We should conceive of the originary différance or space-time of deferral that enables the conversion of a practical movement of appropriation into a new mode of communication, the symbolic sign, as the focal point of all that distinguishes the human from what preceded it. Historians of philosophy can no doubt trace this conception back to its roots in Kant and beyond, but it reaches a point of thematization only with the notion of intentionality, conceived first psychologically and then “existentially.” But given its centrality to our understanding of the human, tracing the history of the concept is less important than situating it as precisely as possible within the originary hypothesis.
To call this différance a néant as Sartre does is as much as to say that it has no independent being of its own. No wonder, then, that a thinker as suspicious of abstractions as René Girard could never accept to conceive the locus of what he called “the first non-instinctual attention” other than as the physical space in which a cadaver had replaced the living being of the scapegoat. Yet this abstraction is necessary in order for us to conceive the unity of the human. Derrida’s perverse genius conceived la différance as a sort of dehiscence or gap in what, as a political equivalent of original sin, had been spuriously presented as the presence of truth in the sign—a form of what Sartre had called bad faith, where such spurious evidence was precisely faith’s object, a sacralization of the en-soi.
But this image of solidity as a figure of propaganda is a secondary construction that does not do justice to the profundity of Derrida’s intuition of the spatio-temporal separation that makes “difference” not possible—the world contains it from the start—but—as différance—conceivable. For the token of a sign is not a revelation, but a thing like any other. The type-token distinction that characterizes the sign is, in conceptual terms, the minimal expression of différance itself.
Our first experience of différance is that between the world of the sign and the “real” world of its actual and potential referents. As Girard recognized, language was at first, and in a sense still is, the mark of the sacred. Sacrality cannot be defined solely as a property of sacred “objects.” The sacred can be designated only by a communal sign, which itself, as with the Hebrew “name of God,” may be referred to only by a sign. (In the context of a conceptual understanding of différance, one might claim that the strict prohibition of iconic representation—“graven images”—that Islam shares with Judaism is vitiated by its non-prohibition of pronouncing the name-of-God, which not merely figures but addresses/commands the divinity. The reply would be to affirm the absolute nature of the type-token distinction.)
The richness of human culture, and first of all, of the sacred, stems from the transcendence realized in the non-act of deferral. What interdicts the appropriation of the sacred object is a quality irreducible to empirical attributes, yet empirically observable as productive of deferral itself. At the same time, once the sign exists, its tokens are worldly objects like any others that can be manipulated in the absence of the deferral within which they were first conceived—for example, by machines such as computers.
Because types are only visible through their tokens, the necessity of deferral to the constitution of the sign can only be (re)constructed, not demonstrated. The Enlightenment quarrel between believers and non-believers, God-creates-man and man-creates-God, turns on the necessity of such a construction. GA proposes that both sides agree that man constructs God, whether on the basis of reason or revelation.
The person of faith cannot well deny that the very notion of faith implies the impossibility of a straightforward logical-empirical demonstration. The more difficult task is to persuade the nonbeliever of the pertinence of the question itself. Clearly from a Hegelian point of view it is inconceivable that religious belief of whatever kind is simply a mistake, like thinking the earth is flat. Yet from the perspective of empirical science, its cutting off by Ockham’s razor is unavoidable. From that of Western philosophy/metaphysics, where Hegel by no means reigns supreme, the question is indeterminate. The only fundamental proposition that all philosophers tacitly agree on is that, whatever its origin, language cannot be put into question; what credence we give to any other non-empirical statements depends on one’s premises, not on philosophy as such. Generative anthropology, which puts the question of language at its center, fills the gap left by these other modes of thought.
The naïve understanding of belief in God is that it stems from an urge to “anthropomorphize” whatever in nature exhibits behavior not subject to our will: whence worship/deification of the sun, wind, storms, ocean, etc. “Animism” is seen as a primordial form of rational thought, as though, given our possession of “reason,” it goes without saying that we “need to explain” things, and that the simplest explanation is by analogy with ourselves.
