RvO – Minimal anthropology. This is an important principle for GA. The idea that anthropological investigation should be guided by not an ontology, but by a hypothesis, the only epistemological principle of which is that it be construed minimally. You have already suggested that falsification in the empirical sense is not something that can be usefully applied to a hypothesis that explains the origin of language. The hypothesis is a construction that at the same time transcends the possibility of ever reconciling it with empirical data precisely because language itself emerges only as the irrevocable separation of the sign from the referent, of culture from nature.

So we appear to be caught in a paradox. We can only claim to have found a true representation of the origin of language by also claiming that its truth is unfalsifiable. But I take it that this paradox does not serve as a refutation of GA, but rather as its condition of possibility. Once it becomes possible to think of human origin in terms a construction that we as language-users collectively impose upon ourselves, it likewise becomes possible to formulate the “truth conditions” under which such a construction may be evaluated. These truth conditions, if I may call them that, are in the first place practical and ethical. The origin of language, of culture, is not a logical problem but a practical one, something that affects us as historically situated beings. The postulate of an originary hypothesis can only be justified if it helps to advance our self-understanding.

But isn’t there a historical tension here that needs to be further considered? Once we have rejected both the positivist view that meaning is reducible to matter and the skeptical view that meaning is irreducible to origins of any kind, be they empirical or more generally “metaphysical,” how are we to prevent our minimal anthropology–the originary hypothesis–from becoming itself a transcendental figure for all meaning? How, in other words, are we to mediate between, on the one hand, the desire that the originary hypothesis present us with some tangible practical and ethical consequences and, on the other, the natural resistance, postulated in the originary hypothesis as the deferring function of the sign, that any such transcendence occur? You already spoke of the durability of the form of the originary hypothesis as opposed to its specific content. Likewise you characterized the problem of transcendence in various cultural institutions as manifestations of the originary opposition between the sign and its referent. How does this originary hypothesis itself become a practical “solution” that explains concrete political and cultural institutions without at once also falling victim to the self-same desire that renders those same institutions as naive reproductions of the originary scene?


EG – The ultimate value of the originary hypothesis is, as you suggest, ethical. What then is the mediation between the anthropological knowledge made possible by the hypothesis and the ethical? For positive science, such a question presumably does not arise; we seek objective knowledge of facts. But anthropology as a positive science must maintain itself outside the area of potential crisis that is precisely where the human emerges. In situations that put into question critical anthropological values, objectivity becomes impossible. For example, the emotions aroused by The Bell Curve reflect scandal at a hypothesis–however well or poorly substantiated–that appears to put into question the fundamental principle of human equality derived from the originary reciprocal exchange of signs. It is scandalous to suggest on whatever grounds that one group of humans is less capable of engaging in such exchange than another. If intellectual equality is accepted as an unfalsifiable proposition, ultimately from an ethical standpoint, then other parameters must be changed to accommodate it to the data. Positive science will always fail us when we reach the critical center of the human.

At the other pole from science is religion. Aside from technical practices like Yoga that distill the purgative functions of ritual for individual use, religious knowledge is not something to know objectively, but to accept as a community. That is, it is directly conducive to the deferral of violence. Religion’s dogmatic affirmations about the real world are of significance only insofar as they contribute to this goal; they have the same status as ritual practices, and in fact come into being in order to explain ritual practices.

If I assert that God created the earth in six days, the only proof I can offer is ethical: the society organized by this belief outfunctions a society organized by another belief. That is, the belief is part of an ethical hypothesis. That does not mean the believer must think of it that way. But neither must the believer deny this anthropological interpretation, since I am not imposing it on the belief as a kind of psychoanalysis of its unconscious implications, but simply bracketing its real-world assertion as a statement beyond empirical proof. Whether believers or not, we understand the six days of creation, or the story of Adam, Eve, and the snake, as expressing anthropological truths, not in any useful sense as verifiable statements about the world. For example, a theologian might use the Biblical creation story to demonstrate the primacy of language in the creation of form out of prelinguistic chaos; this is a profound anthropological insight, arguably absent from other religious traditions (which tend to see creation as sexual), that might help to explain the success of Western civilization as well as its occasionally rash impatience with the “natural.”

