Whether God exists is a matter of faith, but the nature of God’s or the sacred’s being is of importance to believers and non-believers alike—a fundamental task of GA being to show that this question is open to anthropological inquiry independently of faith.
We can make the purely verbal point that the “being” of God cannot be denied, given that even to say he “does not exist” is to presume his “essence,” like that of a unicorn or a dragon—or a round square. But this begs the question of why such an idea, however we attempt to define it, is somehow implicit in the existence of human language. Why should having conceived a system of signs oblige us to concern ourselves with the sacred?
The explanation can only be found by attempting to reconstruct, as with the originary hypothesis, the anthropological origin of language. Whether or not God “exists,” virtually all human beings, and only human beings, have an idea of, and a word for, God. The other substantives in our vocabulary can be associated with worldly perceptions and their imaginary extensions. But there are no “perceptions” of the sacred. And even independently of the originary hypothesis, there is certainly enough paleontological evidence to make plausible the presupposition that the first uses of language were in a sacred context—that, as Roy Rappaport affirmed in Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge, 1999), human language and religion were coeval, inaugurated at the same moment.
No doubt this is not how the modern reflection on signs has generally proceeded. C. S. Peirce divides signs into categories: iconic, indexical, and “symbolic.” Taking these categories as given, he proceeds to describe their respective qualities. Peirce’s reflection on the sign is semiotic rather than anthropological; how we came to have signs is simply not his concern. And there is certainly enough to think about merely in categorizing signs and eliciting the qualities that define their several categories.
But given that only humans have the “symbolic” signs in which to formulate “ideas,” and which therefore constitute an ontologically different category from the indexical signs that we can observe in animals, it would seem impossible for anthropology to avoid the question of how such signs evolved, of the origin of language. Yet this is a question that neither philosophers nor social scientists have answered successfully, and which in recent years has for all intents and purposes has been either simply avoided, or explained away in the most perfunctory manner—a matter to which a number of these Chronicles have been devoted.
The declarative sentence cannot have been the originary syntactic form of language. As its “mature” form, it makes language capable of transmitting information, and eventually, of transforming the world through human agency. But the oft-expressed notion that, once it has attained a certain level of competence, the human brain “naturally” generates “ideas,” that is, declarative sentences, is simply nonsense.
Until the modern era, the mainstream of philosophy took the existence of language as we know it for granted. Anthropological speculations such as Condillac’s or Herder’s about the origin of language lay outside the realm of philosophy proper. Even today, when “language philosophy” of various kinds deals with the structures of language and its worldly functions—such as Austin’s “doing things with words”—the question of how humans acquired language is considered a matter for anthropology as a social science, but not as a branch of philosophy.
I have defined metaphysics as the way of thinking for which mature language, centered on the declarative sentence, is an unexplained, “natural” phenomenon. Plato’s Ideas are the components of what Parmenides had designated as the Way of Truth, the conception of philosophy as the science of true propositions. The more primitive utterance-forms, the imperative and the ostensive (“Fire!”), the latter of which is not always recognized by grammarians, are little noted, and the necessity that these forms must have preceded the more developed declarative proposition, simply disregarded.
Since the onset of the “age of suspicion” in the nineteenth century, philosophy’s refusal to consider the prehistory of the proposition has made its spurious “naturalness” appear complicit with a social and religious order judged in one way or another as oppressive, as though our “self-evident ideas” concealed a hidden agenda that had to be “deconstructed”—although this deconstruction was only peripherally associated with the need to examine the origin of language. (See Kieran Stewart’s “Nietzsche’s Early Theory of Language in Light of Generative Anthropology,” Anthropoetics 22, 2, for a discussion of how Nietzsche anticipated some fundamental linguistic intuitions of GA.)
Since that time, metaphysics has been something that modern philosophers and para-philosophers such as Marx and Nietzsche and Derrida, even Austin or Wittgenstein, are always trying to “transcend.” These thinkers understand metaphysics, or equivalent notions such as Derrida’s “presence,” as the false worship of the center, ultimately as political idolatry. In criticizing the immediacy claimed for speech as opposed to writing, Derrida is essentially claiming that for Plato, and by extension, for Western thought as a whole, spoken language is considered to bear, whether in religious or secular form, the guarantee of revelation: the Idea is “present” in the mind of the speaker and communicated directly to the listener, so to speak in the inspired manner of a prophecy.
Nietzsche’s skepticism toward “truth” was part and parcel of his rejection of God. Derrida situates his important concept of deferral or différance, the “deconstruction” of presence, within the declarative act of predication. But différance is not in the first place the judgment’s delay in choosing a member of a paradigm, but the deferral of appetitive “instinct” that creates the sign in the first place.
