I have adopted the term humanist to describe GA in contrast with today’s social-science anthropology, whose tendency, in contrast to that of the discipline’s 19th-century founders, is to reduce the sacred to a sociological device, while at the same time bracketing the qualitative aspect of the transition from “beast to man.”
GA is humanist in the sense that it does not attempt to reduce our intuitive sense of the qualitative difference between humanity and other creatures to a set of quantitative differences. Language, religion, culture, are not simply incremental improvements on their animal analogues. And the category that makes this difference clearest is that of the sacred. Animals have inhibitions, but only humans have interdictions. To deny this is effectively to deny to humanity, within its own thought-system, any way of affirming its uniqueness.
The sacred is, of course, associated with religious practices which, from the standpoint of GA, derive from the scenic event postulated by the originary hypothesis. But the emergence of secular cultures, or simply of individuals who deny the value of such practices, would then seem to deny to the sacred any claim to universal status as a, let alone the, primary distinction between man and beast.
There is no word in our vocabulary that unambiguously distinguishes the sacred-as-such from the varieties of sacrality that are celebrated by specific religions. Thus it is only with modern anthropology that the notion of “the sacred” came to be separated from the objects/personae/practices in which it was embodied—a subject worthy of interest in itself. Be that as it may, I will proceed on the assumption that “the sacred” or “sacrality” is a universal anthropological phenomenon that can be detached from any specific practice of worship or conception of divinity. The word “sacred” cannot be reduced to its adjectival role as denoting a quality of certain objects or conceptions. In this conception, the sacred is in the first place experienced as a coercive will that manifests itself in interdiction. In the originary event, the proto-humans experience the sacred as an force that prevents them from attempting to appropriate—and in consequence to fight over—the central object of the scene.
Identifying the sacred with an interdictive will defines the point at which GA, religion, and natural science converge. This will is a phenomenon first encountered by humans as an external force, not associated with any living creature, and inhabiting rather than manifested by the central object of the scene. The originary sign is the means by which the members of the group communicate their recognition of and submission to this will.
This description, along with that of the remainder of the hypothetical originary scene, is necessarily speculative, but intuitively accessible to anyone who reconstructs the scene in his imagination. Just as both René Girard and I—along with several generations of “new critics” of various kinds—became interested in these anthropological questions as students of literature, the “scenario” of the originary hypothesis is a minimal narration whose plausibility can only be judged by our intuition, as we judge the actions in a literary work.
On this subject, I must repeat a point I have made since the beginning: if we would progress in our understanding of the human toward the point of convergence of secular with religious discourse, we cannot await an empirically falsifiable hypothesis of an originary event, because we have no conceivable way to reconstruct such an event.
The advantage of accepting this hypothetical scenario is that it does not require taking a position with regard to non-empirical reality. To postulate that the sacred is real and effectively a revelation to those who first experience it does not entail the existence of extra-worldly beings or forces. The only transcendental quality entailed by the sacred is its coercive presence to the minds of the participants in the scene.
The interdictive will of the sacred cannot be understood as emanating from any worldly thing or creature; its existence is detectable only within the minds of those it affects. The analogy with language, which empirically “exists” (in the absence of external writing systems, if not of “inscription” in the Deriddean sense) only in the minds of its speakers, is at this point absolute: the one sign, shared by the scene’s participants, which interdicts and thereby defers appropriation of the central object it designates, is the minimal kernel of what will become the One God of the Hebrews.
Thus we can understand God as both transcendent and unknowable, and at the same time approachable through the analogy of our own experience of will, and more generally, of our experience of human intentionality on the scene of our consciousness. This analogy is our only phenomenological means of understanding the permanence of the sacred will, whose action has preserved the group and allowed it to survive the collapse of the old serial hierarchy.
An atheist might say that “God” is just a reference to the collective interdiction that emerges from the group, analogous to our reluctance to take the last piece of cake. But however banal, even this “interdictive” will is not experienced as emanating either from the others standing around the cake plate, nor from the cake-slice itself. It is a reminder, in a civilized context, of the “miraculous” interdiction revealed to the first humans by way of preventing them from losing sight of their communal aim of distributing food in the interest of survival.
The pre-existence of God to man is an article of faith that by definition cannot be demonstrated. God exists for us in the gap between the natural order of animality, including neuronic intelligence, and human language and awareness of the sacred/God himself, the two being inseparable. The theist’s claim that the originary hypothesis explains, not the origin of the sacred, but its revelation to the first humans, can be understood within GA as a (perhaps necessary?) reinforcement of the heuristic of the originary hypothesis.
No doubt creationists make a similar argument in claiming that the billions of years of prehistory can just as well be understood as a divine construction made within the standard biblical chronology. Only Ockham’s razor allows us to distinguish these two propositions.
