This English proverb is often traced to Plato’s words in the Republic (369c):
…let us create a city from the beginning, in our theory. Its real creator, as it appears, will be our needs.
It is ironic that Plato should be, even indirectly, the originator of this proverb, given the very essence of Plato’s thinking, which after Parmenides formalized the foundational ideal of philosophy in the opposition between truth and opinion, of which only the former is “philosophical.” This principle of philosophy establishes metaphysics, which can be defined in various ways, but which is at its base a denial of the specifically anthropological nature of language.**
Philosophical language consists of true propositions, and the worldly or divine process by which humans arrived at the ability to formulate true propositions, that is, the use of language—including, as proposed in The Origin of Language (TOOL), the evolution of the declarative sentence from the elementary forms that language must have taken at its origin—is not taken into consideration. As a result, language is conceived as a neutral means of communication independent of any necessity that might have incited humans to invent it, as Socrates suggests would be the case for the city he is proposing to Adeimantus to build.
For the last several years I have situated generative anthropology in relation to the intellectual tendency, begun at least nominally with the post-Hegelians and pursued most creatively in the postwar era in “French Theory,” that has sought to go “beyond” metaphysics, defined as above.
It might surprise those who consider it as some kind of cosmic absolute that “truth” in its fundamental sense is simply a quality of verified propositions, whether empirical or analytic—and in the former case, as Karl Popper made explicit, no amount of “verification” can suffice to guarantee universality. The proposition, or declarative sentence, is a human tool for understanding the world, and in the first place, for understanding ourselves, as its derivation from a “failed imperative” in TOOL suggests. Once this principle is understood, we no longer need to struggle to escape what a Nietzsche translation called “the prison house of language”; we are back in the real world where language was created.
GA’s originary hypothesis is not an unproved empirical statement awaiting verification, but a heuristic that, lacking a radical transformation of the conditions of our knowledge, can be replaced only by a better heuristic. In the meantime, the originary hypothesis is the only heuristic construction of the origin of human language and culture founded on the principle that we invent only what we need.
With the exception of Terrence Deacon’s provocative but not seriously intended suggestion in The Symbolic Species (1997) that the first use of language may have been in a “marriage ceremony” to assure a hunter of the fidelity of his “wife” when away on a hunting expedition, all other accounts view human language as a gratuitous product of our developing mental capacities, in some cases even claiming that proto-humans first had “ideas” and then developed language in order to communicate them. It is curious that a scientific community that is able to land a probe on an asteroid and return geological specimens to earth can harbor at the same time such infantile notions.
It is well known that in 1866, the Société de linguistique de Paris declared its refusal to consider papers about the origin of language. And indeed, the best-known scenarios of human origin, that of Freud’s Totem and Taboo and Girard’s meurtre émissaire, neither of which deals explicitly with language, are far from providing a solution.
The upshot of all this is that today’s scientific world neither needs nor wants a heuristic for the origin of language. Social scientists aren’t paid to create heuristics, which is a speculative activity fit only for “French theory,” but to do research. So let’s all apply for research grants to examine the languages of our closest primate relatives, their social structures and cognitive abilities, their capacity for religious feelings, etc. etc. These studies do not risk exhausting the terrain; there will always be new parameters to consider.
Meanwhile, however, the scientific community can get along very well, not only without such a heuristic, but in denying the very idea that one might be useful.
Why, might one ask, after all these centuries of philosophical self-exploration, of scientific inquiry and its technological application, has humanity proven itself incapable of applying to language the simple principle that Plato seems to be aiming at in the quoted passage: necessity is the mother of invention?
I would explain this anomaly, ironically enough, by the fact that when necessity forced humans to defer their “instincts” and mediate them through a communal culture, of which language is the primary ingredient, they acquired both the relative peace and the mental “free space” (the Hegelian-Sartrean pour-soi, or internal scene of representation) in which to conjure up ideas without the direct pressure of necessity. Hence we like to think of human inventions such as language or religion as unforced, happy discoveries, on the model of Archimedes in his bathtub discovering the weight equivalent of the displacement of water. This makes a neat and flattering contrast with the prehuman world, where “invention” had been an arduous procedure, involving generations of “struggle for life” before a new appendage or organ would evolve to resolve the original problem, assuming the species had not become extinct in the meantime.
Above all, the skepticism concerning the possibility of a heuristic hypothesis of the origin of language reflects a profound cynicism within the scientific community concerning the necessity of positing a realm of transcendence. Without a God to give us language, we can only depend on our knowledge of our primate ancestors, and the claim that some catastrophic difficulty in human interaction made language and religion necessary, however cogently the hypothesis is presented, provokes its dismissal as a “just-so” story.
Kipling’s “just-so” stories can be explained by simple Darwinian processes. The giraffe’s neck grows longer, not because he stretches it, but because the long-necked ones survive and reproduce better than the others. Hence, because language and culture are not direct results of the processes of biological evolution, the “just-so” story is not the one told by GA, but rather by those who dismiss GA as fantasy, while proposing in Kiplingesque fashion that language emerged when human intelligence produced “ideas” that it “wanted to communicate.” The giraffe species can metaphorically stretch its neck, but homo sapiens can’t think that it wants language without a language to think it in.