 Religious discourse used to be far less cautious than today about its cosmological implications. When churchmen refused to look through Galileo’s telescope because they didn’t want to see spots on the sun, they revealed the vulnerability of their cosmological beliefs to the progress of scientific observation. The Pope’s recent acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution may well be the endpoint of the process of accommodation. Skeptics take such cases as proof that theology is just bad cosmology, that scientific progress continually undermines religious belief. But theology may well be bad cosmology; the important thing is that it be good anthropology. In the anthropological domain, positive science cannot eliminate religious belief because it cannot provide epistemological tools to deal with what is not a positive matter, the paradoxical structure of human interaction mediated through signs.

The relation of religious cosmology to positive science no longer poses an epistemological problem. Not only have believers stopped denying sunspots, everyone understands why they must accept them. The Ptolemaic cosmology of the medieval Church has been rejected, but no new one has taken its place; it is simply understood that the Church has nothing to say about astronomical phenomena, which is tantamount to understanding that these phenomena are outside the purview of anthropology. Our nostalgia for the old cosmology is clear from the astrology pages in the newspapers; we’d like the entire universe to be concerned with us, but we no longer believe it.

The originary hypothesis is neither a falsifiable statement of positive science nor an act of faith. It is a research program, not a belief system. Its aim is not to organize a community around a new or preexistent system of rites, but to provide a maximally universal, maximally neutral means of communication between all such systems.

What ethic is implicit in the originary hypothesis? In a recent column, I tried to define it as follows: act in such a way as to minimize the difference between God’s existence or his nonexistence. To minimize the substantiality of the Being that guarantees our spiritual life, which is our capacity to share the meanings of language–is, in a word, to decentralize. This precept is in the spirit of Girard‘s reading of Christianity as the abolition of sacrifice. It has moreover the advantage that it does not simply invert the sacrificial procedure, with the risk of turning the self-styled “victim” into a new persecutor. Rather than invert our centralizing decision, it tells us to minimize it; the less we decide, the less we engage in violence. But minimality in ethical decision-making is only conceivable in the context of the decentered circulation of the exchange system, of the marketplace. Girard has no theory of modernity other than the Christian abolition of sacrifice. It is mediated exchange that replaces sacrifice, not immediate love. Of course there are ethical problems that cannot be mediated by the marketplace, but it is the marketplace that permits us to minimize them.

We will always have ethical problems, but we should consider how relatively marginal are the problems we do have: minority preferences, abortion, assisted suicide, gay marriage, or things like campaign financing. These are pretty peripheral questions in most of our lives. For the rest, the point is not so much that we tend to agree on what ethical conduct is as that most of our activities are in themselves ethically neutral; their value comes from the market. One’s professional standing comes from one’s ability to function in a certain corner of the marketplace, not from obedience to an ethic defined by a preordained set of rules. This is very different from the way things are done in ritual societies, whose essential economic activities are modeled on ritual repetition.

The ethical precept I propose tells us to act in such a way as to decentralize the exchange process as much as possible–which is emphatically not equivalent to abandoning ourselves to the exchange process as it is currently constituted. This precept is in the spirit of Kant‘s categorical imperative: to act from principles that may be universally applied, so that all human relations become reciprocal. But because we begin not with the Categories but from an originary model of moral reciprocity in the exchange of signs, our practical imperative intends not merely the moral absolute on the horizon, but the decentralization that permits us to evolve toward reciprocity in the exchange of things.

As for situating our ethical imperative in the contemporary political context, I prefer to postpone this to the end of our discussion, since it presupposes a more concrete ethical commitment than the agreement our readers have tacitly given us to explore the benefits of originary minimality.

To be continued…