The most significant difference between this work and other accounts of language origin lies in its proposed outline, on the basis of the hypothetical originary event of language/culture, of the evolution of the basic utterance-forms, from the ostensive through the imperative to the declarative.
Given the lack of empirical evidence to guide this account, it may remind philosophically minded readers of Hegel’s Logik and its dialectical derivation of the categories of thought via the principles of negation and synthesis. I have always admired Hegel, the greatest of all metaphysical system-builders. But my use of a dialectical series is much less ambitious. Its purpose is to offer an understanding of how the hypothetical originary event can furnish a model for the emergence of a mature culture capable of elaborating, as GA does, a theory of its own emergence. That is, I propose a model, beginning with the originary event of the sign, of how using signs can eventually produce the theory that describes their beginning in the originary hypothesis, thus completing the circle and justifying the elaboration of the theory in its own terms.
The telos of the dialectic of linguistic form is the emergence of the “objectivity” of the declarative sentence from the “irrational” privileging/sacralizing of the central object in the originary ostensive. This irrationality is central to the Girardian scapegoat scene, described as an act of méconnaissance. But we do not require emissary murder to understand why language in its originary form lacks the objective detachment that the deferral at the heart of the formal pour-soi makes possible.
We might be tempted to say that the very structure of human consciousness in its contemplative relationship to its intended objects warrants a means to communicate “objective truths” about reality. But of course such reasoning is impermissible; it can be engaged in only a posteriori. I offer it only to point out that metaphysics has always not merely made this inference, but taken it for granted. For GA, the Achilles’ heel of philosophy is its failure to understand the secondarity of the declarative proposition to language—hence to the human—itself. Whence the need to elaborate a model of the dialectic connecting originary language to the declarative form.
Once humans learned to defer mimetic violence through signs, they were faced with the dialectical tension that the following chapters describe between the use of language to express the desire of a speaker and its prolongation in the acts of his interlocutor, to whom this desire is alien. The communal symmetry of the originary scene, with the humans on the periphery surrounding the sacralized central object, remains the model of all cultural communication, but the individual elements of this symmetry, the separate “conversations” between the participants that will serve as models for future non-ritual uses of language, embody an asymmetrical relationship between speaker and hearer. In the originary event, we may assume that all emit and perceive the “same” sign, and that this sameness is guaranteed by the success of the signing in preventing violence. All realize that the gestures of the others “mean” the same thing as their own, which is to say, renunciation of the immediate act of appropriation of the central object desired by all.
But the importance of modeling the formal dialectic that generates the declarative form, the presumably universal basis of fully evolved or “mature” language, is to make clear how the interplay between symmetry and asymmetry in the use of language can acquire the flexibility without which “language” and “culture” would have remained merely ceremonial activities. The point is to show how this new mode of consciousness, this pour-soi freed from “instinct,” in which the subject is separated by a néant from its object, could find a functional means of making objective, or more precisely, objectivizing use of this detachment.
The historical invisibility of this evolution makes it understandable that human thought should have been divided since its inception between, on the one hand, attributing language as a whole to God, who “always already” possessed it and made a gift of it to man, and on the other, taking the proposition as a given without conceiving of the necessity that it be generated from its “natural” substrate. If for this reason alone, it is useful to reflect on the dialectic from which the declarative emerged. (In The Scenic Imagination [Stanford University Press, 2007], I examined various philosophical accounts of the origin of language in the early modern era; none of these philosophes, as far as I know, ever attempted to describe the evolution of the declarative proposition from more elementary forms.)
This series of dialectical “moments” is constructed on the basis of a logic whose plausibility has not been tested experimentally; I would be happy to see empirical psychology attempt such a test. But although the specific steps in the sequence are open to doubt, the whole is not. The endpoints of the ostensive on the one hand and the declarative on the other can hardly be questioned. At the origin, pointing/designating/representing in the new mode of joint shared attention; at the conclusion, the fundamental information-conveying sentence. And the placement of the imperative between these two poles is equally hard to deny.
In this dialectical sequence, the tensions provoked by the asymmetry of the speech situation are deferred by the generation of new linguistic forms. This seems to me the model that linguistics must always follow when describing formal evolution. And indeed, it does so when it can make use of historical evidence, for example, in studying the loss of morphology and its replacement by detachable elements, which in a world of widespread literacy are much less likely than in more primitive times to themselves degenerate into morphological particles; or the rise of attention-getting forms that lose their emphatic status and are replaced by others; or the emergence of “prestigious” forms such as the elision of ‘r’ in New York speech, as described by William Labov in The Social Stratification of English in New York City (U of Pennsylvania, 1966), which winds up being associated rather with the pretensions of the lower-middle class than with the elite its speakers had hoped to emulate. But whereas these developments take place on the surface of mature language, whose basic functionality can no longer be substantially improved upon, the developments hypothesized here involve the emergence of its fundamental forms.
The idea that language used to convey objective information first emerges as an antidote to desire is not one to be disdained by moralists. I cannot prove that things really happened this way, but on this occasion at least, si non è vero, è ben trovato is more than a bon mot. To the extent that desire differs from mere appetite, it is as a result of its mediation by representation, and it is this mediation that allows it to be deferred in the indefinitely complex ways that the declarative makes possible. And conversely, it is only because the originary model of the objects of our desire is the sacred that we can bear to have their presence deferred by chains of representations that may or may not permit us eventually to attain them.
In the original edition of TOOL, this formal dialectic was prolonged by a discussion of the super-linguistic categories of dialogue and discourse. But in reviewing this material thirty-five years later, it seems to me to lie outside the limits of a discussion of the origin of language and its fundamental forms. Once the declarative sentence has emerged, the ways in which sentences can be put together in longer units is no longer truly an element of the formal theory of representation, but belongs to the history of cultural institutions. Hence I have not reprised this material in this new edition.