Marina Ludwigs pointed out to me that in my previous Chronicle (633), I used the term “Being” in two somewhat different senses:

You say: “The presence of the sacred, which we too easily call a god or just God, but which in its simplest form is better represented by the old-fashioned term godhead, unlike the physical presence of a sacrificial animal, is not divided among the participants, but shared by all of them. It is this distinction that founds the sense of essence or Being, what is contained in the word as a signified, and which allows us to grasp its transcendent standing with respect to the objects of nature.”

And then you say:

“Heidegger’s ‘man is the shepherd of Being…’

In the second, the easily mystified term ‘Being’ expresses the substantiality of the original sacred/significant object. Were we not its ‘shepherds’ but merely, as a superficial reading of Girard might suggest, its sparagmatic destroyers, there would be no human at all.”

In short, in the first paragraph, I treat “Being” as a purely transcendental, or “metaphysical,” construct; in the second, I attribute to it the “substantiality” of the original sacred/central object. Which is it?

I responded to Marina by explaining, as I no doubt should have done in the text itself, that these two meanings of Being corresponded to two stages in a process. In order to get to the abstraction of the “godhead,” one must begin with the object. The reason we have language and not merely “spirituality” is that the first locus of the sacred must be in the real objects that animals like ourselves value in the real world. Whence the “aborted gesture of appropriation.” If the sacred were always already a “spiritual” value—and in an antithetical fashion, Girard’s mimetic rivalry is, despite the concreteness of the violence it inspires, equally “spiritual” in having no positive worldly aim, merely a pretext for destruction, like the gâteau (cake) in Baudelaire’s eponymous prose poem that two little boys fight over until it is reduced to inedible crumbs, we would never have discovered/invented it. The “worship” of the sacred as practiced in our hypothetical originary scene would never have arisen without a real-world payoff such as the sparagmos provides.

This explication of the double sense of Being also explains the inherent “mystery” of the term that Heidegger exploits so skillfully. The sacred object acquires a “second nature” by becoming interdicted to normal worldly appropriation; the sign, precisely to the extent that it does not merely designate the object but is itself a sign of it (whence the ambiguity of the pointing gesture, which Raymond Tallis [The Hand] and in another context, Michael Tomasello see as the ur-sign of the human in its command of shared joint attention, but which remains an element dependent on this configuration and not susceptible to becoming, as does the true sign, independent of it). The sign, even if it originates as a pointing, is retained in the memory not as an indexical gesture but as a (symbolic) sign, and as such, it necessarily acquires a “meaning,” a signified that the sign represents or designates. It is this that can change with its use. And the most significant change is that from “this object” as the referent of the sacred to “this configuration” of sacrality. Unlike words representing the things of nature like “dog” or “tree,” words like “God” can have no specific worldly referent. The first sign, as the sign of sacrality and interdiction, cannot be permanently associated with an object that, once eaten, is no more. Since it is the configuration of the scene of representation that is the crucial factor in its emission, we must assume that whatever other signs come to be invented to designate elements of the sacred/sacrificial practice, the originary, most universal sign through which the actor’s renunciation acquires a memorable form will be the locus of a continued rethinking of the sacred of the kind that the word “God” or its equivalent—and for metaphysicians, the “secular” term Being—inspires in those of the Judeo-Christian West.

For those among us who have been brought up to take rationalism for granted, the necessity of accommodating the transcendental in our vocabulary is a source of frustration. At least GA can explain why words of transcendence, so often expelled, always find their way back, even if in the guise of rational constructions of the sort that “dialectical materialism” once made familiar: they always come back because they were there from the beginning, or rather, what was there from the beginning was the transcendence itself, from which language emerges. I no doubt did not pay particular attention to this in TOOL, for that was a book about the origin of language, and even if its theories of syntax and morphology, let alone phonology, left much to be desired, it was nonetheless predicated on the fact that the originary sign would eventually give birth to “mature” language, and thence develop into that of religion, philosophy, the arts, the sciences, and… GA. But the most interesting thing about the hypothesis may well be its more immediate consequences. In a language with only one word, that word’s “meanings” are of a very different quality from the prehuman indexical signals associated with danger, food, mating, etc., and we may assume that the birth of the scene of representation would permit a transition from index to sign.

