In The Origin of Language (TOOL) I described institutional and formal representation as the two primary heirs of the originary scenic event. In the institutional case, the community or some part of it attempts to reproduce the event’s peace-bringing effect by repeating the salient elements of the originary configuration, notably, the designation/worship of the sacred central figure in a collective rite, generally ending in a sacrificial feast. The collective religious or civic ceremonies that we hold today are the direct heirs of this originary experience. The peaceful sharing of food, and generally, of meat, is the ever-renewed configuration of our successful hominization, the experience, banalized in everyday environments but less so in times of crisis, of the deferral of violence brought about by the originary sacred.
As described in detail in TOOL, formal representation reproduces the moment of signification independently of its originary sacred context. The central object was first designated by the aborted gesture of appropriation become a sign, in a conscious, intentional act. As a result of the sign’s “portability” in memory, individuals separated from the communal scene subsequently communicate to one another, or simply to themselves, the “idea” or signified of a specific object.
At the origin, an ostensive gesture, no doubt accompanied by vocalization, sufficed to inaugurate what cognitive scientists call joint shared attention to a central referent. The elaborate sign-systems of mature human languages are the product of the generalization of this mode of communication to designate, at first “profane,” and then absent objects, which can be identified only through the signs used to refer to them.
Formal representation or language desacralizes the sign by separating it from its sacred context and making it freely reproducible. But the collective scene as a whole can be desacralized as well, and instead of reproducing the originary experience of sacred deferral, become the source of a new activity: that of judicial-political deliberation.
The is a third cultural heir of the originary event, one that cannot be called a representation, since it reproduces not the central element of the event but merely its peripheral human configuration, relying on the example of the originary deferral of conflict to permit the resolution of some other potential conflict, either verbally or, if through physical violence as in a duel or ordeal, in an orderly manner that does not threaten the cohesion of the group. In tandem with the judicial function of settling disputes, the scenic configuration also serves the group in coming to collective political decisions about critical courses of action.
These three heirs of the originary event depend on three varieties of faith. Faith as an anthropological concept cannot be understood without reference to an originary hypothesis. Metaphysics, the foundation of philosophy, avoids this question by tacitly assuming that mature language, centered on the S+P structure of the philosophical proposition or declarative sentence, is a “natural” feature of reality, the circumstances of whose acquisition by humans are at most of secondary importance.
But to take for granted the existence of the declarative sentence is equivalent to taking for granted that of the human, which is uniquely defined by its possession of language. Thus to accept the founding premise of metaphysics is to reduce the notion of human origin to its merely biological sense. The blindness of the world of science to this equivalence has had the side-effect of making faith in general, and religion in particular, appear superfluous, generating such pseudo-Nietzschean barbarities as the following:
One way that leaders throughout human history have sought to legitimate themselves and their laws from a moral point of view is to claim that they have somehow been anointed by a deity or in some other supernatural way. . . . [A] key foundation of a religious attitude is the veneration and worship of deceased ancestors and traditions whose spirit somehow lives on . . . . Leaders then took advantage of this attitude and claimed supernatural sources for their leadership.
Michael Tomasello, A Natural History of Human Morality (Harvard, 2016; italics mine)
Faith is not simply confidence in the outcome of a given mode of representation. It can be directed only to a being capable of intentionality, whose relationship to its objects is not mechanical or “instinctive” but mediated by the néant of deferral that permits thought. Which is to say that faith is always meta-faith; it is not faith in this or that result, but faith in the subject that presides over it. Faith that a given utterance will “make sense” and communicate to me something useful, faith that an assembly of judges or legislators will arrive at an appropriate decision, faith that the sacred revealed/discovered/invented in the originary scene will continue to defer our resentments so as to permit the perpetuation of our society and our species.
Faith can be understood in human terms as the expectation of fulfillment of a promise, that is, as a contractual relationship. But however specific the anticipated outcome, faith in a promise exceeds its merely material fulfillment; its object is always an intentional subject. Even the strictest contracts have tacit or explicit provisions for “acts of God” that might prevent this material fulfillment without contradicting one’s faith in the subject’s “good intentions.”
