John 1:1 — In the beginning was the Word: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος
Few biblical passages or theological statements are more familiar than this one. Readers of René Girard will recall that he uses this proposition as the epigraph to his Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde, where, aided by the midwifery of a pair of disciples, he revealed for the first time his ideas about the Bible and Judeo-Christian religion. This book appeared in 1978, when I was coincidentally at Johns Hopkins as a visiting professor. It was during this visit that I conceived the originary hypothesis that would become the basis of GA, and that conjunction was anything but coincidental.
Those who did not know Girard back then might not realize that for him, it was not a simple matter to reveal his devotion to the Bible and his conviction that it was not simply an object of faith but expressed an anthropological understanding superior to that of the “social science” of anthropology. In the post-religious climate of the 1970s, Girard hesitated to propose a theory that might lead readers to dismiss him as “merely” a religious thinker. Thus in La violence et le sacré, which had appeared in 1972, he had been careful not to touch on Judeo-Christian texts, or to reveal his conception of the categorical difference between biblical and “pagan” religious understanding.
But Girard’s anthropology, to which mine owes so much, is nonetheless incomplete; it lacks a theory of language, and more generally, of representation. Its epigraph is not on this account ironic, but fideistic. I have always felt that Girard understood the significance of the logos as the foundation of the human, this being indeed John’s point, but that he did not feel obliged to go into the subject in any detail because, as the rest of John’s sentence makes clear, the logos is not only with God but is itself divine, godly—the real meaning of Θεὸς in John 1:1.
In any case, I have no need to take a stand on the religious issue, because, as I hope to persuade you, the strength of generative anthropology is that, unlike other anthropologies, it corroborates in anthropological terms the genius of John’s sentence. What makes GA accessible to believers and non-believers alike is that it explains this anthropological truth without pronouncing on the ultimately unpronounceable question of God’s existence. Indeed, and this is a point on which I think believers and non-believers should agree, God’s unquestionable mode of being, whether as an idea or as a person, is that God is. Whether God simply is as an idea, or exists as a “real” being, is a matter of faith, which is to say that it cannot be demonstrated, for if it could, then we would not need faith. But one way, if not of defining God, then of uniquely describing him, is as a being inconceivable without language.
Thus it is quite significant that John begins not with God speaking, as does the Old Testament, but with the logos, which in Greek designates not just a word but an utterance, a discourse, and language in general. Would that presumably atheistic or agnostic scientists were not too proud to reflect on the wisdom of this priority, rather than reducing religion to an outdated superstition or a Nietzschean conspiracy to provide a spurious sanction to those in power.
Surely John does not mean to suggest that language precedes the reality of God. But he would appear to agree with me that our first revelation of God, or of the sacred, appears with language. As the late Roy Rappaport understood, although his anthropologist successors would rather ignore the issue, religion and language, the necessary components of the human in the full sense of the term, are coeval. You can’t have one without the other. To experience the sacred is to experience it as a sign.
Rappaport’s articulation of this question is highly instructive. It is tantalizingly close to that of GA, but as we might have feared, a metaphysical presupposition confuses the issue. I quote from his posthumous masterwork, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge, 1999):
[A]spects of religion, particularly as generated in ritual, ameliorate problems of falsehood intrinsic to language to a degree sufficient to allow human sociability to have developed and to be maintained. . . .
. . . I do not claim that religion arose more or less simply as an adaptive response to enhanced possibilities of falsehood, but that certain defining elements of religion, especially the concept of the sacred and the process of sanctification, are no less possibilities of language, particularly of linguistic expressions in ritual, than are lies, and that religion emerged with language. As such, religion is as old as language, which is to say precisely as old as humanity. (15-16; emphasis the author’s)
Lying is certainly, as Rappaport insists, unique to human users of language. And it is not altogether false to say that the sacred acts as a guarantee of truth-telling. But in the absence of an originary hypothesis, Rappaport is obliged to think about the propositional quality of truth as linguistically primordial, whereas, as we have seen, it is not. The originary guarantee of the sacred is (pace Derrida) its presence, ostensively designated, and the peace it brings “guarantees itself” and is the source of our faith: our faith in God, and in language, the Logos, which for John takes us back to the originary experience of language.
What I am suggesting is that the reading provided to John’s text by the originary hypothesis discovers in it a truth that even its believing, reverential readers, let alone its dismissive ones, have not grasped, not even Girard himself who taught us so much about religion’s anthropological superiority to secular thought.
Thus John begins with the logos, and only once we have the logos do we learn that it not merely was with God but that it was God, or more correctly, it was godly, divine. It is curious that although the Greek text is unambiguous, all of the translations have “God” for Θεὸς, and since the Vulgate, most European translations (although neither Luther’s nor the Polish) invert the two elements.
