A long history could be written about the efforts to escape from the “prison” of metaphysics by Marx, Nietzsche, the Existentialists… and finally, the French Theorists—our ancestors.
This Chronicle adds little new material to my earlier discussions of “post-metaphysical” thought, but hopefully puts them in a clearer historical and spiritual perspective. In particular, by emphasizing the central role of the sacred in the originary hypothesis, it not merely points to the confluence of generative anthropology and religious thought in “humanistic” anthropology, but helps both explain and demystify the intellectual pathos that has since Heidegger been a both fascinating and disconcerting feature of “Continental” thought, and in particular of its merger with literary criticism in the era of French Theory.
What is metaphysics?
- [T]he branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between potentiality and actuality. (Wikipedia; from American Heritage Dictionary)
- [T]he branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space.
Mid-16th century: representing medieval Latin metaphysica (neuter plural), based on Greek ta meta ta phusika ‘the things after the Physics’, referring to the sequence of Aristotle’s works: the title came to denote the branch of study treated in the books, later interpreted as meaning ‘the science of things transcending what is physical or natural’. (Google)
More significantly, for Heidegger in his 1949 introduction to Was ist Metaphysik? metaphysics is what denkt das Seiende als das Seiende, thinks that-which-is, “be-ings,” as such. As Heidegger goes on to explain, metaphysics sees these things-that-are by “the light of Being,” (das Licht des Seins) but sees not the light itself. (https://www.bard.edu/library/pdfs/Heidegger-Was_ist_Metaphysik.pdf)
The contrast between the beingness of beings on the one hand and the “light” in which we see them in the first place is a quasi-scenic picture that it is useful to reinterpret in terms of GA’s “new way of thinking” in order to make clear that the poetic-mystical air that fascinates the reader in such texts is not simply a mystification. We should take as a general rule that whenever, as so often in “post-metaphysical” philosophy, we encounter a sense of mystery, we are in the presence of the sacred. Thus perhaps the most fundamental purpose of generative anthropology is as the means of maximally demystifying—not debunking—the sacred, to the point where we decide either to remain within the realm of (humanist) anthropology, or, in an act of faith, to understand the sacred’s otherness as embodied in a divine Other.
This and other philosophical attempts to define and thereby “exceed” or “escape from” metaphysics express an insight not present in the classical writings of Kant or Hegel: the appeal to a transcendence not accessible “by the light of Being,” but that grounds the light itself, and thereby allows thinking to “think itself” as a product of transcendence.
In contrast, GA’s definition of metaphysics is straightforwardly historical. It is defined as the way of thinking, derived from Parmenides and formalized in Plato’s doctrine of the Ideas, that considers the existence of propositional language as not requiring to be explained by any transcendence of the material world, either on the part of God or on that of a human sense of the sacred. For Plato, the words we use to express the Ideas are mere shadows of the Ideas themselves.
GA’s definition explains in anthropological terms the intellectual embarrassment of those who seek to escape metaphysics. Metaphysics’ language of be-ing is in effect that of propositions, of declarative sentences, which make hopefully true statements about things, but fail to establish why it is that we and the things are present in the first place, in answer to Heidegger’s Ur-question, the first sentence of the text of Was ist Metaphysik?: Warum ist überhaupt Seiendes und nicht vielmehr Nichts? Why indeed is there be-ing and not rather Nothing?
This question seems to be about the presence of “reality,” but it is in the first place about language. What is special about human beings is precisely that they alone have the means to make present and to ask questions about “being,” but the source of this means, language, is taken as a given. Whereas, from an anthropological perspective, this givenness must be explained not as “always-already” existing, but as having come into being at a given moment of natural history, that of the origin of the human and its culture.
To understand the implications of this definition, think of the number system. Although one wonders if even Plato himself really believed that the Ideas existed from eternity independently of humanity, from the few philosophers I am acquainted with, I would say that most of them believe this of the number system. The idea that “1” only began to exist when some human started counting strikes them as barbaric.
After all, when we prove a mathematical theorem, we certainly can’t claim that it only became true once we supplied the proof. And from there, the eternity of 2+2=4 would seem to follow. But the properties of a system that exist “eternally” once it is defined do not demonstrate the eternal existence of the system. Before humans existed, we can be sure that 2+2=4 was implicitly true within the number system, but that system itself did not exist in any worldly sense until we came along. We, or the ETIs of Galaxy Z4-832b.
Metaphysicians, at least those of today, do not believe in the Ideas. Nonetheless, philosophers do not concern themselves with the worldly origin of propositional language, but treat it as though, like the number system, it was not invented but discovered by humans as an eternally available possibility of communication. No doubt one could describe anything in this manner, since if things exist, they must always have been capable of existence. But unlike elephants and volcanoes, language, if a bit less securely than arithmetic, doesn’t appear to require any worldly factors to make it exist, only to discover it.
This feature of language was implicit in the mindset of early modern science, which could no longer accept the Genesis version of world and human origin, yet had before Darwin no reasonable way to understand the emergence of human culture. Rousseau’s 1755 Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité is probably the sharpest pre-Darwinian attempt to explain the emergence of “the human” from the “state of nature” in which humans would have found themselves before receiving/evolving the gift of language and culture. In this text, Rousseau explicitly affirms the paradoxical nature, in the pre-Darwinian context, of the origin of language:
. . . car si les hommes ont eu besoin de la parole pour apprendre à penser, ils ont eu bien plus besoin encore de savoir penser pour trouver l’art de la parole . . .
. . . for if men needed language in order to learn to think, they needed even more to know how to think in order to discover the art of speech . . .
But even after the 1859 publication of The Origin of Species, the question remained intractable, and the refusal in 1866 of the newly-founded Société linguistique de Paris to consider papers on the subject is a historical landmark.