Institutional representation, or ritual, has an ambiguous relationship to faith. We explain our engagement in ritual acts as “doing God’s will,” but in its early stages, the reproduction of the originary event may well have arisen spontaneously rather than being planned in advance as a gesture of reverence. It is better to understand faith as emerging from ritual, in the same way as the notion of a sacred being, presiding over the scene of representation independently of any specific central object, would emerge over the course of a number of reiterations of the event. It is only when a rite comes to be planned in advance with confidence in its outcome that the sense would arise that it is dictated by a divine will, and that its efficacy would be attributed to faith in that will.
The originary hypothesis extends Durkheim’s basic idea, that religion embodies those values of the community that transcend the interests of the individual, to the notion of a “supreme being” who imposes the scene of representation on the universe. We naturally see this being as a person rather than simply a force, since we know it through language. But we can have no direct evidence within our world of this person’s existence; thus, whether or not we seek worldly “proofs” of it, which can never be wholly convincing, it is faith that posits this existence.
To believe in God is to have faith that his will is just, that whatever our sufferings, we live in “the best of all possible worlds,” in which the fall of every sparrow is part of the divine plan. By definition, God is conceived to be benign, at least sufficiently to permit the human world to perpetuate itself. This is, so to speak, our “contract” with the sacred.
Understanding worldly events in terms of this benevolent subjectivity challenges faith with the “problem of evil”: how could a benevolent God permit this? Operating at the limit of Christian theology, just before religion would become wholly anthropological and the sacred no more than the humanly significant, René Girard insisted that the point of the Crucifixion is to make humans understand that not God but they alone are responsible for their violence.
Because we must take God on faith, the simplest explanation for our enduring preoccupation with the fictional universes of art-works is that we know them to be created, as we say, by intelligent design. Given this seemingly obvious parallel, we might find surprising that it is only in the Romantic era, as far as I know, that we encounter the idea expressed by Flaubert: L’artiste dans une œuvre doit être comme Dieu dans la création : qu’on le sente partout, mais qu’on ne le voie pas. [the artist in a work must be like God in creation: we should feel him everywhere but not see him.]
The key to language is the portability of the sign and of its scene of representation outside the communal context, to allow the construction of meaningful utterances that can be communicated to others or simply retained in memory (as locutions, not simply as “memory-traces”). The separation of language and thought from the communal, sacred scene has inspired philosophy to describe the mind’s internal scene of representation as a pour-soi with an internal différance that frees consciousness from “instinct” to intend its objects, including its own “voluntary” acts. This is valid as far as it goes, but as cases like that of the “wild child” demonstrate, this autonomous human consciousness can only exist as an inheritor of the communal scene inaugurated in the originary event and perpetuated by the transmission of language.
As a consequence of the expansion of internal and external communication, the signs of language have been driven by the need for efficiency to evolve through contrast with each other rather than in relation to the objects they represent. Saussure’s dictum that language is on every level a system of differences is a practical necessity of communication. What matters isn’t whether “dog” sounds like a dog, but that it doesn’t sound like “cat.” Only literature and its “street” versions in idioms and slogans have an investment in the mimetic relationship between words and their meanings; given the norm of l’arbitraire du signifiant, such a mimetic relationship is usually perceived as ironic.
The first non-ritual uses of the ostensive to point to significant worldly dangers or benefits would have arisen in contexts separate from the originary collective configuration. But it is hard to resist the supposition that early language, perhaps for many generations, was treated as sacred. I imagine we should think of its signs as taught in a ceremony of initiation rather than “learned at mother’s knee.”
