In 1999, Cambridge University Press posthumously published anthropologist Roy Rappaport’s magnum opus, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, whose major thesis is that religion and language are coeval: that whichever of the two we use to define the minimal state of the human, it did not come into existence without the other. Generative Anthropology can be understood as an attempt to vindicate this view in the most rigorous terms.

Forty-four years ago I had what Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan calls an “insight” that I have pursued ever since. In 1978 I had been invited as a visiting professor to Johns Hopkins by René Girard, who had been my dissertation director, in hopes of securing a permanent position on the faculty. Instead, I secured this insight.

My insight was an intuition of the originary scene of human language. It was based on Girard’s scene of emissary murder in La violence et le sacré, although it has evolved away from it over the years. In 1981 I published at the University of California Press The Origin of Language: A Formal Theory of Representation (TOOL), where formal referred to the aspect of language that could be separated from what I called the institutional element of the scene, which would evolve into sacrificial ritual and other religious practices.

At the core of my intuition was the notion that what we call a “scene” is something uniquely human, that the center-periphery relationship typical of scenes such as a lecture—or a dramatic performance, or a film, or a circus act—before an ensemble of (hopefully) silent listeners, but by extension, an individual’s reading the transcript of the lecture, or a novel, or watching a video, in whatever format but, more and more typically of our screenic culture, on an electronic screen—that the scenic configuration, which we tend to unthinkingly imagine we share with animals, is in fact practiced by humans alone. Even Karl von Frisch’s famous bee-dance, in which a scout-bee instructs “followers” as to the location of a source of nectar, functions through individual physical contact and is nothing at all like a bee sitting in the center of a circle of her fellows informing them as to which way to fly.

After 44 years I can claim, with ever greater confidence, that generative anthropology, the fruit of this original insight, is indeed a “new way of thinking” that has alone been able to conceive a plausible scenario of human origin.

But if I began by evoking the work of a Catholic theologian, it is because his book about insight is ultimately a study of revelation. Revelation is supposedly sent by God; the originary hypothesis has no such pretension. Yet we cannot help noticing that sacred revelation in the traditional sense has been the formative element in our various civilizations, of far greater effect overall than that provided in recent times by the scientific method of hypotheses falsifiable through empirical observation—a development that without the cultural basis provided by Christianity would never have become possible. If I call generative anthropology a new way of thinking, it is as an assertion of the power of what might be called originary phenomenology, that is, the exploration of an intuition, reduced by Occam’s razor to what I hope is its minimal expression, of human origin, and tested by its ability to explain plausibly, in simple terms, the two fundamental realities of human culture: language and religion.

Empirical science’s skepticism of a real-world originary hypothesis is in fact an inheritance from the domain of philosophy or metaphysics, which may be defined by its tacit or explicit rejection of the idea of the historical origin of mature language—the language of the (declarative) proposition. The paradoxes inherent in metaphysics, which in different forms have preoccupied both the analytic and “Continental”-existential varieties of post-Kantian philosophy, were brought most sharply to light by the late Jacques Derrida, who I believe merits the title of “the last” or “ultimate” metaphysician. Derrida, in his seminal 1968 essay “La différance,” quoting Heidegger’s Das Spruch des Anaximander, affected to dream with Heidegger of “le mot unique,” das einzige Wort that belongs to the uniqueness of Being. (I commented on this passage in the 2019 second edition of TOOL, first published in Chronicle 535.) Yet as Derrida most certainly ironically, if tacitly, realized, if the originary element that you seek is “Being,” you are guaranteed never to emerge from metaphysics’ Teutonic mist to find an explanation more fundamental than a word.

For metaphysics is the discipline founded on the idea, whose first explicit presentation was that of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, that the ultimate truths (which are always truths of the human, but which are too easily extended “metaphorically” to the entire universe) can be found through the examination of language, more specifically, of words. One might think that in this scientific-technical age, the idea that words “contain” truths about reality would no longer be taken seriously. Yet throughout the twentieth century, and still today, both existential and analytic philosophers have in effect agreed on this point, differing only in the degree to which they focus on the words themselves or on their syntactical combination.

