René Girard used to make light of the originary hypothesis by calling it a “social contract,” implying that GA’s originary event consisted of a bunch of people in the “state of nature,” tired of their lives “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” coming together to invent language in order to live in peace. I hope I need not refute René’s semi-serious refutation. But it points to an essential element that, as I have pointed out in different ways, is lacking in René’s formulations of the birth of the human through the “emissary murder” that puts an end to a given mimetic crisis. A formulation that lacks the notion of event or scene—and in its undeferred violence, a lynching is not a scenic event—cannot provide a model of the watershed moment that separates the human from the non-human.

It is nevertheless important to point out that, in a sense quite different from Hobbes and from the idea that René had of my hypothesis, the human does indeed originate as a “contractual” phenomenon. The sacred and language itself are contractual in the sense that, not being biologically determined, they exist through mutual consent. Agreement on the meaning of the first sign was mediated by the sacred center of the scene, which is to say, by a presence whose interdictive power transcended for the moment not only each individual but the group as a whole, which only on the basis of this originary agreement would be able to approach and divide it.

Such a “contract” is of a peculiar type. In the beginning, the contexts of the sacred and of language were one, so that it seems reasonable to assume that the earliest form of language, and of the scene on which it was used, were for a perhaps considerable period restricted to the collective, sacred context, and that the first utterances differentiated themselves in this context, perhaps, as with the first sign itself, on the initiative (“firstness”) of one or more enterprising individuals.

When in my recent talk at the New York GASC, I said that the sign was an ontological novelty, that the equivalence of two instances of the same word is incomparable with that of two animals of the same species, or for that matter of two electrons, that is because this equivalence, like the equivalence of two instances of the number 1, is the product of a human convention. Analytic philosophers do not like to talk this way; numbers, at least, are inscribed in Platonic heaven. But we cannot go there to find out. What we know is that no two things in nature are “the same” the way two “1”s or two instances of “dog” are the same. And that is not because they “are” that way in their worldly manifestations, it is because in our “contractual” systems of language and numbers we agree to consider them as being equivalent, or more precisely, as two tokens of the same type.

The relationship of deferral that separates the sacred originary referent from the sign persists in the formal relationship between the universe of signs and that of their worldly referents. The fact that the first sign derived from aborting the normal worldly aim of the gesture of appropriation, such that the vocalization that accompanied it was promoted to its main component—this is perhaps the simplest explanation of why language is not primarily gestural—is retained in the sign-system. What Sartre designated as the néant is what separates the “presence” of the referent on the scene of representation from the sign used to designate it. The “space” of the néant is a physical metaphor for the temporal deferral that makes any use of language an act of conscious intention, as opposed to a reflexive (re)action.

The new sense of sacred interdiction surrounding the central object is the source of the classical manifestation of the transcendent in the form of the “supernatural” personages of revealed scriptures and their predecessors in oral myths that gave rise to archaic epics such as the Iliad and the Mahabharata. The parallel between this embodied form of transcendence and the abstract form of the sign, a parallel which seemed obvious to the older generations of anthropologists from Max Müller to Roy Rappoport, is no longer evident to minds having become opaque to religious belief. Yet it is founded on an evident, if generally overlooked, similarity.

On the one hand, we have supernatural beings who interact with humans, and whose own supernatural domain is analogous and/or contiguous to ours; on the other, we have the signifier/signified/referent relationship often described, erroneously but plausibly, as “the substitution of one thing for another.” But the essential trait shared by both signs and supernatural beings is that they are both immortal. Neither is subject to the ravages of worldly time. Those beings we call “gods” can most simply be described as persons whose sacred/significant quality allows them to share the immortality of signs. The One God of the Hebrews, the model of divinity in Western civilization, is analogous to the entire system of signs: the eternal but human-like self-consciousness of the entire system of meaning. What is most evident in the relationship between sign and sacred, language and religion, is the drive to anthropomorphize the originary interdiction of the center, to make it the object of a human-like will that, precisely, transcends our unreflective, pre-human appetites.

As I pointed out in Chronicle 622, the most obvious model of a transcendent presence that does not involve divinity is the conscience, Freud’s superego. Freud saw the latter as being “introjected” into the psyche by the agency of the father, or whoever plays the paternal role in the life of the child. The fundamental feature of this psychic module is its independence from individual or even collective interest. Although our judicial system has been created to provide a socially objective means of determining right and wrong in difficult cases, the phenomenon of bad conscience is not something that could be voted on or decided by judges. The order that establishes the fundamental moral laws has traditionally been of divine, that is, revealed origin. But as various Enlightenment figures insisted, whether or not with a desire to deny the reality of God, natural law, at least in its broad injunctions, exists independently of “belief.” Our adherence to this “law” is akin not to adherence to propositions about God’s existence, but to non-thetic faith. Faith is specifically human, that is, it depends on signs, but not on propositional truth-values; faith is ostensive.

