth of human existence, just as the task of religion is to maintain the same certitude through the ritual reproduction of the scene. In contrast with Durkheim’s sacred, whose projection of communal values is experienced by the individual as an alien power, philosophy attempts to show that, rightly considered, these values are those of the individual members of society as well, and that what appear to be their selfish interests are illusory. As I pointed out in “Plato and The Birth of Conceptual Thought”, in Socrates’ argument against Callicles in the Gorgias, repeated with variation in the Republic and elsewhere, Plato denies the indexical nature of the concept “good” (good-for-me is not equivalent to good-for-you) in favor of a transcendent concept of the Good, which he understands to be ipso facto prior to all individual “goods,” just as the peaceful order of the society as a whole is prerequisite to our own self-interest. This priority of the community contrasts with the philosophical reconstructions of the originary scene in the Enlightenment as a “social contract” among independent individuals, as well as with John Rawls’ “original position,” which begins with a collection of individuals wholly dependent on the community for their welfare but not for their individuality itself.
The political connotations of monism and dualism are respectively radical and conservative. Marxists oppose “scientific” materialist monism to the “idealist” ideologies of the ruling class. Tracing the purportedly universal rules of morality to their origin in material practices reveals them as briefs for the ruling class’ control of the means of production. In contrast, although dualism does not necessarily support the status quo, it habitually affirms a moral universality not grounded in specific social relations (including production relations) but inherent in the transcendent world of signs/Ideas itself. Minimally, dualism attributes to the sign-world an independent, immaterial essence; but a purely formal dualism—such as an ontology derived from Saussure’s cours—would only postpone the critical ethical question of the status of signs for us, which is ultimately the question of their origin.
Although the argument between monism and dualism ostensibly deals with ontology in the broadest sense, there is a clear connection between radical monism of the Marxist variety and radical egalitarianism. Beginning with the originary exchange of signs, our use of language demonstrates the fundamental ethical equality of all humans even when the difference of the sacred center is used to guarantee the various forms of social hierarchy. To deny the independent status of signs is to deny that of the sacred, hence to denounce what purports to be the sacred voice of the community as the conscious or unconscious instrument of a particular group. In contrast, to grant transcendent status to the sign-world is to affirm its ultimate independence from specific interests even when on occasion it defends them.
In the place of the ontological split between ideas and things, Marxism introduces within the domain of ideas, conceived as reflections of material practices, a quasi-ontological opposition between the truth of proletarian thought, which anticipates that of a future classless humanity, and the ideology of the ruling classes. False ideas are “secreted” by the exploitative practices of the possessors of the means of production, whereas the value-creating praxis of the proletariat is the source of scientific objectivity. The objective truth supposedly embodied in the proletariat is functionally identical with the Platonic Idea of the Good that transcends all individual interests. Materialism thus provides the same guarantee of human solidarity as Durkheim’s sacred, the difference being that Marxism claims that no transcendence is necessary because the interests of the proletariat—revus et corrigés by the “vanguard party”—coincide with those of society as a whole. For radical monism on the Marxist model, the human periphery requires no sacred center; the only significant difference is class difference, a necessary evil during the “unfree” portion of history that will one day be abolished. The monist vision is bound to end in an apocalypse unless, as in the far more abstract and cosmological vision of “process theology,” it situates the ultimate dissolution of differences at an infinite point in the future.
Dualism, in contrast, accepts a permanent split in the nature of things; even Fall and future redemption do not abolish the difference between the human and the divine. It understands transcendence as a unique dual relationship rather than the Hegelian Aufhebung that supplies the motor for the Marxist apocalypse. Hegel’s monism is all about transcendence, but a transcendence that makes no ontological distinction between signs and things, the cosmological and the anthropological. If transcendence is everywhere, then the specificity of the transcendence accomplished by human representation is obscured. It is difficult to determine precisely at what moment representation enters the “phenomenology of the spirit,” but the best choice is the no doubt most obvious: the familiar master-slave dialectic in Chapter IV A of the Phenomenology. As I noted in The Scenic Imagination, this is the one moment in all of Hegel that approaches the drama of an originary scene, including the threat and fear of death.
Dualist ontology is inherent in anthropology in our sense because its highest priority is maintaining the human community, guaranteed or not by the sacred, as a specific entity connected by representation and no longer equivalent to the sum of its individual members. In contrast, cosmology is monistic; the cosmos cannot reasonably be said to depend on the existence of the human community. When cosmology is taken to exceed anthropology as the truth of the universe of which we are but a small part, to grant representation a separate ontological category would be the functional expression of belief in a world-soul.
What the originary hypothesis adds to the age-old debate between monism and dualism is a concrete, plausible motivation of the link between the transcendental sign-world and the human community. The exchange of signs on the periphery of the originary scene generates the human community as directing its attention—its representations—to the sacred center. What makes these creatures human is that there exists for them a sphere of reality beyond appetite and the self-interest defined by it.
Condillac’s children begin to speak in order to communicate their individual deprivations. GA’s originary humans begin to speak in order to communicate their communal deprivation, which, because it is shared and communicated, is also the promise of future fulfillment. When we share the communal feast, our nourishment is simultaneously spiritual and physical. Yet the Christian doctrine of transubstantiation reminds us that there is no natural transition from matter to spirit, that the transformation of one into the other is wrought, whether by God or man, within the transcendent world of signs.