My position is simply that metaphysics is incapable of grasping human origin because it is founded on the premise that the worldly existence of language, notably including its origins prior to the proposition, need not be examined. No doubt nearly all philosophers since Hegel have put metaphysics into question, or as Fred Jameson’s well-known title has it—a mistranslation of Nietzsche, the Wikipedia tells us—seek to escape the prison-house of language. Derrida grasped better than anyone—this was the secret of his rock-star celebrity, far beyond the imagination of anyone who did not witness it in his day—the paradox inherent in metaphysics: its incapability of founding itself.

My study of the origin of language began from the premise that the declarative sentence, the logical proposition, could not have been language’s first manifestation. The first linguistic sign must have been an ostensive, a verbal pointing, an idea confirmed by the fact, brought out by cognitive scientists such as Michael Tomasello, that the arch-human act of pointing involves the phenomenon of joint shared attention, which is beyond the capacity of other animals. This is true even of our fellow primates, who indeed point at things, but not in the human manner of directing their fellows’ gaze, as the Zen koan puts it, to look at the moon and not at my finger.

At the time of TOOL, Girard’s emissary murder scenario minimally provided the motivation for the attention of a group to a common center. In terms of Girard’s “mimetic triangle,” consisting of subject, object and the mediator who indicates the object to the subject, it sufficed to add to an original triangle an indefinite set of similar triangles, all of which had the same object in the center, with all of the subjects serving as mediators of each other’s desire—precisely the configuration of “scapegoating.”

In an article entitled “Differences,” written just after TOOL, which appeared in MLN (formerly Modern Language Notes), also in 1981, I emphasized the connection between the scenic configuration and Derrida’s notion of différance. This neologism plays on the double meaning of the French word différer, which means to differ but also to defer—a relationship that can be understood as the root concept of the sacred, which defers appropriation or possession. To my mind, this rapprochement between the scenic and deferral was Derrida’s most significant step toward human self-understanding. Yet he never conceived its relationship either to religion/the sacred or even simply to the behavioral consequences of deferring action, his sole aim having been to deconstruct metaphysics’ implicit postulate, revealed most clearly in what he saw as philosophy’s prejudice in favor of the “presence” of speech to its audience in contrast with the necessary non-presence of writing, as the guarantee of the inherent atemporality of the proposition and its truth.

Derrida used the inaudible distinction between différance and difference as a demonstration that there can be no immediate coincidence between signifier and signified, that the relationship is inhabited by a temporal… différance, a deferral. This is a profound intuition about originary language, which is indeed inhabited by deferral. Yet the (deliberate?) obscurity of the text that reveals this simple truth is in its way something tragic; a thought that I wonder if Derrida, at the pinnacle of his celebrity, ever entertained.

For, as my article pointed out, the deconstruction of metaphysics was not the originary anthropological function of deferral. Before we encounter the deferral that inhabits the space between subject and predicate, even if there are no linguistic or phonetic paradigms but only a single sign reduced to a simple pointing gesture, the enunciation of the sign is already a deferral, not of the formal presence of its referent, but of an action. What was originarily deferred was not in the world of the sign, but precisely what was excluded by the world of the sign, that is, worldly action, the pre-human act of appropriating the object.

Which suggests that the emissary murder scenario was not very well suited to the scenic configuration, given that by definition it involved no deferral—au contraire—of the murderous gestures of the group. Only once the victim was dispatched might his cadaver become an object of both desire and interdiction, which is to say, a sacred object… But then, why begin with an “emissary murder”?

The sacred is not a standard philosophical concept. Although Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro concerns piety, the concept of the sacred has never interested philosophers, who yet often speak of God or Being. This is because, like its parallel category, the significant, the sacred is implicitly relative to its individual or collective subject. Whereas Being or God can be understood as designating something independent of the individual who uses the word, “the sacred” suggests dependence on an individual or collective belief or disposition before its object can be defined. Sacred to whom?

This is not, as it might appear, a mere matter of the definition of the word sacred. Philosophy inhabits the world of shared or shareable truth-values. But to examine the criteria by which we call something sacred—or significant—is to risk revealing the pre-propositional roots of language, which by tacit agreement philosophy does not permit itself to examine.

