Whereas philosophical explorations of human language such as that in Charles Taylor’s recent The Language Animal (Harvard, 2016) never propose anything like an originary hypothesis, having no interest in speculating on language before it attained its mature state, works of cognitive science make more substantial claims about its origin. A prominent example is The Way We Think (Gilles Fauconnier & Mark Turner, Basic Books, 2002), which will be the focus of this Chronicle. (For a brief account of generative anthropology’s originary hypothesis, the reader is referred to the introductory text at anthropoetics.ucla.edu/gaintro.htm).

It is easy to understand why here, as in Taylor’s book, GA’s originary hypothesis goes unmentioned. Were this theory brought to these authors’ attention, they would dismiss it outright as (1) not grounded in empirical evidence, and (2) dependent on a “Girardian” measure of human development, intensity of mimesis. Unlike the cognitively oriented discussions of mimesis by Merlin Donald (see in particular Origins of the Modern Mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition, Harvard, 1991, and A Mind So Rare: The evolution of human consciousness, Norton, 2001), this perspective focuses on mimetic rivalry as the source of potential human violence. But if humans are uniquely defined as the creatures capable of experiencing such phenomena as “joint shared attention” (Tomasello) and “double-scope networks,” the idea that these phenomena, involving complex and still scarcely explored neuronal connections, owe their existence to the need to control the human propensity to violence would seem a gross category error.

Nor has the pious hope of Girard’s followers that by calling his thought “mimetic theory” it can be automatically made to include all these cognitive factors made it any more attractive than GA to these researchers. Girard’s analyses in La violence et le sacré and Des choses cachées… are, I think rightly, unconcerned to draw more than the broadest link between emissary victimage and human cognitive superiority. But the link must indeed be drawn, not simply by presuming that once Girard’s theory is defined in terms of mimesis, then any evidence of mimesis lends it credibility, but by proposing, as does GA’s originary hypothesis, a plausible scenario for the originary scene of human language.

The kernel of Fauconnier and Turner’s own tentative hypothesis of language origin, expounded at length on pp. 180-82, is the following paragraph:

Language arose as a singularity. It was a new behavior that emerged naturally once the capacity of blending had developed to the critical level of double-scope blending. (181)

What this tells us is that language appears “naturally” once the cognitive capacity of the proto-human species becomes able to master “double-scope networks,” in which inputs from two differently framed imaginary scenes or “input spaces” can be combined in a single “blend,” such as, to use the authors’ simplest example, “same-sex marriage” (269-70), which combines the frame of same-sex relationships (freely chosen sexual relations and companionship) with that of “traditional” marriage (legal status conferred by secular or religious ceremony).

With all due respect for the researches the authors have conducted, I find this assertion of “natural” emergence on nearly the same level of absurdity as the now little heard “Darwinian” notion that language emerged as the result of a mutation giving rise to a “language gene.” That presumably intelligent persons could even begin to entertain such a nonsensical proposition is a sign that all magic has not been purged from “science.” Indeed, Chomsky suggested something similar to explain the appearance of his “Language Acquisition Device (LAD).” But to be fair, Chomsky is not really concerned with the historical origin of language; his LAD, whatever its theoretical merits, need not be understood as more than a heuristic construct.

The “cognitive” explanation is no doubt a better deus ex machina than a hypothetical gene that suddenly appears from nowhere and allows us to speak. But that this explanation leads to no simplification of the problem, indeed, that it denies even the possibility of such simplification, is evident from the list of criteria the authors had provided a few pages earlier for the “best theory” of the origin of language:

The best theory of the origin of language would have the following features:

