Paradox is less an idea than an anti-idea. Plato would have had no place for it, although Zeno, like the Buddhist Nagarjuna, much appreciated it. The one certain thing we can say about paradox is that it is wholly dependent on a system of representation. The “real world” contains no paradoxes; these are classically composed of propositions, declarative sentences, although the ingenious Batesonian idea of the “pragmatic” paradox allows imperatives to be included, as in the Jewish-mother paradox: “Be spontaneous!” Whether the Boy Who Cried Wolf should be credited with creating an ostensive paradox is a delicate question, although his deceptive cry certainly had a paradoxical effect, one that, as the tale is told, led to his demise.
But whereas propositional paradox is material for amusement rather than serious study, religion is a wholly different matter. The sacred is indeed a domain of paradox, as we discover as soon as we seek to define it in worldly terms, but it is unworthy of serious minds to treat its paradoxes lightly.
In his Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge: 1999) Roy Rappaport affirms that human language and religion were coeval. Without discussing Rappaport’s arguments, this coevality seems at first glance both intuitively obvious and without any clear foundation. We have become habituated by millennia of philosophical discourse to view language as a kind of celestial lingua franca that we less invent than discover for the purpose of expressing our ideas, whereas religious affirmations are objects of faith. Even those who consider religious truths to have been “revealed” understand these revelations as supernatural events; no one can point to an unambiguous worldly manifestation of God or any other celestial being. “Miracles,” which the faithful interpret as revelations of the sacred, are never sufficiently credible to persuade skeptics.
Religion has lately come to be considered a kind of throwaway phenomenon, as typified by the following passage from the distinguished cognitive scientist Michael Tomasello. This is a passage that I have quoted several times in these Chronicles, not to bring discredit on its author, but on the contrary, to show that a serious empirical scientist no longer feels that, even in a work dealing with morality, the entire realm of religion deserves more than a perfunctory glance:
One way that leaders throughout human history have sought to legitimate themselves and their laws from a moral point of view is to claim that they have somehow been anointed by a deity or in some other supernatural way. . . . A major source of wonder in human experience is where are [sic] our venerated ancestors who founded our society, and indeed, a key foundation of a religious attitude is the veneration and worship of deceased ancestors and traditions whose spirit somehow lives on (Steadman et al, 1996). Leaders then took advantage of this attitude and claimed supernatural sources for their leadership.
A Natural History of Human Morality (Harvard, 2016): 131 (my emphasis)
We have come a long way from Rappaport’s intuition in less than two decades.
Language and religion are clearly two very different things. Yet the fact that in the one place in the universe where they exist they appear together, in all likelihood, coevally, suggests that we cannot neglect to seek their implicit connection.
If we start from the common definition of God as a “supreme Being” who transcends all limitations of the real world, who is thus omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, yet not accessible to the senses, the danger is that God seems like a philosopher’s construction rather than an object of human experience.
The originary hypothesis in its earlier incarnations was not focused on the sacred, but on the origin of language and representation in general. Formulating the role of the sacred in the originary event is not as simple as that of language. Clearly the originary use of language must be minimal, and the “aborted gesture of appropriation” in its primitive form is essentially pointing—and we know that animals do not practice “joint shared attention,” pointing at something in order to communicate its significance to an interlocutor. (The fact that the vocal nature of all human languages suggests a vocal component from the beginning is not difficult to explain; we can assume that all members of a group, in the excited condition of discovering a new way to organize what has become a scene, would likely vocalize, and the unanimity of their gestures would lead to that of their vocalization.)
The question then arises as to what precisely is the signified of this first sign, and although the pointing would have been directed originally to the central source of nourishment whose appropriation has been deferred, it can just as well be understood as directed to the center of the scene formed around it by the human participants, who all more or less equally experience the “resistance” of this center to their immediate presence, which it is plausible to attribute to a sense of (sacred) interdiction that pervades the group.
Clearly it is necessary to distinguish this interdiction from the inhibitions studied by Pavlov as “conditioned reflexes.” It must be understood not a simple reflexive action, but as a conscious sense of the need to abort the appropriative gesture. That is, to use the age-worn example of two or more guests finding themselves unable to take the last canapé or piece of cake, even if this reaction feels “automatic,” it is instantly understood as motivated by the symmetrical presence of another rather than a knee-jerk reaction. In a hierarchical social order, the presence of others of inferior standing would not provoke such a reaction.
I have called our intuition of the sacred that of a “will.” But stated in this manner, the term risks being misleading. “Will” in this sense is, by the terms of the hypothesis, a newly emergent phenomenon, not simply analogous, for example, to the paternal will that Freud conceived as the source of our Superego.
Rather than thinking of the sacred, and by extension, God, as possessing a “will” modeled on that of human beings, we should rather understand this sequence in the opposite order: it is the sacred “will” that is first experienced as something wholly new, and our notion of a human will is subsequently modeled on it. A voluntary or intended action is not spontaneous, but mediated by what we have been calling deferral, prior reflection.
