What was already the generally received perspective on language origin at the time of the publication of The Origin of Language in 1981 has since hardened into a tacit denial of any qualitative difference between human language and the communication systems of our animal ancestors, and more generally, the expulsion of the term “qualitative” from the empirical realm. As a result, Generative Anthropology has been obliged to define itself in opposition to thinking, which we qualify as metaphysical, that denies the pertinence of the worldly origin of mature (human) language, and in consequence defines the proposition or declarative sentence as its basic utterance unit, simpler utterance-forms such as the imperative or ostensive being considered merely as defective forms of NP + VP.

The now bygone era of French Theory was the ultimate stage of Western philosophy’s effort to “escape” from the metaphysical, for which Fredric Jameson provided a useful quasi-Nietzschean metaphor in his title The Prison-House of Language (Princeton, 1975). Derrida’s oeuvre may be said to have provided the definitive vocabulary for the paradoxical effort to criticize philosophy/metaphysics from its “margins” while denying the possibility of standing outside it. Conversely, the fundamental task of GA can perhaps most simply be understood as affirming this possibility.

This does not mean, however, that metaphysics, which conceives language as a “neutral” medium whose worldly human origin need not be taken into account, is in some sense incompatible with GA. It means only that the metaphysical understanding of language is incompatible with the anthropological understanding of language. The mindset of the empirical human sciences, which rejects the originary hypothesis as “mere speculation,” in effect enthrones metaphysics as its fundamental doctrine of knowledge.

As Heidegger points out in his 1929 Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik, Kant was the first in the Western philosophical tradition to take a “critical” perspective on metaphysics’ linguistic neutrality, not however in relation to language itself, but to the ability of propositions to reveal truths about “being” that are both synthetic, where the predicate is not simply derived logically from the subject, and a priori, in the sense that they do not depend on worldly experience, like “grass is green.” Kant calls what permits such ontological knowledge the faculty of pure reason, and the purpose of his “critique” of pure reason is to discover what, prior to worldly experience, makes us capable of such knowledge in the first place.

Heidegger noted that Kant began the turning away from metaphysics by realizing that “pure reason” could not operate in the world of “things-in-themselves,” but only on the human mental scene. But by calling this faculty “pure reason,” he prevented himself from uncovering the link between it and the phenomenal world, whose Being was encountered on this scene. In Heidegger’s vocabulary, the “pure reason” encounters Husserl’s phenomenological Ideas not as a “reduced” conscience but as Dasein, being-there, aware of its temporal worldly existence as the ground of its phenomenal experience.

Thus Kant—who always considered himself a disciple of the philosophe Rousseau—was the first metaphysician to problematize the metaphysical. Seen from an anthropological perspective, Kant no longer accepted the implicit a priori of metaphysics that language allows us to “tell the truth” of being simply as a neutral medium.

Understood in these terms, Kant took the significant first step toward the anthropologization of metaphysics. Heidegger, as the first “existential” thinker and an essential figure in the process of liberation of/from metaphysics that has led to the originary hypothesis, was acutely aware of Kant as an ancestor, and in his above-mentioned Kantbuch sought to describe the limits of this liberation and its implicit opening to what would become his own philosophy.

In a word, the critical Kantian subject, whose formulation of “synthetic a priori judgments” distinguishes him from that of the pre-critical philosophy that took our linguistic description of being and beings for granted, is a direct precursor of Heidegger’s Dasein. But the latter, as the term existential makes clear, has crossed the Rubicon between an abstract Subject and a worldly being. Dasein is the human being who is There—the Being There that Hal Ashby ironically embodied in Peter Sellers’ sacred fool Chance the gardener in his 1979 film.

Now that the progress of human self-understanding need no longer follow Heidegger’s quest for “the first word of Being,” for which I have noted (see Chronicle 535) Derrida’s gesture of nostalgia, we should be able to tolerate a non-mystical although not directly provable/falsifiable hypothesis of human origin. And in so doing, to recognize Heidegger’s own contribution to the process of anthropologization. For the most obvious feature of what came to be called Existentialism is its turn from the sterilized laboratory-world of Husserl’s phenomenology to the in-the-worldness epitomized in Dasein.

For Heidegger it was the element of time that animated the phenomenal scene of Dasein, aware of the necessity of care (Sorge) for its mortal existence. Being must be understood in relation to Time, the mortal realm within which we encounter it, in contrast to the timeless one of the Ideas that was the originary province of metaphysics.

