I cannot claim expertise in any of these fields save the last, and there only in my own domain of generative anthropology. But if we would advance beyond the dialogue de sourds of warring discourses, each accusing the others of absurdity or inadequacy, we must raise the question of the originary essence of the human. This has been since the outset the preoccupation of GA, whose claim is to open anthropological reflection to a new way of thinking.
Instead of beginning, like philosophy, by asking what the fact that we can formulate propositions tells us about ourselves and the world, or in its reduced, linguistically-turned form, seeking the rules for speaking correctly; or like religion, beginning from a revealed source that denies worldly origin, GA is on the side of natural, and human, science. The originary hypothesis is offered as a plausible construction of how the language and culture that define us most likely originated in the real world.
The hypothesis is not merely a “useful fiction,” bringing together disparate elements in a single scene to simplify matters. The originary scene as I have described it is a model of an event that gave rise to human language. We of course have no assurance that things happened quite that way. Nevertheless, what emerges on this hypothetical scene are the essential features of what will henceforth distinguish the human from what preceded it. These features are interdependent and must be conceived as arising together in a single event, which inaugurates the scenicity and historicity of human culture on which the signs of language and ritual will be exchanged and remembered.
This is the source of the categories of the archi-trace and the supplément of “writing” that Derrida has defined so ingeniously, all the while denying their historical nature. We should understand that their consignment to the always-already is not designed to de-realize them; on the contrary, in our uncompromisingly secular world, it offers them their sole path to immortality. But anthropologists have no place for such metaphysical-transcendental niceties.
History is all we need, and all the human has ever sought. The fact that we have lived for two generations with weapons capable of extinguishing our species should not lead us to seek refuge in hyperbole. The sole motivation of the first human beings, who accomplished through conscious action in the originary event what other species had had to carry out over many generations through natural selection, was survival. Or to put it in more Darwinian-Spencerian terms, those proto-humans who advanced to a near-human level of mimetic intelligence and did not discover or otherwise acquire representational culture did not survive, as, on the contrary, did those who learned the secret of deferral, inscription, and sacrality.
As I insisted in last year’s GASC presentation (see Chronicles 590–591), at the origin, the significant and the sacred are indistinguishable. The first referent of language is not simply a favored object of perception, something we see as highly desirable; its difference/différance is absolute, for the simple reason that its attraction for the group is alone capable of destroying it. As the object of common desire, it was rendered inaccessible, and this inaccessibility/desirability made it the originary kernel of the scene, the locus of all cultural phenomena. Its inaccessibility, significance, sacrality, obliged us to invent/discover the sign as our only means of addressing it, which meant at the same time addressing each other “about” it.
This scenic configuration contains in a nutshell all our cultural categories. If generative anthropology had simply ended here and left the rest to future PhD candidates, it would already have performed an invaluable service. But, alas, although ideas can appear only when the world is ready for them, sometimes the world, or the part of the world that is subsidized to take an interest in ideas, becomes obsessed by other, less worthy matters.
The philosophers of the linguistic turn believed that their all-important task was to purify philosophical language (ideal language philosophers) and/or to understand the workings of everyday language (ordinary language philosophers). In either case, the relationships of language to both its external and internal referents were examined with great rigor. It was considered particularly urgent to purge both ideal and ordinary language of the “metaphysical” vocabulary of classical philosophy: to be meaningful, propositions had to be capable of either empirical or logical verification.
Hence ideas like God, the soul, salvation, sin, and grace were consigned to history’s dustbin in a way yet more brutal, if with fewer rough edges, than by Marx’s class analysis or Auguste Comte’s passage from the theological through the metaphysical to the “positive.” For what Marx and Comte thought of as “positive” truths were still far from what Wittgenstein or Carnap would have accepted as well-formed propositions.
We have no a priori quarrel with such decisions. A philosophy is a language-system, and the philosopher is free to establish the rules he finds most helpful in clarifying his thinking. Yet if one recalls that philosophy means love of wisdom, one should be a bit disturbed by the fact that engaging in endless discussions about whether empirical propositions possess “certainty,” or whether we perceive “material objects” rather than, as Russell put it with deliberate inelegance, “parts of one’s brain,” is quite far from what the expression “love of wisdom” brings to mind in ordinary language.
GA makes no clear demands on analytic philosophy. But it does open the door for examining as something other than “meaningless” the kind of reflections that we find in Heidegger and more particularly, in Sartre and Derrida, which concern the ontological structures that the possession of language presupposes. Once one considers language as a historical phenomenon, as the inauguration of the very category of the historical, then one has at least a chance of being led to examine the kind of categories of being that are necessary to it.
GA insists on the centrality of the historically originated scene to the very essence of humanity and its representational modes of communication. This is precisely the kind of consideration that has been since the beginning absent from philosophy, which, ever since Socrates’ conversations in the agora, has taken the scene of language with its Ideas as an eternal given. If Continental philosophy has branched off from the classical serenity on this point that is still preserved, in a deliberately restricted domain, by the analytic philosophers of language, it is in its “phenomenological” focus on the scene within individual consciousness, with its still implicit appeal to the public scene without which the private would be inconceivable. Thus every construction of “existential” philosophy, from Heidegger’s Dasein to Sartre’s pour-soi and even Derrida’s archi-trace, makes an unavowed reference to “man’s” confrontation with “nature,” not as a solitary individual, but as a community defined by its scenic intercommunication.
