What the originary hypothesis adds to the social sciences is a criterion that distinguishes between the human and what preceded it in qualitative as well as quantitative terms. Clearly there is a sharp distinction to be made. Without denying the value of research into what might be called animal “meaning,” we cannot deny that this usage of the term is a metaphor, and that the proper meaning of “meaning” lies within human representational culture, language and religion, which has no parallel among animals.
In the broadest sense, no living being, plant or animal, can survive without attributing “meaning” to the world around it, and reacting differently to percepts that possess different “meanings.” But when a cat sees a mouse, the “mouse-idea” it constructs is of a different nature from that which humans associate with the word mouse. The cat has no means to think about the mouse it sees, nor do the warning signals emitted by a vervet monkey share a thought (signifié) with its fellows. This simple truth is one that students of animal behavior do themselves no favors by not taking explicitly into consideration.
The sign as a transcendental object whose being as a type is independent of its existence in worldly tokens is simply not available to our animal friends. This invention of a new mode of being implicitly dependent on the human community who share the meaning (signifié) of the sign is the first example since the Big Bang of an addition to the original ontology of mass and energy.
Phenomenology was in its origins an attempt to study the “phenomena” of consciousness by bracketing the perceptive and other fields from which they derive. This procedure avoids Kant’s “things in themselves” to focus simply on the contents of our consciousness, inspiring a new examination of the human self that led to Existentialism and later to post-structuralism.
Derrida’s early work La voix et le phénomène (1967) is devoted to what he does not yet call the “deconstruction” of the notion of presence that presides over Husserl’s concept of the phenomenon, defined as what is present “within” consciousness. As Derrida sharply points out, the very use of language to describe this mental content implies the speaker’s absence from the sign in the mind of the interlocutor who receives the description. This is all the clearer when language takes the form of writing, which Derrida considers more revelatory of the real essence of language because it makes explicit, through the non-presence of the author, that language operates via the différance or deferral of the “presence” it seeks to convey. The voix in the book’s title thus suggests a false immediacy that writing deconstructs, and with it, the still-metaphysical construction of the immediately self-present “phenomenon.”
We can only endorse this critique of what Derrida rightly sees as the metaphysical basis of phenomenology, through which Husserl had believed that by “reducing” the external data of conscience to their phenomenal presence in the mind he had liberated human thought from the idealizations of metaphysics. But Derrida himself would have been the first to understand that there is no construction available to replace what has thus been deconstructed. Différance serves to “shake” (ébranler) the philosophical edifice but remains, as he later put it, in its “margins,” never attempting to get outside it, as though this were the ultimate illusion.
And once one begins from the metaphysical understanding of language as a neutral substrate, an understanding that goes much deeper than the Platonic realm of Ideas, one can indeed never get out of it. Nor, as contemporary social scientists seem to think, does a discourse whose content is composed of empirically falsifiable assertions offer a reasonable possibility of arriving at an understanding of the anthropological origin of language. Even could we witness an originary event of language, our analysis would be necessarily speculative, and in particular, dependent on positing the action on the participants of the transcendent force of the sacred.
I have no desire to out-Derrida Derrida by deconstructing his arguments in turn. On the contrary, I think that if any thinker arrived at the clôture of metaphysics, it was Derrida rather than the Hegel of the “end of history.” But the point of generative anthropology is to understand in worldly terms the origin of the human language that permitted the construction of the Ideas and their metaphysical context in the first place—language conceived not as a eternally given possibility that needed only to be discovered, but as a human invention, one incomprehensible without attributing to these first humans a “sense of the sacred,” of the paradoxical penetration of the transcendent into the real world.
Thus the notion of presence, to which Derrida ultimately reduces the metaphysical, is as if deliberately designed to segue into the originary hypothesis. For this hypothesis is in fact all about presence, presence that emerges from worldliness, and that is not, as Derrida’s metaphysical mindset imposes, undone by différance, but on the contrary, constructed by it. For the presence of an idea to my consciousness presupposes a mental scene on which it manifests itself, and presence in this sense—as indeed in our common-sense cultural notion of presence, say, that of the “charismatic” figure whose appearance arrests time—implies precisely the contemplative awe, cut off from the interactional flux of life, that only différance permits.
The notion of intending an object of consciousness implies standing back from it. Presence of this sort is not inherent in the existence of a sensorial field, which is found in animals and in a primitive sense even in plants, to the extent that they detect changes in their environment and undergo “tropisms” that prefigure animal movements. Presence to consciousness in the human sense is conceivable only across the néant that Sartre, to whose metapsychology no one seems any longer to refer, understood as constitutive of the pour-soi, human consciousness in contrast to the en-soi, which he describes as a world without “free space,” where all is squeezed together. Sartre followed Descartes in including animal consciousness in the en-soi rather than seeing it as a step in the direction of the human. One can argue about the process leading to the “excessive” mimetic intelligence of the proto-human, but the salient point is what was learned in our attempts a generation ago to “teach apes to talk”: that our lessons never led to anything like the human understanding of language. We succeeded in imparting to these fellow primates an improved signal system, but not a scene of language.
The failure, or perhaps better put, the unwillingness of Derrida’s analysis to lead to a positive understanding of the différance of language, as opposed to putting it a marginal/deconstructive relationship to metaphysics, was the result not of a limitation of the philosopher’s intellect, but of his unexamined faith in the core principle of metaphysics. My earliest description of this principle in terms of my “formal theory of representation” was as a refusal to understand the “elementary” ostensive and imperative utterance forms as necessary predecessors of the declarative sentence rather than, as in generative grammar, “defective” forms of it. But it is more useful to take a broader perspective. Metaphysics misunderstands language because it attempts to conceive it independently of its worldly, anthropological emergence, as though it were an eternally existing possibility. This presupposition is in effect a transcendental faith that remains invisible to its believers. It is only when we situate the birth of language on its worldly scene of origin that we can understand its fundamental constitution.
Another result of my recent reflections on the originary event is that what we call our conscience, the trace of the originary interdiction of appetitive appropriation by our “sense of the sacred,” must precede, as the source of deferral or différance, the implementation of linguistic communication via the sign. Given the danger of mimetic violence that gave rise to this sacred interdiction, language can then be understood as a behavior that functions to overcome this interdiction through reciprocally communicating by means of the sign the significance of the object within the group of participants.
The originary scene itself is constituted only as a result of the deferral of worldly action, the presence of its central object being dependent throughout on the separation of the participants from it, until its dénouement when all participate in its division. At this point, the scene has mutated into a feast or fête in which the community celebrates the freedom it has gained via its obedience to the sacred will, each “intending” his own portion of the originally interdicted central figure.
The Christian Eucharist clarifies this terminal feast by spiritualizing it. That communion is more fundamental than physical nourishment, as the parable of the loaves and fishes also makes clear, celebrates the successful inversion of generative anthropology’s ominous definition of the human as the animal that is its own worst enemy.
In short, the intellectual activity of intentionality that begins with the inaugural semiosis of the sacred center is contingent on the common deferral of “instinctive” appropriative action that resulted from its interdiction. Conscience in this sense precedes intentionality and all that comes to be learned from it.
The moral origin of our prized human intellect is perhaps what most of all the metaphysician wishes to put out of his mind. Yet it is this truth that explains our age’s otherwise absurd assertions that mathematical problems have no incorrect answers.
Morality, but not ethics, must come before truth. Our society will continue forsaking truth so long as it persists in its chimerical attempt to define its ethic solely by humanity’s originary moral symmetry.