Having come to the end of this second edition of The Origin of Language (TOOL), the reader may wonder whether taking up this “new way of thinking” based on the originary hypothesis is worth the trouble. Why should the intellectual world reject its current division of labor, evolved over generations, that leaves the question of human origins, including that of language as only one of humanity’s many distinctive components (opposable thumb, bipedalism, neoteny, “aquatic ape”…), to empirical scientists, whether paleontologists, neuroscientists, primate ethologists, laboratory psychologists, or of course, linguists, while the more abstract aspects of human consciousness that can be systematized by some kind of logic are left to philosophers?
Generative anthropology (GA) is the creation of a humanist, and it is no accident that until now it has interested virtually only humanists. Yet all who are concerned with understanding what is specific to humanity should have an interest in this “new way of thinking” (see A New Way of Thinking, Aurora, Colo.: Davies Group, 2011) that offers a framework for the productive synthesis of empirical anthropology with religion and philosophy. This is not the kind of quasi-philosophical mish-mash known as “French theory,” which despite its great intellectual creativity disdained to construct rigorous systems of thought. For as Jacques Derrida, its greatest exponent, made clear, its purpose was de-construction, the undoing of the metaphysical dogma of the objective reality of the philosophical proposition, the declarative sentence, while affirming nevertheless that nothing else could be put in its place.
The framework offered by GA is not a magical synthesis of previous modes of thought, but a scenario that provides a plausible path from “nature” to “culture.” Let me give one simple but potent example: that of Jean-Paul Sartre’s distinction between the pour-soi and the en-soi, an “existentialist” elaboration of Hegel’s distinction between the an sich and the für sich. L’être et le néant consists of a long and intricate analysis of the specificity of human consciousness. One would think that this analysis, in a book of over 900 pages, might be of interest not just to philosophers and “historians of ideas” but to anyone concerned with the specific difference between humans and the higher animals. The latter can “ape” human behavior but cannot be taught language, let alone taught to teach it to their young, and they lack all but the most rudimentary degree of the facility for (triadic) joint attention that permits us to communicate by exchanging representations.
Yet frustratingly, Sartre’s depiction of the pour-soi, although referring pointedly to negation, which Sartre explicitly recognizes as dependent on language, makes no direct reference to linguistic communication, let alone to the question of its origin. As in all metaphysics, the declarative sentence is tacitly understood to have existed from eternity, as it presumably existed for God when he gave his “name” as “I am what/that I am.” Without this, he could not have begun the world with the imperative, “Let there be light!” Or as John later put it, In the beginning was the Logos, which is less the Word than the Sentence, although the genius of Christianity is to understand nonetheless that the Word comes first.)
But when one situates Sartre’s formulations within the scenario of the originary hypothesis, although they lose nothing of their philosophical rigor, they gain immensely in concreteness. Sartre’s pour-soi is a scene of consciousness internal to the human mind, the locus of the separation between the mind and the thought-objects that it contemplates, but one that can only be understood as reflecting an earlier, communal scene of separation.
I doubt if Derrida ever imagined that this scene could provide the archetype of what he called deferral, la différance. This is another French-theory term that, as they say, has made flow a great deal of ink because it seems to correspond to nothing in everyday experience; yet nothing is more banal than the uniquely human phenomenon of stepping back from our potentially appetitive relationship with objects in order to contemplate and think about them, and vocally or tacitly share our impressions with the rest of our species.
The scenario of the originary hypothesis, whatever its accuracy in portraying “how it really was” when humans first emerged as speaking creatures, allows us to situate the birth of the pour-soi and triadic joint attention in a plausible scenario in which the motivations of the proto-human actors and their invention/discovery of the sign is explained as motivated by the need to prevent/defer violence. Both Sartre’s mysterious néant as well as the Derridean notion of différance are given the same simple worldly counterpart. I challenge any other mode of thought to thus make “philosophical,” that is, metaphysical concepts, accessible to the anthropological imagination.
The integration of religious discourse into the anthropological context, building on the insights of René Girard, is perhaps of even greater importance. GA allows believers and non-believers alike to acquire an anthropological understanding of not just “the religious” in the Durkheimian sense of the domain of communal as opposed to individual values, but of the sacred in its originary manifestation. Rejecting the trivialization of religion in recent years (God Is Not Good, The God Delusion…), GA situates the god-creates-man/man-creates-god dichotomy at our hypothetical point of origin, granting to both sides an equivalent understanding of the anthropological issues involved. By following Ockham’s razor and minimizing the parameters that define the human, GA thus opens the door to a creative synthesis of the domains of anthropology, philosophy, and religion, as well as the humanistic “French” theory that has somewhat haphazardly attempted to synthesize them.
