Responding to strictly linguistic studies of language origin is simple enough, for such studies have few points of contact with GA. Even in the area of the origin of utterance forms, which makes up the bulk of both editions of The Origin of Language (TOOL), there is little common ground, for the influence of generative grammar is so great that linguists simply cannot conceive of language that is not always already, as the French say, based on the declarative sentence. To be sure, children have a “one-word” and a “two-word” stage, but the words they hear as real speech, as opposed to vehicles of instruction (saying “cat” when pointing to a cat), are mostly already in declarative sentences, so it is easy to interpret these “stages” as stopping-points on the way to the declarative. Thus linguists never think of the declarative sentence as having emerged from more elementary forms.
As for the origin of “the first word(s),” this always seems to them something of a formality, as though at a certain level of cognitive development ideas and their signs cannot help appearing. Well before I thought of writing on the subject, I always found the basic Chomskian idea that language is first of all an internal “cognitive” mechanism and only secondarily a system of communication simply absurd. It is the equivalent of saying that the originary function of the genital organs is masturbation, and only fortuitously do we discover that they can be brought together to produce offspring.
In contrast, those who approach language from the “social” angle, and who therefore at least nominally recognize the primacy of its communicative function over its internal structure, have by that very fact much more in common with GA. There has been much research done in all areas relevant to the “social” evolution of language since I wrote TOOL forty years ago. And in a not altogether paradoxical sense, these various strands of research into protohuman social arrangements and signaling, even touching on “ritual,” if not religion per se, make a more urgent case for GA than the linguistic strand, which, to be fair, starting with Chomsky himself, does not really see the origin of language as a crucial matter, any more than biologists focus on speculating on the origin of life rather than studying its diverse forms. It is in relation to the social-science-oriented study of the evolution of language as a social activity that GA as a “new way of thinking” is truly relevant.
For on the one hand, one cannot expect scientists to base a theory on a purely speculative scenario, the only “evidence” for which is retrodicted from much later cultural phenomena. But on the other—and this is a point that GA alone can make, since it belongs neither to science nor philosophy nor religion—lacking the possibility of an originary hypothesis, not simply a “scenario” like Hobbes’ scene in Leviathan but the reconstruction of a minimal originary event, we have no effective secular substitute for a theoretical model of the origin of what we can simply call transcendence. And the proof that such a model is necessary emerges far more clearly from the lacunae in these studies than from those of the linguists, whose domain is not history but structure, the diachronic evolution of which does not require speculation about its origin.
One finds in this subset of studies occasional references to points I have shown in my Chronicles to be absent from the more popular books on language origin. The names of Roy Rappaport, of Claude Lévi-Strauss, of Terrence Deacon do appear, albeit episodically and with no real concern for the transcendental nature of religion that at least the first two of these authors, as anthropologists in the old-fashioned sense, were obliged to respect. Nonetheless, their names are a reminder of the connection between the origin of language and what I called in TOOL the institutional forms of cultural representation.
At the same time, these scattered allusions reveal in their superficiality the loss of the intuition that presided over Max Müller’s naïve but, I dare say, luminous idea that the first human word was the word for sun. We cannot help recognizing the analogy to the interdiction that surrounds the sacred in the power of the sun’s presence that makes it impossible to look directly into it. The core of the notion of transcendence can be found in the identity between the significant and the sacred that situates the language-culture complex in human history; Müller’s intuition captured this central feature of language that the originary hypothesis would make explicit. In contrast, these studies contain numerous references to ritual, and even occasionally “religion,” but neither is conceived as anything but a set of collective practices, never as the institutionalization of a revelation of transcendence.
Yet without transcendence, none of the terms that allow us to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom have any meaning. Husserl’s original conception of intentionality was clearly a way of interpreting concrete human experience in terms of transcendence, that is, as something more than animal perception, even if many of his analyses focused on the way in which we “intend” an object do not emphasize this fact. And in the later phenomenological generations, Heidegger’s Dasein and Sartre’s pour-soi—and of course, Derrida’s différance—explicitly partake of a transcendentality that is denied to other species.
Indeed, the specific human character of our sociality cannot be described as mediated by the signs of language and culture without adding that the very existence of the sign, that is, the process of signification, is inconceivable without the notion of transcendence. We can easily see through the awkward attempts of early semioticians to describe sign systems as “the substitution of one thing for another.” A sign is not a “thing” substituted for another “thing,” indeed, it is not a “thing” at all. But even the Saussurean sophistication that makes a science of semiotics possible, and that allows us to see computers as “thinking,” has no explanation for language’s emergence into the human world.
Transcendence is, if anything, an ontological category; indeed, it is the ontological category, since there is no other way to distinguish kinds of being while allowing them to participate in the same universe. The sign is “transcendent” with respect to the material world in the sense not that it is made of some different material, but that it “stands above” the world and its contents, including its “ideas,” and can “represent” it. Within the material world, the sign can only manifest itself materially, but as the manifestation of a transcendental reality/category/being representing a material or conceptual reality.
The operation of transcendence is easier to experience than to “explain,” because “explanation” is itself a transcendental category that we can normally take for granted. If we use d=gt2 to “explain” the motion of a falling body, it goes without saying that the terms of the equation cannot be understood as “one thing substituted for another,” but as the expression of a relationship between material things, a “law” of physics. But the contingent phenomena of life, whether or not their regularities can be formalized in similar “laws,” are equally susceptible of being represented by signs that categorize them, as “the cat is on the mat” categorizes the presence of a certain type of entity in a certain location.
