In recent years a number of writers have attracted a good deal of attention by promoting atheism and denigrating religion, while others have defended religion’s contribution to civilization, morality, etc. One’s eyes glaze over recalling the banality of these “debates.” Although many easy shots are available on either side, the preponderance obviously lies with the atheists. Once one accepts the generally uncontested notion that language is in essence propositional, all statements must follow the law of the excluded middle and be either true, false, or meaningless. “The cat is on the mat” can only be assessed once we know which mat and cat are being referred to. Since statements about God and other scriptural personae cannot be thus evaluated, they may therefore be dismissed as at best, “poetical.”
The understandable desire to defend the religious domain against such wholesale dismissal often leads, by way of riposte, to an aggressive irrationalism. Thus in the December 23, 2013Wall Street Journal, in a review of Jay Parini’s Jesus, Barton Swaim, with apologies to the near-canonized C. S. Lewis, writes, “Either the New Testament Gospels are true or they are collections of precious fables. There is no third option.” When you read about Jesus raising Lazarus or being resurrected from the dead, either it’s a fairy-tale “legend,” or IT REALLY HAPPENED. Swaim understandably leaves unsaid that, if this argument is true, there is no particular reason, one’s own faith aside, to limit it to the New Testament. Either God created the world in six days or the Old Testament authors were liars or madmen, too. Not to mention the transmitters of the uncreated Koran.
A few thinkers have sensed the inadequacy of this view of language, although their discussions have been partial at best. Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos (2013) is a disappointing book that questions the “dogma” of Darwinian evolution but has nothing to say about human language as such—see Chronicle 444. Bruno Latour’s far more interesting Jubiler (2002), although insightful about the specificity of religious language, does not situate it in a general anthropological context.
What is language for, anyway? It seems that only we GAniks understand the originary purpose of human language. In our view, language, as readers of these Chronicles know, was not invented so people could say “the cat is on the mat” or “the food is over the hill” or “2+3=5” or “grass is green” or even “Right face!” GA hypothesizes that language was invented/discovered by a group of (proto-)humans who, faced with a universally desirable object, found that as a result of the increasingly powerful (and therefore mimetic) human brain, the old pecking-order animal hierarchy was becoming inadequate to prevent violence. Presumably after many false starts, they discovered that by designating the object via a sign that defers its appropriation, they could prevent it from becoming a focus of the contentious convergence of appetites, and thereby bring about its peaceful distribution. In this view, the original purpose of language,which remains its principal purpose today, is not to “tell the truth” but to defer conflict. But to lessen intra-group violence by creating a space in which attention to the sign permits the deferral of action does more than merely increase the time and energy available for peaceful, constructive pursuits. It provides individuals with an internal scene of representation, a mental laboratory in which they can conceive ideas before implementing them. It is indeed the compatibility between the fundamental purpose of language and the practical pursuits of life, for which such a laboratory provides a precious resource, that make it understandable that language, the tool employed to generate more peaceful time for these activities, will be turned as well to improving, via the exchange of information, their practical performance.
Nothing in this conception of language is particularly shocking, and yet it is incompatible with the common view of language, first formulated explicitly by Parmenides, as primarily a truth-telling device—contrasted with its profane use in the “way of opinion,” most notoriously at the hands of those who, for a fee, would “make the worse cause appear the better.” Despite all the foregrounding of language since WWII, or indeed since Frege and Russell, the anthropological heart of language has never been explored by philosophers. The “linguistic turn” no doubt gave language a new salience where for classical philosophy it was essentially invisible. The pre-classical interest in language by such as Hobbes and Locke shortly before Condillac and Herder actually proposed anthropological models of language origin never impinged on the metaphysical-philosophical discourse of “truth,” which presupposed that language was a transparent instrument by means of which thought found its “expression” and communication to others. “Cogito ergo sum” was expressed in language, but it was not about language. Modern analytic philosophy, unlike metaphysical philosophy and its post-metaphysical Continental prolongations, takes an interest in how language operates in the real world, most famously in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, but neither author touches on the non-cognitive foundation of language that uniquely defines the human itself.
