Thus far we have been concerned with the hypothetical preconditions for the existence of the ostensive utterance form. We now turn to the “linguistics” of what we can conceive of as “ostensive language.” Here we benefit from the observation of ostensives in our own language.

In the originary event, the central referent is not detachable from the sacred scene of representation on which it appears. In the profane world, however, this scene is evoked in the communication situation, but the sacred is no longer an attribute of the referent itself. The ostensive offers a “profane” version of the scene, an intentional model of the universe limited to a single present reality, whose significance is presumed to require immediate attention. Enlarging the ostensive lexicon can increase the precision of the model, but without modifying its intentional structure, the relation of the model to our perception of the world and to its potential interlocutors under the specific conditions of joint shared attention in which it is communicated.

We may assume that the ostensive would indifferently designate actions and their real or potential agents. An expression like “Fire!” would refer indifferently to a fire and to its burning. Similarly, an ostensive such as “Run!” could be understood as not distinguishing the nominal (a run or running) from the verbal ([something] runs). But although it is pointless to divide its vocabulary into nominals and verbals, epistemologically speaking, it seems reasonable to classify all ostensives functionally as nominals. For example, stampede is a verb as well as a noun, but until such time as the verbal form becomes a true predicate and takes on a tense relating linguistic time to that of the real world, Stampede! would be simply, like a fire or a wolf, a thing/event to be reacted to.

The intentional structures of elementary language, the ostensive and the imperative that emerges from it, do not possess the “third-person” stability of the declarative’s mapping of the world, but as the Wolf! example demonstrated, reflect the tension between the different standpoints of speaker and hearer. It is this tension that will lead, through the dialectic of desire and paradox, to the mature form of the declarative.

The Intentional Structure of the Ostensive

The ease with which we construct complex declarative sentences inspires in us the illusion that such sentences reveal “transparently,” as Sartre described prose in opposition to poetry, the order of things, or more precisely that of “phenomena.” In contrast, the ostensive, which asserts no propositional truth, appears to grammarians as less an objective model than a “defective” expedient inspired by practical necessity.

It will take more than the deconstruction of the discourse of Western metaphysics to make a dent in the stubborn logocentricity of this perspective. The “truth” of the ostensive is by no means that of the declarative proposition. But to recognize the ostensive as nonetheless the simplest linguistic model of reality, subject to verification within the limits of its information-bearing power, makes us appreciate both the declarative’s superiority for conveying information and its derived, non-originary nature. In contrast, Western philosophy is founded on what I call the “metaphysical” postulate that the declarative is not an evolved linguistic form but simply the natural one.

Considered from the standpoint of mature language, the ostensive utterance lacks the two shifters of person and tense that explicitly relate the present of linguistic communication to the scene it evokes. The ostensive needs no tense because its referent is present to the speaker and verifiably present to the hearer. Similarly, it lacks person because the hearer(s) are intended to stand in the same relation to the referent as the speaker. Thus after hearing an ostensive, and possibly observing its referent for himself, the hearer may repeat it for the benefit of others; the first person to cry “Fire!” has no monopoly on his utterance. Even in the case of “Ouch!” what is referred to is not the internal sense of pain so much as the verifiable violation of a social norm (“you stepped on my toe!”). The ostensive presents its model and does nothing more, it being assumed that its representation is of sufficient significance for the hearer to react to it as soon as possible. The hierarchical relation between speaker and hearer on the scene of representation thus gives way to a symmetrical sharing of information, and if necessary, to cooperative action. But we should note that, unlike the imperative that derives from it, the ostensive does not explicitly refer to or demand such action. Its only reference is to the present, which it does not yet distinguish from the scenic presence of linguistic communication in general.

Within this intentional structure, the ostensive can potentially make use of a lexicon extendable in theory to the totality of perceptibles—things and actions. But although there is no a priori limit on the semantics of an ostensive language, its “signifieds” are not equivalent to those of mature language. Employed only in the presence of their referent, ostensives express an ontology of events rather than of beings. Because they define their object as significant in a given situation, and their enunciation necessarily implies the presence of this significance (danger or benefit), they are closer to exclamations than to models of conceptual thought, which signify without themselves participating in the significance of their object. The ostensive “word,” itself a complete utterance, does not possess the context-free conceptual status of our own vocabulary. The establishment of the ostensive within the profane world outside the sphere of ritual will reveal the contradictions latent in its model of reality.

Dialectic of the Ostensive

The originary sign had no place in a lexicon, not simply because it was unique, but because in its evocation of the sacred object as center of the communal scene of representation—as name-of-God—it was only in retrospect detachable from this scene. Even today, the enunciation of a divine name hints toward the ritual enactment of this scene, which in its more complete versions reproduces the originary deferral and its festive resolution. The formal or linguistic evolution of the sign must take place through the differentiation of the criteria guaranteeing its appropriateness in a given situation.

This guarantee has two aspects, of which the first is prerequisite to the second. First, the act of speech must be justified, as opposed to saying nothing at all; second, the specific sign used must be appropriate to the situation. We may call these the criteria of significance and of signification. The intersubjective basis of the significance-criterion, which applies to ritual as well as language and other forms of representation, is the reconstitution of the public scene of representation. In contrast, the signification-criterion is roughly speaking that of truth, although only declarative sentences possess a genuine truth-value.