The key question in all this is why we need to assimilate significance to sacrality, as though we cannot avoid giving religion its place in human ontology. This is indeed the crux of generative anthropology, and the fact that contemporary social science prefers to treat religious belief as outmoded superstition does nothing to solve the problem (see in particular Chronicle 519).
GA is not creationism. There is nothing in GA that should prevent the most adamant atheist from accepting its originary equation of the sacred with the significant. Indeed, I would warn the latter against the “mimetic” danger of making the affirmation of non-existence into an unavowed inverted worship. The French have an expression: Brûlez ce que vous avez adoré; burn what you adored. We can all recognize this phenomenon in the Black Mass’s profanation of communion wafers, which for the “true” atheist are just biscuits, but Satan is not so easily denied. The core condition of the originary event, preceding the first emission of the sign, which in our hypothesis is rather the realization by one or more of the group that the abortion of his appropriative gesture can be understood as a sign, is the mimetically-generated sacred “aura” surrounding the object that prevents the Alpha, and all the others, from appropriating it. It is its sacred, that is, its universally interdicted and therefore “otherworldly” status that inspires the members of the group to “intend” the sign, as opposed to merely letting it be an index of the aborted gesture, and this “intention” is explicitly one of communication. As sacred, the object cannot be assimilated into our world, but only communicated about, that is, signified, by means of the sign.
This simple idea, which I expounded in the first edition of TOOL in 1981 and have sharpened since throughout my Chronicles and in the 2019 second edition, is a necessary component of a minimal anthropology that gives an intelligible account of human difference. But under currently imaginable conditions, it is fundamentally unprovable by empirical means. Indeed, I would say that social scientists working on the problem of language origin should not even try to prove it. My claim is rather that they should recognize, as a precondition of their own researches, the need for an originary hypothesis as an explanation of the transcendentality of human language and culture. For even one who denies all truth to religion, who views it as the opium of the people, cannot explain its intimate originary connection with language without the notion of transcendence. GA is, precisely, its minimal explanation.
Reading these studies arouses in me a number of questions that I think should be of interest to humanists. When I look at articles of “hard science,” for example in the copies of Physics Today that my neighbor and UCLA colleague George Morales sometimes passes on to me, I can’t say I understand them, but I can well see them as parts of an overall construction, bricks in the edifice, even if I have no way of measuring their importance. In the case of a number of the articles about language origin, however, even though I readily admit that my knowledge of the elements of the nervous system is insufficient to fully appreciate them, I have a very strong impression that they are exercises in an intermediate genre between true scientific publications that present results and popular overviews of a field, like those articles in Scientific American I talked about in Chronicle 611. They sum up results of scientific research, but, as far as I can tell, not in a way that will advance the understanding of the emergence of human language to the next plateau. Not all the chapters of these books are in this style, but more than a few are.
To truly demonstrate this point, I would be obliged to reproduce entire articles or book chapters. But let me give you a sample of what I am talking about. The following passage comes just before the end of a 32-page chapter entitled “Embodied Meaning,” by Don M. Tucker, in The Evolution of Language out of Pre-language (John Benjamins, 2002), p. 75:
In his evolutionary-developmental study of cognition, Werner proposed that the differentiation of specific cognitive form out of holistic and syncretic precursors is characteristic not just of the child’s development, but the development, or microgenesis, of each idea (Werner, 1957). As he considered the microgenetic process within the context of neuroanatomy, Brown recognized that the progression must be, at least in broad outline, phylogenetic. The development of an action, and a concept, must begin in the arousal and motivational centers in the upper brainstem, must recruit some adaptive resonance with diencephalic and limbic circuits, to be unfolded across paralimbic (e.g., cingulate) association (e.g., supplementary motor) and finally premotor cortices, before being instantiated in the motor cortex (Brown 1987). [Italics mine]
Although all these references to parts of the nervous system may be relevant to understanding how the elements of language are processed, they have no clear relationship to language’s specificity, that is, to its transcendental difference from the perceptions and interoceptions that we share with animals. Although “meaning” is presumably the subject of this chapter, there is nothing beyond a couple of brief references to meaning at the very beginning of the article, let alone a discussion of how what we normally mean by meaning is related to cognitive processes whose location in the brain is insisted on but the nature of whose content is wholly taken for granted.
I was struck in this passage by the term concept. The author puts together “[t]he development of an action, and a concept” as though it went without saying that they are the same kind of thing. His insensitivity to the vast difference between the movements of cilia and concepts such as love or democracy makes me very dubious that all this physiological jargon has anything specific to say about human language. Would he say that amoebas too have concepts, such as “hot,” “cold,” “food”? One wonders what Hegel would have made of that. And what indeed does it mean to refer to the “instantiation” of a “concept” in the “motor cortex”? Unless, of course, you are an amoeba.
I would not leave the reader with the impression that all the chapters in these books are equally insensitive to the specificity of human language. In a subsequent Chronicle or two I will discuss some of those that strike me as particularly relevant.
And let me insist that my main point in discussing these essays is not make light of them or to reveal, in contrast to GA, their irrelevancy to the subject. It is rather to demonstrate why, as a fourth way of thinking other than science, religion, or philosophy, GA is indispensable to provide an explanation of why human beings have signs.