A Note on Originary Phenomenology

Years ago when I first conceived the originary hypothesis as a theory of language origin, my chief concern was to understand how language might have begun and evolved from its elementary forms (ostensive, imperative) to the declarative sentence that is the basic utterance form in all languages. The originary scene as originally conceived was different in detail from its later incarnations, but the important thing was that it was formulated as a scenic event that would serve as the basis of a heuristic for conceiving the evolution I needed to describe.

Over the years, I have realized that this same heuristic could also be applied to the origin of other elements of human culture, and particularly to religion. If linguists, who are concerned with the data of language and only peripherally with its origin, can afford to ignore “unproven” originary hypotheses, this is less the case with those who study religion, given the impossibility of bracketing its anthropological origin and functions to focus on its semiotic structures.

I originally called the procedure of using the details of the originary event as a source of insight into aspects of human culture originary analysis. But it is perhaps more accurate to call it originary phenomenology, since its procedure of introspection is essentially the same, save that instead of examining our own life experience, we “put ourselves in the place” of the participants in the originary event.

Needless to say, humans have evolved a great deal since our origin, physically and even more, culturally. Nevertheless, the premise of generative anthropology is that the human is a distinct category of being, far more distinctive than an animal species, and that all humans from the beginning share the same fundamental traits.

We may therefore be reasonably confident that our efforts to imagine ourselves at the origin are productive of genuine insights. The “scientific” alternative, waiting for empirical data to supply the details of human cultural origin, has been able to do no more than understand the human as an extrapolation from our animal ancestors. The failure to respect the qualitative difference between human language, religion, etc., and its animal “equivalents” limits the usefulness of these results to gradualist evolutionary details: the growth in size and complexity of: social groups, neuronal processes and the brain, tool-making and similar behaviors.

While none of this research is useless, attempting to understand the emergence of language and religion as evolved from animal behaviors effectively denies their uniqueness. As I pointed out in the preceding Chronicle, what makes humans unique is that the crisis that resulted from our growing mimetic intelligence was too abrupt to be resolved through the processes of Darwinian evolution. Whence the necessary recourse to a heuristic phenomenology that allows us to conceive the emergence of those uniquely human traits that are responsible for humans’ qualitatively superior level of evolutionary development.

The following applications of originary phenomenology are work in progress. The point of this essay is less to persuade readers of their authoritative character than to challenge them, once familiar with the originary hypothesis, to take on the phenomenologist’s role and see if they come up with similar results.

The Originary Sign

What is the meaning of the originary sign? Is it the central desire-object, the source of nourishment, the scenic center itself as focal point of attention, or the concentration in that center of sacred “being” as a kind of black hole?

We soon realize that there is no way of describing the meaning of the first sign in terms of other meanings, since this one is the first. Nor is there any reason to assume that the sign would have a “meaning.” Previous “signs” had been signals to act in a certain way, typically, to avoid specific dangers; they were not part of a universe of meaning. But if the scene is such a universe, the only meaning we can attribute to the first sign is meaningfulness itself, significance, sacrality.

The simplest interpretation of the aborted gesture as sign is that the sign conveys not, like a signal, the signer’s discovery of something in the external world, but his own conscious intention, dictated by a sacred will contrary to his “instinct,” to renounce his appetitive urge to appropriate the desirable central object.

As Adam Katz long ago pointed out, realizing the communicative utility of the aborted gesture rather than experiencing it merely as a failed intention is a product of insight. But we cannot understand the sign simply as signaling this renunciation to one’s fellows. It is in the first place addressed to the sacred “will” at the center of the scene. It is a sign of awe—and of resentment.

This analysis is on the one hand frustrating, because originary phenomenology does not allow us to speak of the sacred as a “being,” merely of its effects (deferring appropriation, presiding over distribution…), but on the other hand, liberating, because it makes us realize that what is at the core of language, and culture in general, is not communicating information but sharing the acknowledgement of the scenic state of deferral—in which alone “information” can be communicated.

God is the sacred as a willing being, external to the human participants, who organizes the scene and brings it to a successful conclusion—the source of Achilles’ resentment of “the gods,” but also of his conviction that they determine his fate. We must leave for later Parmenides’ capital distinction between truth and opinion that is the foundation of philosophy/metaphysics, and ultimately of empirical science.

Religion and Death: The Afterlife

Distinguishing between the “existence of God” and a human “sense of the sacred” remains in the realm of abstraction, in that the bare assertions God exists/God does not exist imply nothing about the world as we know it, either in the past or in the future. And even affirming God created/did not create the universe leaves unclear how this could possibly affect human experience.

Whereas the claim that we have, as evidence of the reality of the sacred, a soul that survives corporal death, whether it subsists eternally in diminished form, as in the Greek Hades, or awaits a “Last Judgment” to separate the saved from the damned, or “migrates” at death into another living creature, only the most blessed reaching the state of Nirvana, best understood not as annihilation but as an eternal experience of nothingness… such affirmations may not be provable in this world, but they do posit, as articles of faith, distinct outcomes.

Pascal’s famous pari on God’s existence is not a metaphysical affirmation but an existential one. It is founded on the premise that if God exists, then each human soul, including his own, will have eternal life and will be “resurrected in the flesh” at the Last Judgment—and that the infinite value of this eternal life, as opposed to the finitude of earthly existence, obliges us to bet on even the smallest positive probability of God’s existence.