Although it is perfectly possible for a “true” sentence, ostensive or otherwise, to be insignificant, when there is a high threshold of significance, as we may presume existed at the earliest stages of language, the danger of falling below it makes the criterion it imposes far more critical than that of appropriate meaning. The ostensive’s emphasis on significance over signification suggests that the lexicon at this stage is likely to remain relatively undifferentiated.

In the lexicon of a language possessing declaratives, a word is not an utterance, and its meaning or signified can be considered apart from any given use of it. But in the case of the ostensive, the word can only be associated with its appropriateness condition, which is the significant presence of the object that it can be said to designate. Fire means a certain state of matter, but Fire! means the presence of a (dangerous) fire. To think “fire” is to imagine a fire, but to think “Fire!” is to imagine a situation where the cry would be appropriate, perhaps accompanied by its expected consequences: panic, flight, organization of a bucket brigade, and so on. Use of an ostensive creates a scene, and its speaker’s power to do so is an element of its “definition,” given that its appropriateness condition is the existence of a situation where the exercise of this power would be appropriate. Thus to think of an ostensive is to imagine a public scene of action. Such a thought not merely gives rise to desire but is in itself an expression of desire.

To use a sacred name, even today, evokes a power that reconstitutes at least symbolically the communal scene. Most societies impose strict limits on such evocations (“taking God’s name in vain”). But the appropriateness of “profane” ostensives, in contrast, depends on circumstances that can only be observed a posteriori. Thus the very existence of an ostensive lexicon contains an implicit contradiction, and to think of any of its constituent elements presents the thinker with a pragmatic paradox. It is no doubt true to say that in contrast with fire, Fire! means the presence of a fire, but the word itself will provoke the same effect independently of this presence. In imagining, in the absence of this referent, its power to compel the presence of the community, the potential speaker cannot help but realize that, given humanity’s shared scene of representation, the use of the sign alone will unleash the same power.

As we have seen in the Wolf! case, this gives rise to the possibility of lying, of deliberately provoking a fire-reaction in the absence of its object. Considered simply as a lie, one presumes it would be sanctioned, but seen subjectively from the speaker’s point of view, this “inappropriate ostensive” opens the door to a broadening of the intentional structures of utterance forms to include the expression of desire. Because the hearer of “Fire!” is enjoined to react, the utterance itself expresses independently of its “truth” the desire to provoke the hearer’s anticipated reaction. The expression of desire that emerges from this new use would tend to disambiguate itself from the ostensive’s revelation of a socially significant presence. Once it becomes accepted as an utterance-form in its own right, the word would signify not the presence of its referent but the desire of the speaker for (the power conferred by) this presence. The ostensive will have become an imperative.

A possible framework for such a development is linguistic apprenticeship. One must learn the words of the language before grasping the totality of their appropriateness conditions. Yet in the case of the ostensive, the very constitution of a personal lexicon involves the learner in a contradiction. No real practice use of the ostensive is possible because it cannot be imagined in abstraction from its use. Even if we assume that a child learns the ostensive by observing its appropriate use rather than through a deliberately con­ducted apprenticeship, he cannot be expected to learn to use these words appropriately without a few trials. But to “practice” the ostensive is to evoke the scene of its legitimate use. A child’s inappropriate ostensive will not be taken seriously, but a mother may well respond to what she understands as the child’s intention, which is to bring about the presence of the object designated by the ostensive, thereby treating his utterance as an imperative.

A plausible scenario might be a child, having learned a word as an ostensive, using it in the absence of its referent to bring about, as it were magically, its presence. Indeed, this remains the standard ostensive-vocative use of personal names, Mommy! for example. In learning to use any ostensive, the child relives in his own linguistic universe the dialectic we are now describing. He need neither learn the imperative use of the word by example nor need he know in advance that its imperative use is acceptable. Motivated by the desire for the physical presence of his mother or some other necessity of life, he simply (re)creates the imperative for himself in the same way that its creation would have occurred in the course of the formal evolution of language.

From the presumed near-instantaneity of this evolution in the modern child—an assump­tion that it would be useful to confirm by research—it does not follow, of course, that the historical ostensive-imperative evolution was equally instantaneous. We cannot exclude the possibility that linguistic signs, as opposed to prehuman “calls,” may have retained for many generations a strictly communal, religious function.

In sum, because the ontology of the ostensive remains like that of the sacred dependent on a public scene, even with the lowering of the threshold of significance to permit its application to the profane world, the ostensive sign cannot attain the stable lexical status of a concept-sign or “signifier.” Only the reinterpretation of the inappropriate ostensive as an imperative resolves the pragmatic paradox it poses.

In St. Anselm’s “ontological proof” of the exis­tence of God, our possession of the concept of the “most perfect being” (ens perfectissimum) itself implies that being’s existence. Kant refutes this proof by affirming that existence is not a predicate. But at the stage of language at which the concept of the sacred was generated, the predicative function of the declara­tive sentence had not yet been conceived. Because the ostensive word means its object-as-­present, to conceive of using the word is to conceive its object as present, and to pronounce the word is to provoke this conception in its hearer.

But this means that the ontology of the ostensive is identical with that of the sacred as expressed by St. Anselm. Whatever punishments may have been meted out to the inappropriate users of the ostensive who were its first “believers,” with the emergence of the imperative, their faith in the ontological proof at last obtained its reward. The desire of the individual soul, to which the ostensive had provided a means of expression but not an accepted vehicle for its communication, had now attained significance in the eyes of the community.

To be continued…