The nice thing about religious discourse is that it puts everything in human terms. Once God has finished his creation, the world has become a human-friendly place, and fixing up the equations—the six days becoming so many billion years—is of secondary importance. But when, in the absence of religious humility or petitio principi, philosophy attempts to “understand” the world, that is, to describe it in words, it cannot escape the epistemological conundrum of connecting these words to a non-divine, that is, a human source of meaning.
(Entre parenthèses, it is significant that there is no neutral term for religious discourse. Either one believes it, in which case it is God’s word, or one calls it myth. Girard’s use of the term “biblical” to distinguish Judeo-Christian discourse from that of “pagan” myth is as far as one can go before accepting the necessity of an anthropological hypothesis of our human/cultural/religious/linguistic origin.)
Philosophy as a self-conscious activity begins with Plato’s Socrates asking not about “the world” but about the meanings of words, as we may assume the real Socrates did in the Athenian agora. And although his definitions of Courage, Beauty, the Good and the rest provide a model that the entire history of philosophy will only refine, the ontology on which it is purportedly based, the doctrine of Ideas, is founded on a quasi-sacred myth. The idea that what are in fact the words of human languages should be understood as Ideas, independent of our existence, casting shadows on the wall of our “cave,” is not a fanciful sidebar but the very core of our philosophical/metaphysical tradition.
Well, you may ask, how can we do better than this? How can we have the chutzpah to challenge the entire philosophical tradition, not on the basis of a scientific discovery, but simply by a priori reasoning?
And yet, the answer is simple enough. Platonic metaphysics, the Western philosophical tradition (addressing “Eastern” traditions is another matter, although I think that my reflections on Buddhism (see in particular Chronicles 515 and 516) provide at least a point of departure) is founded on the need to deal with its subject matter in medias res. Whatever our image of the “armchair” philosopher, Socrates was, not coincidentally, anything but. He saw as his task not to elaborate an abstract ontology, but to find a basis for resolving the problems of the polis. It is by no means coincidental that the Republic is Plato’s longest and most frequently cited dialogue: philosophy in the service of creating the “good society.” As, in another sense, is GA. But the past two millennia have taught us that we have to begin further back than the declarative sentence.
Kant spoke of his “critical” mode of philosophical thinking as a “Copernican revolution,” an introspective examination of our internal scene of representation that would lead in two generations to phenomenology, and thence to Existenzphilosophie, which would reintroduce the “metaphysical” concept of Being, no longer founded on biblical and/or Platonic authority, but as the product of our, or Heidegger’s, ontological intuition.
Aware of the quasi-mythical basis for what would come to be called “Continental” philosophy, analytic philosophy seeks to avoid any such appeal to “Ideas” and simply to explore as rigorously as possible the truth-value of propositions. But this attempt to liberate thought from metaphysics misunderstands the real foundation of metaphysics—which is, precisely, the proposition. When analytic philosophy spares us from trying to understand what Heidegger means in calling man “the shepherd of Being” by dismissing such sentences as “meaningless,” it demonstrates only that its concept of “meaning” is too narrowly constrained by propositional logic to encompass the anthropological truth Heidegger’s statement attempts, however “poetically,” to express.
Analytic philosophy misses the point, as pointed out by Hamlet to Horatio in I, 5, that it is this anthropological truth that philosophy and ultimately, all human thought aims to address, be it even by attempting to describe the activities of the “natural” world. Whatever the value of the results of analytic philosophy, one thing it does not and cannot do is explain the foundation of the human difference/différance from the rest of nature, a difference that is both historically and logically prior to the existence of the proposition or declarative sentence.
Now that we have come to the fortieth anniversary of my original formulation of the originary hypothesis during my visit to Johns Hopkins and René Girard in 1978, it is time to make the point that this simple principle is and remains the unchallenged if not unchallengeable basis for an originary anthropology. It provides an explanation of the human that requires no Ideas to descend from heaven, let alone the whole of the language in which we express ourselves.
For the entire history of philosophy presupposes, and cannot even put seriously into question, that not merely arithmetic and all the rest of mathematics, but language itself are systems that have existed in a virtual state from all eternity, awaiting “intelligent” creatures like ourselves (and the scientific community appears certain, on zero evidence, that other, possibly more intelligent creatures exist elsewhere) to be downloaded into our brains like so many Apps.
Nor can the human or “social” sciences explain, or even formulate in their own terms, the différance by which we pass from the en-soi to the pour-soi, a phenomenon that the philosophers at least can describe, even if their science cannot encompass its origin.
What I have called the “moral model,” the scenic configuration that provides a plausible origin for morality along with language and religion, in contrast to John Rawls’s “original position” that provides the ingenious basis for his model of justice in a necessarily unequal society, is not a thought-experiment, but a genuine hypothesis. The originary hypothesis describes an event arguably similar in its basic pattern to one that must have taken place. Its connection with our profound sense of moral equality, “that all men are created equal,” is not an a posteriori construction, but flows plausibly from the configuration of the hypothetical originary event. Similarly, whereas Sartre’s brilliant description of the pour-soi in L’être et le néant is grounded only in the author’s “phenomenological” intuition, the originary hypothesis offers an evenemential explanation for its emergence.
Whatever the advance of Kant’s categorical imperative over religiously guaranteed morality, it remains an external imposition, one that can be “proved” only as one proves Euclid’s theorems, on the basis of prior postulates. The moral model, as I have proposed it, does not derive from a series of reasonings; it is realized in actu in the originary event as I have described it.
Our conviction of moral equality and the symmetrical configuration of the originary scene reinforce each other—just as our behavior in social exchange confirms Mauss’s model of the “gift,” just as our food-sharing festive behavior confirms the hypothesized originary sparagmos. The essential features of the human condition do not change. This is the principle behind what I have called originary analysis: to seek the source of a category of cultural behavior, conceive how it would have emerged in the course of the originary event.
We should have more confidence in our history. If we do not, it is because we remain the children of the Enlightenment, unable to discover an immanent basis for human uniqueness, but intolerant of the transcendent element of the sacred that, like the baby in the bathwater, had to be discarded in order to do away with our dependency on religious tradition. But at the origin, the sacred and the significant are the same. The referent that we designate to one another through the sign of language is the embodiment of a signified that exists in another dimension than the objects of our appetite. Call it sacred, call it significant—its existence can be attested only by human speakers of language. Language and the recognition of the sacred that we call “religion,” as Vico, de Maistre, Max Müller, and Roy Rappaport understood, are coeval. And the originary hypothesis offers the first plausible model of their moment of birth within the proto-human world.
I am confident that if the human species survives, this way of thinking, whether or not associated with my name or with the term “generative anthropology,” will eventually triumph, and will lead to unpredictable advances in every domain of human science.