My original intention for this talk was to celebrate, with a couple of years’ leeway, the 50th anniversary of Jacques Derrida’s De la grammatologie, which appeared in 1967. Derrida was, along with my teacher René Girard, the other major influence on the originary conception of generative anthropology, as represented by the definition of the human as the deferral of violence through representation: deferral=Derrida, violence=Girard, representation=Gans.
Then, given that this conference bears the label “the linguistic turn,” when I turned to the Richard Rorty anthology that popularized this term, I was struck by the fact that it too was published in 1967. This coincidence inspired me to reflect, in good Girardian fashion, on the parallel between philosophy’s enemy twins or frères ennemis, a subject that always delighted René.
The term metaphysics is vague; as you probably know, it just means “after the Physics” in the collection of Aristotle’s works. But I think I can give it a fairly precise definition. It characterizes a form of thought that takes mature human language as a given, whose essence is ahistorical and whose worldly origin is therefore irrelevant. Language, like mathematics, was so to speak always already up there on the great server in the sky; it just had to be downloaded.
Within the metaphysical domain, the linguistic turn of Russell and Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle in the first decades of the 20th century took the diametrically opposite direction from the phenomenological “turn” of Brentano and Husserl a generation earlier. In taking language as the very matter of philosophy, it reaffirmed metaphysics’ unspoken law that the existence of language itself be neither questioned nor explained. Thus these thinkers inaugurated a split with the metapsychological tendency of “Continental” phenomenological philosophy, which pursued Kant’s exploration of phenomena into experiences that were, so to speak, beneath words.
Today “French theory,” as Continental post-structuralism tended to be called in US literature departments, survives only as warmed-over Marxism. Even in Europe, philosophy departments have largely adopted the linguistic rigor of the “Anglo-Saxons,” although they perhaps remain more concerned with “consciousness” than philosophers on this side of the Atlantic.
But to turn back the clock, the generation of 1967 was characterized by a most instructive symmetry. De la grammatologie is a brilliant book, frustrating and repetitive, but nonetheless a major work not just of philosophy but of humanistic thought, as well as a very sharp theoretical and psychological analysis of J-J Rousseau. One cannot but admire the cultural sweep of Derrida’s study, which includes within the notion of “logocentrism” the entire Western philosophical tradition, plus modern linguistics and structuralist anthropology by focusing on Rousseau, whom Claude Lévi-Strauss had declared the “founder” of anthropology.
In contrast, the texts brought together by Rorty, which are more about philosophy than actually doing philosophy, are almost comically narrow in focus. We are far from the heroic system-building of Principia Mathematica and the Tractatus logico-philosophicus, and even J. L. Austin, the greatest “ordinary language” philosopher, is signaled out in this collection for his research methods rather than for his analyses of “doing things with words.” There are endless quibbles about what it means to say one is “certain” about an empirical judgment, or whether it is right to say “I see a table” when what I am “really” seeing is “part of my brain,” as Russell so elegantly put it. (Does this work for “The table fell over and broke my leg”?)
Given this sample of the philosophy that emerged from “the linguistic turn,” one cannot avoid the impression that the “love of wisdom” has been purged of any element of non-technical human interest. Such was no doubt the inevitable outcome of fully accepting the metaphysical a priori that language is something the philosopher must work to “purify” but never question in itself. This stands in contrast to those thinkers who, rebelling against what Derrida called la clôture de la métaphysique, had come to focus on our “transcendental consciousness”—what I call the scene of representation—which Husserl tried to examine by “bracketing” the outside world to focus on the mind’s intentional contents.
To understand the task of philosophy as describing this scene of representation is to begin to problematize the source of language that the analytic philosophers took for granted. The contrast between Husserl’s insistence that we examine the precise contents of our mental scene and Russell’s reference to the objects of our perception as “part of our brain” is exemplary. Husserl wanted to understand the mechanisms by which we “intend” the object we claim to see on the basis of our perception; Russell simply provides a “rule of language” to let us “speak correctly” about our perceptions.
As an extension of Husserl’s focus on our mental content as our means of connection to the world, his student Heidegger opposed Existenzphilosophie, the philosophy of human Dasein or being-there in the presence of Being, to Platonic metaphysics with its confidence in ready-made, “essential” Ideas. “Existence precedes essence,” as Sartre liked to say.