In the originary event, the participants are faced for the first time with a situation where they experience a constraint consciously, the source of which is so to speak an imperative ordering them not to reach for the central object. The sign derived from the aborted gesture, and which we call an ostensive, must be understood in this context: as a designation that responds to an underlying interdiction. (In this sense, the imperative precedes the ostensive as well as being derived from it.) This modification of the hypothesis makes clearer why the sacred is implicit in language, why the substitution of the sign for its referent implies in its origin the “worship” of the will that enforces the interdiction.
We can plausibly explain the origin of the sacred will by the experience of chaotic violence attendant on the breakdown of the old pecking-order hierarchy. In the past, inhibitions of this sort had meant either ceding the desired object to a higher-ranking conspecific, or learning to no longer desire it, as with a food source discovered to be poisonous. In the latter case, there need be no “conditioned reflex”; “the survival of the fittest” would lead the species to lose its initial attraction to this source—while in the other direction, the same force of natural selection would lead the food source itself (assuming its dependence on a living creature) to become more appealing to the species that had “evolved away” from it.
But in the case of the will preventing the human attempt at appropriation, there would not be time to permit genetically driven evolution to take its course. No doubt, as students of animal behavior have pointed out, humans could only have emerged from already largely “domesticated” creatures not prone to instinctive acts of intraspecific aggression. But the fact that natural selection had not sufficed to prevent conflict implies that these proto-humans could survive henceforth only by inaugurating a new form of conscious reaction, one that sacred interdiction would provoke independently of genetic evolution.
To understand the sacred in this way is to explain its coevality with language, as well as its universality, which appears so unintuitive to our secularized minds. The “mystery” then becomes how secularism is able to function, that is, how we are able to understand human intentionality while rejecting its sacred origin?
It is at this point that we become able to grasp the anthropological role of metaphysics, which I have defined simply as the attitude toward language that refuses to explain its emergence from nature, but tacitly considers it, and mathematics even more so, as an eternally possible form of communication that at a certain point we “downloaded” from on high. Unlike the Platonic Idea, the originary sign is not “metaphysical.” It relies on mutual scenic presence, not on the unexplained discovery of a means of enunciating “true” propositions about Ideas. This explains why, for linguistics, the science of language, the ostensive and imperative are considered “degenerate” forms of the declarative sentence. This supposedly self-evident truth of structural linguistics reflects what Derrida might have called l’effacement de la trace.
Could it be a coincidence that the re-emergence of the really self-evident truth that the sign is originally an ostensive, which allows us to begin the ultimate reconciliation of the sacred with the secular, coincides with the current crisis of the West, in which the social elite, following the lead of two generations of contempt for the Western historical ethic and its religious basis, wants to revert to paying lip-service to what is in effect the originary moral model, and finds in every historical divergence from it a fundamental immorality?
This return to what is in effect the originary human scene, even its self-consciousness as an awokening, is certainly trying to tell us something. Nor should we overlook its fundamental hypocrisy, its virtually total restriction of moral equality to the symbolic as opposed to the material realm, which, in contrast with the genuine otherworldliness of true religious revivals, it conveniently leaves virtually untouched.
The opposition this movement calls for is a renewed attentiveness to the density of human history, to what Hegel, at the height of the metaphysical era, called its dialectic, but in a mode of thought that begins not in the abstraction of Being and Non-Being, but with a hypothesis of the originary event of the human.
To share as did the originary human community a common sign of deferred action imposed on all its members by a “sacred will” that had no precedent in animal interaction is to experience the origin of this community in a force embodied in no object but the scene itself. The scene was a dynamic configuration that reached its appetitive and species-preserving payoff in the concluding “equal feast.” To say either that this force of will was an emanation of the group as a whole or that it had its origin in a sacred being only now revealing itself to them is to express in our own vocabulary an intuition for which these first humans had but a single sign, one that allowed them to point to it.
Animals could certainly “think,” and these first humans had only begun to discover their own “new way of thinking.” But this inaugural experience of the providential nature of the sacred, temporarily interdicting a source of nourishment only to teach us how to maximally benefit from it, must have provoked an immense relief and sense of reverence, a wish to remain certain of its protective, providential presence despite its worldly immateriality. The history of theology begins here and goes forward. But it always circles back to the beginning, whence the historical triumph of the One God in the West, and tacitly everywhere.
The origin of paradox lies in the attempt to enunciate any truth about the sacred that would serve to represent it. The only non-paradoxical “truth” of the sacred is ostensive, the truth of the originary revelation of/on the sacred/human scene. This is no mere intellectual exercise; divining the “ways of God” or of Providence has been the key to our survival. Historically recorded revelations, such as that of Moses at the burning bush or Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus, however “dramatized” the narratives in which they appear, are moments of insight into these “ways” that have proved their historical validity. So are the works of art which all, in very different ways, seek to embody this originary paradox.
Generative anthropology is a further development of this achievement. Its hypothetical originary scene is a supplementary “revelation” that explains what had not previously been explained. The fact that I have continued over forty years not so much to modify it as to enrich my understanding of it can serve as proof that this intuition was at the very least a project worthy of my own intellectual career.
Whether others pursue it after me is not for me to say. It is rather for you, the readers of these lines.