    • A recognition of the singularity of language. There is no phylogenetic evidence of sustained intermediate stages, and no evidence of present human languages that are rudimentary.
    • Rejection of an extraordinary event as responsible for the extraordinary capacity. In other words, no Cause-Effect Isomorphism.
    • A continuous path of evolutionary change over a very long period as the cause of language, since that is how evolution almost always works.
    • A path that is a plausible adaptive story: Each change along the path must have been adaptive in itself, regardless of where the path ultimately led.
    • Hence a continuous evolutionary path that produces singularities.
    • A model of what mental operations developed along that path, and in what order.
    • An explicit account of what continuous changes produced what singularities, and how they did so.
    • Robust evidence from many quarters that human beings actually perform the mental operations on that hypothetical path.
    • Intermediate steps not for the function of language itself but for the cognitive abilities that finally led to the precipitation of language as a product.
    • Evidence in the anatomy or behavior of today’s human beings pointing to the history of these steps, just as anatomical evidence in today’s human beings points to our once having had tails.
    • Other things being equal, a parsimonious way of explaining the emergence of many related human singularities as products that arise along the same continuous evolutionary path. (177)

The most notable feature of this list is its utter indifference to Ockham’s razor. The very first criterion referring to the “singularity” of language cites the fact that there is “no evidence of present human languages that are rudimentary,” as if it implied that the “singularity” of language is a feature of language as it exists today. Has the “anthropic principle” now infected evolutionary biology? Isn’t the best way to understand the “singularity” of language to conceive of it not at its most advanced but at its most primitive stage of development? Must we assume that because all modern languages are complex that language has always been complex, that it was somehow born complex, like Athena emerging from the brow of Zeus?

As we have seen above, the authors really appear to believe this. Yet when they write two pages farther on: “Paradoxically, language is possible only if it allows a limited number of combinable language forms to cover a very large number of meaningful situations” (179), thinking in terms of the great adaptability of syntactic constructions, it takes only the slightest change of focus to realize that if in the beginning language consisted solely of one simple construction, it would then ipso facto apply to all “meaningful situations.” Which might then suggest to the researchers to examine just what kind of situation might be the first to be meaningful—a term which is really just a synonym for “needing to be represented in language.”

I think it would have been preferable, before giving a list of eleven “features” of the “best” theory of the origin of language, to decide what exactly we are looking for. The origin of language is not concerned proleptically with its future “evolutionary path” of “change over a very long period,” save to the extent that it must not be such as to make this “path” impossible.

I fully sympathize with the authors’ “rejection of an extraordinary event” (the appearance of the “language gene”? God’s creation of Adam?) as providing a facile explanation of language origin, but they are nonetheless too quick to reject the notion of an event as such. Without language and other forms of representation, there would be no such thing as an “event”; this is a point that natural scientists never seem to get straight. To put it more sharply, you can’t call something an event if you can’t represent it—a sentence which is in fact a tautology. One simple way of defining the human is as the creature that “has” events. And the right way to understand the origin of language is to construct a model of the simplest event, which will be by definition an event of language.

The subsequent evolution of language into the complex systems we have today is surely of great intrinsic interest, but the problem it poses is trivial in comparison to that of the origin of language itself. Once language has come into being, its future evolution into something like the languages of today is perfectly understandable from a Darwinian, or let us say, a cultural-Darwinian perspective. The evolution of the human speech apparatus, the descent of the larynx and the rest, is easily explicable as driven by natural selection for the most effective users of language, as is the growing efficiency of the linguistic structures themselves. With respect to the latter, what is perhaps most surprising is that although all languages appear to possess the same basic functionality, those of simpler societies tend to have far more complex syntactic structures than those spoken in more advanced ones. Since literacy has become common, grammatical apparatuses have generally been greatly simplified, as students of Latin and Sanskrit are well aware. But these are epiphenomenal details compared with the fundamental question of language origin.

