Before I begin my “official” talk I would like your indulgence to address a couple of other matters:

  1. First of all, sadly, two people associated with GA have passed away since our last meeting; both were in their 80s. Edmond Wright, who loved Japan (his son teaches in Hokkaido), who was so happy to attend last year’s Nagoya conference, and who was vigorous enough to climb the steep hill to the campus from the railroad station—I felt guilty to pass him by in a car—died unexpectedly, as I understand it as the result of a concussion received in a fall. Edmond was not really a practitioner of GA, but he regularly attended our conferences and wrote for Anthropoetics, because he saw that his paradoxical, self-reflexive philosophical view of language had great affinities with ours. Edmond’s refusal to take language for granted as a “transparent” means of communication was manifest in his love for poetry, of which he wrote some of his own. Hearing him recite masterpieces of English poetry from memory had for me the effect both salutary and sad of reminding me of the cultural wealth of past, pre-Internet generations. Witty and kind as well as learned, Edmond was irreplaceable, and I’m sure I speak for all of us who knew him in remembering him with great fondness and regret.
  2. Another loss was that of James “Keith” Davies, who published a number of GA books, beginning with Adam Katz’s collective work The Originary Hypothesis in 2007. I understand that his family is planning to maintain his publishing operation and I hope the series that Adam was beginning to edit will continue. I never met Keith in person, but his interactions with me were always cordial and supportive, and thanks to Adam he was quite favorably disposed to the GA community and happy to publish our work.
  3. Finally, a more positive point. This is the tenth anniversary of the first “GA Thinking Event,” organized with much hard work by Andrew Bartlett at UBC in Vancouver in 2007. We are now at our eleventh annual meeting.

Permit me to recall for a moment the film The Pride of the Yankees, the story of Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig, who gave his name to the disease that killed him in June 1941, a few months before I was born. In the movie, Gary Cooper gives a speech, taken from life, where, knowing he has little time left, Gehrig tells the crowd at Yankee Stadium who are all cheering for him that he is the “luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Well, I’m still in pretty good health for an old guy, so don’t take out your handkerchiefs, but I wanted to use this tenth anniversary as an opportunity to express my personal appreciation to the members of our group, particularly to those who have like Marina taken on each year the immense burden of organizing these conferences. This is something I used to do as chair of the UCLA French Department, but it’s a lot harder when you don’t have an administrative assistant to make all the arrangements. As these conferences have succeeded one another, I have found that the degree of engagement with the principles of GA has continued to grow, and I think the result has been reflected as well in the articles in Anthropoetics. There is no way I can repay you for your loyalty and your interest in my ideas. Without comparing myself to Lou Gehrig, I do feel very lucky indeed to have attracted such a worthy group of associates, and with so little to offer you by way of fame, fortune, or academic prestige. Thank you!

In the past few years, I have given a conference talk and written a couple of Chronicles debunking several high-profile works in areas related to GA’s core concerns. In 2013, I noted that Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos attempted to smuggle teleological notions into philosophy in a superficial and anthropologically naïve manner.

More recently, I was a bit saddened to read Incomplete Nature, Terrence Deacon’s long-awaited follow-up to The Symbolic Species. This book contains the most persuasive attempt I have seen to explain how self-reproducing, that is, living creatures might have emerged from inorganic matter. But it wholly avoids talking about language, which was the subject-matter of Deacon’s previous, groundbreaking book. Life is marvelous enough, but language, as Deacon knows as well as anyone, is a different ball game, and Darwinian selection isn’t enough to explain it. Maybe he’s preparing a third volume, but my impression was one of a certain failure of nerve.

Finally, I was struck by the extreme contrast between the meticulousness of Michael Tomasello’s accumulation of data in the domain of child language acquisition and his disgracefully naïve one-line dismissal of religion in his Natural History of Human Morality: “One way that leaders throughout human history have sought to legitimate themselves and their laws from a moral point of view is to claim that they have somehow been anointed by a deity or in some other supernatural way.”

This is not to say that among the cognitive and constructionist linguists whose work I have been reading in preparation for this conference, I have not encountered much of interest. Although I have never been one to denigrate Chomsky’s contribution to linguistics, his political extremism notwithstanding, I am happy to see a more pragmatically focused linguistics replacing the formalism that dominated the field for so long. My own view of language is that it is about human meanings and interactive realities and that the formal qualities of language are a distillation of these rather than a priori structures whose essence is independent of meaning, so that colorless green ideas sleep furiously can serve as our model sentence.

