I have for various reasons never been attracted to analytic philosophy. Not only is my intellectual background “continental” rather than “Anglo-Saxon,” I have always been skeptical of philosophy—metaphysics—in general, a tendency encouraged by study with René Girard, who rightly believed the Hebraic contribution to Western civilization more fundamental than the Greek. Hence when I came up with the originary hypothesis, I considered it an example neither of philosophy nor of “positive” science, but of a new kind of humanist anthropology, simply, a new way of thinking.
The present age is characterized by a tremendous excess of language production in various forms. Although in the hard sciences and mathematics, there is an objective evaluation system that should ensure that if some obscure figure makes a discovery or proves a theorem, people will find out about it—yet aren’t ancient conjectures proved today by supercomputers, and physical science breakthroughs made in multimillion dollar facilities? I have learned the hard way that this is not the case in the area of fundamental thinking, or what I call originary anthropology.
By definition, a “new way of thinking” has no established base. But more than this, the current structure of “advanced learning,” even leaving aside the ever-increasing influence of those who would remove “white” books from university libraries*, makes it virtually impossible for ideas like GA to get a hearing in a professional context. The response to GA from social scientists, including linguists, consists essentially of a single sentence: there’s no proof.
*See https://sleung.wordpress.com/2019/04/15/whiteness-as-collections/, the blog of a university librarian, which contains this delightful sentence: “One of the mind-blowing things [a “librarian of color”] shared was this idea of how our library collections, because they are written mostly by straight white men, are a physical manifestation of white men ideas [sic] taking up all the space in our library stacks.”
The emperor’s-new-clothes element in GA nonetheless possesses a feeble but real power of attraction, which has sufficed to maintain our little group, with some changes in personnel, for over 30 years. The first GA seminar took place in 1987, and my students and I put together a GA conference at UCLA in 1990, with the late Marvin Harris (Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches) as our guest speaker, as an early prelude to Andrew Bartlett’s “GA Thinking Event” initiative in 2007.
Rereading De la grammatologie in preparation for this year’s conference, I am often reminded of that 60’s cartoon that showed a large cardboard box sitting on the grass in the middle of a field—the point being that we should get “outside the box” and smell the daisies. La clôture de la métaphysique was really all in our mind. Well, today, the metaphysical box is pretty much empty, but in its place, the only non-political things we believe in are positive facts. In the place of thoughts, we have algorithms. No one any longer seeks the toujours-déjà inscriptions of the archi-trace, whose arch(i)-paradoxality could be avoided only by translating its (post)-metaphysical jargon into something calculable. Perhaps soon we will have the equivalent of a quantum theory of thought, so that concepts “entangled” with each other in two places at once would no longer provoke a reductio ad absurdum but constitute a simple scientific fact.
GA is a “common-sense American” solution to the problems of what might be called late metaphysics. Thinking about thinking does not free one from the contradictions of thinking, it just makes them more complicated. But once one understands that the originary form of language was not engaged in thinking, yet already language (but not always already, unless one wishes to claim that particles orbiting around each other are “signaling” their attraction), one can situate the birth of the declarative proposition that creates the possibility of metaphysics separately from the origin of language. This origin can then be seen as opening a path toward the future possibility of propositional thinking: truth, logic, the accumulation of “inscriptions” of knowledge… while not requiring it all to be somehow present from the first. The originary deferral that creates language must be distinguished from the secondary deferral—the inspiration for Derrida’s différance—involved in predication.
Given something like our hypothetical originary event, other developments were certainly possible, but the ubiquity of the proposition in all existing languages makes it inevitable that we understand it as a telos already implicit in the first ostensive utterance, which was no longer a simple signal, but a conscious, scenic communication. This remains true even if we accept the possibility of early human communities that acquired or discovered language yet without reaching the propositional level.
But given that the implicit is not the real, and that not even a French post-structuralist can really believe that the first signs of language realized the Chomskian S+P, it is striking that officially recognized discussions of language origin all simply ignore what makes up the main content of TOOL: a hypothetical path of development from the ostensive to language’s mature state. The explanation for this absence is presumably the same as that for the disinterest in GA as a whole: there’s no proof. Without a data set, one is not “doing science.”
My definition of metaphysics, which applies first of all to Plato (I think Heidegger would have agreed with it, albeit in somewhat different terms), is as the mode of thinking that takes the existence of the declarative sentence as an ahistorical given. (I think the anti-Platonic Heidegger would have agreed, albeit in somewhat different terms). The Ideas Socrates interrogated the Athenians about were concepts, not words for physical beings (for example, the sun, which was for Max Müller the ur-signified; Müller was one language-theorist to briser la clôture de la métaphysique, even if he never got very far outside). Such Ideas are, precisely, meaningful only as elements of propositions, by means of which truth-verifiable statements may be made about them. It follows from my definition that a metaphysical discourse is one about concepts that are (nonetheless) not considered dependent on the historical emergence of human language.