John is not using logos as a metaphor. No doubt the various uses of this term by Greek philosophers and Jewish thinkers are not irrelevant; no doubt it can be associated with Wisdom, or the Torah, or the Demiurge who in some belief-systems acts as God’s intermediary in creating the world. But the simplest way of understanding logos here strikes me as the truest to the sense of the word itself; logos means language, not just as an object—Saussure’s langue—but as what we have seen is both a collective and an individual phenomenon, la parole—which in French also means word, although logos in John’s text is translated as le Verbe.
The fact that logos is more general than any corresponding English word, or no doubt any equivalent in a modern language, even in Latin, means only that it is closer to the essential point that I have been seeking to communicate: that at the origin, what is linguistic and what is sacred, significance and sacrality, are the same. We know God only because we have language, which is why, written from a human standpoint, Genesis tells us that God created the world by speaking. But John insists on the priority of language itself in order that we realize that speech is the fundamental human phenomenon, that whether God exists without humans or not, he shows himself only to humans, and does so fundamentally through speech, by which I mean not just that God speaks to us, but that he shares language with us.
Hence in my reading of this passage, John is making an anthropological observation: our first experience of God is through language. And our first experience of language is that it is with God, that is, inseparable from God. And then—I would say for a Christian, only with the coming of Jesus—that the logos was or became divine, in the sense not that we must worship the sign, which is idolatry, but that God as a person embodied himself in the logos, and thereby demonstrated that the logos, even in the voice of man, shares God’s immortality. The perishable sign that is uttered and then is no more is nonetheless immortal, for its meaning never dies, and to demonstrate this, Jesus had to embody the immortal word of God in a mortal body that would die but be reborn as eternal.
Jacques Derrida makes much of the idea that writing, historically late, is nevertheless the fundamental form of language, in the sense that the word is never simply an act of speech, which emanates from a person and vanishes, but the re-presentation of a sign that exists outside of time, its inscription. Derrida thinks that in doing this he is undermining the “metaphysical” presence of the word to the speaker. But what he is really doing is clarifying the very point of metaphysics, which is to separate language from its original, ostensive manifestation, and to enthrone the declarative sentence, or proposition, with its “context-free” truth, as its fundamental form. What Derrida fails to understand is that la différance that he rightly sees as the essence of language is already present, that is, present-as-absence, as what Sartre called the néant, in the originary ostensive sign, the aborted or deferred gesture of appropriation, which does not exist in contact with its object, but must be separated from it by a mental space of non-violent contemplation.
John diverges from anthropology to privilege a moment of history—the coming of Jesus—beyond its merely historical significance, as a truth taken out of time, although revealed at a specific moment. The Son could not use language as the Father did, to modify the world; he could not empower “let there be light” or even “let this cup pass from me.” But God can take on mortal form because the mere use of language is already the transcendence of mortality. It is through language, where we use words without using them up, that we participate in the sacred, deferring its possession and consumption, and in this condition, which is that of Sartre’s pour-soi, we share in the immortality of the sacred by mastering the force of worldly action, not by exercising it.
What I am suggesting is that, although for the believer the important thing is to find God, and for the Christian, to find him through Jesus, who used words as we do and yet transcended human mortality, for the anthropologist, John’s sentence is a significant contribution to our understanding of the human-in-general. The priority of the Word is an anthropological truth. We could have no idea of God, whether or not he “exists” outside of our consciousness, without the language in which we formulate the idea, just as we could have no idea of our own being if we could not formulate the cogito—which is inevitably misunderstood as a “logical proof,” rather than an affirmation of the indissolubility of being and language.
The effort to treat language strictly as an object of natural science, confining its study to its operations, to how it works, reflects the failure of “human science” to concern itself with what is fundamentally and specifically human. Max Müller was certainly correct in his intuition that natural selection does not furnish an explanation for the origin of human language.
Noam Chomsky’s generative grammar, which ironically lent its adjective to GA, is an impressive intellectual accomplishment, one that dominated the field of linguistics in the US and much of the world for two generations. But Chomsky would never have dreamt of attempting to supplement his grammar of the transformations of the declarative sentence S+P with a speculative theory of the origin of this model from simpler forms. This is just not what linguistics does; linguistics is an empirical science, not an exercise in speculation.
Yes, but unfortunately, to focus exclusively on the structural analysis of the declarative sentence and its transformations, while a perfectly valid subject of empirical research and theorization, perpetuates the sacralization, the taking-for-granted, of the declarative sentence, the gesture by which I have defined the phenomenon of metaphysics. It is not, to be sure, the responsibility of linguistics to liberate us from metaphysics, but one might think that some of the immense intellectual energy that has gone into exploring the vagaries of S+P might have been spent in reflecting on how S and P might have come together in the first place, given that we can hardly imagine the first humans speaking in “complete sentences.” And the fact that it has not provides us with an important insight into where taboo—where the sacred—lies in this domain.