The “common sense” behind this oddly uncontroversial explanation is ungrounded in a conception of what language is and how it arose. The existence of independent centers of agency is something experienced from the beginning of time by living creatures. Do we want to say that they too “believe in god”? To put it another way, what benefit is it to humans to postulate “supernatural” forces to explain what we experience as natural phenomena?
That we take such explanations for granted is the result of several centuries of religious skepticism—which is in turn the result of the failure to offer a convincing explanation for the existence of language and religion, that is, to conceptualize what can be called transcendental phenomena. In other words, if we can cogently explain the existence of language, which empirical scientists take for granted as a simple extension of animal signaling systems, if not of DNA “coding,” then we can begin to understand not merely caricatures of religion, but its real significance.
Max Müller’s idea that the first word designated the sun, because we all recognize the sun’s power both to warm us—and to prevent us from looking directly at it—contained a genuine element of transcendence, one that indeed has parallels in pre-modern religion. But what would the first men see in the sun that was different from the view of their immediate pre-human predecessors? These speculations in the spirit of Auguste Comte, whose ideas about the first or “theological” stage of human society had the excuse of predating later generations’ direct investigation of tribal societies, must be abandoned once one attempts to think more rigorously about how the originary event would generate a need for transcendental concepts. Which is to say that we must, as in a mental laboratory, apply the Cartesian procedure of concentrated reflection on a minimal set of phenomena—the procedure pursued by Brentano and Husserl, albeit from a narrowly psychological perspective.
What then is there about the originary sacred object that is “supernatural,” that cannot be encompassed by the “natural realism” of the creatures that preceded us? Thus we come back to the question of what did we need language for in the first place?
What is not “natural” about the referent of the sign is that it is not “my” referent but that of the community. It suffices to prolong Durkheim’s notion of the sacred as the embodiment of the values of the community to understand its “supernaturalism.” Whereas Durkheim himself, who considered the concepts of language, like those of religion, as représentations collectives, refused to speculate about the origin of these cultural foundations, the originary hypothesis views significance/sacrality as a quality embodied in the sign as a relationship among speaker, object, and community in a mode for which no previous object relation can serve as example.
As a counter-example, we can cite the Pavlovian phenomenon of “inhibition.” If an animal after performing some act is several times subjected to an electric shock, it will avoid this behavior in the future. Superficially, this is identical to the behavior of the performer of the “aborted gesture of appropriation”: the original movement toward the object is “inhibited,” and in animal behaviors, there are a great variety of ways in which the original energy can be deviated from its original aim.
But the sacred object is not interdicted because it somehow provokes a shock, but because it is the point of convergence of the group’s desires. The sign’s function as an alternative discharge of energy is secondary to its communicative function, which addresses the entire community, not serially but as a unit. Indeed, it is this address that constitutes the community as a unit. Physically, the community is a loose collection of individuals, but as the interlocutor of the sign, it is an “ideal” being—an entity of an entirely new type—defined as the “agent” of the interdiction associated with the sacred central object.
It is this new conception of “agency” that leads to the ultimate paradoxical understanding of God as possessor of a will and inseparable from human existence, whether in the dialectical structure of the trinity or more simply as the mortal-immortal Buddha. Following in the footsteps of Eric Voegelin, a GA-inspired “history of ideas” should attempt to determine just what new element in the “axial” era in which Buddhism and Christianity emerged made it necessary and possible to reconceive the sacred as at the same time both eternal and humanly incarnate.
On the societal level, the question of whether the nation, the creation of the Hebrews, or “global” humanity, as diversely projected by Christianity and Islam, provides the ultimate model for the human community is far from settled. We may speculate that the final result will involve some new synthesis of locality and universality that will transcend the curse of Babel—as English seems to be in the process of doing in the linguistic domain, despite Anna Wierzbicka’s warnings.
For the moment, it is intellectually and existentially urgent to restore to religious concepts like “God” and “transcendence” their anthropological dignity. I think it is clear that this cannot be the task of either philosophy or empirical science—that it requires an anthropology independent from, though never in conflict with, empirical science. It is in this “fourth way” that we can progress toward elucidating the unity of the sacred and the significant.