Hence it is no surprise that, unlike Friendship or Courage or the Good, serious exploration of the sacred appeared only with the discipline of anthropology, which in its beginnings was focused on the belief systems of the preliterate peoples studied by the first generations of ethno-anthropologists, such as Tylor, Frazer, or the Durkheim of Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse. This is in itself a strong indication that the sacred is a concept that points beyond the limits of metaphysics. For the sacred can only be understood in conjunction with language from a standpoint that precedes that of metaphysics, precedes it not merely logically but historically, or we should say, pre-historically. The originary connection between religion and language, between the sacred and the significant, is very simply that the latter term describes what from the beginning language takes into consideration in the same way that the sacred describes what religion, or most broadly, what I would call the sense of the sacred takes into consideration.

Let us now return to the hypothetical scene of human origin, the object of our originary hypothesis. To understand the action of pointing as the foundation of the ostensive, it suffices to conceive a group of proto-humans surrounding an object of interest, such as, for example, a cadaver, possibly of a recently dispatched human scapegoat, but far more likely, of a large edible animal. Each reaches toward the object, thereby “mediating” the attention of the others. But in order for this reaching gesture to become a sign, an act of pointing, this emergent gesture of appropriation must not reach the object; it must be aborted.

The cause of this abortion is clear to anyone who has put out his hand at the same time as someone else to take a last canapé or cookie. We might call it politeness, but if we conceive how this would play out among hungry proto-humans all reaching for the same source of nourishment, we must consider the potential danger of conflict. What I consider to be Girard’s key contribution to anthropology is found at just this point.

What is Girard’s great discovery? The supreme importance of mimetic desire as a feature of humanity. Animal intelligence, as Girard conceived it, is essentially mimetic. Like other animals, but more intensely insofar as we are more intelligent, we learn from others by imitating them. At the same time, as our intelligence increases, we are increasingly likely to come into conflict with those we imitate; this is illustrated in the later novels of Mensonge romantique, where we pass from external to internal mediation.

These are not mere literary categories. Girard’s genius was to see mimetic rivalry as the distinguishing feature of humanity, the only species that poses a greater danger to itself than does the outside world. And given the emergence of this feature over the millennia of proto-human evolution, the kind of serial hierarchy practiced by the higher apes, where an Alpha male takes the first piece of food or the first female and leaves the rest to the Beta, and so on down the line, is no longer feasible. At a certain level of mimetic tension, the others will no longer be ruled by “conditioned reflex” to accept the Alpha’s right to go first.

It is at this point that we can understand the crucial necessity to our species of the deferral of appropriation, and of the sign that this deferral creates, and mutually communicates, in the aborted gestures of appropriation of the members of the group. And by the same token, this explains why apes, who do not need signs, although they certainly are capable of mimetic intelligence and of instinctive signals, do not point as we do.

Whence my original formulation of the sign: I reach toward the object, but defer possession of it, and in doing so, I convert my act from a practical worldly action into a sign, one universally recognized by humans throughout history, we might say, “in all languages.” This provides a solid empirical foundation for the hypothesis that this gesture, no doubt accompanied by a vocalization, since all human languages for the hearing have a vocal component, is indeed the originary sign of language. The exchange of such signs among the group would presumably function to avert conflict and eventually permit the peaceful division of the food source among the participants—as has occurred in every collective meal held ever since, including our Thanksgiving dinners and our Passover seders.

In TOOL, I went on to propose hypotheses of how this first ostensive sign might have evolved into first an imperative, then an interrogative answered by a declarative, giving birth to the declarative sentence or proposition. Which makes understandable why metaphysics, as the study of propositions and their elements, cannot conceive the pre-declarative phase of language.

Think of Hegel’s Logik, which begins with Being, das Sein—the term for which Heidegger in the above-quoted essay affected to seek “the first word.” An anthropologically conceivable first word could have been nothing so abstract as “Being,” which I very much doubt would have made sense in any language before the to on of the Greek philosophers. But we can say that by definition the object being pointed to was significant, worthy of a sign.

And in the context of the originary scene as thus described, it becomes obvious that this first referent of a sign, which we consequently call “significant,” is also the first object we can call “sacred.” The centrality of the victim of sacrificial ritual, of which Christ is for our culture the ultimate representative, but which our primitive forbears represented on cave walls in the form of large calorie-rich bison or antelopes, is also that of the referent of the first sign. But, and this is an important but, whereas the significant status of the bison is unproblematic, and will eventually be extended to the thousands of other objects we have invented words for, its sacred status is not, for reasons we shall discuss.

To be continued…