John was not a greater linguist than Chomsky, but the logos of which he speaks is, at the very least, not just a declarative sentence. The originary logos is not information. Metaphysics, the realm of propositions and truth-value, is indeed the language of rationality; we cannot reason or do science otherwise. But we need not for this purpose affirm that the declarative sentence is a “natural” structure that humans had only so to speak to download from on high when their brains became complex enough to create “symbols” or engage in “double-scope blending.”
J. L. Austin made a great step forward by understanding language as a means of “doing things with words.” Like Wittgenstein’s “language games,” Austin’s performatives and perlocutionary effects made us realize that there are elements of human communication more fundamental than the transfer of “constative” information. But neither he nor Wittgenstein drew the final conclusion from their observations, which is the importance of attempting to conceive the minimal, originary use of language. For only thus can we gain insight into the origin of the human, which we by inverse hubris deny was the most important, or at any rate, the most significant event in the history of the universe—its creation in the big bang being something we can theorize about but will probably never be able to “explain” in our own terms. For the first time, a being within this universe became able not just to perceive but to represent and inscribe in a communicable form the event of this origin, and everything else. (Like the taboo about confronting language origin, the passion for SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, reflects the same desacralizing need to learn that “we are not unique”—although it is hard to believe that life, and certainly not “intelligent life,” has existed for billions of years on other planets without our having had any news of it.)
The originary hypothesis is a model, abstract as are all models. There is no need to assume that things happened exactly that way. What is essential is that something like the things that happened in our model must have happened, and that without them, language as we know it would be inconceivable.
On this point, with all due respect, it seems to me a mistake to conceive of the originary act of the human as an “emissary murder.” In fact, Girard never actually speaks of an “originary” act, and for good reason. He understands, as did Freud, the scenic nature of the human, and conceives a much more minimalistic model of the scene, but just as he lets the equation of Christ with the logos let him avoid the necessity of conceiving how the logos must have appeared as language before it could be revealed as Christ, he lets the revelation of the murder of God in the Crucifixion—given that for our species alone, the need to discharge the potential internal violence of the human group is more urgent than the external needs for food and shelter—preempt these external needs altogether. If in Christianity the communion wafer replaces the sacrificial lamb, we should not forget what a societal triumph it was for a religious service to renounce animal sacrifice.
The Christian revelation about sacrifice is that, effectively, its violence reflects our resentment of God and of the human itself. As we might explain the miracle of the loaves and fishes: the peace I bring you is the greatest benefit of all, and in the context of this peace, producing the necessary nourishment for the community is a secondary problem. But not only is there no evidence of human sacrifice in the simplest societies, either today or in those that created the cave paintings, but the continued evidence from our own lives of sharing food as the essential form of human sociability, with cannibalism a rare exception, makes it clear that the function of the originary sign was not to designate a human object of aggression but, on the contrary, to defer the violent appropriation of an object of common desire, such as could only be constituted by an animal that the group wished and needed to divide up and consume in a peaceful manner.
The fundamental characteristic of human consciousness is the scene of representation, before which the human subject defers appropriative action while contemplating its object across an empty “space” or néant that can be traversed only by the sign. By means of the sign, the experience of the object is shared with other humans, really and/or virtually. This scene is “in me,” but its very essence is communal, just as the language we possess in our own brains would not be there were it not in the first place a means of communication with others. No doubt this specific feature of human consciousness is implemented within individual minds, and there alone; there is no “ether” within which resides a “collective consciousness” that brings us together. But such an ether is not necessary; we have language. Language can exist only as both individual and shared, and can only have come into being via the deferral of “instinctive” action that constitutes human consciousness.
A plausible hypothesis of human origin must explain not simply the deferral of appropriative action on the part of the participants, but the meaning or significance that this novel relation to an object of appetite confers on it. The desired object is “too desirable” to appropriate. This is our originary experience of the significant, which at the origin is synonymous with the sacred. Because the first sign points to the first significant object in the universe, we can say that the first referent of the first word is God, that the first word is the name-of-God. The word was with God. But a Christian would say that only with the coming of Christ, with the inauguration of Christianity, did it become possible to say, and God(ly) was the word. That is, that God had affirmed not simply his identity with but his dependence on Jesus as the human speaker of the word, without whom “God” would, I won’t say not exist, but not be manifest in the world. As Jesus tells us in John 1:18:
No one has ever seen God. The only begotten God, the One being in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.
And those of us who are not Christians must recognize the anthropological insight in John’s formulation, that of the indissoluble link between God, immortality, or perhaps better put, trans-mortality, and language.
The originary hypothesis is not a dogma. But I think I can say without exaggeration that it uniquely accounts for the fundamental phenomena of the human, and of the divine insofar as we have an anthropological access to it.
That there are no other non-trivial rivals to the originary hypothesis explains why it remains so little known. But its obscurity also, I think, puts a burden on those who learn of it, both to seek to improve on it, which is surely possible, and to make it known to others. It seems to me that it is about time that human science caught up with the first sentence of the Gospel of John.