Harry Frankfurt’s notion of BS, discussed in Chronicle 429 a propos of antisemitism, offers a useful point of connection between the world of philosophy and that of GA. The very fact that a Princeton professor names his subject with an obscenity suggests that we are touching here on a “dirty little secret” of language. Frankfurt’s idea is a simple one. Lying and even the half-truths of rhetoric are directly connected to truth-telling: to lie is to know the truth and assert its contrary; to use rhetoric is generally to pretend to a certitude that the facts of the case fail to justify. Speaking BS is distinct from these forms of real or spurious truth-telling; it consists in making statements while remaining indifferent to their truth-value, in telling the audience what it presumably wants to hear, not what either the audience or the speaker considers verifiably true. It is not the least interest of this concept that it sounds perfectly banal in its initial description, yet it touches on the essence of language in a way that the insights of analytic philosophy from Frege to Austin and Kripke do not.
Frankfurt’s basic example is a weary politician on the fourth of July who spouts a series of comforting patriotic clichés. I don’t find this a terribly good example, because the status of these clichés varies, and an American politician, however cynical, is very likely to believe at least some of them—and some are indeed very likely to be true. But the point is that his choice of words is dictated by what he thinks his audience wants and expects to hear, and that is the core definition of BS. BS might be considered a kind of zero degree of rhetoric; its purpose is not to persuade, which involves the implicit transmission of truth-values (however illogically arrived at) and in consequence, the promotion of practical decisions (purchasing products, convicting or acquitting defendants, voting for a candidate), but to comfort prejudices already held, and even to entertain the hearer with ideas that are “amusing” precisely because one doesn’t have to worry about whether they are really true—alien abductions, anyone? This category in fact includes, albeit in a slyly frivolous mode, the most important cultural uses of language, those of religious and esthetic texts.
“Telling your audience what they want to hear” may be the originary purpose of language, but it cannot well be the point of departure for a discussion of the structures of language, since it has no specific relation to any of its elements: lexicon, syntax, phonology. If the Independence Day politician changes the order of his sentences, or even fails to make complete sentences at all, the implication is that truth not being of interest, so long as his discourse remains at all intelligible, the syntax that captures it can just as well be forgotten. Indeed, the language of advertising, a form of rhetoric with considerable affinities with BS, has increasingly taken the form of a series of nominal slogans rather than, as for example in prewar magazine ads, an expository discourse composed of meaningful propositions.
The key limitation of the concept of BS is that its deliberately humble register reflects the unexamined assumption that its discourse is a depreciated, inferior sort of language, the legitimate model of which is the proposition, whose declarative syntax implies the moral responsibility of “telling the truth” about its content. If the cat isn’t really on the mat, you are, at the very least, doing something slightly obscene.
In The Origin of Language, I derived the syntactical forms of language from the configuration of the hypothetical originary event, starting with the ostensive as the first linguistic sign. In deriving the other forms—imperative, interrogative, declarative—from the original ostensive, it was simpler to situate their emergence in a “profane” context than a ritual one, for essentially the same reason that the declarative proposition is generally accepted as the basic linguistic form: in a worldly context, sentences can be given a truth value. Clearly even if language begins, as we must assume, in a collective, proto-ritual context, it eventually becomes adapted to the non-ritual environment its action-deferring role was instrumental in creating. But although syntactical patterns are important in themselves independently of the secular or ritual context in which they may have evolved, speculation about which only adds an unneeded element of uncertainty to the discussion, trying to understand what language is for obliges us to rethink this syntactical derivation in terms of language’s originary focus on “the name of God.” This is particularly true given the analogous connection (of which I became aware well after the publication of The Origin of Language in 1981) between the “liberation” of the declarative sentence and both of the intellectual-cultural developments that gave birth to “Western civilization”: Hebrew monotheism and Greek metaphysics. (See Science and Faith and “Plato and the Birth of Conceptual Thought,” Anthropoetics 2, 2 [January 1997].)
