As I recounted in Chronicle 504, the name I first chose for this “new way of thinking” was genetic anthropology, translating the French word génétique, whose use is not confined to the biological. But as my publisher pointed out to me, in English, it is, so I was obliged to borrow Chomsky’s term generative.
Political differences with Chomsky aside, the unfortunate character of the word generative is that in Chomsky’s usage, and implicitly in the word itself, the product of a generative system is wholly determined by the preexisting paradigms of the system. Its history is not a series of new revelations, but the discovery of new possibilities latent within it.
Mathematics is the most salient model of such a system. There is indeed a history of mathematics, and of new and revolutionary developments, such as calculus, group theory, topology… that were inconceivable to Pythagoras or Euclid. But none of these discoveries implied any change in mathematical foundations; they were new extensions and restatements of the original elements and laws of the system.
The metaphysical domain, to the extent that philosophers considered themselves able to derive its categories from the originary one of Being, reached its most ambitious heights with Hegel, who indeed proceeded to “deduce” all of human and world history from Being via the “dialectic,” on the basis that we had now reached “the end of history” from which all the stages of this dialectic could be observed. But needless to say, even Hegel’s Logic is not a truly deductive system, let alone his Philosophy of History. Being does not “imply” non-being as its antithesis, nor is Being itself an “originary” idea, as is the sacred in the founding experience of generative anthropology. Logic is not about “ideas,” but about propositional truth-values.
The originary hypothesis seeks to understand human origin “in its own terms,” by positing a plausible point of departure for the human scene of representation, language, and the sacred. No such hypothesis, however faithful its depiction of the originary event, could permit us to deduce from it the course of human history. But a variant of Hegel’s procedure remains valid. The present is the “end of history,” history until now. To the extent that we can show that the anthropology founded on the originary hypothesis “transcends,” “lifts up” (aufhebt), situates within its own framework, previous anthropologies, we can claim that it offers a superior perspective on the course of human history.
Unlike Aristotle or Hegel, I have neither the pretension nor the time to put together an Organon. After The Origin of Language (TOOL; 1981), the University of California published in 1985 The End of Culture, in which I attempted to describe the emergence of literary culture from the domain of sacred myth. Then in Originary Thinking (Stanford, 1993), I proposed a set of literary-historical categories (classical, neo-classical, romantic, post-romantic…) based on the relationship of the protagonist to the scene within which he appears. But in neither case did I attempt to formulate a generally applicable methodology based on the experience of the originary event.
To make up for this, I have attempted, here and in a number of other recent Chronicles (notably 681, 682, 685, 686, 687, 688, 691), to exemplify more systematically than in the past the procedure of originary phenomenology described in the previous Chronicle 692, providing examples of its application to religious and philosophical/metaphysical texts.
Hopefully these examples can furnish subjects of discussion at our forthcoming GA Summer Conference (website) to be held online June 14-16, along with topics suggested by conference participants. A more specific list of questions to be addressed will be made available in advance of the conference.
Humanistic vs Empirical Anthropology
The methodology of the social sciences rejects as merely speculative hypotheses not “falsifiably” grounded on empirical data. Hence these sciences reject out of hand the argument for GA: that the human cannot be understood without a model of its scenic origin, and that such a model cannot be based on empirical data, because the human is defined by its culture, whose earliest manifestations could only have been a set of scenic behaviors that cannot for the foreseeable future be reconstructed in sufficient detail by means of such data.
The principle of what I have called humanistic anthropology is that the organization of the human scene is not a sum of separate traits but a unified whole that, while not necessarily more complex than certain highly organized animal behaviors, is not actuated by hereditary mechanisms and conditioned reflexes, but by consciously willed acts. Thus the conclusions of GA, beginning with the insights into the prehistory of mature language developed in TOOL on the basis of the originary hypothesis, are methodologically off bounds to empirical social science.
The human is defined by its origin but not determined by it; the human capacity for conceiving the world on our scene of representation and manipulating it ever more freely distinguishes us from all other creatures. Hence in contrast to the Darwinian story, there is not only a (sociological-political) history of human organizational structures, but a metahistory of our understanding of these structures. To the extent that generative anthropology is a “new way of thinking” with respect to both these narratives, it is because its own genesis depended both on earlier understandings and on their encounter with new realities. In all significant human behavior, dialectical interaction between theory and practice is inevitable, mediated as they both are by human scenic consciousness.
Varieties of Providence
Providence is, so to speak, another “name” for God. It is not simply an aspect but the essence of the sacred will, to defer the mimetic conflict that always threatens the human community. And although today, natural disasters, “acts of God” in the insurance sense, even if we pray God to avert them, are no longer seriously considered as punishments for our sins nor as the focus of a sacred will, the sense of “tempting providence” remains alive in the eagerness many feel to explain such disasters by human actions that are “sins against nature.”