One hears a great deal nowadays about a “post-human” era, whether inhabited by humans with digitally enhanced bodies and brains or by cyborgs who will have replaced us as the world’s dominant “species,” as they have become the world’s best chess and now Go players. GA’s understanding of our relationship to language allows us to clear up some of the confusion surrounding this subject.
The human scene of representation, in inaugurating a wholly new mode of intraspecific communication, cannot be understood simply as a feature of the individual human mind. It is easy to show that the absurdity of the currently fashionable ideas concerning language origin stems from their failure to take its communal aspect into account—for example, the solipsistic notion that we begin to speak because we have “ideas” that we want to “communicate,” as though, given a certain level of neuronal complexity, “ideas” can spring up by themselves even without the means to communicate them.
It would be foolish today, in what is still the infancy of the cybernetic era, to assign limits to the future accomplishments of artificial intelligence. But the Girardian thesis that it is the deferral of human violence that is the critical factor in the origin of language suggests that our fears that machines may acquire the ambition of conquering the world are merely projections of the real dangers of our own violence. Suspecting computers of wanting to do away with us, as though some kind of Darwinian process independent of human will would drive their “evolution” in this direction, allows us to forget that well before any such thing became remotely conceivable, human beings bent on conquest and/or destruction will be able to command programmable machines to carry out their desires. We are already on the verge of being able to create robot-drone armies whose programmed aggressiveness needs no secretly emerging robot DNA. If we can find a way to survive the next century or two, I think we can be sure that our fears of robot take-overs, even more than those of apocalyptic “climate change,” will no longer be at the forefront of our preoccupations.
The ultimate criterion of a valid anthropology, using this term in the most general sense, is its ability to enhance our ethical self-understanding. This is not a matter of seeking a Pollyannish formula to transform our vale of tears into a realm of sweetness and light. But adding the ethical insight of GA to those supplied by history’s great religious revelations will in the current state of affairs enhance our ability to combat the victimary dogma that has largely taken over the ethical consciousness of the educated classes in Europe and increasingly in the US. It is not a matter of countering “lies” with “truth,” but of proposing a better model of human behavior that has some chance of persuading those of the victimary faith to begin to doubt its commandments.
GA is not a “philosophy of the Right.” It accepts as the basis of all moral thinking the primordiality of the moral model that understands humanity as founded on the reciprocal exchange of signs on the originary scene, an exchange that gives us our intuition of moral equality. The Left has committed many crimes both before and since attaining its modern self-consciousness in the French Revolution, but the reason that these crimes never arouse the same opprobrium as the excesses of the Right, so that Russia’s and China’s mass murderers have escaped their Nuremberg trials, is that the Left’s often hypocritical egalitarianism nonetheless has its roots in our moral intuition, whereas dogmas of racial superiority, however they may appeal to those on the winning side, strike us as simply evil. Whence the horror that ensues when our scruples are overcome and we learn not merely to murder millions of human beings in good conscience but to consider these others as something less than human.
The horror of the Holocaust is clearly enough the origin of the victimary ethic that has only grown stronger as memories of the war have faded, and this because it increasingly seems to provide an answer to all the problems of “inequality” that face humanity today, perhaps more urgently than ever now that poor people are increasingly able to live well enough to resent those who live better.
GA allows us to understand that what keeps the victimary alive is that it offers a comforting explanation, however absurd, of the “digital divide” that is increasingly creating a gulf between those who are able to educate themselves to manipulate symbols skillfully and those who cannot. (See, for example, Chronicles 484 and 541.) I suggest that this division is a new phenomenon in human history, not because it makes manual labor increasingly less valuable, but because it challenges for the first time the moral model of universal human equality by putting into question our common ability to reciprocally exchange signs.
It goes without saying that in the past, differences of symbolic competence were far greater than today: most people were simply illiterate. But such differences could be explained by social conditions: a peasant would not expect to be educated like a cleric. It sufficed that, in the West, Christianity taught that all souls were equally loved by God; worldly inequalities were not the fault of the unequally favored. In today’s world, such explanations are no longer credible. Whence the increasing use of victimary thinking to explain these inequalities: if whites (Asians?) do better in school or on intelligence tests, it is the result of their “white privilege.” It is far less offensive to our moral sense to explain inferior results as the result of ascriptive discrimination rather than individual and collective failings. GA’s understanding of the moral model that provides us with our sense of equality gives us a clearer idea of how to address this problem than catering to the resentments of those who know only that they are being hurt by it.
“Pure” science is an activity pursued for knowledge’s sake, independently of practical considerations, but in the faith, borne out time and again throughout history, that seeking the truth about whatever we are curious about, be it dark matter or the origin of human language, is our best way of improving our practical grasp of reality. It is in this spirit that I offer this new edition of TOOL.