As a departure from the originary ostensive, we may understand the imperative in the originary context as a prayer addressed to the central divinity; if the sign designates the central figure, then the use of the sign in the figure’s absence “mimetically” reestablishes the scenic configuration and so to speak makes the divinity reappear. No doubt this is only true as a limiting case, since the potential appetitive satisfaction supplied by the central object cannot be replaced by a sign; in sacrificial ritual, the presence of a (normally edible) incarnation of the sacred being is indispensable. But the possession of the sign in the absence of this being makes possible the attempt to call on it to inhabit this incarnation, or simply to make its (invisible) presence known by the power of deferral that, in anthropological terms, it derives from, or in theological terms, imposes on, the collective force of mimetic desire.
If we then extend this originary context to the derivation of the declarative from the “failed imperative,” as outlined in The Origin of Language, the declarative becomes a predication of, and in its further discursive elaboration, a story told about the divinity. But be it a sentence or a Homeric epic, such a story is in its originary essence an account of the divinity’s absence from here.
Let us discuss this syntactical progression in greater detail. If we begin with the originary event, the central object is designated by a sign that, once the object itself has been divided up and eaten, no longer has a worldly referent, yet remains as a reminder of the group’s peaceful exchange, now reinforced by what we presume was a successful division and subsequent meal. This sacrificial scene may be assimilated to the aftermath of a Girardian “emissary murder” and its embodiment in myth by simply noting the transition in the use of the originary sign from real to imaginary ostensivity. For Girard, myth is presumed to recount the story of the conversion through death of the emissary victim into a divinity—a story of sacrifice, of murder as transfiguration. But whether or not embodied in a (human) emissary victim, the sacred is the referent of a sign. To put it more directly: the sacred is what can only be referred to by a sign.This is a necessary transitional phase to the imperative use of the sign. Before the imperative function of calling-for or –to could have taken hold, use of the sign without its referent must have served as a way of recalling the originary configuration.
In this same context, the declarative would be the result of the failure of the imperative to make present the sacred referent. Insofar as this originary being could be considered as reincarnated in, for example, a new edible animal that would become the object of a sacrifice, or in originary terms, a new sparagmos, the imperative would be “successful”; lacking this new presence, the answer to the call to the divine being would be made in language, as a predication about it.
The important contrast between this “originary” use of declarative predication and that involved in truth-telling is that in the ritual or, to use a term from TOOL, “institutional” context, the declaratives situating the sacred central figure are necessarily unverifiable. The origin of propositional language is not fact-reporting but storytelling. The “mythical” transformation of the sacrificial victim into a divinity cannot be reduced to the act of disguising (méconnaissance) a real murder—unless we are willing to understand “murder” as “transfiguration” rather than, as Girard proposes, the other way around. The sacralization of the central object, which precedes its division and consumption, is effected by the sign, not by any aggressive action, even if such action preceded the emission of the sign. But in any event, the transfiguration of the real being by its sacred status is the original purpose of declarative predication. The outcome of the story, however satisfactory in the ritual context, which presumably ends with the sparagmos and feast that satisfies all appetites (often not excluding the sexual), is in the first place the result of using language to create an imaginary scene that cannot be assimilated to the observable present.
This derivation of the declarative, sketchy as it is, gives Frankfurt’s notion of BS its patent of nobility. The source of what Frankfurt refers to with his secretly admirative term is originally sacred, which is why it is designated by a “curse word” (to curse in French is sacrer), and above all why it cannot be verified like the location of an everyday cat on an everyday mat. To take an interest in such mundane realities, language must become subject to what I call in TOOL the “lowering of the threshold of significance,” that is, a lowering of the mimetic temperature to the point at which language is no longer reserved for explicitly sacred occasions.
This has been, of course, the case ever since. But the origin of language in a sacred rather than a profane context has permanent repercussions that can be forgotten without ceasing to operate. In religion, in the first place, but also in art, which even the strictest logical positivists are permitted to enjoy so long as they accept to be entertained by “nonsensical” language and other representations. (Indeed, arts other than those of language, being of necessity more material and less formal, are even less concerned with fulfilling a “truth-function”—the plastic arts—or indeed have none at all, as is the case with instrumental music.)
* * *
How GA’s insight into language’s origin and essence can contribute to the “debates” between atheism and religion, science and the humanities is a subject I will pursue in one or more future Chronicles.