Why is it important to concern ourselves with the origin of the human? Is not the mission of human science to study humanity in its present reality, with all study of the past being merely of use in aiding us to understand the present? Why should we involve ourselves in speculation on what must remain a purely theoretical schema?
It is the aim of science to explain mysteries in rational terms. Instead of seeing the planets and the sun as gods, we measure and predict their movements; instead of assigning to God the creation of different living species, we attribute their variety to natural selection, then decipher the genetic code that explains the process in detail.
Yet the central mystery remains: the joint emergence, or “creation” if you like, of both man and God. Why do we have a god-concept in the first place? If we consider only the invention of language as of significance in understanding the emergence of humanity, we discover that there is no way to formulate the emergence of the linguistic sign in biological terms. Symbolic representation, the use of signs to provide socially shared representations of mental contents, is not a “biological” function in the sense that we may so describe physical perception. No doubt language is “useful” and can be understood as contributing to the “fitness” of those who use it, but that doesn’t explain how it came into existence.
Voltaire famously said Si Dieu n’existait pas, il fallait l’inventer, but how could we say this about language, since without language it could not even be said? Only if God and language are understood to the greatest extent possible as two facets of the same innovation—what I called in The Origin of Language the “formal” and the “institutional” components of the (first) sign—can we seek an intuitively satisfactory answer to this question. I do not claim that GA is the “final solution” to the question of “the existence of God” or of the “truth” of religion in general, but that it allows us for the first time to conceive as a plausible worldly event the originary establishment of the focal identity between the sacred and the significant in the originary referent of the first sign.
Which is another way of saying that the “mystery” of the sacred, which social science explains only from without in terms of its utility/selectability/fitness-enhancement, is not different in essence from the “mystery” of signification, of the sign. The simplest indication of this is that philosophers have always taken the existence of language for granted—and nowadays, when they do attempt to reflect on its origin, they have recourse to the speculations of social scientists who are generally ignorant of philosophy. Signs in the linguistic sense are not signals, they are not “instinctive,” and as Terrence Deacon pointed out years ago, are not even lodged in the same parts of the brain. Laughing and talking are two different kinds of activities. In contrast, it should be of interest that talking can be compared to praying, the simplest form of which is simply indicating ostensively the object of one’s worship. This is a simple enough conception, but it requires a willingness to accept the existence of the sacred on the same ontological plane as that of signification, and the prejudices of the scientific community make such acceptance very difficult. Reading Michael Tomasello’s discussion of religion and morality (see Chronicle 519) made me realize how fundamental the dismissal of religion is to the realm of cognitive research, where religious phenomena could only be seen to interfere with the “objective” study of the interactions of “real” beings, human, animal, and inanimate, despite the fact that the representations of which human culture is constructed are precisely not “real.”
I have no desire, let alone authority, to discourage research into the neurological mechanisms that are the physical correlates of thought. But the specific point at which the sign is born cannot be understood simply in terms of the individual brain. The event in which it is born is necessarily a collective epiphany that provides a heuristic model for all such scenic events in the future. The self-consciousness inherent in language is complementary to the attitude of worship as expressing faith in the harmony of the common consciousness that defers individual appropriation of the object of common desire. To understand this is to grasp the common basis of all the forms of thematization that occupy the scene of representation of human individuals.
That we fail to grasp this unity intuitively reflects our distance from our origin, notably including the revolution in thinking about nature that encompasses both the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. The point of GA is not to attempt to abolish this distance, but on the contrary, to sharpen our awareness of it, so that we do not fall into the common trap of simply dismissing the originary unity as either altogether lost or, more commonly, as having never had more than a mythical existence. That it is religious doctrine that preserves this unity where the sciences have evolved away from it is no reason to abandon “normal science” for such bastard constructions as “Creation Science” or “Intelligent Design.” But this fact should not be taken to absolve scientists of their obligation to integrate into their own discourse the human unity that religion has preserved. The essential point of GA is that we cannot do this by seeking to discover the empirical origin of this unity in “reality”; it can only be hypothesized and understood heuristically. Once this is done, the empirical study of the biological conditions of human origin can be reoriented to take the common scenic origin of language, religion, and the esthetic into account.
To think about a human origin that makes a place for religion gives social scientists a shock; at best, if they are believers in their personal lives, they respect the mystery of faith and then “bracket” it for the purposes of their professional activity. But really to take this requirement seriously would be, rather than to submit to whatever religious dogma one’s personal beliefs dictate, to understand that the origin of language is just as mysterious as that of religion. When in the first sentence of The Origin of Language I wrote, “Mysteries should not be multiplied beyond necessity,” the point was by no means to dismiss the difficulty, and ultimately the impossibility, of fully understanding this ontological transformation, but to give oneself the latitude to understand it insofar as human history has made this possible.