In the same way, our moral convictions are pre-declarative. The Ten Commandments are imperative formulations of moral law, and Kant’s formulation of the overarching moral principle is as a “categorical imperative.” But as I observed in Chapter 7 of the 2019 Origin of Language, the imperative itself cannot be understood as a command from a hierarchical superior; it is an appeal to the originary ostensivity of language that linked the first sign to the revelatory sacredness of the central object.

The first three commandments affirm the unique authority of the divine Subject that stands behind the later ones. And as Sandy Goodhart pointed out at the recent GASC conference, the fourth commandment to keep the Sabbath enjoins the social celebration of the originary human category of deferral. Unlike festivals that grant respite from work in the more or less orgiastic indulgence of desire, the Sabbath commemorates God’s rest from his labors by requiring us to devote one day of seven to experiencing in the large the deferral of practical activity that language and the other activities of human culture let us experience in the small. Given that, with religious variants, the Hebrew week with its day of rest, modified from its Babylonian origins, is observed the world over, this celebration of deferral may be considered the Hebrews’ most indubitable contribution to world culture. Finally, the last commandment preceding the thou shalt nots, the asymmetrical “honor thy father and mother,” reflects the necessary reverence for the continuity of generations that enables the survival of the originary community.

But given that the moral imperative or rule of behavior is an extension of the originary interdiction of the center, it is no surprise that the last five of the Ten Commandments, those by far most often cited as examples of moral law, are negative. Moral law is interdictive, just as the first sign was interdictive, making the central object exclusively an object of signing, which in the origin was indistinguishable from worship. But in contrast to the first three commandments focused on the center, moral laws such as thou shalt not kill or steal are consequences of the originary peripheral reciprocity or “moral model” established by the sign. Hillel’s “golden rule” generalizes the “thou shalt nots,” which all forbid acts that are denials of human reciprocity.

Our conscience gives us, independently of propositional moral belief, a living proof of transcendence: the experience of sharing a form of being that transcends not only the individual, but any concrete collection of individuals. Not that human individuality is opposed to the communal order; on the contrary, it is inseparable from it. We are all inextricably individuals and members of the community. Girard’s term interdividual expresses this interdependence, but unfortunately by submerging the one in the other, giving the term a pejorative cast. No doubt mobs may be inspired by collective passion to commit violent acts, but one cannot suggest that such “interdividuality” is the model for all human activity without automatically making an exception for ourselves as the possessors of “transcendent” knowledge. Which is to say that the term risks encouraging le mensonge romantique.

The collective unanimity of the moral order instituted by the shared reverence of the sacred includes the orderly violence of collective real and symbolic sacrifices that reinforce what Durkheim called the society’s solidarity. The individuals who participate in religious rites under the aegis of the divinity willingly defer their individual desires in the act of worship. The lynch mob is an aberrant effect of collective mimesis, not its normal destiny.

A final point on the subject of transcendence. The fact that it involves an ontological break makes it incompatible with the straightforward biological processes of Darwinian natural selection. But this in no way implies a breach of the laws of nature. On the contrary, the transcendental origin of the human poses a challenge to neuroscience. How can we locate in the brain the mechanism of deferral and the scene of representation? The fact that they are not simple products of natural selection does not mean that they “transcend” biology and physical reality. If these meta-psychological categories are not artificial constructions, they must indeed correspond to psycho-physical realities in our nervous system, inaugurated not by genetic mutation but by human interaction.

Marina Ludwigs’ paper at the just-concluded GASC, “Hierarchical thinking, grammatical structures, and the originary scene,” proposed that the mechanism of deferral was inherent in the linguistic hierarchies that Chomsky had attributed to his black-box “language module.” This suggestion gives an additional incentive to neuroscientists to seek the correlate within the brain of the deferral mechanism that ex hypothesi emerged in the originary scene. Heretofore, studies of the evolution of language have maintained a strictly Darwinian perspective, seeking in animal behaviors the origins of the psychic correlates of language. But if our hypothesis is correct, the mechanisms that permit language and culture offer rather a uniquely significant example of Baldwinian selection influenced by a critically important new behavior.

GA’s hypothetical originary event is not for all that inherently supernatural. Where, in religious revelation, the supernatural is postulated, GA is concerned only with its anthropological content: as a means to provide the believer with an indubitable foundation of the transcendental status of the scene of representation, as a reinforcement against the resentment inspired by mimetic desire. But to allege that secular grounds for the certitude of this transcendent relation can be found in our sense of conscience, or even in such things as that of linguistic correction, is not to demonstrate that religion is unnecessary to human culture, or to the continued survival of our species.