I was struck by Adam Katz’s reaction to my recent series of “philosophical” Chronicles. He found the last one, about the Phenomenology, more focused than my previous remarks about Descartes and Kant, and this because I treated Hegel as a proto-originary thinker, that is, as a precursor of GA. Whereas in the other cases, I merely attempted to show that the originary hypothesis allowed us to enrich our understanding of the Cogito and the Categorical Imperative. Which is all very nice, but it would be more coherent to show that Descartes and Kant too, in their way, were precursors of GA, moments in philosophical history leading eventually to the “suspicion” and “overcoming” of metaphysics and to its “deconstruction,” yet (and this is GA’s own contribution) leading not to the ruin of metaphysics but to a new synthesis.
I hasten to say that, in keeping with our good cop-bad cop roles, Adam’s preference for my discussion of Hegel does not imply that he is altogether happy with my attention to the metaphysical domain. But whether we consider the dialectic of history as inclusive, as Hegel would have it, or destructive, as philosophers from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche to Heidegger to Sartre and Derrida would prefer to see it, is really just a matter of rhetoric. In either case, the new replaces the old, and seeking the antecedents of GA in philosophy, as in religion—and in empirical science—is not, as opposed to what we found in Heidegger and even Derrida in Chronicle 535, an expression of nostalgia for the metaphysical faith of the past, but a means of understanding it as a stepping stone to the present.
I think that by this time we are tired of “God is dead” and “the overcoming of metaphysics.” GA is not the de…struction of anything, but an attempt at a construction that makes up for the deficiencies of other modes of thought—while explaining as well as we can the paradox of why we cannot “transcend” the transcendent itself and reduce the claims of faith to a “material” mechanism.
Which is to say that, although Hegel’s dialectical scheme is no doubt Eurocentric and confining, the history of thought, or of anything else in the human cultural sphere, is by nature “dialectical,” both extending and reacting against the modes of the past, destroying old and creating new syntheses. Beyond such banalities, GA allows us to rethink the previous history of thought in terms of a new telos: that of retrieving the origin of the human itself, which is synonymous with the origin of language.
In this context, the Cartesian “turn” toward the individual subject is of great consequence. We should not let the fundamentally communal structure of the originary hypothesis obscure the significance of the human individual. If ever there was a dichotomy of which both sides must be preserved, it is this one. What I reproach Girard’s “interdividuality” with is its too-easily-followed suggestion of debunking the self-substantiality of the individual soul, reducing it to the equivalent of an ant in an anthill, or the member of a lynch mob. Such things happen, and all too often, but to warn, as does Mensonge romantique, that those who give themselves up unthinkingly to mimetic mediation put in jeopardy their “immortal souls” is to point out that although the mimetic collectivity and the human individual are unthinkable one without the other, each individual, with or without divine intervention, is responsible for his own salvation.
Descartes’ Meditations owe their crucial place in the history of thought to their adoption of a critical epistemology that seeks within the self itself the ultimate source of its (self-) knowledge. There is no need to revise the critique of the Cogito outlined in Chronicle 633, but it should be situated in a broader, more generous context.
What this suggests to me is a still somewhat vague idea for a parallel volume to The Scenic Imagination (Stanford, 2008), which dealt with the scene of human interaction and only peripherally with individual self-consciousness. Descartes seems like the appropriate point of departure, although those of a less mathematical disposition might begin with Montaigne and his new Renaissance sense of self, the product of the mise en question of Church authority by the Reformation and its reverberations.
The “history of the modern self” has no doubt been written many times, but never from the retrodictive standpoint of the originary hypothesis, that is, in terms of the rediscovery of the minimal anthropological roots of the human “soul” or “spirit,” and in such a way that the individual and the community are shown to have a common— “dialectical”—origin.
As for the philosophers who would fill the gap between Descartes and Derrida—both not coincidentally French—they would certainly include representatives of the existentialist tendency, from Pascal through Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre. Nor should we neglect the “sensationalist” school of Locke and Hume. Rousseau belongs in any such list as the most fearless early explorer of the contradictions and mensonges romantiques of the modern self; as I pointed out in Chronicle 618, that Derrida chose l’époque de Rousseau as the prime target of deconstruction was surely no coincidence.
What follows is a tentative set of problems and questions out of which, hopefully, a coherent study will emerge.
—If indeed the individual is from the outset linked to the community, what is the significance of modern philosophy’s birth in Descartes’ solitary poêle (heated room)—a gesture repeated by Husserl in his Cartesian Meditations, and essentially by all modern thinkers, none of whom exercised their profession in the Socratic agora? (I can attest that GA is no exception, however much its birth may have owed to the stimulation of spending a semester with Girard at Hopkins.) However revolutionary the Cartesian self may appear in contrast with the—more anthropologically accurate—collective imagination of the Greek philosophers, it is one more example of the back and forth movement of the historical dialectic, returning to the individual away from the community, but only to eventually integrate the two, as the originary hypothesis as well attempts to do. And let us not forget the quasi-martyrdom of the individual, Socrates, that stands at the origin of philosophy itself.
—If Descartes enters his poêle for the purpose of meditation, Pascal inaugurates a series of philosophers for whom isolation is an existential, not to say, existentialist, attitude. Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie (The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me) is not a sentiment we would find in the works of Descartes. And if the latter puts metaphysics on a seemingly more secure basis, with Pascal begins the current that will lead to its questioning and eventual “deconstruction,” or what Hegel describes as the unhappy consciousness. How is this a source of fundamental anthropological knowledge, even if it appears to contradict or even “lie romantically” about the individual’s dependence on the community?