That I think that GA offers a more advanced mode of this understanding than the well-known social science formulations—and I take René Girard’s survival as a thinker, however it may be attributed to “theological” interest, as a sign of this—is a point that only “history” can guarantee. But, to shift gears a bit, it should be a source of concern rather than complacency that the depth of reflection on the human scene of representation that Western metaphysics has made possible—most exhaustively in Sartre’s admirably detailed analyses of the pour-soi, which seem outdated only because of their failure to understand the centrality of language—is utterly indigestible by the cognitive scientists who currently study language. No doubt each “field” has its “domain,” but perhaps it bears insisting that we are all—philosophers, linguists, cognitive scientists, anthropologists, including generative anthropologists—seeking to understand the foundations of the human, and the fact that religion on the one hand and metaphysics on the other are simply put aside as “unscientific,” as though they were relevant only to calculating the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin, is not a sign of liberation from superstition, but of tunnel vision. No doubt we need not study alchemy as a prelude to studying chemistry; but unlike the case of the natural world, an intuition of the human itself, authentic but resisting full conceptualization, has always been accessible to the human mind. We cannot stand outside our own understanding to think about ourselves, and however much our current anthropological ideas are improvements over those elaborated in the Bible, our self-knowledge depends on respecting rather than denying this impossibility.
None of this implies that we need give credence to the idea that the world was created in 4004 BC. But such assertions, still common, and necessary to refute, in the 19th century, are no longer on the table in the 21st. What is important about religion from an anthropological standpoint is not the explanations furnished by religious doctrines for natural events, including the event of the origin of the human, but the ostensive content of religious activity as a whole. Narratives such as that in Genesis 1 are important not for the “facts” they give about the history of the universe (although we may admire the overall accuracy of the evolutionary stages it describes), but for the importance given to the act of creation itself. It is well and good to qualify God the Creator as “mythical,” but in doing so one should not pass over the fact that the event of origin is attributed to the enunciation of a Subject. It is not simply that language creates the world, but that the origin of the (human) world and the first emission of language occur simultaneously.
None of this would be very convincing if it were not possible to construct an originary hypothesis to suggest how the first word, which is also in effect the first prayer, might have taken place. As opposed to the countless attempts to get from A to B by reiterating over and over how one gets from A to a slightly better version of A, like stretching out a line indefinitely in the hope it will evolve into a plane, our hypothesis offers a model of how an appropriative, “instinctual” gesture can be transformed in an event into a formal, deliberate one through the action of deferral, motivated by the same fear that makes us reluctant to take the last piece of cake.
Frustrating as it may be to have said pretty much all this 35 years ago, I do feel that focusing on the originary identity of language and religion in the past few Chronicles is a kind of breakthrough, and not merely because many readers of these Chronicles have a considerable interest in religion, whether or not mediated through familiarity with the person or thought of the late René Girard. Because we have been living “the Enlightenment” for 200 years, we have forgotten that liberating ourselves from the yoke of religious dogma, however important this may once have been, is not the equivalent of explaining the importance of religion for human culture. The puerile titles of a decade ago, God Is Not Great, The God Delusion, j’en passe et des meilleurs, are signs of a frustration that is the reflux of Enlightenment liberation. As I have said many times about Creation Science, however silly it may be in itself, its existence is surely a sign that there is a human truth in religion’s depiction of the scene of creation that has escaped the rational-scientific crowd. This truth certainly does not imply that we need to abandon Darwin for Genesis, and if evolutionary theory needs to be tweaked, it is surely not in the direction of Intelligent Design. But the truth is there all the same.
My point is not that religion and language are “the same.” But they are both parts of the same fundamental phenomenon, that of a human consciousness that uses signs to link it with other consciousnesses. Perhaps a useful formula might be that language and human representation in general is the “practical” aspect of religion. Communal worship may have been the most urgent matter at the origin, where the new human “culture” was indispensable in permitting these mimetically gifted creatures to assure their survival by adopting a more violence-deferring form of social organization, but as the centuries went by, more rational modes of organization made it possible to use language to understand the natural world rather than merely keep the peace among ourselves.
But the key point to retain while devoting the bulk of our activity to constructing the natural world on the one hand and attempting to keep the peace on the other is that none of these more developed uses of representation would have been possible without the revolutionary transformation effected by the use of the first sign. To defer the instinctual act (rather than be “conditioned” in the Pavlovian sense to “inhibit” it) is to free oneself from instinct, and the peaceful space thus opened, at first presumably only a crack, but a crack into a space that had heretofore not existed, is where all truly human activity takes place.
Why our cognitive scientists are unable even to conceive of the necessity for this kind of reflection, when philosophers have been reflecting on human consciousness for millennia—and I still recommend Sartre’s discussion of the pour-soi at the beginning of L’être et le néant for making clear that freedom is a characteristic not of the “soul” in some general sense but of the scene of consciousness—is only a demonstration of the narrow-mindedness that comes from an understanding of human consciousness as simply an improved version of animal perception and signaling. The scientists know, of course, that this is not so, but anything that smacks of mystery, even if its purpose is to avoid the “multiplication” of mysteries, must be avoided. And so the origin of the sign remains ever mysterious. Or did until thirty-five years ago.