Here, finally, is my promised analysis of I love you.

In How to Do Things With Words, J. R. Austin divided sentences into two types. A constative tells you something about the world that is presumably already there before the statement is made; as Marx noted, philosophers have been doing this for a long time. But without becoming Marxists, philosophers and others can change the world with language. Sentences that accomplish this are called performatives: “I now pronounce you man and wife,” “I swear to tell the truth…,” “I promise to …” A couple are unmarried until the appropriate person in the appropriate context pronounces the sentence that marries them. My promise does not exist until I make it.

Linguistic practices are not always this simple. If I say “it’s getting cold in here,” I’m probably inviting you to do something about it, like shut the window. Austin generalized this apparent exception to constative objectivity into the theory of speech-acts, in which the intended effect of my words on my interlocutor is formalized as the illocutory force of my utterance. In so doing, he turned the attention of analytic philosophers to the reality of speech (la parole) as opposed to language “as such” (la langue). The langue / parole distinction does not oppose, as is sometimes thought, language in the street to language in the dictionary, but rather the linguistic formalization of a limited set of syntactic and semantic categories to the uncountable uses of language in human interaction. Formalization is an expensive operation, analogous to creating a new tool; the tools of language are relatively few in number in comparison to the uses to which they may be adapted.

But at the origin of language, the distinction between tool and use, langue and parole, cannot be made. The first linguistic sign is both performative and constative. On one hand, in the characteristic mode of the constative, what is designated is present independently of the sign that designates it. But on the other hand, the sign is the bearer of human meaning. Before the object became the referent of the sign, it was merely one focus of appetitive interest among others; now it is singled out as the unique object of significance. Thus we may call the first sign the name of God. God is someone to whom we give a name only in order to affirm that it is he who names himself to us.

We have all experienced for ourselves this originary operation of language: when we say I love you.

I love you is a formula with exact equivalents in all modern Western languages. Its form is constative, and in antiquity, it seems to have been limited to this constative sense. Love stated as a mere fact is involuntary, a curse of Venus, as is Phaedra’s love for Hippolytus.

Yet the modern sense of I love you is always latent, since to state the “curse” of love is after all to affirm it, to participate in it. This sense becomes generally accepted only in the nineteenth century, when it acquires its institutional basis in voluntary marriage and its later derivative, sexual partnership without marriage, which depends on it still more directly: a couple repeating I love you to each other has wed each other de facto for so long as the expression can be repeated. Many couples, married or not, regularly, even obsessively renew their vows by the exchange of I love you.

The performative component of I love you, unlike that of “I now pronounce you man and wife,” cannot be made precise; it creates the truth it ostensibly reflects. By admitting the feeling I already have, I affirm it as central. My declaration of love is my confession of faith, the verbal transformation of an emotion passively felt into a value actively defended. It is a model of the genesis of human significance out of animal appetite in the originary scene of language.

The medieval inventors/discoverers of romantic love understood that we are made aware of the sacred through our experiences of desire. In what we call the Romantic era, when I love you acquired its present usage, the terms of this relationship between private and public sacrality are reversed: it is our experience of love that gives most of us our sense of the sacred, not our attendance at weekend rites.

To say I love you is to consecrate someone as the object of a care greater than that for my own life. It is to pledge that person eternal fidelity, not as a mere gift, but as an act of faith, that is, as an act performed from within the faith I confess. I love you carries the meaning of “I promise to love you forever.” But it does not say that; what it says is that the feeling it expresses endures forever by the very fact of its expression. That is, the feeling acquires, because it already possesses, significance, the permanent status of the sign. It is in this sense that I love you provides a model for the originary use of language.

Generative anthropology, as this example shows, is anything but bloodless speculation on the unknowable. Its quest for a fundamental understanding of the human is dedicated to the cause of promoting, in the face of resentment, the uniquely human union of appetite and intellect that we call love.