Today, Derrida’s critique of logocentrism is often reduced to a fancy intellectual preface to the “intersectional” victimary railing against the West that has invaded our educational and other institutions. But Derrida was truly a major thinker. And as a sign of this, I would remark on something that no one notices—no one, that is, but those who see the world from the perspective of generative anthropology: in De la grammatologie, Derrida comes as close as possible, asymptotically close, so to speak, to confronting the primary taboo of metaphysics, and in so doing, in revealing its centrality to the entire philosophical tradition. Whereas no analytic philosopher could conceive that an apparently empirical question had anything to do with philosophy, Derrida chose to concern himself, by way of Rousseau, with the origin of language as the central focus of the bible of deconstruction. This is, as we know better than anyone, the great unmentionable sore spot at the heart of the crisis of metaphysics and of the West, for the healing of which GA has proposed its “new way of thinking.”
Thus the greater part of De la grammatologie is dedicated to the analysis of Rousseau’s Essai sur l’origine des langues. This somewhat obscure posthumous work is not precisely situated in Rousseau’s career, although I tend to agree with Derrida that, whatever its early sources of inspiration in Rousseau’s musical theories and his polemic with Rameau, it is essentially posterior to the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, which deals more briefly with the same question.
Derrida sees Rousseau as the archetype of logocentric Western thought in the dawning age of anthropology. Standing at the end of the Early Modern era, a philosophe rather than a rigorous metaphysician in the German mold—and one who achieved notoriety in the “civilized” age of Voltaire by perversely denouncing les sciences et les arts as sources of corruption—Rousseau prefigured the Romantics’ problematization of culture’s “supplementary” improvement on nature.
The Early Modern era was a period of increasing exploration of the archaic, tribal world, leading to the beginnings of ethnography and of what can truly be called anthropological thought; that is, the search for an overall conception of the human across not merely civilizational differences but differences of cultural level suggestive of a process of historical evolution. This resulted in putting into question the understanding of human origin that had been taken for granted in Western thought as described, whether literally or figuratively, in Genesis.
Before Darwin, in the absence of a conception of biological evolution, the origin of the clearly non-biological phenomena of language and culture posed an insoluble dilemma, in fact, a paradox. As an alternative to the Biblical view of creation, this early anthropology had recourse to the “state of nature,” a term invented by Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century. But “man in the state of nature” is a truly paradoxical construction. The “social contract” model for which this “state” was invented—we all remember Hobbes’ description of it as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”—does not belong to anthropology but to political science. It was not created as a model of how “the first men” actually lived, but as an explanation of our acceptance of political authority. And whether violent like Hobbes’ or peaceful like Rousseau’s—who actually invented the term “social contract”—the “state of nature” is an artifact of the pre-Darwinian impossibility of conceiving our descent from pre-human species.
The idea of humans “acquiring language” is a contradiction in terms, given that language defines humanity. As Rousseau put this paradox in the Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité, “if men needed speech in order to learn how to think, they needed even more to know how to think in order to discover the art of speech”—incidentally demonstrating his intellectual superiority to those of our era who claim that language emerged because people had “ideas” that they wanted to communicate to others.
As the leading representative of pre-Darwinian anthropological thought, Rousseau thus serves as Derrida’s alibi for his continued attachment to metaphysics, even as he engages in its deconstruction. Rousseau offers Derrida the perfect example of the always-already-ness of language, not simply there, as it always remained for the Anglo-Germanic analytic philosophers, yet never having been in a state of not yet having begun.
This strange partnership between two writers of different centuries provides to my mind history’s most insightful internal analysis of metaphysics, such as could only have been performed by persons still in thrall to metaphysics, yet straining at its leash. One is tempted to say that metaphysics is this faith in the always-already-ness of human language as the only possible vision of the world for creatures who have no real way of eliminating their language from their very act of seeing.
Derrida relentlessly teases out through 400 pages the paradoxical core of Rousseau’s intellectual (and psychological) persona, revealing the latter’s thought process (as well as aspects of his personal behavior) to be analogous to that of the believer whose only source of salvation comes from continuing to sin in order to be able to purify himself with repentance. Language is humanity’s way of “supplementing” the purity of nature, for the fact that we have language already proves that we have lost this purity, which we use language to try to regain, like Proust’s temps retrouvé. Thus although Rousseau’s “logocentrism” makes him privilege “spontaneous” speech over writing, Derrida would show that all language is a deferral of spontaneity, of presence, and therefore in essence always-already écriture, writing.