My definition makes clear why the discipline of philosophy/metaphysics is incompatible with an anthropological view of language. To make the Ideas of Classical philosophy from Plato to Hegel dependent on the worldly history of language would destroy the moral premise on which philosophy rests: that our possession of “Reason,” which can be exercised only in propositions (cf. Meno’s innate “knowledge” of mathematics), allows us to understand ourselves and our place in the universe well enough to conceive the Good, conceived originally as the basis of the ideal “republic” (politeia). GA’s originary scene, with its assimilation of the significant to the sacred, was not what philosophers have had in mind as the birthplace of Reason.
The sole historical discourse that can be said to break through the closure of metaphysics independently of an originary hypothesis is one that expresses an analogous (but hardly minimal) hypothesis in religious, that is, openly transcendental terms. The Ursatz of the Western transcendence of metaphysics is the passage I have so often quoted from Exodus 3, where God gives his name to Moses as Ehyeh asher ehyeh, I am w/that I am.
For you and me, this is a declarative, thus a “metaphysical” sentence, bearing a truth-value that it “defers” into a predication about its Subject rather than revealing it in an instantaneous epiphany. But to be God means not being bound by the rules. (Is there any argument sillier that the claim that God cannot be both omniscient and omnipotent at the same time? Fortunately, he reserves his thunderbolts for serious cases.) Thus he can in effect transform a declarative sentence into a vocative/ostensive, and by so doing he defines himself, both in the sentence itself, and by his power to “name” himself with the sentence. Rather than archi-écriture, this is archi (or archē)-logos, the proof that the Hebrews, fearing the dangers of the clôture de la métaphysique, called on their God to get them out of it.
It is hard indeed to believe that I am the first person ever to point out the parallel between this revelation, at the very heart of Hebrew theology, of God’s “name” as a tautological proposition, and the Greek creation of philosophy/metaphysics. This parallel foreshadows the Christian blending of these two great alphabetic cultures that has made the West what it is, or was. Yet this parallel is anything but a common possession of our intellectual heritage. At a talk a few years ago by a specialist on the Old Testament, when I mentioned the Exodus passage as exemplifying the specifically Hebrew monotheism of the biblical text, in contrast to the linguistic “polytheism” of Elohim, the answer was that, yes, this is one of many important passages. It clearly has no special prestige among those who devote their careers to studying these texts.
Are there then other holy books where God gives his name as a declarative sentence, and whose people subsequently consider his (traditional) name (YHVH) as unpronounceable? I am not expert enough to know, but I doubt it. Furthermore, I don’t think it is Occidentocentric (or should I say, white-supremacist) to point out that this is the religion that, through its Christian heresy/derivative, provided the foundation of the modern world. (Not to deny that there are other ways to build great, if somewhat less dynamic, civilizations. As I suggested in my talk in Nagoya—see Chronicles 515 and 516—Asian cultures deal with the scene of language quite differently.)
Derrida was right to point out the problematization of language in the Early Modern period, which led to such things as Leibniz’s Characteristik and Condillac/Herder/Vico’s speculations on language origin. But these speculations were never central to philosophy, as, for example, the “social contract” was to political science. The scene of the origin of language remained relegated to what Derrida called les marges de la philosophie. We cannot help noticing the immense disparity between the ontological claim of what is in effect the origin of the human itself—the world of “scenic” representation, the sign—and its peripheral treatment within the history of philosophy, even in the works that took the rare trouble to discuss it. If the first linguistic utterance was, as Condillac suggests, a cry for help, how did its vocabulary spread from one person to another? Why indeed was a “vocabulary” needed at all, when the first things any kind of animal noise-making capacity is used for are to warn of danger and to summon help for it? Similar questions can be asked about Herder’s “lamb” scenario. Neither of these worthy efforts light on the crucial point of la différance as the separation between the human and the “instinctive” animal world.
To define metaphysics as the “closure” that excludes reflection on the origin of language, on the passage from “nature” to “culture”—Derrida’s toujours déjà carries out this same exclusion by refusing to situate the passage in history—turns our attention to a coupure épistémologique that, given Derrida’s philosophical preoccupations, is understandably yet regrettably absent from De la grammatologie: the appearance of the theory of evolution. We have trouble recalling that in the pre-Darwinian era there was simply no reasonable way to conceive humans as both “natural” and “cultural” creatures. The idea of “man” living first in a “state of nature,” and subsequently forming “society” via a “social contract,” is simply absurd, but in the absence of a biological theory of evolution, there is no way of situating in a historical continuum the emergence of our (evidently non-biological) culture. Even had the philosophers anticipated my criticism and decided to avoid metaphysical closure by constructing a hypothetical scenario of the origin of language, they would still have had no way of characterizing the “proto-humans” who discovered/invented language. The only reasonable way to talk about these “men in the state of nature” is as our last primate ancestors. Rousseau’s société commencée in the second Discourse is a worthy but necessarily inadequate attempt to remedy this deficiency.