The idea of a “language of nature” that “embodies truth” is one discovered in very different circumstances by Greek and Hebrew civilizations, but the affirmation of the declarative sentence as the guarantee of truth, whether by Parmenides-Plato or by the God of Exodus, is also a withdrawal from the ostensive immediacy of the originary scene, as prolonged in ritual. For the sake of our understanding and conquest of nature, this was a momentous step, but as anthropologists we must not fear to return in theory to the pre-declarative world in which language first emerged, if only to reject the false assimilation, shared by Derrida and Rousseau, Marx and Nietzsche, of propositional language to oppression. The originary center to which language is directed, and which later becomes the “subject” of the proposition, transcends the human community. The vying for centrality that, for better or worse, characterizes all but the most primitive societies is only possible as subsequent to this originary transcendence. This is why we cannot neglect the connection between language and God.
At the moment of the originary sign, the sacred and the significant are the same concept. The referent of the first sign is the first significant object in the universe, and its unique designation by the sign, which both singles it out for the attention of all and implies its inaccessibility—the gesture pointing toward it being no longer prolonged toward its appropriation—inaugurates language as a new category of activity in place of (worldly) action.
We need not imagine that the first humans attributed to the originary “God”-object the immortality, omnipotence, etc., associated with the One God the Hebrews have handed down to us. The God-idea we recognize as the being of the sacred is the product of a long historical reflection. The most primitive notion of the sacred is simply as what inspires the behavioral disposition to deferral, to the separation and awe that sets its object on a scene beyond the reach of our appetites, the sense of sacred interdiction that was attached to the referent of the first sign. It is in this minimal sense that religion and language are coeval. Religion, the contemplation and deferral of appropriation of the sacred, is at the origin functionally equivalent to the use of the sign.
The originary hypothesis explains this new status as the result of the breakdown of the pre-human pecking-order hierarchy, and the fear, presumably based on experience, of the potential violence to be visited on anyone who would put himself forward to appropriate the object. But the sacred is a reality in all cultures regardless of how we conceive its originary motivation.
No one knows exactly when “monotheism” was invented/discovered, if only because it is not a well-defined concept. Presumably the participants in the originary event had only one god. Whether they subsequently considered each animal that provoked the reproduction of the collective signing configuration of the originary event as a separate god is a useless speculation. But what Western civilization calls monotheism is the result of the Hebrews’ religious reflection in Exodus 3, the high point of Old Testament theology, where God tells Moses that his “name” is Ehyeh asher ehyeh, I am what/that I am.
The declarative form is essential. God has no “ostensive” or vocative name, he has a unique being, and although he tells Moses to designate him as “I am,” that is just shorthand for this being. The Jewish interdiction of the “name” Yahweh is grounded in ontology, not taboo. Pronouncing “the name of God” is not like abusing a magic formula; it is a category error.
Just as Plato founded metaphysics by formalizing the meaning of Ideas, or words in propositions, as langue and not parole, to the point of making the Idea or signifié independent of the word itself, the Hebrews made the more profound if less philosophically lucid move of making God, the being of the sacred, the foundation of the declarative proposition, in the sense that his being-himself is affirmed as the foundation of all self-identical being.
Superficially, a rock “is itself” in the same way as God is himself. But if we reflect on Exodus 3 from the standpoint of the originary event, then this being-oneself is founded on the originary scene of language, where the first word is the name-of-God. This understanding connects the “divine” origin of language, anterior to the declarative proposition, to the propositional language in which truths can be uttered and verified in the real world.
Metaphysics is not based on theological speculation, but on our originary faith in language. Plato did not need to practice monotheism to invent it. Nor is Hebraic religion “metaphysical,” although it responds to the same need to associate being’s originary basis (God) with propositional truth.
Because metaphysics takes the declarative sentence as a “natural” or “transparent” means of communication, originary Being’s traditional relationship to language, whether as Aristotle’s unmoved mover or the Judeo-Christian “I am,” is less as its creator than as its guarantee. This detachment of language from the event that inaugurates it presents its “timelessness” not as a construction but as an essence; it was not “invented” but merely discovered by humans or revealed to them. Whence the moderns’ need for deconstruction to liberate them from what Nietzsche called the “prison-house of language.”
The originary hypothesis clarifies the basis of deconstruction as the différance of the “horizontal” world of appetite, where one can “intend” things only as objects of worldly appropriation or avoidance, by the sign that, even when not yet the subject of a proposition, becomes the memory-trace for the community and for each individual in it of the sacred object-of-deferral itself, and of the (in)action of signing, of language, as the recognition and communication of its sacrality, which is also its significance.
GA is not a “critique” of metaphysics; it does not propose to uncover a truth “beneath” that of the proposition. What is beneath this truth, however, is significance/sacrality. Whether we limit ourselves to an anthropological explanation or affirm that the sacred, which is surely greater than any of us, is a Being greater than all of us together, to forget that its priority is to reify propositional “truth” as a “natural” reality independent of (human) language.
And even if this reification is not, as Derrida and virtually all his “French theory” colleagues (with the notable exception of Girard) believed, a Nietzschean plot by priests and/or other hegemons to legitimate their domination, it is nonetheless an illegitimate assimilation of culture to nature.
The declarative sentence, S+P, does not exist in nature. Whether or not by the grace of God, it is a human invention. And conversely, whether we believe that man created God or that God created man, in their originary essence, the sacred and the significant are one, and God, whether or not he “exists,” inheres in their common being.