No doubt we could claim that, coming well after Darwin, Derrida should have known better, that his recourse to Rousseau’s example is not in the best of faith. But thinking clearly about language origin requires a break with the metaphysical that Derrida was unwilling to make, preferring to remain within the limit of its “closure” while making a virtue of its necessity. Girard too was uncomfortable with the question of language, but was able to finesse it in a grand Christian gesture by placing on the title page of Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde (Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World) the opening line of John: En arche en ho logos: in the beginning was the word. The logos is Christ, embodying at once language and the deferral of violence. Girard’s faith was the source of his most profound anthropological insights, but in this case, his faith made it a little too easy for him to relegate human language to epiphenomenal status, something that Derrida, still awaiting his Messiah, could never do.
What then of the scientific attempts to deal with the origin of language? If philosophy is incapable of fully transcending its metaphysical roots without ceasing to be philosophy, how does GA measure up to the numerous efforts by primatologists, biologists, developmental psychologists, linguists, and cognitive and neuro-scientists, to deal with this question?
I wrote The Origin of Language after coming up with the originary hypothesis in the course of a visiting semester with Girard at Johns Hopkins in 1978. There had been a renewal of interest in the origin of language in the 1970s, and when the book appeared in 1981, I (as well as the UC Press, who gave it some publicity) assumed, as it turned out, mistakenly, that it would have a real impact on the field.
In 1981, at the tender age of 40, I had not yet thought through all the implications of the hypothesis, which at the time seemed to me to be summed up nicely in the capsule definition of the human quoted above. Yet already implicit in this definition was the confluence of the significant and the sacred that I talked about last year in Warsaw, a propos of John’s (and René’s) En arche en ho logos, justifying anthropologist Roy Rappaport’s insistence on the coevality of language and religion. But although the idea of an originary connection between language and religion is one that thinkers from Vico to Durkheim would have more or less taken for granted, this notion has vanished from the intellectual landscape of the various specialists who today study the question of language origin—a group that includes primatologists but not the ethnologists who embody our common conception of “the anthropologist.” Thus the word religion appears rarely if at all in the index of the many volumes on the subject.
As I recently noted (see Chronicle 611) a propos of last September’s Scientific American issue titled “Humans: Why we’re unlike any other species on the planet,” the tension between the need to distinguish ourselves from other creatures and the impossibility of doing so without postulating a new level of being is made obvious by language such as this:
animals are smarter than widely thought. . . . Nevertheless, there is something profoundly distinct about human language, foresight, intelligence, culture and morality . . . [T]wo underlying characteristics kept emerging as making the critical human-animal difference. One . . . I call “nested scenario-building” . . . our ability to imagine alternative situations . . . The other is the “urge to connect,” which is our deep-seated drive and capacity to exchange our thoughts with others . . . (46 – italics mine)
The “urge to connect” is nothing but a psychological trivialization of the specificity of human language, without which we could hardly “exchange our thoughts,” but there is not the least reflection on how we acquired these “characteristics,” as though, like the opposable thumb, they were simple products of natural selection.
This is just a minor demonstration that in the recent research into the different areas of “language origin,” the claim that a new ontology is required to understand human language and culture would meet with simple incomprehension. Scientists do not do ontology. They treat human language strictly as a bio-cognitive phenomenon, every feature of which is linked to developments in the brain and the vocal tract, on the one hand, and on the other, in the social group dynamic we also share with other primates.
In this perspective, the cultural realm has simply become irrelevant. These researchers recognize that human language is something quite different from the signals of primates, let alone of “lower” animals—but from a theoretical perspective, this too is very nearly irrelevant: our differences, even the Chomskian criterion of recursivity, are just matters of degree. The point is not, as it was in the days of Kanzi and Washoe, to find proof that we aren’t really so different from chimpanzees. It is simply to avoid all “value judgments” and just study language as a biological cum data processing phenomenon, without denying the superior qualities of our version.
Human social interactions too are presented as continuous with those of our hominin ancestors and relatives. But (with an interesting exception I shall mention below) the Girardian theme of the need to avoid internecine violence among increasingly mimetic proto-humans never arises. At most, the point is made that as proto-human groups became larger, language was “useful” in permitting broader-scale communication. The idea that humans are “profoundly distinct” is both an acknowledgement of this cultural difference and its dismissal as anything but an intriguing curiosity.
Clearly great advances have been made in understanding the operations of the brain; indeed, the day seems to be approaching when neuroscience and computer science will be seen as two branches of the same field. But what is missing are the humanistic insights of either the earlier anthropologists like Rappaport, or Max Müller, who back in the 1860s saw worship of the sacred as the originary function of language—his idea that the first word was the word for “sun” is not without resonance with GA—or of the post-phenomenological philosophers, who recognized the ontological divide between what Sartre called the natural en-soi and the human pour-soi, although as good metaphysicians they never conceived a historical transition from one to the other, let alone an originary event.