In any case, if the originary hypothesis can be accepted as at least a preliminary solution, that problem has been solved. At which point, the question of the elementary forms of language, which is already implicit in Condillac’s or Herder’s scenarios, becomes essential for understanding the era of metaphysical thought that followed. Once one accepts that language did not begin with the declarative sentence, we should be able to do away with self-deconstructing abstractions that go from writing to archi-writing and trace to archi-trace—or speaking/writing of écriture as though we were really (but we are really not) supposed to think of (real live) writing as having in some sense preceded speech.
Yet we must resist the temptation to oversimplify Derrida’s master-(non)-concept of différance, deferral, by reducing it to its originary core as the deferral of violence. This originarity is an essential anthropological point that Girard as a reader of the Bible and of literature was far better equipped to grasp than a philosopher exclusively concerned with la violence de la lettre—the politics behind which is, we cannot help but note, the tedious victimary leftism of the later postwar era. But the philosophical element of Derrida’s concept should not for all that be neglected. It is indispensable in allowing us to link the existential problematic of avoiding violence to the essential and unique human trait of representation, which is inexplicable without the internal néant that (always) already contains the substance of the notion of la différance.
What precisely is meta-physical, existing in an “unreal” world of signs, about the declarative sentence that is not true of the elementary forms of the ostensive and imperative?
The elementary forms must be understood as features of human language, in no way derived from animal signals. Yet they can be doubled by animal signals, and to the extent that we can teach language to animals, learned in their place. A word of warning or of the presence of food can function in the same way as those famous vervet monkey calls, and chimps, in any case, can be trained to use them. Dogs and horses can learn to obey verbal commands, as they learn to use “innate” signals.
At this stage, the sole but very real difference between animal and human is… la différance, l’écriture if we must, in opposition to the “instantaneous” reality of the en-soi. Derrida accuses metaphysics of falsely claiming this instantaneity to exist in declaratives as well, so that the “truth” of S+P is given not merely synthetically but immediately, like God’s self-identity in Exodus. The elementary forms include no internal deferral; the utterance calls attention to a single object or thing, whether to its presence or its absence. For the deferral that matters, that defines language and the human, is scenic, and it intervenes, as is not the case with animal signals, between the perception of the scene and the decision to defer action in order to communicate—to the community, but also to oneself—the sacrality/significance of the scenic center by means of the sign.
Once the elementary forms are included in our conception of (human) language, we realize that the difference between animal and human communication systems at the pre-declarative level cannot be grasped by empirical observation, but must be understood within a model of the nascent human community. It is the scenic configuration, with its focus on the center as not inhibited but interdicted through the mediation of the sign, that is uniquely human—and that will give rise over the millennia to first the imperative and then the declarative. The question of whether early humans existed whose language never reached the stage of the declarative sentence must be left to the paleontologists. But in any case, it would seem that animals on their own never advance beyond the ostensive, although they can be trained to respond to our (imperative) commands.
The animal signal is not, like the human sign, the product of a radical reconfiguration of the animal “community.” It is a straightforward product of evolution, the simplification of what was originally a reflex reaction—to a predator, to a source of food—into a signal as more conducive to the fitness of the group and hence of the genome of the signaler. In contrast, the human word is not the genetically determined modification of an innate reflex. According to the originary hypothesis, it is the result of a real-time reaction to dangerous circumstance, and its transmission is not “instinctual” but conscious. How can we prove this? We have no knowledge of the originary scene other than through its historical consequences. But these consequences are indubitable, and our only means of understanding what they involve is the reconstruction of the minimal difference that presided over their origin.
The power of Derrida’s insight is manifest in the fact that, in the sense that language is from the outset inhabited by the néant that defines “presence,” it is indeed “always-already” writing, inhabited by la différance. But language, spoken or written, does not depend on a political myth of presence designed to, as Tomasello puts it, anoint the masters of society. No doubt its very existence makes possible the usurpation of the scenic center and the consequent creation of marks of ontological superiority, up to the point of “deification.” But these remain derivatives of the fundamentally egalitarian human scene of representation, which, as Derrida might have agreed, is our uniquely human medium of communication.