The virtue of this new linguistics is that it explains linguistic constructions as motivated, in the first place by showing that the observation of children learning language does not confirm generative grammar’s paradigm in which a Language Acquisition Device consisting of a set of pre-established parameters need only be “set” by the language learner for him to learn a specific language. Chomsky’s conception of the “poverty of the stimulus,” according to which a child’s ability to learn a language would be inexplicable in the absence of such a device, is shown to be simply incorrect; children learn language as a technique that they are no doubt genetically adapted for, but they require no specialized mechanism for language acquisition beyond those of our general cognitive facility.

While I think we should welcome this rejection of structuralist dogmatism, which takes away an artificial filter between our use of language and our experience of the world, when it comes to explaining how it is that we came to use language in the first place, the general tendency of cognitivism/constructionism has been to extrapolate from the fact that language doesn’t require a specialized “device” in the human brain to the unfortunate notion that language is simply a by-product of our cognitive development, not much more than what Stephen Gould would have called a “spandrel.” Thus it is not uncommon to read that, having reached a certain level of what we might call IQ, we simply begin to talk to each other. For example, from Gilles Fauconnier & Mark Turner’s 2002 The Way We Think, p. 181:

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. [double-scope blending is combining analogous ideas from two different registers, roughly, the creation of metaphors, which the authors consider the key to advanced thinking]

Independently of the cognitive development described, I submit that as an account of language origin this is utter nonsense. It is a category error of an entirely different magnitude than Chomsky’s LAD, which is in its essence a methodological postulate rather than a theory of language origin. Language may facilitate cognition, but its function is communication. And if humans inaugurated a new means of communication, this obviously reflects their increased cognitive ability, but can only be explained by a need to communicate, not by the brain’s “natural” urge to display its prowess.

But putting language origin aside for the moment, I am happy to report that I have found one post-Chomskian linguist who truly understands that the core function of language is the communication of meaning. Her work strikes me as of real value to GA’s core mission to articulate the analogies and differences between significance and sacrality, or in more general terms, language and religion, the formal and institutional elements of culture.

It was my friend and collaborator Adam Katz who recommended to me the work of the Polish-Australian semanticist, Anna Wierzbicka of the Australian National University at Canberra. I wonder how many of you are familiar with her. The quality and quantity of her scholarly work over the decades is really remarkable: a couple dozen books and several hundred articles.

As far as I know, there is nothing comparable to her comparative studies of speech acts and syntactic constructions in different languages, or her in-depth analyses of such phenomena as the different families of collective nouns. To give a very small sampling of the “idiomatic” constructions that she analyzes and classifies in semantic categories: oats is plural and wheat singular, yet you can’t say an oat any more than a wheat, though you can say both noodles and a noodle, a pea and peas; we eat and drink, but we can have a drink but not have an eat; we say cucumbers but not lettuces, the French speak of grapes as we do of rice, so you can’t say un raisin; a bunch of birds can be all robins, but a bunch of furniture can’t be all chairs; a pair of gloves is two gloves, but a pair of scissors is not two scissors, in English you wash your face and raise your hand, but in French on lève la main but on se lave le visage. Or her common-sense explanation of the distinction between nouns and adjectives (color and shape are parallel categories, but shapes are more “nouny” than colors, so we say “a circle” but not “a red”).

Every aspect of language she touches, from the formal structures of syntax and morphology to questions of vocabulary, is understood as language has too rarely been, by linguists at least, as facilitating the expression of meaning. Wierzbicka’s fundamental semantic vocabulary, the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM), reduces meaning to the maximum simplicity of a few dozen “prime” words/concepts that she claims, after considerable research, to be exemplified in every human language, including the native languages of Australia. AW’s constant point is that constancies in language always reflect in one way or another constancies in meaning. The overall purpose of NSM is a practical one: how to permit mutually comprehensible translations of socially determined concepts and constructions from one language to another, and in particular, from the world-language English, in which she has warned us in several books against becoming “imprisoned” (Imprisoned in English is her most recent, published in 2014), to the other languages spoken around the world.

A point that Adam made to me en passant about Wierzbicka’s work is that, however valid her judgment may be concerning the elementary categories of human meaning in her NSM, they cannot be truly elementary, in the sense that they do not include the notion of the sacred, the name-of-God that was in effect the first signified, and whose meaning is no more than significance/signification itself. For whatever species of animal was at the center of the originary scene—the first generation of GAers spoke of it as a “tasty bison”—it was as the name-of-God that the first word was produced as the aborted gesture of appropriation. Yet I think that in a broadened understanding of the originary hypothesis, not only can AW’s minimal semantics be shown to be compatible with it, but her use of it to reduce Christian doctrine to its simplest terms does much to facilitate our understanding of the connection between the elements of our hypothetical originary event and the Judeo-Christian religious insight that is at the core of GA.