—Kant deserves a more thorough discussion than I have provided up to now, either in the Chronicles or in Chapter 4 of The Scenic Imagination (on the Critique of Judgment). As Adam points out elsewhere in his message, the categorical imperative does not provide a very perspicuous basis for an ethic. Kant’s related idea that lying is never permissible is anything but a sure-fire recipe for moral conduct, e.g., under oppression.
My aim is not to reconcile GA with all the metaphysical lucubrations of the past, neither Kant’s nor anyone else’s. It is rather to allow us to understand the valid anthropological kernel of Kant’s formulation which, as with all formulas of ultimate morality like “the golden rule,” which Kant is essentially attempting to recast in more formal terms, can be traced to the “moral model” first evinced in the originary reciprocal exchange of the sign before the sacred central object. The “Golden Rule” formulation “do unto others…” makes one’s own sense of self-preservation the criterion for action rather than the abstraction of a “law,” reintroducing an element of reciprocity that Kant no doubt felt was too subjective to pass muster in a Critique.
But in the case of a conflict of authority, no lesson learned in the originary moment of universal unity can be directly applied. One must judge which authority is more valid—let us say, whether to reveal the whereabouts of a criminal hiding from the law, or of a Jew hiding from the Nazis. Ultimately, one must decide on the basis of what one considers a valid order for the human community, and in that sense one indeed acts so as to exemplify a universal moral law. Put in such terms, the Kantian formula becomes the truism that whatever we do, we should always be able to defend our action as “the right thing to do under the circumstances.”
(There is a considerable literature on this topic. Helga Varden’s 2010 Journal of Social Philosophy article “Kant and Lying to the Murderer at the Door. . . One More Time: Kant’s Legal Philosophy and Lies to Murderers and Nazis” https://philpapers.org/archive/VARKAL.pdf points out in Kant’s defense that he never refers to the categorical imperative in this context. Nonetheless, the very need for elaborate arguments to justify so blatant an offense to our moral intuition strikes me as refutation enough.)
—How do we deal with the question of “freedom,” the paradoxical dichotomy of necessity and spontaneity, that constitutes one of Kant’s “dynamical” antinomies of pure reason? The originary hypothesis makes clear that our originary sense of freedom derives paradoxically from an awareness of the interdiction and consequent deferral of our “thoughtless” instinctive drive toward the appetitive object. Which is to say that this intimate sense of freedom, like the sign and everything that derives from it, is not a feature of “the human individual” but of the individual within the community. Not that our sense of freedom is a lie; it is an extrapolation, and a necessary one, since our personal scene of representation is connected only virtually to the community with whom our representations are shared. And indeed, when Sartre in particular insists on our freedom, what he emphasizes is our responsibility before our fellow humans for our acts, which under the Occupation often had life-or-death consequences.
Finally, two fundamental questions:
—Philosophy’s excursions into language origin. In The Scenic Imagination, I included a few cases that purported to offer a hypothesis of the originary scene of language. Of these, the most anthropologically plausible was Condillac’s 1746 Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines, which situated the scene after the Flood, at which point humans had arguably lost the faculty of speech granted to them in Eden, and the successors of Adam and Eve were a solitary couple of children. Condillac’s speculation is that the first post-Edenic words derived from cries for help from one of the two to the other. But the key point to retain from his discussion is that, although at first “instinctive,” these cries became elements of human language only after the children had learned through habit to produce them consciously, i.e., with the intention to demand aid or some specific object from the other.
My book also mentioned Herder’s famous, and to my mind far less impressive scene, from his 1772 Essay on the Origin of Language, of the sheep’s bleating as providing the original “bow-wow” (or “baa-baa”) inspiration for the first human word.
No doubt the minimalism of the Genesis scenario, beginning with the first man and woman, which Condillac repeats with his pre-pubertal couple, is not the way new species are formed in the biological universe. But why, even after the discovery of biological evolution, did such speculations take so long to lead to an originary hypothesis like that of GA?
—The “overcoming of metaphysics.” Hegel’s “end of history” is the signal for philosophy to seek to put an end to its end by non-dialectically transcending the dialectic of history. I need not repeat the tedious tale of “revolutionary” thought, “philosophizing with a hammer,” “turning Hegel on his feet,” “putting an end to master narratives,” post-modernism and tutti quanti. Few things grow tiresome faster than the endless series of debunkings of our supposedly cherished illusions. Epater le bourgeois has been around for close to 200 years.
The ultimate and most intellectually sophisticated version of this overcoming was surely Derrida’s “deconstruction” of what he calls presence, the fiction of the immediacy of the connection between speech and the speaker’s mind or intention which, in Derrida’s usage, derived from his interpretation of Husserl in La voix et le phénomène, founded the logocentric guarantee furnished by the speaker to his words, as opposed, in Plato’s terms in the Phaedrus, to his “absence” from a written text. As Derrida points out, all use of language is “writing” (écriture) in the sense, precisely, that it is deferred/differed from any immediate (i.e., instinctive, necessary) transmission of the speaker’s “will” or intention.
I think this point has been sufficiently dealt with in my analyses of la différance in terms of the originary hypothesis (e.g., Chronicle 631). My central point is that la différance is precisely what characterizes language as such, in opposition to “reflex” or “instinct.” If the myth of metaphysics may indeed be described as the myth of the “presence” of language in speech, the reduction of all language to écriture corresponds, as I have pointed out, to the insertion of a Sartrian néant between the subject and the object of his “intention” in the phenomenological sense, which, in contrast to the myth of “presence,” is a minimal anthropological description of the human, as opposed to the prehuman, relationship to the world.
There will surely be additions and changes to this outline, but even as is, it offers the promise of better integrating the history of philosophical thought into the paradigm of originary thinking. Such a program can only help advance GA’s quasi-Hegelian ambition to transcend the previous separation between metaphysics/philosophy and empirical science, while hopefully providing new insights into the horrors and glories of modern history.