Although these reflections seem to me rather obvious, you will not find anything like them in the copious literature on language origin cited in The Way We Think. That The Origin of Language (California, 1981) is not found in its bibliography is by no means the result of conscious rejection. Social scientists have simply been trained in such a way as to render such speculations invisible. Similarly, philosophers, even language philosophers who might be expected a priori to have more sympathy for a heuristic approach, turn a deaf ear to any notion of “language” that does not always-already include declarative sentences or propositions. The “little bang” that GA proposes as the originary scene of culture is too humanistic a tableau to appeal to social scientists, who want corroboration by empirical data and are fearful of conceptual leaps of any kind, and too anthropological for philosophers, for whom the idea of a heuristically constructed scene of origin is unpardonably naïve. The idea of finding the germ of language and culture in deferral might be thought to appeal to those who still view deconstruction as liberating philosophy from its authoritarian grounding in the spurious myths of “presence.” But on the contrary, the deconstructors conceive this liberation as the revelation of the “violent” origin of language itself, with regard to which the “pacific” originary hypothesis appears to them to represent a state of denial.

The obsessively repetitive insistence on evolutionary continuity in the Fauconnier-Turner criteria listed above clearly reflects a powerful desire to subsume the whole of the evolution of language in its beginning, like a genetic myth where the essential substance of all future generations is physically contained within the original germ plasm. But this suggests that it would require only stropping Ockham’s neglected razor and opening the mind to the legitimacy of conceiving language’s minimal originary moment in order to reorient the discussion of language origin toward the kind of scenario that GA proposes.

As things presently stand, the idea that it is legitimate to describe a hypothetical first event in perspicuous terms, knowing full well that historical events are never so clear, is acceptable neither to philosophy nor to science. It is for this reason that I have called GA a “new way of thinking.” Unlike the earlier stages of biological evolution, the emergence of the human cannot be understood by breaking it down into a series of evolutionary steps, because the new phenomenon of representation adds a new dimension to the world, even if in reality the emergence of this new dimension could certainly not have established itself definitively in a single event.

To use a topological analogy, the introduction of language is like poking a hole in a sphere. No simple, stepwise deformation of the sphere, however long and gradual, could transform it into a torus. However narrow the original hole, however slowly it may have become enlarged, the “singularity” the authors speak of was that hole.

The point of creating a heuristic model of an originary event rather than seeking to break the phenomenon of language down into a myriad discrete cognitive components is that if the event-nature of the first use of language is not foregrounded in our explanation, even if it was in fact less so by the participants themselves, then we have explained nothing. Once we accept the idea of language as a solution not to a cognitive problem but to a social one, then it becomes easy to see that, insofar as the deferral of violence brought about by the sign increases the probability of the successful distribution of the central object of the scene as a source of nourishment, the use of the sign will be reinforced in human behavior, while at the same time being ever more clearly understood as designating its referent as sacred.

None of this means that the authors’ criteria, repetitions aside, are not appropriate for theorizing the subsequent evolution of language to the mature state in which we find it today. But if decades of ethological research have taught us anything, it is that whatever animals do to accommodate and appropriate human linguistic behavior, they never truly become language users. Why is this? I would suggest that isn’t a matter of “cognitive intelligence” but of something more basic: animals do not have an internal scene of representation. This scene within each of us is linked to a human collectivity; language is not in the first place “cognitive” but communicative. An exact analogy to the human community within which alone language exists has never been and no doubt cannot be constructed for the benefit of chimpanzees, although the most proficient language use among them has been achieved by chimps who were brought up in a human context, such as the bonobo Kanzi. Discovering exactly what the neural substrate of the individual scene of representation consists of is certainly a valid and indeed crucial goal for empirical research. But I would speculate that cognitive scientists would find it much more quickly if they knew what to look for.

Where in our nervous system can we locate Sartre’s néant? This is a question to which philosophers and neuroscientists alike would no doubt react with scorn. Yet GA is not spiritualism; calling this psychic locus of representation a “scene” gives an idea of how it operates, but not at all of how it is physically constituted in the brain.

Let us hope that at least one adventurous young neuroscientist will one day be inspired by these words to redefine the object of his research. In the terms of Fauconnier and Turner, this would exemplify a creative “blend” of different networks whose consequences would go far beyond mere ideational manipulation.