For AW is far from displaying the cognitivists’ often churlish indifference to religion. Among her books is a 500-page tome entitled What Did Jesus Mean?, published by Oxford in 2002, whose subtitle is Explaining the Sermon on the Mount and the Parables in Simple and Universal Human Concepts. And this work, directed more to the student of religion than to her fellow linguists, more than lives up to the subtitle.

AW demonstrates an exhaustive familiarity with a century of scholarship and commentary on the synoptic Gospels. (Writing at the beginning of the century, she could not take into account the recent renewal of interest in the fourth gospel and its very different set of references.) Describing herself as a practicing Catholic, AW is above all concerned to place her semantic techniques in the service of understanding Jesus’s teaching, partly to help carry out the task associated with the Jesus Seminar of separating out his authentic sayings from the supplementary material supplied by the evangelists, but principally to provide the most universally comprehensible—and translatable—understanding of the foundational texts of Christianity.

Although it is not presented as a work of theology or religious apologetics, I think any reader of this book must recognize that it was motivated primarily by the desire to demonstrate the human—I won’t say anthropological—truth of the Gospels and of Christianity in general, without in any way violating the strictest criteria of social science. In this we can draw a fruitful parallel with another Catholic thinker, one who had little interest in the study of language, although he certainly knew how to use it, and who taught that religion in general and Judeo-Christian religion in particular is a primary repository of human—now I will say anthropological—truths. I am referring to the spiritual father of GA, the late René Girard.

The NSM contains no terms specifically related to religious practice. AW’s NSM “definition” of God (p. 21) is representative of her approach:

  1. God is someone (not something)
  2. This someone is someone good
  3. This someone is not someone like people
  4. There isn’t anyone else like this someone
  5. This someone exists always
  6. Everything exists because this someone wants it to exist
  7. People exist because this someone wants them to exist
  8. This someone exists because this someone exists, not because of anything else
  9. This someone lives

Every culture, and therefore every language, has some acquaintance with the sacred, and we may assume that the idea of God is universal, but it is scarcely a simple idea. In AW’s 9-part definition, which includes autonomy, uniqueness, immortality, responsibility for the universe (although not its creation), and the particularly Christian category of being a “living” God, the closest she comes to the notion of the sacred itself is the negative “this someone is not like people.” The absence of a more specific term respects the deliberate limitation of her method. AW’s semantics is based on a methodological postulate that should be understood as making no claims on the anthropological source of language, which on the contrary it helps us to elucidate. Following Peirce, she adheres to the principle that signs can be defined only by other signs. It follows that semantics is necessarily a self-contained subject that requires that we put in brackets the means by which we enter the universe of signs in the first place.

And consequently we need not take “literally,” or better put, ontologically, the principle that words can be defined only by other words. AW’s definition of God is not designed to give the classical person from Sirius an idea of what the “generic” human God-concept refers to, but to allow all human cultures to understand the Judeo-Christian God in their own language. Yet it has been my contention, as it was certainly Girard’s, that the Judeo-Christian complex is anthropologically more revelatory than earlier (sacrificial) religions, even than religions such as Buddhism that are arguably on a comparable ethical plane. Although I share Girard’s view in general terms, my divergences reflect a “Jewish” skepticism of the specific post-sacrificial intuition at the core of Christianity: human culture need not begin with human sacrifice. In this respect, it is of interest that Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and resurrection play no role in AW’s reading of the Gospels, which analyzes only the dicta and parables of his preaching; the words cross and crucifixion are not even found in the index.

Those familiar with GA’s originary hypothesis know that the first sign is accompanied by, and dependent on, the propagation among the participants in the first scene of representation of the moral model of reciprocal exchange that is our species’ founding “social contract,” and which provides the missing link between the world of signs and that of human life. This model is not the origin of the affects that link the members of the group, but it provides a literally consecrated model of behavior that is the ancestor of the morality of mutual love as it evolves in Judaism and then Christianity, as well as, in different forms, in all religious traditions. What AW seeks is to simplify this morality to its most universal terms for the purpose, as in all her semantic work, not of reducing all religions and their moral/ethical doctrines to “the same,” but of permitting anyone from any culture to distinguish the specific traits of each one of them.

(Part 1 of 2)