I have lately taken to calling the basic operation of generative anthropology originary phenomenology, by way of insisting on the relative rigor of a procedure that formulates a hypothetical scenario of the first specifically human interactions as models to be applied to historical experiences of language, religion, and the arts, and potentially all forms of social and political organization. Yet social scientists who encounter GA consider this procedure just the opposite of rigorous. Rigor, from their perspective, depends on empirical evidence, so that a hypothesis that cannot be empirically confirmed allows for no measure of reliability.

My claim is that the absence of direct empirical evidence should not prevent us from attempting to construct hypotheses of the origin of language and other behaviors specific to humanity. But it is important that such a hypothesis-based originary phenomenology be distinguished from the naive variety in common use by philosophers who seek in their own experience the roots of the fundamentally human.

As a fairly recent example, in La vision et l’énigme (Cerf, 1989), Gérard Bucher attempts to derive the specificity of the human from an experience of identification with a corpse:

A un certain stade d’évolution et de maturation psycho-affective du pré-homme, une “é-vidence” bouleversante, imperceptible jusque-là, s’imposa : la “vision” de la corruption horrible de la dépouille du congénère reconnu comme autre-moi-même anéanti  (p. 25-26)

At a certain stage of psycho-affective evolution and maturation of the prehuman, an overwhelming “evidence,” previously imperceptible, made itself felt: the “vision” of the horrible decomposition of the corpse of a fellow human recognized as an annihilated other-self.

This experience in effect phenomenologizes Heidegger’s Sein-zum-Tode, being-toward-death, as the unique human characteristic from which all others may be derived. I need not pursue Bucher’s argument through several hundred pages, since he has provided in this one-line “scenario” the key to all the rest.

This is an example of naive originary phenomenology: a uniquely human experience that purportedly lies at the basis of all others, yet, in contrast with the originary hypothesis of GA, one wholly detached from any reconstruction of the collective practices of prehumans, and whose claimed liminality reflects no hypothetical emergent condition that would account for it. On the contrary, Bucher simply takes for granted that as proto-humans became more “intelligent,” more mimetically aware of their fellows, at some point one would be struck with this image of his own future death, without suggesting any specific means by which a creature incapable of this thought on one day would become capable of it on the next.

I have no desire to make an example of Bucher; the whole existentialist movement from Heidegger on, if not from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, is founded on the extension of what Husserl had intended as a rigorous method of introspection, designed to capture the normally unnoticed details of perception and judgment, to the “great questions” of human existence. The idea that I might grasp my being-toward-Death through observing the decay of a human corpse is prima facie reasonable, but endowing this intuition with the capacity of transforming a non-speaking animal into one able to acquire language, religion, and the other aspects of human culture cannot be called a serious anthropological hypothesis.

In contrast, GA’s originary hypothesis, although “unproven,” goes a good way toward providing a plausible prehistory for the emergence of the uniquely human behaviors of deferral/différance, language, ritual sacrifice, and the rest. Unlike Bucher’s, it is not implicitly modeled on the Genesis vision of the first human being that we find in Max Müller’s man “discovering” the sun as though on emerging from the hands of his Creator (see Chronicles 192 and 736). The sun has always been there, and similarly, animals have seen dead and decomposing conspecifics since they have had eyes to see them. Whereas the scenario of the originary hypothesis is specifically designed to explain what necessitated the crossing of the Rubicon to language as a function of the growth of mimetic intelligence and the increased intraspecific aggression that it would naturally stimulate.

No doubt the existentialist philosophers were not primarily motivated by a desire to reconstruct the minimal conditions for the emergence of human language and culture; their aim was that of a fundamental, trans-historical understanding of “the human itself.” But without a minimal definition of what differentiates humans from all other species, this difference can only be understood in terms of our common-sense subjectivity, and contemporary social science’s accumulation of physiological, psychological, and even social data of various kinds has not helped us to focus our attention on the minimal conditions under which these unique human traits must have emerged.

No individual insight can provide a behavioral reference to the etiology of the unique human category of the (symbolic) sign, or, more fundamentally, the différance by which Derrida characterized the deferral of reflex action that makes language possible. Derrida had no interest in linking la différance to a plausible scenario of proto-human interaction. Nonetheless, in its conceptual sharpening of what Sartre had called the néant that separates the pour-soi from its objects, this Derridean notion is an important step toward a truly plausible scene of human interaction.

Along the same lines, the “personalism” of Buber and Levinas, which focuses on the human individual in terms of his minimal interactions with a human Other, is, however ethically insightful, equally based on impressionistic intuitions unrelated to the question of human emergence. Taking as a point of departure our face-to-face contact with a fellow human may well be a more useful basis for discussing the modes of human interaction than our encounter with a dead body, but once again, beginning from a common-sense intuition of our own interactions precludes constructing a model of how such an intuition could have emerged from the analogous intuitions available to prehuman creatures. A specifically human form of mutual recognition can be defined with sufficient sharpness only once the originary criteria for distinguishing between humans and their primate ancestors have been made clear.