God embodies providence, care for the humans he has created “in his image.” We first experience this providence in the deferral of our appetitive impulse, not as a voluntary act of our own, but as the reaction to what appears to be an intentional act of interdiction. Whatever the source of this interdiction, it can be seen in retrospect as having permitted humanity to survive and further develop its mimetic intelligence without destroying itself.
Language is the distinguishing mark of human deferral, of the consequent scenicization of our relationship to our world that Sartre, after Hegel, called the pour-soi. Neither Hegel nor Sartre, however, associate fürsichsein with language, the reason being that they are seeking an “internal” relationship of consciousness to the object that they might agree to call “scenic,” but certainly not linguistic. Hegel speaks of representation/Darstellung in this context as essential to consciousness, but does not examine the specificity of what a representation would consist of:
Consciousness, even as such, contains in principle the determination of being-for-self in that it represents to itself an object which it senses, or intuits, and so forth; that is, it has within it the content of the object, which in this manner has an ‘ideal’ being . . . . Hegel’s Science of Logic (tr. A. V. Miller, George Allen and Unwin, 1969; https://hegel.net/en/pdf/Hegel-Scilogic.pdf ): 158
Even more than “socialism in one country,” the idea of “consciousness in one body” seems to me indefensible. Its adoption by metaphysicians is one more result of their disembodiment of words as “ideas,” on the model of the mathematical ideas that, as Socrates reveals, Meno “already has,” a fallacy that even today is generally adopted by mathematicians, if not so readily by philosophers. The idea of God as not merely possessing language but using it to create the real world (“let there be…”) is the unspoken model of this “consciousness.”
Consciousness is scenic, and for God to have created the human, he must have created the scene on which man receives the revelation of the sacred. The most indispensable of God’s powers is, precisely, being able to create the scene all by himself. God is the embodiment of scenicity, he who “am what/that I am.”
Thus the creation of man, as canonically depicted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, involves the transmission of scenicity from one being to another. (We may understand the Trinitarian “Spirit” as the shared logos by means of which the transmission is effected.) But even if we understand the scene in purely human terms, the externality of the sacred will, which is God’s essential attribute, remains indispensable.
If we limit our stipulations to situating the revelation of the sacred will in the originary event more or less as we have described it, we have provided the basis for what I call an originary phenomenology. The originary scenario as described is both humanly plausible and “minimal,” in the sense of containing only the elements necessary to differentiate humans from other creatures. At the same time, this scenario is intuitable as a narration—and we might say, only as a narration, given the impossibility of obtaining more specific evidence.
Scientists have rightly abandoned Genesis as a literal account of cosmogony. But the “big bang” and its consequences, even the emergence of life—about which we in fact know so little that scientists feel themselves obliged, on the basis of nothing more than the principle of uniformitarianism, to presume, in the absence of the slightest evidence, its existence wherever so-called “conditions for life” exist, even on our closest neighbor in the solar system—are not matters of urgency. Enabling us to detect and if necessary deflect nearby asteroids in order to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs is as much as humanity can ask from astrophysics.
In contrast, humans have always felt the need to understand their origin as cultural beings. The optimism of Auguste Comte, who saw us as abandoning “superstitious” religious accounts of human origin in favor of “positive” ones, strikes us today as naïve; these religious accounts, in whatever sense we “believe” in them, remain the only ones that have any meaning for us, in contrast with the gradualistic speculations of natural scientists. Our meager positive knowledge of human origin is far from providing us with a sense of our nature and identity—as today’s “identity politics” well illustrate.
The originary hypothesis is the first serious attempt at a minimalist scene of human origin. It provides us with the opportunity plausibly to “put ourselves in the place” of the first humans, in contrast with either Freud’s scenario in Totem and Taboo or Girard’s in La violence et le sacré, neither of which provide a credible basis for a phenomenology.
How can we conceive ourselves in the place of Freud’s frustrated “sons” murdering the “father”?—as though such a configuration could be created solely on the basis of animal inhibitions—or in the place of the murderers of an originary scapegoat? In contrast, the scene of the originary hypothesis is a narration in which we can imagine ourselves as acquiring the fundamental elements of humanity, all of which depend on the scene created by the sacred interdiction.
The biblical account of human origin, once we bracket the idea of a supernatural source, can itself be understood as a narrative exercise in originary phenomenology, a way of imagining ourselves, individually and/or collectively, as the objects of God’s providential intention in creating a human-centered world. The millennia that separate us from the text’s composition allow us to put its concrete historical details in perspective, and to focus on the universal human traits whose emergence in the Genesis story—which, if properly understood (see Chronicles 675–676), is in no way incompatible with the originary hypothesis—retain their value as sources of understanding.
It is in this anthropological sense that “the Bible as literature” has a real meaning. Religion, culture, language: these uniquely human—and sacred—creations are the very substance of anthropology—the logos of the human.