Recently Bishop Pierre Whalon, whose book on marriage Made in Heaven? I discussed in Chronicle 678, sent me as a “FYI” an article by James Harrod entitled “The Case for Chimpanzee Religion,” published in the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 8.1 (June 2014: 8-45). I was immediately struck by the introductory passage, in which the author supports his thesis by reference to a line by Jane Goodall, whose familiarity with chimps and their ways was legendary, from her entry on “Primate Spirituality” in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (Continuum, 2005), p. 1304:
Often I am asked if the chimpanzees show any signs of religious behavior. I think perhaps their ‘elemental’ displays are precursors of religious ritual. [She then describes waterfall displays, water watching, and rain dance behaviors she has witnessed.]… Is it not possible that these performances are stimulated by feelings akin to wonder and awe? (Harrod: 2)
With all due respect, even more than language, whose obvious practical uses explain if they do not excuse the tendency to look upon it as a “happy discovery,” religion is an expensive activity, not a gratuitous exercise of our or the chimps’ faculties of “wonder and awe.” As the quote from Homer in Chronicle 681 demonstrates, the common attitude toward the gods in ancient times was not wonder and awe, but fear and resentment. For Achilles, we can’t escape the Gods’ power, but we don’t have to like it. The Christian attitude of love of God that serves Goodall as her implicit point of reference is, we must recall, dependent on God’s sacrifice in the Crucifixion: love, here and elsewhere, is the transcendence of resentment.
Harrod’s “trans-species” definition of religion includes, in fact, “experiencing or expressing emotion of wonder . . . with respect to a phenomenon . . . which is surprising, non-ordinary . . . or ‘miraculous’” (p. 14). This effort to create an intuition of transcendence from the everyday worldly phenomenon of curiosity, which before it killed the cat was already operative in the amoeba, is hardly convincing.
Strangely missing from the “five dimensions” of Harrod’s definition: reverence, careful observance, emotion of dread, emotion of wonder, “binding individuals together . . . in empathic intimacy or communion . . .,” is any consideration of the necessity of this behavior, which perhaps explains the unexpected omission of ritual behavior, explicitly mentioned by Goodall, from his list.
This is no doubt because animal rituals, at least, are clearly driven by necessity. For example, courtship rites serve to select the best mates and avoid violence that would reduce the overall “reproductive fitness” of the group. But ritual is devoid of the overtly self-conscious behaviors that Harrod sees as defining religion: awe, dread (as opposed to mere fear), reverence, empathic intimacy.
Yet the central determinant of human religion is not self-conscious emotion. It is, very simply, the sacred, which must be carefully defined in distinction from the worldly objects of emotions such as “reverence” or “dread.”
Chimps may be closer than snakes or even monkeys to engaging in religious behaviors, or in linguistic behaviors for that matter, but it is the discontinuity that is essential. Human religion is not constituted by “religious behavior” but by a collective sense of the sacred as a source of interdiction mediated through signs. “In the beginning was the Word.”
No doubt these differences of opinion can be described simply as arguments over terminology. The fact that I insist on the uniqueness of human language or religion is, after all, just a matter of definition. The generic terms “language” and “religion” can if we like be extended to include “animal languages” and “animal religions,” nor is there any reason not to study these phenomena.
But what gets lost in a world where scientists refuse to make conceptual distinctions between human and animal “cultures” is not the “speciesism” that allows the less woke among us to slaughter animals for food or enslave them as “pets,” but the specific responses to specific necessities that made us specifically human.
I would not have the bad taste to confuse a serious scientist like Dr. Harrod with the theoreticians of the softer sciences who are happy to condemn speciesism as an extension of “white privilege.” Dr. Harrod’s are not sins of commission, but of omission. In order to appreciate in their own terms the “religious” activities of chimpanzees, one must first have a clear characterization of human religion and of the necessity that was its originary cause. But as we saw in the case of language, one can hardly blame a contemporary social scientist if such clear ideas are not available to him.
This is the appropriate point in which to emphasize the contribution of René Girard to our understanding on this issue. Despite his use of the Vulgate version of John’s words, In principio erat Verbum, as the epigraph to the section on “L’écriture judéo-chrétienne” of Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde (Grasset, 1978), Girard, who spent his life studying texts, was, unlike Jacques Derrida, not interested in language per se. But it was Girard’s anthropological insight that was the key to making generative anthropology possible, whereas Derrida, the more subtle thinker, remained enmeshed in the marges de la philosophie (aka métaphysique) that he was always seeking paradoxically to escape.
In a word, Girard understood that in order to grasp the specificity of the human and its culture, one must in the first place apply the proverb that stands at the head of this Chronicle. What was the necessity that drove these hominins to create religion and language? What was the urgent, life-threatening problem that becoming-human resolved? Girard knew enough about this problem in knowing that human desire is mimetic, that mimetic desire leads to conflict, and that mimetic conflict, la violence, is what makes homo sapiens the only species that is potentially a greater danger to itself than the external world—and consequently, the only species that needs language and religion.
Once Girard had defined the problem of the origin of human language and culture by the need to establish communal peace via a mechanism that transcended instinct—as this problem had never previously been defined in the entire history of philosophy or anthropology—the task of working out a specific solution, an originary hypothesis, became a realizable project. It is this project that I am proud to call generative anthropology.
**I would like to thank George Dunn for pointing out that in the context of the Republic, the principle that our needs should determine the creation of the city, the first in a series of hypotheses concerning the construction of the ideal polis, is in fact rejected. This adds an additional layer of irony to the attribution of this proverb to Plato.