The Generative Anthropology Society and Conference has now concluded its eleventh annual meeting, something few of us would have anticipated when Andrew Bartlett organized the first “GA Thinking Event” in Vancouver ten years ago. I will provide in the near future the text of my talk, focused on What Did Jesus Mean? by the Polish-Australian semanticist Anna Wierzbicka, and hope to put together shortly material for a dialogue with the stimulating and paradox-friendly ideas on narrative of keynote speaker William Flesch (see notably his Comeuppance, Harvard 2007). But first, a few words about the meeting as a whole and some thoughts that emerged from it.
To the extent that GA remains North America-based, meeting on other continents no doubt cuts into attendance. I counted only two Americans, Peter Goldman and myself. But this disadvantage is outweighed, it seems to me, by the increased outreach of GA among people who would otherwise not have heard of it, and who are, unlike the denizens of today’s American universities, not imbued with the prejudice that increasingly attaches not merely to what is “not PC” but to any mode of thinking not explicitly victimary.
Thus my first and delighted surprise was to note in the course of this conference the absence of the phobiaphobic language to which we have sadly become accustomed. No name-calling, no automatic denunciations of “capitalism”—this might be said to be expected at a GA conference or even at a Girardian one, but never have I witnessed to this extent the irrelevance of victimary thought. In contrast, my impression has been that, particularly since the Victoria conference in 2014, the seriousness of the general engagement with GA’s core ideas has slowly but steadily increased. As the essence of GA has become clearer in my own mind, it has slowly manifested itself in these conferences, notably by the diminution, although by no means the absence, of “geopolitical” references to GA and mimetic theory as the intellectual equivalent of great powers that must be reconciled to avoid conflict.
To the extent that GA is indeed a “new way of thinking,” its adoption can be justified only by a genuine crisis in the old ways. But GA’s job is to convince its potential public of its positive benefit to self-understanding, not to insist on the weakness of the competition.
To the end of clarifying the place of GA in our intellectual scheme of things, it now seems to me necessary to situate it with regard not merely to science and religion, but to philosophy. The secondary status of philosophy in GA’s self-consciousness reflects a necessary element in its foundation, the product of Girard’s important intuition that religion rather than philosophy is humanity’s primary source of self-understanding. But I have come to understand that merely situating GA on the cusp between science and religion so that God-creates-man and man-creates-God are balanced so to speak on its knife-edge does not supply a sufficient justification for preferring the speculative nature of GA’s hypothesis to the more concrete-appearing models provided by paleontology and the other human sciences.
There is no need to spend time on a systematic critique of these models, whose eventless gradualism is self-evident. Social scientists turn away from the speculative scenario of our “minimal hypothesis” on the ground that their own gradualist scenarios are self-evidently more minimal. The fact that they demonstrate no significant boundary-crossing and consequently utterly fail to explain the origin of human language, even when tacitly admitted, is taken as a proof of their Ockhamian virtue.
It has become clear to me that the dichotomy between religion, which posits the prior existence of what may call the human pour-soi, and science, in which this pour-soi is ignored and human language and culture hypothesized to emerge as a by-product of our “cognitive” progress, is too wide to be breached as such. The insertion of GA’s way of thinking into the gap can only be done by contrasting it with philosophy, whose prior concern with the pour-soi and everything it provides, with the paradoxical but necessary exception of language which in fact is its own source, has long established it as independent of both religion and human science.
Philosophy, the “queen of the sciences,” is not habituated to being opposed by an alternative mode of thought, as are religion, founded on faith, and science, founded on empirical evidence supplemented by logico-mathematical calculation. Philosophy, in contrast, is founded on “reason,” and endlessly debates its own foundations, which can never be reduced to the simply “natural” and dealt with through the processes of “natural science”—even when, as with Materialism, this is a particular philosophy’s fundamental postulate. How then does it help to clarify the situation of GA with respect to science and religion to contrast it with philosophy?
Scientific models do not have the purpose of explaining why reality is what it is, but merely of predicting and retrodicting what occurs in it. However complex its epistemology may appear from within, from without, science is simply oriented to this task of prediction. Hence the scientific method can be applied to human behavior as well as to that of animals, plants, and inanimate objects. The methods of human science since Durkheim treat human activity as productive of “social facts” analogous to the empirical data provided by natural phenomena, and are certainly not without predictive value.
Yet the scientific method cannot truly respect the difference between “free” human action and the activities of other living creatures, let alone of inanimate objects. Any result of a social-science study can in principle be made available to those whose behavior is being studied, permitting them to change their actions in consequence, a feedback beyond the scope of non-human beings. This is not necessarily a practical problem for social science. The opportunity of changing one’s behavior on the basis of a scientific conclusion is on the contrary a sign of its potential usefulness; a study of smoking that discovers a correlation between smoking and lung cancer may well lead to a welcome diminution in the number of smokers. It means nonetheless that science must remain incomplete unless it is able to model the emergence from “nature” of the feedback loop itself: the phenomenon of representation, and specifically, of language.