Neuroscientist Terrence Deacon emphasized in his 1997 book The Symbolic Species that from the outset the signs of human language were not a development of animal calls, but an entirely new departure. Yet Deacon’s point has been ignored in the search for more subtle biological continuities. And no one has followed Deacon’s lead in imagining, if not exactly an event, a scenario in which language might have originated. (Deacon saw language emerging as a means for males leaving on hunting trips to insure the faithfulness of the females left behind by permitting the celebration of a kind of marriage).
Today the sciences that the French still insist on calling human—les sciences humaines—increasingly treat the uniqueness of human culture as an epiphenomenon. Meanwhile our so-called “humanists” increasingly see their task not as explaining the anthropological sources of our culture’s unique achievements, but as deconstructing these achievements as disguised apologies for such things as “white supremacy.” Generative anthropology remains the only secular way of thinking that reminds us of the transcendental peace-making function of language and culture. That what Rappaport saw in 1997 as a traditional and still fairly obvious parallel between language and religion is simply irrelevant to more recent studies of language origin should serve us as a stimulus to preserve in our own work not merely this parallel, but the entire complex of humanistic culture that grew up around it.
As generative anthropologists we can provide not just encouragement but intellectual weapons for the threatened humanist perspective by pointing out the blind spots in the bio-cognitive view of the human. And in the first place, by reminding our audience of the reason for language in the first place: the deferral of violence. This Girardian reference corresponds precisely to what is missing in these other accounts of language origin.
As I noted in Chronicle 614, Richard Wrangham’s The Goodness Paradox (Pantheon, 2019) comes tantalizingly close to confirming this conception. The confirmation is all the more precious in that not only is Wrangham unaware of GA, but far more importantly, he is loath even to touch on the taboo that surrounds the origin of language. Wrangham is a primatologist; his book deals with the comparative psychology of apes and humans with respect to what he describes as domestication, defined as a diminished tendency toward reactive violence in response to provocation, as opposed to the proactive or premeditated violence unique to humans. This animal form of the “deferral of violence” has arisen through natural selection as a necessity for animals living in close proximity to humans. Pets from wild species, even after years of peaceful coexistence, may be triggered by some unusual stimulus and attack their owners with tragic results.
The human case, obviously, is different. Language enters Wrangham’s equation by way of explaining our capacity to proactively plan violence in a group, that is, to defer an immediate, violent reaction in order better to achieve the same goal. I quoted the following passage in my Chronicle:
Regardless of when coalitionary proactive aggression began against strangers, the impact of such killing within groups was limited until humans’ development of language . . . With the arrival of planned and communally approved executions [i.e., such as language alone permits], the bullying of an alpha male was exchanged for the subtler tyranny of the previous underdogs. . . . It took the mysterious dawning of a language facility, sometime between 500,000 and 300,000 years ago, to shake us into a new world. (277)
This passage can stand as a quasi-confirmation of the originary hypothesis by someone who treats the origin of language itself as the equivalent of a religious mystery. Of course, language could not have emerged because proto-humans wanted to plan the murder of the Alpha animal, a la Freud’s father-murder scenario in Totem and Taboo. Yet the scenario Wrangham proposes focuses, as does the originary hypothesis, on the shift from a pecking-order Alpha-Beta hierarchy to an equalitarian collective, where the diminution of human reactivity that he calls “domestication” is effectively a synonym for the deferral of violence. All that is missing is to plug the ontological innovation expressed as the “mysterious dawning” of language into the moment of the Alpha’s loss of power, in order to inaugurate through the scenic force of the event a cultural memory of the sacred-interdicted nature of the center. Then the murder Wrangham describes can be replaced by the (deferred) potential of collective violence against a violator of the ethic established in the scene. After all, hunter-gatherer- societies are often violent, but they do not operate through planned murders; even the most primitive have sacred interdictions that define the limits of what Durkheim called the group’s “solidarity.”
In contrast with the origin of life, which involves a clear qualitative break that makes gradualist explanations impossible, the origin of language is no clearer now from a natural-scientific perspective than it was in the pre-Darwinian days of Rousseau. As we have discovered, getting from the proto-human hominin stage to language by a series of discrete steps isn’t any easier to explain than getting there from the “state of nature.” The more we know about the mental processes of humans and their primate relatives, living and extinct, and the more parallels we can draw between every aspect of their proto-linguistic behavior, the less the scientific method seems able to define the qualitative leap, the “mysterious dawning,” that must have taken place.