But Dasein itself remains a metaphysical conception, lacking a worldly etiology. Human beings are but one species of living creatures, all of which live in time. What then is the source of our unique intuition of our temporal limitation, what Heidegger called Sein zum Tode? It is here that the human etiology put forth by the originary hypothesis allows us to return to the real world from the realm of abstraction, which existentialist temporality points away from, but without offering a temporal path to a worldly scene of origin in which this sense of presence-in-and-to-the temporal can plausibly be understood as originating. All organisms live in time and die, and all their existences are “oriented” toward death in the sense that they are focused on reproducing their genetic material while still alive. But what is missing is the specific difference that makes humans not simply “aware” of death but able to think about it, that is, language as the sacred’s gift that permits the deferral of mimetic violence.

Once we understand that the human conscience is the product of this need to defer the threat to human temporal existence, a threat originating not in “nature,” but in humanity itself, we need no longer follow the path opened up by Descartes’ pioneering attempt to adapt metaphysics to pre-modern self-consciousness by adopting in Le discours de la méthode and Les méditations an “autobiographical” description of his own thought-processes—a procedure of whose limitations Pascal, the man of faith, was ironically aware. Once we have taken into account the collective nature of the originary source of this new self-consciousness, including the urgent necessity of a new semiotic means of communicating it within the nascent human community, the conceptual fog of metaphysics—in some ways thicker than ever in the writings of Heidegger, and which lifted but to reveal the paradoxical figures of Derrida—dissipates, leaving a terrain ripe for empirical investigation without the need to reduce its features to the observably falsifiable.

The simplest path of escape from metaphysics’ prison is to avoid altogether the complications of ontology and remain “naively” in the realm of the ontic or “real.” For this purpose, we need only a human Subject able to make synthetic judgments that are not a priori, but empirically “falsifiable,” whether in the practical realm as a bricoleur, or systematically as an natural scientist.

Empiricism allows us to understand and manipulate the real world by first bracketing the human, historical, anthropological-anthropogenic question of how language and our ability to use it arose, and then proceeding to construct propositions about phenomena, each of which must either be empirically confirmed at a certain confidence level or derived from others so confirmed. We have no need to concern ourselves with the origin of language so long as we can agree on the empirical sense of its propositions—an agreement that seems to be holding up even in what Einstein called the “spooky” realm of quantum theory.

But we must recognize nonetheless the total failure of empirical social science as so defined to provide an explanation for the origin of the unique phenomenon of human language. This failure demonstrates the need for a humanist anthropology not bound by the Popperian principle of falsifiability. The fundamental categories of human linguistic communication in this perspective are not the “parts of speech” and their syntactic relationships, but the modes of human interaction that make the use of linguistic signs possible: in minimal terms, deferral/différance and scenicity.

These modes are not elements of linguistics, nor are they applicable to the study of “nature,” including human “nature.” Where they are relevant is in explaining not only how but why humans developed language. As a consequence, the originary purpose of human linguistic communication has not been properly understood. This misunderstanding may have no effect on the study of physics or physiology, but it is certainly relevant to the domain of psychology—it is no coincidence that Freud’s Totem and Taboo was the first modern scenario of the origin of language—and even more to that of philosophy, which is altogether dependent on our understanding of the uniqueness of human language.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of a humanistic “speculative” or non-empirical anthropology that begins with the origin of the sign and its scenic context is to permit the parallel investigation of the origin of religion, which after serving for millennia as the privileged source of revelations about human origin, including for the earlier generations of cultural anthropologists, has been all but expelled from serious consideration in modern social science. At the same time, this new perspective in no way prevents the metaphysical bracketing of language origin, hence empirical anthropology itself, from remaining sovereign within its own domain.

What distinguishes humanistic from empirical anthropology is not their ultimate relationship to objective truth. GA’s hypothesis does not posit a non-empirical sacred standing above the world. It merely recognizes that the reconstruction from unambiguous empirical evidence of an event equivalent to that described in the originary hypothesis is at present so far from realizable that in order to make progress in human self-understanding we are forced to rely on intuitions that we could arguably share with the fellow humans that experienced this event. Thus, although in a far more minimalistic mode than the Bible, we must “tell the story” of human creation, abandoning the criterion of falsifiability for that of intuitive plausibility.

In doing this, we must remain aware of the key distinction of the human from all other living beings: We are the one species that is “too intelligent” to be able to acquire through genetically-driven evolution a system of protection from its capacity for intraspecific mimetic violence.

This is the “existential” factor in the human condition that language and the sacred, or the sacred and language, became necessary in order to overcome, or rather, to defer. Generative anthropology is humanistic because it recognizes what in the human necessitates this paradoxical folding back on itself whose instrument is the sign, the extra-natural telos of all the coding systems that nature had invented without being able to transcend the ontological limits of the material world.

It is intuitively obvious that the creature who needed to invent the sign in order to defer its propensity to violence would become aware of the originary purpose of its invention only at the moment when recalling this purpose would itself become necessary to defer once more the threat of human self-destruction by its own violence. But the question as to whether this awareness will have the beneficial consequences we hope for is not, alas, answerable, either by empirical or humanistic anthropology.