(Keynote lecture, Warsaw GASC, 2018)

For the past couple of years I have done a good deal of research for these presentations, learning about Buddhism for our Nagoya conference and Anna Wierzbicka for Stockholm. But for this visit to a nation where religious traditions are taken seriously, I thought it would be more useful to go to the heart of the matter: to attempt to justify the hours of work that the members of this group, of whom Magdalena has been one of the most energetic, have devoted to organizing these conferences—this is the twelfth—and contributing to our e-journal Anthropoetics, which has just completed its 23rd year of publication. What indeed is the point of Generative Anthropology?

A few years ago I published a book called The Scenic Imagination (Stanford, 2007), where I examined philosophical “scenes” as models of human origin, beginning with Hobbes’ invention of the model that would come to be known as the “social contract.” But Hobbes and Rousseau, writing before Darwin, could not really imagine what becoming human meant. They sought to model the origin of “society” or of the “social order” as a cultural phenomenon supplementary to man “in the state of nature,” and so were obliged to imagine creatures that could simply have never existed: humans having come from the hands of their Creator “before” human society. We no longer realize how devastating the idea of human evolution was, not merely to religious belief, but to common sense. Once we accept that man evolved, we have to imagine, not how “society” could have been inaugurated by men “in the state of nature,” but how ape-like creatures could have evolved into men. For atheists as well as believers, this opened up an abyss in their understanding of human prehistory.

It also led to an unfortunate war between those who defended the new theory of evolution and those who insisted on the Biblical creation story, whose anthropological virtues became difficult to appreciate when they were deformed into cosmological truths. As a result, our understanding of human origins was greatly advanced in the material domain to which paleontology could contribute, but proceeded far less successfully in the domain of the spirit, the immaterial realm of signs, where the specific quality of human consciousness, with its unique possession of language, has remained elusive.

Not being a “professional” philosopher but, like my teacher René Girard, a professor of literature and a strictly amateur anthropologist, I have long been disappointed by the fact that the “scientific” study of the human has made so little use of the analyses of human consciousness that have been the province of phenomenology since Husserl, and which attain with Sartre’s L’être et le néant an admirable subtlety. These analyses help us to explore, not simply how we “use” language, but how language, and human representational culture in general, including religion, might have gotten started. As for Jacques Derrida’s project of deconstruction, I think we can sympathize with its often excessive coquettishness once we understand that this is not just a sign of cool, but a defense mechanism against the specter of the actual, as opposed to the illusory, overcoming of the “metaphysical.” Thinkers have been talking about this overcoming for two hundred years, yet because its essence remains misunderstood, metaphysics still reigns supreme in the domain of philosophy, and a fortiori in that of empirical science, despite partial breakthroughs such as pragmatism or speech-act theory.

After nearly forty years, I must express both pride and frustration that what I hope to make you see as the simple lessons of the originary hypothesis, which have come to be called Generative Anthropology, have been totally ignored by the “world of the intellect.” An idea thus enduring yet ignored can only be either trivial, or epoch-making. And so I feel obliged to seek to persuade those who would listen that it is the latter, not the former.

All the talk about language since the days of Frege and Saussure has concentrated on its present or historically accessible “mature” forms, and discussions of language origin have been limited to retrodictions of its earlier states, on the model of the reconstruction of Indo-European from its component languages. Lists of proto-sememes and theories of “original” language families, such as the “Nostratic” hypothesis, have been formulated. But what has not been done has been to propose, in all its magnitude, a hypothesis of how language might have begun as both a collective and an individual phenomenon.

We have been treated to some incredible absurdities from researchers who would never dream of releasing “serious” ideas without copious data sets. I will give a couple of examples that will be familiar to readers of my Chronicles.

Daniel Everett tells us about the first use of language, in his unproblematically titled How Language Began (2017), that “it is not that difficult”:

Language . . . is not that difficult, in spite of a long [that is, Chomskian] tradition going back to the 1950s telling us that it is extremely complicated, a veritable mystery. What we have seen, to the contrary, is that language is symbols and ordering at its core, and that those are not tough ingredients to develop for brains like ours. (112)

Signs such as “no shirt, no service,” or film titles such as “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman,” serve Everett as models of just how simple language can be—although in the latter case, the whole point of the ungrammatical title seems to me to suggest the limitations of human culture and reason in dominating our biological drives.