In what sense is language dependent on faith? I have often recalled this late text of Derrida:
Relating to another, addressing another, presupposes faith. One can never demonstrate, one can never prove that somebody is or is not lying—this is impossible to prove. One is always able to say: I told a falsehood but I said it sincerely, I was mistaken, but I did not lie. Consequently, when somebody speaks to us, he asks us to believe him. This faith is the condition of the social bond itself. There is no social bond without such a faith. (my translation)
Jacques Derrida, “Moi, l’Algérien,” Nouvel Observateur, November 9, 2006
Faith that one’s words will be understood requires only our confidence that our interlocutor share the language of our community. But when we accept to receive a linguistic communication, we enter into a linguistic contract with the speaker/author, such that it will, to paraphrase J. L. Austin, do something [useful] with words, whether it produce a “performative” effect (“I hereby sentence you…”), demand a reaction or response (“Fire!”, “Come here!”, “What time is it?”), or take on a “truth-value” of some significance to us. We listen to a declarative such as “the cat is on the mat” in the faith that the completed sentence will make sense, and that we can expect it to be true (or at least that the speaker believe it to be true) and however loosely, pertinent to the speech situation.
The Johannine idea of God as the Logos, not just the source of language but its message, makes sense if we understand that the originary function of language is to ostensively designate a sacred/significant object. Only once this object is agreed upon can predication become possible. The process of linguistic evolution begins, I have hypothesized, with taking the object into our world with the imperative, whose implicit predicate is “absent-to-be-made-present,” that is, that its object must leave its place in the “heaven” of the sacred/significant and descend into this world. At this point the declarative will arise to provide new information about the object, in compensation for its momentary or permanent inaccessibility.
A judicial or political collective distinguishes itself from a ritual or ceremonial group by engaging in a deliberative process whose result is not given in advance. Which is to say that the group is linked by a social contract, implicit or explicit, which in more complex societies includes others represented by the group membership, a contract that presumes the faith of all in the process and their confidence in its outcome. In this it corresponds to our faith that God’s will is “just,” just as in the formal domain, we have faith in the speaker’s or writer’s truthfulness.
The ultimate object of political faith is the same as that of the simple faith expressed in the repetition of a ritual act: what Durkheim called the reinforcement of solidarity, the community-making effect of the originary event, which can be understood as the ultimate goal of every cultural or sign-mediated activity. But as with the non-ritual use of language, this collective result makes a new contribution to the community beyond the mere ritual reiteration of the originary scene.
Faith/meta-faith in judicial/political process must have at least one more layer. Because a set of “rules of order” in the form of a written or unwritten constitution must govern the process of deliberation, there must be meta-rules to govern instituting and modifying these rules themselves, which in modern state structures may run to several layers and a high degree of complexity. All but the simplest societies have some such deliberative mechanisms, at least as a “rubber stamp.”
The distinction between faith in a political process and ideological preference concerning its results is not difficult to understand, yet confusion between the two is the norm rather than the exception. In the recent rash of books expressing disillusionment with “liberalism,” none of them makes a clear distinction between liberal or libertarian ideas and the “liberal” meta-idea of faith in the democratic process. This confusion allows a certain glissement between expressing dismay at, e.g., excesses of sexual liberation, and disillusion with the democratic process itself. Even if the US Supreme Court had not nationally imposed abortion on demand and gay marriage, but had left these decisions, as might have been expected, to the several states, it seems clear that in the medium term, the outcomes would have been the same. In any case, however, one should be able to criticize them as exemplifying an ideology of “liberalism” without thereby condemning the “liberal” democratic process itself.
These meditations, unlike those of philosophy and the “cognitive sciences” that rely on it, transcend metaphysics in going to the originary root of language. But they are surely far from the last word on these questions.
As a new way of thinking, GA must find a way to attract the minds and the energy needed to rethink the entirety of the human. Although it is not itself a branch of natural science, originary anthropology provides a fresh basis for research into the biological and neurological workings of the human mind and its scene of representation, whose existence as a theoretical entity is unquestionable, but whose physical manifestation is far from understood.
Sartre’s pour-soi is understandable in philosophical terms, but these terms are limited by their metaphysical distancing from biological reality. Conversely, individual human consciousness is not understandable as a self-contained neurological mechanism independent of the collective phenomena of representation that are designated by the term culture. Those who would seek, as so many are now doing, the implementation of language and culture in the human brain, must first have a clear grasp, untainted by metaphysical presuppositions, of what it is they are looking for.