For unlike the universe of living organisms, the “world” of language and culture is not a material one. The type-token relationship in language belongs to a different dimension from the apparently analogous one in biology; two uses of a word cannot be understood as the equivalent of two animals of the same species. And neither are they the equivalent of two identical cries of one of these animals. Cries do not form a “language”; they are not signs but actions, the equivalent of stereotyped movements. They do not mean but are. In Peirce’s terminology, they are indexical, not symbolic.
In not a single one of the language-origin studies I have read is there a thought given to the idea of a minimal language origin, the emission of a first symbolic sign. Yet the difference between human and animal communication can only be understood in this manner. Once we are willing to see human language as something entirely new, we no longer need burden the study of its origin with the complexities of syntax or even with the need to convey information.
Human language at its origin is not differentiated from ape communication by its greater complexity. On the contrary, it is the ontological difference between the crudest human sign and the most complex animal signal that provides the potential for human language’s future complexities of sound and meaning.
No doubt the world of “Continental” philosophy that for practical purposes ended with Derrida’s generation was a bit unsubtle in distinguishing between human and animal minds. Descartes viewed animals as biological machines, and Sartre’s confinement of the entirety of non-human nature to the en-soi where, as he put it, everything was “stuck together” without a néant to allow for self-conscious reflection, was no doubt excessive. But this bluntness emphasized the key point that none of the bio-cognitive studies on the subject seem to be even dimly aware of. Animals can think about immediate situations, but lacking signs, they have no mechanism for thinking about absent objects, or about the future, or of storing their thoughts for future reflection. They can observe what is present to them, but they lack human beings’ “cultural organ,” the scene of representation. They have experiences, but not events that remain in shared social memory. Hence it is no surprise that they have no rites to celebrate these events, no cultures to preserve their trace.
And when we ask what is the new element in human communication that is absent from that of the ape, and what circumstances caused language to arise, we are brought back to the deferral of violence. Whatever my criticism of Girard’s originary scenario, it was no accident that it served as the primary inspiration for my own. It was driven by the reasonable assumption that as our ancestors became more “mimetic,” more prone to learn how to acquire and manipulate and above all to desire the same objects, the more proto-human society was in danger of succumbing to outbursts of violence.
Thus the originary hypothesis defines the first sign as a gesture of appropriation that, rather than “instinctively” perpetrating its natural “violence,” turns back from its object, and in doing so embodies the first event on the first scene of human culture.
The idea that language arises as a means for deferring violence is certainly the one great idea I have had in my lifetime. We begin as humans by fearing our own and each other’s violence, by expelling and sacralizing it, not primarily, as Girard would have it, in the mode of scapegoating méconnaissance, but rather as the fear of violent contagion that is the beginning of wisdom. The first embodiment of the sacred, the object too precious to appropriate, is the body of the victim we have not yet torn apart. Sharing this victim in the subsequent sparagmos-communion provides the originary peace that all our religious and secular beliefs seek to perpetuate.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of holding on to the scenic intuition that is the core of GA. The crux of the matter is not the intricacies of syntax or the brain’s decoding mechanisms, which we can take for granted as the products of biological evolution. It is the “little bang” of the originary event that distinguishes our humanistic anthropology from the scientific studies that, however valuable in themselves, risk distracting us from the essential function of human language.
The sign as conceived by the originary hypothesis is an ostensive gesture, with or without a verbal accompaniment: one bit of information. Or rather, not “information” at all, but the source of the future possibility of using “information,” of thinking in terms of informing others through signs. The originary sign is the origin both of the sacred, which we cannot conceive as having an origin, and of the significant, which, with a little effort, we can.
Let me leave you with a final thought. As Richard van Oort pointed out years ago, GA is not a religion. But it shares with religion a point that I have come to consider essential: both religion and GA provide in principle a model of the origin of language as inaugurating in the human something ontologically other that stands in a transcendent relationship to the phenomena of nature. In this they contrast both with the world of metaphysics, which takes for granted the world of signs, and with metaphysics’ prolongation in the natural sciences, for which signs are just a new kind of natural phenomenon.
Science is a wonderful thing. But I am more and more persuaded that the mode of thought that takes language for granted as a tool for which it has no one to thank, neither God nor the human community as we conceive it, is indeed, as Eric Voegelin called the Enlightenment, a form of Gnosticism, the expression of a resentful intellect that believes itself all-powerful.
The past century was littered with the corpses of those destroyed by movements that embodied this Gnosticism. Whether or not we engage in religious practice, we must stand on the side of those who humbly accept language, not as a “natural” development, but as a world-transcending gift of peace, whether from the hands of God, or from our own—and whether or not these alternatives are themselves no more than saying the same thing in different words.