Or as Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner put it in The Way We Think (2002), once the brain reaches a certain cognitive level, language “emerged naturally”:

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)

—“double-scope blending” being their term for the capacity of the individual mind to combine ideas from different registers—as though “ideas” existed at all without language in which to express them and a community with which to share them.

The immense gap between what Peirce called the symbolic sign and its indexical forms as exemplified in animal “languages” is simply ignored. From a dogmatically evolutionary standpoint, language and culture merely reflect the increasing complexity of our brains, as in Engels’ “passage from quantity to quality.” Once you have a certain number of brain cells and a certain number of synapses—and it is easy to imagine why natural selection would favor their increase—you will be sending vehicles into outer space before you know it.

Once one takes a few moments to reflect on the utter inadequacy of these assumptions, one realizes that the question of language origin, which seems to provide rich food for thought—and which inspired real thinking in the days of Condillac, Herder, and Rousseau—has become a domain of taboo, where a curse falls on anyone who proposes to treat it with the seriousness it deserves. Why is this subject so dangerous? Because treating our difference from other species as something qualitative rather than simply quantitative—bigger brain, opposable thumb…—risks sounding like a pre-scientific—a religious—discourse that sets the human on a higher ontological plane than other animals. Now that we know that man did not “emerge from the state of nature,” we have to show that in fact he never really left it; it’s “not that difficult.”

It thus appears that Darwin’s discovery, rather than facilitating serious thinking about the origin of language, made such thinking more problematic. Indeed, the newly founded Paris Linguistic Society’s famous 1866 declaration that it would not entertain theories of language origin may be understood as a backhanded response to Darwin: now that we can actually formulate a rational understanding of the “state of nature” from which humanity emerged, we should abjure speculation and confine ourselves to the empirical study of bones and stone tools. Natura non facit salta; the notion of human specificity, of our discontinuity with other species, had become in effect too dangerously religious.

The theory of evolution did, however, inspire further speculation on the origin of the scenic configuration of the human social order that would eventually lead to GA’s originary hypothesis. Curiously enough, neither Sigmund Freud nor René Girard, the two most significant creators of originary scenarios, were at all concerned with the origin of language. In this, one might say, they were following in the footsteps of the pioneering anthropologists of the 19th century, who after the days of Max Müller (a younger contemporary of Darwin who never accepted the application of evolutionary theory to the emergence of language) had for all practical purposes abandoned the question of language origin, but who remained focused on cultural origin, as if the ritual aspect of culture, with its apparent parallels in the animal world, offered a less radical break with pre-human nature.

Freud’s father-murder scene in Totem and Taboo is a post-Darwinian artifact of the “scenic imagination.” Freud conceived the Oedipus complex as the fundamental psychic component of the human, and constructed his scenario for this purpose. No doubt Girard’s more abstract conception of desire is an advance over the familiar love-mother hate-father configuration. But if we read Freud’s scenario in the light of the originary hypothesis, we can appreciate that the guilt he attributes to the son-murderers, which inhibits their desire for the “mothers,” reflects the experience of deferral that is complementary to Girard’s notion of the sacred. Thus Freud emphasizes the internal scene of self-reflection that is the essence of human consciousness, and Girard the collective experience of fascination with and withdrawal from the sacred that is the essence of human sociality. But neither could exist without the other. Human consciousness is analogous to a scene from which the individual stands back mentally, and in the collective originary event, physically, contemplating, yet fearing to appropriate, the object on center stage. Once the individual and the collective scenes are understood as having a common origin, we need no other element to define the human than the sign—representation, language—which is implicit in and necessary to both.

The originary hypothesis proposes a scenario of the simultaneous origin of the sign that designates or represents the sacred object of the individual human consciousness, and of the human community who share the sign and its sacred object. At the origin, significance and sacrality are one.

I would insist that aside from the originary hypothesis, there is today no competing theory of this origin. That our little group has survived all these years with so little outside encouragement is the result of this simple fact. Either we are deluded, or there is something very precious here, an idea whose obscurity is the sign not of its marginality but of its revolutionary importance. It is for history to determine its ultimate significance, but I think that in any event GA deserves the appellation I have given it of “a new way of thinking.” If my judgment is correct, neither philosophy nor human science, nor even theology, will ever again be the same.

To be continued…