As recently as a three or four generations ago in the most prosperous nations, and still today in many, the valence of life-as-such was more negative than positive (see, e.g., Chronicle 674). The shortness and painfulness of life does not in itself explain, however, where humans acquired the idea that their souls lived on after their death. Animals show signs of interest in their dead, but the traits specific to human culture cannot be explained as biological extrapolations from animal sociality.

This does not discredit Richard Wrangham’s idea of the “goodness paradox” (see Chronicle 614). No doubt humans, like bonobos, have been selected to be cooperative rather than aggressive. But our felix culpa proves that selection alone did not suffice. Had proto-humans remained self-sustaining long enough for natural selection to make us as pacific as bonobos, we would have remained like bonobos, enjoying life with neither nuclear weapons nor Bach cantatas.

The hypothetical originary event is focused on food distribution, under circumstances where large food animals were of critical importance to survival. But in more fundamental terms of human organization, the role of the sacred is to defer death. When we defer our drive to appropriate the central desire-object, we remove the threat of immediate death at the hands of our fellows, while putting off the threat of eventual death from hunger.

Once the sense of the sacred exists, its first function is understood as having protected the group of humans from its own deadly violence, which by our definition of the human is more threatening to the group than the “forces of nature.” It stands to reason, then, that if the sacred can protect against the greatest danger to life, it can protect against the lesser ones. As anthropologists tell us, peoples in the early stages of socio-economic development, and even much later, have no conception of “natural death.”

The peace of the originary scene, including that of the meal that follows, is a revelation not simply of the best way to divide up large animals, but of a new kind of sacred-governed communal harmony. The sacred will prevents me from reaching for the object, and I see at the same time its parallel effect on the others. The result of the scene is the creation of a community in a sense that does not exist elsewhere in the animal world, one mediated by a sacred will and mutually communicated through a sign.

The sign is not simply a new kind of signal shared by the group, but a common acknowledgement of submission to the sacred, a submission that remains after the scene has been concluded, and in principle prolongs the peace of the scene. Whence the sense in tribal societies that when one suffers illness, or violence, or dies, one has somehow lost the protection of the sacred, either because one has violated the terms of one’s submission, or because an enemy has persuaded the sacred will to turn against oneself.

Even today, with all our sophistication, when we suffer some unexpected mishap we tend to blame, seriously or frivolously, either ourselves or some other human agent, that is, the original participants of the human scene.


The model of immortality is that of the sacred and its timeless presence in the sign. The sign as a reminder of the originary scene exists in a noetic space that requires no physical manifestation, so that the soul that acknowledges the sacred by bearing it cannot be understood as perishable. My memories, my thoughts, are by virtue of language communicable to the universe and remain so after my death. They may be unknown to my fellows, but not to the sacred will that has provided the space of deferral in which they are, and remain eternally, knowable.

My soul is the core of my self-consciousness first realized in the scene, in which I know myself to be acting under the control of the sacred will, aware of my desire to contravene it yet at the same time to demonstrate my submission to it by means of the sign. This sense of acting under the eye of the sacred “superego” remains with us as our conscience. The vast market for alcohol and mind-altering drugs bears witness to the value given by so many to relief from its presence.

Heidegger’s terming authenticity the constant awareness of mortality is ipso facto an affirmation that self-consciousness does not in itself imply this awareness, even as we plan careers and lives on its basis, leaving wills and buying life insurance, knowing we have only a limited time to accomplish our goals.

Because our sense of self was born in the context of this scene that defers our mortality, our knowledge of this mortality is external to our cultural life. The spectator of tragedy is exempt from the mortality of its characters; the audience of a symphony finds peace, not loss, at its end.

The New Immortality

One needs no survey data to affirm that the importance of an “afterlife” has greatly declined in the modern world. This decline reflects what can only be understood as a diminished fear of death that diminishes in turn our reliance on the sacred.

The death the sacred originally protected us from was violent and unpredictable. Not so long ago, humans suffered far more than today from violence and disease, including plagues, of which the Black Death was only the worst of many. Death in infancy, or of women as an effect of childbirth, was common. The idea of the dead being “at peace” and “in a better world than this” had a real meaning.

The alternative, old age, was misery, and began, not as today, at 75, but at 40. Lost teeth, eyesight, hearing could not be remedied. Whereas today in the US and other advanced nations, one can expect to live past 80, replace lost teeth, sight, and hearing, and receive painless medical treatment. If, as is commonly said, death has been “expelled” from modern life, this is not simply a matter of sweeping it under the rug. A woman two centuries ago who had ten pregnancies and four or five children to show for them had experienced many more deaths than the average modern person sees in his or her lifetime.

However unpleasant the last years of many of our elderly, we must, as they say, consider the alternative. The sadness of walkers, wheelchairs, dementia, and the rest for people in their eighties and above has made aging, not death, the focus of our greatest fears. There are indeed no atheists in the foxholes, but in the modern world, we envision death not in the foxhole but in the hospice, drugged if not demented, unaware of our own dying or of the fate of our immortal soul.

The immortality of the soul has lost its allure, but not immortality itself. Today we put our hopes not in God but in artificial intelligence and related technologies to preserve us from annihilation. Whether our whole body (cryogenically maintained), or merely the contents of our brain (uploaded to the “cloud”), will be saved from the ravages of time, the current generation views immortality as just around the corner, and the young feel they have a real chance of benefiting from it.

And they may be correct; in the digital world, things move fast. But if the sacred could not preserve the body from decay, it protected us from death in a way that no product of human technology, however cleverly programmed, can guarantee. God may have given us a community, a soul, and a conscience, but he left a tree in the center of the garden to remind us that he, not we, has our ultimate welfare at heart.