It is therefore easy to understand the reluctance of philosophers, more even than linguists, to deal with this question. Philosophers are not paleontologists; they are interested in the mechanisms of implicitly logical propositional language, not in how humans acquired it. And, perhaps even more than mathematics, logic appears inherent in “reality” however conceived. Even if the entire universe were destroyed, a>b and b>c would still imply a>c at least as surely as 2+2=4.
Unlike Heidegger, none of the dictionary definitions of metaphysics emphasizes the historical specificity of what might be called the metaphysical world-view, a category that transcends any particular subject matter. When Marx said in his 11th Thesis on Feuerbach that Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern (The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; but what must be done is to change it), he didn’t use the word “metaphysics,” but the frustration he was expressing was not simply that of a political militant as opposed to a scholar. The philosophers he describes as passive interpreters of the world are implicitly contrasted with activist thinkers like himself who are called upon to use their thinking to change it. And similarly, when Derrida speaks of deconstruction, he is not inciting (directly) to political action, but to the dismantling of the “metaphysical” Western system of thought.
If in my effort to synthesize the two branches of French Theory, I have sought to redefine metaphysics in concretely anthropological terms, it is because I think it is time that speculative thought faced up to the simple fact that language, of which philosophy is composed, is not a neutral medium but a historical human invention, and that, whether one believe that God taught us to speak or that our ancestors learned to do so by themselves, the origin of language is at the root of human self-understanding, the basis of the logos of the human: anthropology. My original exposition in 1981 of what would eventually become generative anthropology was consequently entitled The Origin of Language (TOOL).
The fact that it has been so difficult to get a grasp of metaphysics as it were “from without” explains why “escaping” it has been so problematic. As I noted in the previous Chronicle, the melodramatic gestures of Heidegger and Derrida, although ultimately unsatisfactory, are understandable as reactions to the paradoxical worldly effect of the sacred. Thus the Heideggerian idea discussed in that Chronicle of retrieving “the first word of Being” (das frühe Wort des Seins) would be a contradiction in terms except in a concrete scenario such as that of the originary hypothesis—for it is only in such a context that we can understand the birth of language, and of our sense of the sacred as well.
Metaphysics is not grounded in the ahistorical ideality of language-as-such. Since the very idea of “thinking” implies asserting propositions, its template of language is specifically propositional, composed of declarative sentences.
But given that language is a worldly phenomenon whose emergence in its full-blown mature state is inconceivable, one cannot avoid the assumption that the earliest human language was what I have described as an ostensive language whose signs designate a present referent, and can be assimilated to a form of voiced gestural pointing. The originary hypothesis proposes that the originary sign emerged in response to the experience of sacred interdiction/deferral whose human motivation would have been the fear of violent conflict, presumably witnessed on previous occasions at a time when the old Alpha-Beta serial hierarchy was breaking down under the pressure of growing mimetic rivalry.
I do not claim that the hypothesis of an originary ostensive language (in the schema of TOOL, evolving to admit first the imperative and then the declarative, whose predication is at first a substitute for physically presenting the object of an imperative) “explains” metaphysics, let alone that it provides a space external to metaphysics from which we can “contemplate” it, since the very idea of contemplating in language (although not on the scene of collective/individual consciousness) is expressible only in propositions.
But by tracing language to its presumed worldly origin, we demystify the opposite procedure of seeking “the first word of being” in the context of propositional, that is, metaphysical, language. In the quasi-circular scene whose center is occupied by a common object of desire, separated from its participants by a common sense of sacred interdiction, the originary sign expresses each participant’s renouncement of the attempt to appropriate the object. This sign is directed at the others present at the scene, but in the first place to the sacred center itself. This hypothesis links this first scenic experience with all the scenic phenomena of human culture, from the earliest rites to the omnipresence in today’s world of what I have called the screenic.
Animals can focus their attention on objects in their sensorial field, but the scene is an exclusively human reality—however suggestive we might find the image of bees observing one of their fellows before flying off to a source of pollen. The implicitly communal nature of the scene is not merely mimetic; it incorporates the specific feature of human mimesis that is its mediation through transcendental/sacred interdiction—the mediation that is the source of desire.
The “first word” establishes the scenicity of the scene by designating its center as forbidden. This fundamental configuration of human culture defines “Being” in the pre-metaphysical sense of what is sacred, that is, denied to every human qua individual, yet belonging to all as members of the community.
We should not imagine this foundation of human morality to be arrived at by a sublime reflection along the lines of the Golden Rule. This and other similar “rules” were rather derived from the moral lesson “taught” by the sacred and learned at the scene. For without considering the “existence of God,” the moral intentionality experienced by the group was first experienced as an external interdictive will, and only in response to this will did they conceive their own intentionality.
We may understand the root of the Existentialists’ hostility to metaphysics as equivalent to GA’s critique of philosophy’s neglect of the worldly origin of language: language was not in the first place a set of propositions, it began with a word. That is, with an assertion of significance, which is the real, existential basis of language. Were the referents of language not significant, of importance to us, we would feel no need to assign predicates to them. Whence, once more, the significant fact that Heidegger’s intuition begins with a word of being rather than a Wittgensteinian proposition.
Yet, symptomatically, the metaphysician never reflects on the fact that his conception of language cannot accommodate a “word” as an utterance. In this “nostalgic” expression, the self-contradictory nature of the metaphysical world-view is impossible to hide. And the nostalgia for the first word of Being as a “pre-Socratic” appeal from its Platonic-metaphysical dissimulation only makes all the more evident that scenicity, mise-en-scène enforced by sacred interdiction, is precisely what the post-metaphysician is positing as the missing element in the metaphysical world-view. For to refer to its worldly reality would oblige him to recognize the birth of sacrality in the community of protohumans within which the frühe Wort was first pronounced.