The key defect of these analyses reflects the fundamental flaw of metaphysics from the beginning, one that introspection even in the most disciplined sense cannot remedy. My point is that in order to conceive a plausible originary scenario, we cannot begin from a personal interaction, because our personal interactions are dependent on the preexisting modes of human sociality, all of which are already dependent on the fundamental feature of human culture: the deferral of reflexive action and its mediation by signs. To conceive even approximately a minimal definition of what makes humans different from all other creatures, we must imagine ourselves in a world where these differential features do not yet exist, and from which they can emerge only through a collective interaction whose memorability establishes it as a first event, recalled and capable of being repeated by the community formed by it.

We must begin by taking for granted the uniqueness of these fundamental human traits, despite the fact that this human uniqueness, recognized since time immemorial, is viewed today as the equivalent of a religious belief. The current doxa that we are really not all that different from other creatures, like the near-universal conviction that life is common throughout the universe, reflect an apparent need to deny our ancestral belief that we were created in the image of God. No doubt this belief is not itself an explanation, but the absence of such belief does not justify denial of the uniqueness that it recognizes, nor does such denial provide an explanation of why we, unlike our animal brethren, have such beliefs in the first place.

The human individual, to be sure, contains within himself in potential all of humanity; any human language or other cultural creation is in principle knowable by anyone. This principle is the very basis of phenomenology: that we can understand the human in general by studying it in ourselves, where we can observe it most closely—Descartes’ cogito has taken modern philosophy in this direction. But the fact that, as Montaigne put it, chaque homme porte la forme entière de l’humaine condition, does not imply that we can understand the origin of any aspect of this condition through simple introspection. What distinguishes the human being from his primate relatives: language, religion, art… is in the first place not individual but collective, communal. It is this infinitely richer communal life that permits the human individual to embody so much of it within himself. Although each human being can have sufficient confidence in his intuitions to articulate a good deal of self-understanding, the very existence of the language in which he articulates it cannot be explained from the standpoint of the isolated individual.

Phenomenology in its original sense can learn much from self-observation in our solitary dealings with the world, but it cannot help us solve the problem of the origin of the collective phenomena of language and culture that distinguish us from other creatures. Even after Darwin, the fiction that “man” is created as an individual who only subsequently encounters or is “thrown into” the world of his fellows remains the intuitive point of departure for existential philosophizing, including that of Sartre. For however astutely Sartre conceived the pour-soi as separated from its objects as if observed on a stage (or a screen), he fails to consider that the origin of this distancing must reflect a need to defer our proximity to others, whose potential danger as a result of the increased mimetic tension among the members of a group has reached the point of imperiling communal survival. In our hypothesis, this deferral/différance of the preexisting reflexes that had sufficed to regulate the interactions of our fellow animals is the point of departure for what is indeed a new form of life.

Given that the attempt to construct a hypothesis of human origin on the basis of individual experience is ipso facto doomed to failure, the construction of a collective scenario, a hypothetical event/scene, is imperative. And it is in this act of construction that the theoretician, whom I can now describe not as a philosopher but as an anthropologist, is forced to realize that language, having first functioned, along with the rest of human culture, on a scene, continues to present itself to us on an internalized mental scene whose structure derives from the collective scene/event in which language was born.

That this discussion seeks to correct what I see as the falsely individualized perspective, not only of the modern metaphysical tradition born with such writers as Montaigne and Descartes, but of the phenomenological/existentialist tradition that has sought to “escape” from it, and indeed, from metaphysics altogether, should not be understood as denying the role of this latter tradition as the major source of its own insights. But conversely, the historical weight of tradition cannot serve as a justification for ignoring the key point that makes GA a qualitative advance in our understanding of human specificity. If I have several times in these Chronicles cited Michael Tomasello’s embarrassing paragraph on the origin of religion (see Chronicle 519), it is only to make the point that a distinguished social scientist’s license to deal dismissively with a major component of human culture is a telling indication that the set of criteria currently in use in the human sciences—like all too many sets of judgmental criteria in Western society today—is in dire need of correction.

Just as GA understands language, religion, and the rest of human culture not as gratuitous creations, the simple results of “progress” in our biological and mental functioning, but, like all inventions, as the children of necessity, so is GA itself the product of a crisis in human thought—one from which virtually all academic thinking today, not even excepting the “hard sciences,” is experiencing the deleterious effects. From dismissive characterizations of religion to the notion that men can become women, the distance is less than might be thought. A society that can so totally misunderstand the function of a major component of human culture is apt to permit and promote other such misunderstandings, and for increasingly irrational reasons.

Whence this concluding homage to my teacher, René Girard. Alone of his generation of literary scholars, Girard bore within him the conviction that Western civilization, however much it owes to the intellectual and political foundations laid by Athens and Rome, is first of all the product of Jerusalem, of Judeo-Christian history—one that I hope will before long reach a genuine peace with Islam as well. If I have made some progress in integrating the products of Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive genius into a positive understanding of the human and its language and culture, I owe it above all to Girard’s having inoculated me in my formative years against the virus, handed down to the academic world from our Classical forbears, of metaphysical self-sufficiency. Only thus have I been able to discover a truth that the Bible suggests to us far more clearly than the legacy of the philosophers: that before language could help us to reason about the world, it must first have helped ensure our species’ survival.