An example of how this might work would be expressions like “Ouch!” or even “Wow!” which do not have verbal roots but clearly mimic the calls that express pain and surprise. More interesting is rather how the words of the sacred might have differentiated themselves, while articulating a new human sensibility peopled by agentive subjects. But as we might expect, any speculations on these matters take us into a grey area between the originary hypothesis and historical evidence, a domain in which the hypothesis supplies only general principles. The point to retain is that the principle of deferral, as Derrida well understood from within the philosophical tradition, is a principle of explanation that is also a setter of limits to our reasoning from its presence at the origin—which is why Derrida was careful not to call it a concept in the Hegelian sense.

That is, in the animal world, to whatever extent actions can be premeditated, they cannot be planned in a communal context and their non-immediate consequences anticipated and calculated. But once the sign exists as not merely separate from its referent but as belonging to an independent sphere, a scene of representation on which it subsists in the absence of the actions with which it is associated, an element of indetermination or “freedom” is introduced that can never be fully expelled, but that on the contrary will inevitably induce further elements of indetermination. If logic tells us that there must have been a first “word” or ostensive utterance, it is rather the opening up of the différance, the néant between the word and the scene of the first representation that makes it impossible for us to understand it, as the old materialism would like, as “one thing substituted for another.”

I don’t think I have to argue here for the difference between the transcendental status of the sign, which exists as a type instantiated in verbal “tokens,” but also simply in “the mind,” which itself is a concept rather than a concrete reality, and the substantiality of the objects of the real world. But the direct implication of this is that any one-to-one or one-to-many correspondence can only be posited; there is no objective connection, and no way of being sure of the limits of the class of referents. Whence the impossibility of predicting how, from the “first word,” other words would proliferate. What we must retain is simply that even the first word for the sacred, although it partake of sacrality, because the sign is not itself an object that can guarantee collective desire, is always already in the process of secularization, whence the possibility of profane repetition, and consequently of both distortion and of differentiation.

The sacred is one, but the word that represents it cannot encompass it nor reproduce its full effect. It must, as Derrida would say, be supplemented, and all of culture emerges from this supplementation—which is also a falling-away, an “original sin,” but one that is a simple consequence of the very existence of the sacred/significant. It also justifies the neologism différance, which implicitly derives from the act of deferral the difference that separates members of a paradigm, and more broadly, any two members of the class “sign.” But the relationship is not “metaphysical,” inherent in the notion itself; it reflects the separation of the sign from the sacred that is paradoxically the direct result of its sacrality. Sacrality cannot fully reproduce itself; but the result of the process is not simply a loss of potency that eventually leads to a new “mimetic crisis,” but a positive gain in differentiation that nourishes the human intellect.


Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit is generally considered the masterpiece from which the rest of his mature oeuvre derives. In contrast with Kant’s Critiques that seek to found the domains of “pure reason,” “practical reason,” and “judgment” cum taste on minimal principles, Hegel begins with a minimal model of the human-in-the-world and seeks to derive the categories of thought from the “dialectic” of his interaction with his environment—in a word, a kind of originary anthropology, albeit one that retains the metaphysical principle of the preexistence of language.

To reread the Phenomenology from the perspective of the originary hypothesis would surely make a valuable contribution to the understanding of the evolution and eventual “overcoming” of metaphysics. Given the intricacy of Hegel’s analyses, I can only offer here the most limited suggestion for how to proceed.

The Logic, as we all know, begins with the “thesis” of Being, which is dialectically opposed by its “antithesis,” Nothingness, producing in Hegel’s triadic system the “synthesis” of Becoming. But this dialectic does not purport to reproduce a historical process of human thought. The Phenomenology, in contrast, begins with so to speak a “minimal” human mind, like the sensate statue of Condillac in the Traité des sensations. The first two stages of the evolution of Consciousness, which will be followed by Self-Consciousness and then Reason and Spirit, are sinnliche Gewissheit (sense-certainty) and Wahrnehmung (taking-as-true, i.e., perception). Their progression takes an “originary” self who can experience only the here-and-now to one who retains the sense of beings existing in time, or as Hegel puts is, from the Diese (This) to the Ding (Thing).