Our tendency to exaggerate our own contribution to conditions such as what used to be called “global warming” reaffirms human agency, not out of pride, but on the contrary as a reaffirmation that providence would continue to protect us had we not strayed from the right path. The same phenomenon is at the core of wokeness’ denial of agency to “victims” while focusing on “our” sins as oppressors—the negative version of “the white man’s burden.”
If the essence of the sacred is an intention protecting the human from itself, the specific details of different creeds are all the more important in their understanding of the nature of this protection. The obvious distinction between the Christian combat against sin, which differs from Jewish obedience to the law not so much in its content as in its insistence on mediation by Christ, and the Buddhist emptying of the scene of desire, reflect their different cultural origins, but go beyond them as “ways of life,” aspects of which can be transferred to alien cultures, as various Buddhist modes of meditation have been adopted in the West. This comparison can be extended to other religions by examining the model of the originary scene implicit in their scriptures.
It is important to understand the sacred as the effect of a providential will rather than simply of collective human self-interest, because it is experienced in the first place as such an effect. The good of the community is felt as prior to the individual wills of its members, and in fact serves as their model. That is, our sense of God’s prior existence is not merely the result of our “lateness” with respect to previously existing human society; it is present in humans from the outset.
Existentialism and the “Death of God”
Given this intuition of the sacred’s temporal and ontological priority, Existentialism’s affirmation of the subject’s freedom is less a liberation from theistic dependence than an expression of modernist hubris, the individual discovering as a personal truth the deferral of appetitive behavior that humanity had in fact learned collectively.
This fact is not a refutation of this individual “discovery,” but an obligation to understand it as the product, not of a triumph over “superstition,” but of a reflection on the originary source of our internal scene of representation, and in particular, of our moral conscience.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy has fallen on hard times, in part because his individualist Marxism is no longer that of the woke age. But I continue to admire his conception of the pour-soi as the closest metaphysical/philosophical approximation to the human scene of representation, gifted by différance with an internal néant. No doubt Sartre has no notion of an originary event as the source of the human scene, but his philosophy, and even his novels, reflect a fine understanding of the scenic character of human interactions, richer than Heidegger’s sound and fury—imagine Heidegger writing a novel!
The hubristic notion of the soul’s absolute freedom that is the core of Sartre’s anthropology is so to speak the last stand of metaphysics—for if the individual human were indeed able to use language to know the truth about himself independently of the human community, even if this truth be a repudiation of the spurious Geplapper of the community repeated by Heidegger’s das Man, this could be possible only if language itself were in its essence independent of the needs of the human community that in fact created it.
Existentialism, in a word, can escape from metaphysics only by allying itself with generative anthropology. But we can respect its insights without taking them for the last word in human self-understanding. The “death of God” so often taken as the watchword of post-metaphysical modernism is not only anticipated by Christianity itself—could Nietzsche have failed to notice this?—but ultimately irrelevant to the ontological question of the constitution of the human self. Whether or not God exists as an independent being, we know from the very fact of our existence that the sacred “exists” as the providential agency that has permitted our species to survive.
Once again, “French Theory”
“French Theory” was not a mere footnote to Existentialism. It was liberated from metaphysics by its focus on textuality, a category which, however mystified, is irreducible to metaphysics because it is based on “fiction,” an act of scenic recreation that has no pretension to objective truth. (In Parmenides’ terms, fiction is neither truth nor opinion, although Plato sought to deny this third possibility.)
Taking literature as the key to anthropology—an intuition that had begun with such as Paul Valéry, the Russian formalists, and the English New Critics before evolving from the literary-critical to the more broadly anthropological category of the textual in the postwar nouvelle critique—was the point of departure for Girard’s anthropology, as well as for my own.
In terms of the dichotomous history of the movement (see Chronicle 638), Derrida was in many ways closer to the originary hypothesis than Girard—save in its key aspect. Derrida never envisaged the possibility of a humanist anthropology that could incorporate his insights; he saw deconstruction and in general the liberation from metaphysics as embodying the tired old Marxist program. In short, he shared the Left’s definition of man’s “original sin” as oppression—more accurately, firstness—in contrast with the egalitarian utopia in which “some are (merely) more equal than others.” But in the post-structuralist world, language itself (always-already écriture) took the place of Rousseau’s Ceci est à moi as the sign of the fall of man.
The core of generative anthropology, prior even to the originary hypothesis, is the understanding of the human as the species that is more dangerous to itself than the outside world, or more succinctly, its own worst enemy. Girard was not interested in language, but he saw that violence, the ever-present danger of self-destructive “mimetic crisis,” was the primary problem that the human had to solve.
That Girard saw this so well that even today his disciples still marvel at the possibility of “positive mimesis” is proof that they have learned at least that lesson. But violence is the sacred only from the point of view of Sirius. For us mortals, violence is what the sacred exists to defer, hoping against hope that it will never catch up with us. It is in the context of this hope that I offer these reflections on originary anthropology.