As I have shown via several examples (see e.g. Chronicles 519, 525, 528), recent “cognitive” social-science accounts of the origin of language are essentially nonsensical. Although we know that language is radically different from animal signaling, involves neurons in a different part of the brain, and is obviously a mode of communication rather than a mere deployment of cognitive activity, we are offered wholly gradualist models that either affirm or imply that language is a mere by–product of the superior cognitive abilities of the human brain. At best, specialists tell us that the increased troop size of proto-human societies makes language “necessary” for social control.
It seems that until some as yet unknown method can provide an empirical demonstration of something like GA’s originary hypothesis, the principle will remain that natura non facit salta, and the lack of a missing link between language and animal signaling will be taken as itself a sign of the wholly gradual, “Darwinian” nature of its emergence, like that of the eye from the light-sensitive invertebrate eye-spot.
The question then arises as to what category of thought GA’s originary hypothesis falls into. Is a wholly speculative scenario, however “minimal,” compatible with social science? Is not postulating a hypothetical event as the moment of emergence of a radical new phenomenon contrary to the core principle of scientific thought? Certainly the common judgment of social scientists who have been confronted by GA is that it is founded on a “myth” rather than an acceptable scientific hypothesis.
The progress of thought is not fueled by boundary disputes. My own judgment, that GA is indeed a new way of thinking, is confirmed at best negatively by these reactions. Yet I wonder if anyone would explicitly deny that the “accepted” explanations for the origin of representation, with its thorough remaking of human behavior and its natural surroundings, are wholly devoid of explanatory power.
At this point it might seem necessary to contrast the cultural phenomenon of religion, which explains language and all else by postulating a being external to the world (or somehow immanent in it) that “always already” possesses the otherwise exclusively human capacity for representation in a hyperbolic mode that permits not merely the creation of fictions but the creation of worlds. Social scientists are capable of theorizing the social benefits of religion, but their only explanations for its existence are of the a posteriori variety that explains things by the fact that they are already there. Claiming that we postulate god(s) to explain what we find inexplicable all too obviously depends on our prior conception of such beings: why indeed are we able to “postulate” anything? From Max Müller to Roy Rappaport, different thinkers have hypothesized the coeval emergence of language and religion, which in my view puts them on the right track, but in no case has there been a convincing account of how or why this happened. Before GA, that is.
Why then introduce philosophy into the religion-science opposition? Because tacitly it has been philosophy that has been allotted the task of reflecting on the unique characteristics of human consciousness that are associated with our capacity for representation, under the even more tacit condition that this consciousness not be understood as having a “natural” or biological origin that must somehow be scientifically explained, which could only be done through a theorization of the origin of language. From the outset, philosophy/metaphysics has taken the existence of mature, propositional language for granted. Philosophical/anthropological attempts at creating an “originary scene” of language, many of which I discussed in The Scenic Imagination from Hobbes to the Present Day (2007), have always been anthropologically naïve and marginal to the philosophical enterprise, and the greatest modern philosophers, such as Descartes, Kant, and Hegel, have left this subject to les philosophes.
By situating propositional language at the end of a hypothetical evolutionary history of its own, GA radically breaks with this tradition, and dares to consider the link between the “natural” and the “cultural” that (1) science cannot formalize because it has no way of distinguishing ontologically the cultural/representational from the rest of nature; (2) religion understands all too well but refuses to analyze further than attributing it to a preexistent representational-intentional consciousness; and finally (3) that philosophy analyzes in terms of the specificity of human consciousness (Sartre’s pour-soi as opposed to the natural en-soi) without concerning itself with the “worldly” question of the emergence of one from the other, that is, once more, of the origin of language.
“Radical” does not mean “true,” but the greatest truths can be grasped for the first time only by radical means. The origin of language is the origin of the human itself, and it can only be given its rightful place in the scheme of human thought by means of a new way of thinking that puts the emergence of scenic, representational communication and thinking at the originary center of all human thought.
I have been making this point in different ways since the publication of The Origin of Language in 1981, and I will continue to make it, hopefully with increasing clarity, until the end of my days. The Stockholm conference is one more step toward public recognition of GA, and I can only thank the participants for their open-mindedness toward this fundamental idea, which the “world” has so far been unwilling to take the trouble to understand. I owe my especial thanks to Marina Ludwigs for her personal loyalty and affection and for organizing a splendid conference with a stimulating variety of participants. I look forward to next year’s conference in Warsaw, hosted by Magdalena Złocka-Dąbrowska, as a further step in the right direction.