Sage ich ein einzelnes Ding, so sage ich es vielmehr ebenso als ganz Allgemeines, denn alle sind ein einzelnes Ding; und gleichfalls dieses Ding ist alles, was man will. Genauer bezeichnet, als dieses Stueck Papier, so ist alles und jedes Papier, ein dieses Stueck Papier, und ich habe nur immer das Allgemeine gesagt. Will ich aber dem Sprechen, welches die goettliche Natur hat, die Meinung unmittelbar zu verkehren, zu etwas anderem zu machen, und so sie gar nicht zum Worte kommen zu lassen, dadurch nachhelfen, dass ich dies Stueck Papier aufzeige, so mache ich die Erfahrung, was die Wahrheit der sinnlichen Gewissheit in der Tat ist; ich zeige es auf, als ein Hier, das ein Hier anderer Hier, oder an ihm selbst ein einfaches Zusammen vieler Hier, das heisst, ein Allgemeines ist, ich nehme so es auf, wie es in Wahrheit ist, und statt ein Unmittelbares zu wissen, nehme ich wahr.

Last paragraph of Chapter I, Phänomenologie des Geistes,
http://public-library.uk/ebooks/05/51.pdf: 32

When I say an individual thing, I at once state it to be really quite a universal, for all things are an individual thing: and in the same way, this thing is anything we like. More precisely, as this piece of paper, each and every paper is a this piece of paper, and I have thus only said what is universal. If I want, however, to help out speech—which has the divine nature of immediately turning the meaning around, making it into something else, and so not letting it just come to words—by pointing out this piece of paper, then I get the experience of what is, in point of fact, the real truth of sense-certainty; I point it out as a Here, which is a Here of other Heres, or is in itself a simple ensemble of many Heres, i.e., is a universal; I take it up then, as in truth it is; and instead of knowing something immediate, I ‘take’ [nehmen] something ‘truly’ [wahr], [i.e., I perceive it].

Translation modified from The Phenomenology of Mind, tr. James Baillie, London & New York: George Allen & Unwin / Macmillan, 1931, p. 160

If I had another couple of lifetimes, I would surely spend one of them reading through Hegel’s works in German, and one could do no better than to start (and end) with the Phenomenology, which was according to legend completed during Napoleon’s victorious passage through Iena. If I have anything in common, aside from Jewish origin, with that old antisemite Karl Marx, it is my admiration for Hegel, the only philosopher whose grave (in the East Berlin Dorotheenstadt cemetery) I have visited. I would venture to say that the distinction Hegel makes en passant between “speech” and “words” is precisely that between language and languaging that I referred to in Andresen’s Linguistics and Evolution in Chronicle 632: the speech-act makes the linguistic “meaning” or intention something other than “just words.”

As for the substance of the evolution this passage describes, understood simply in psychological terms, its nature makes clear why Hegel has recourse here to what is for him a rare reference to language. For the “perception” of this piece of paper as opposed to the universal generality of any piece of paper, and more generally of any “this,” is something we may wish to attribute to a non-human animal, but it cannot effectively be demonstrated save by the use of language.

And seen from the perspective of the originary hypothesis, we can describe this transition in more concrete terms, since our scenario allows us to distinguish between the stage at which the sign designates the sacred as a whole, hence as a “this,” but not one among other “thises,” but as the only this, and the stage at which the specificity of the sacred object, presumably once it has been torn apart in the sparagmos, is recognized in its spatio-temporal individuality. Wahrnehmen, perceiving in the sense of taking-as-true, that is, as exercising what Kant called the “judgment” (Urteilskraft) to determine what concept/word “truly” applies to a given object, is in our terms the moment when what I called the “threshold of significance” has been lowered to the point where such distinctions between objects of perception can be made, that is, a moment when the mind is not wholly occupied by the sacred and its interdictive power.

Presumably the remainder of the Phenomenology, which most readers know only from Alexandre Kojève’s famous exposition of the Master-Slave dialectic, could be similarly interpreted as offering, in advance of any empirical knowledge of human prehistory, in contrast to Kant’s atemporal one, the outline of an a priori historical anthropology.

For however much Hegel’s philosophy of history differs from that implicit in the originary hypothesis, I think it is safe to say that it is only when we begin the story of the human mind, not either from the birth of the child, as is the current tendency, nor from the contact of an “ideal” mind with “reality,” but from a hypothesis of the origin of the human mind, that we can elaborate a dialectic that is, if not falsifiable by empirical reality, at least falsifiable in terms of its founding hypothesis.

This is the sole conceivable mode of the salvation of metaphysics, and the very least that can be said of it is that it is worth trying. As Hegel showed, it has indeed been tried, but by a philosopher as yet too timid to include in his “dialectic” the discovery of language itself.