Unlike the philosopher, the anthropologist cannot simply dismiss cultural realities as absurd. If for millennia, and still today, many if not most people consider God as not just a concept or an illusion but a “real” being, then to dismiss these people’s way of thinking as nonsensical simply demonstrates one’s failure as an anthropologist. The infantility of the works produced in the atheism vogue of a decade ago, with titles like God is Not Good and The God Delusion, would have provoked the scorn of Voltaire himself. I have already cited too many times the preposterous sentence about the origin of religion from the highly respected cognitive psychologist Michael Tomasello (see Chronicle 519). Whether or not Durkheim, or even Lévi-Strauss, “believed in God,” they would never have dreamed of dismissing the idea of religion as a benighted fantasy.
Once more, GA supplies the remedy. For if we would seek an excuse for today’s social sciences, including anthropology, treating religious notions as infantile fantasies or worse, we can understand this behavior as a simple consequence of having no coherent concept of human origin. My report on a recent issue of Scientific American (see Chronicle 611) stands as evidence that today’s social sciences simply lack the conceptual tools with which to comprehend the qualitative difference of the human from other animals, let alone to understand that the existence of religious phenomena is in any way linked to this difference.
Let me indulge myself in a bit of patriotism. The narrow focus of British philosophers is a lovable reflection of the cheerily self-confident Oxbridge culture and its extension into the popular domain, where it has generated a whole realm of childlike satire that no other culture even approximates. I have never wanted to read Harry Potter, but its success reflects a uniquely British brand of cosmic silliness that one can already find traces of in Dickens, and that emerges as a genre in its own right with Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll and Kenneth Grahame and A. A. Milne and Beatrix Potter and tutti quanti, not to mention Monty Python.
In contrast, the “Continent” is famous for what Gilbert called the mystical Germans who preach from 10 till 4. Marx loved to distinguish the practical English from the political French and the “theoretical” Germans. The German philosophical tradition from Leibniz through Nietzsche is unparalleled in Western thought. And speaking as a professor of French, I think its most significant continuation after WWII—which put an end to the heroic age of French politics—is found in “French Theory,” from Sartre and Merleau-Ponty to Derrida, with Girard’s non-Parisian “mimetic theory” providing the opening to anthropology that made GA possible.
But America, in the rough-hewn New World, far from both the Oxbridge faculty lounge and Heidegger striding in Lederhosen through the Black Forest, is the land of practical thinking. We have had a few “pragmatic” philosophers of language, notably Charles S. Pierce, whose academic career was particularly unsuccessful. Today, were the American university not hogtied by victimary nonsense, generative anthropology could find in it a wonderful platform for American know-how to show its stuff, as it did in very different ways in winning both World Wars.
Nothing in religious or philosophical thought need be discarded, let alone the empirically driven results of the various human or near-human sciences: paleontology, archeology, ethnology, primatology, cognitive science, linguistics, even most of what is taught in Anthropology departments. GA offers a framework within which these empirical and transcendental modes of thought can all find their place.
A century and a half after Darwin, those who would engage in fundamental thinking have no excuse for not accepting the obligation to establish the historical existence of language before we begin lecturing, either about purifying or analyzing our own technical or ordinary languages, or about Being or différance or archi-writing or whatever. GA offers a “safe space” in which representatives of all these ways of thinking could in principle come together, hopefully to engage in more fruitful discussions than the sterile polemics we know so well. It both explains and offers a remedy for the disciplinary specialization of the vocabularies and attitudes of these fields that makes it so difficult for them to communicate with one another. In particular, in the philosophical domain that is the main focus of the forthcoming conference, to grant the least relevance to GA is to conclude that the absence of a common ground between language philosophy and phenomenological philosophy, an absence that has brought both to different kinds of hyperspecialized obscurity, is directly attributable to the a priori dismissal by both sides of the question of human language’s origin and historicity.
I hope the reader does not think that I write this in the light of a utopian vision of the lion lying down with the lamb and the “Anglo-Saxon” linguistic philosopher embracing the “Continental” post-structuralist. But not many of the latter are still left, and are their counterparts doing so well, generations after Russell and Wittgenstein, Carnap and Austin?
No, I have no illusions that any of the established specialists in these fields will show the least interest in GA, as they have not for 40 years, let alone that they will find in it a source of reconciliation with the anthropological content of religion. But I hope that by reminding you that our new way of thinking has the potential for opening up these fields, in which I think it is fair to say that, concerning the fundamental questions that GA raises, little of note has been accomplished in recent decades, these words might make a sufficient impression on a few of you younger scholars for you to carry them back to your disciplinary fortresses and begin work at unlocking, or tearing down, their gates. And when the specialized journals prove unwilling to publish your resulting thought-experiments, Anthropoetics will be there to welcome them.