The great tradition of Western philosophy or metaphysics, first formalized poetically by Parmenides and given its institutional point of departure by Plato, provided the model for (Western) theoretical and eventually scientific thought. The term metaphysics in Greek simply refers to the order of the books within the Aristotelian organon after the physics (meta-physica), but the term came to suggest Plato’s assertion of the other-than-physical origin of the Ideas, obscuring the simple reality that human language was invented by our earthbound species. Metaphysics justifies its bracketing of this origin by reference to an a priori ontology of fundamental propositions. Whence my anthropological definition of metaphysics as thought that refuses to take into account the human, scenic origin of language, as revealed in its ostensive and imperative utterance-forms, but obscured in the declarative sentence or proposition.
My purpose here is not to trace the history of metaphysics but to reflect on how what we can observe as its evacuation from the world of serious thought relates to the concurrent birth of generative anthropology. GA was born in a specific context, that of the emergence of literary theory as a social science of its own in the 20th century, reaching its high point in the last generation of the Cold War, roughly between 1965 and 1990, the era of French Theory or post-structuralism. During the heyday of this movement, literary texts became the privileged embodiment of what I call the cultural scene, the favored locus for anthropological discovery. The movements named above are really synonyms for literary anthropology.
The history of metaphysics had culminated in Hegel’s dialectic, which understands the operation of history as a “dialogue” of embodied concepts, operating through the Aufhebung or “lifting-up” of contradiction into synthesis, leaving the dialectic on a higher level. But thinkers after Hegel saw the edifice of metaphysics as having reached in his work a reductio ad absurdum, the “end of history” being in contradiction with the time in which it is observed. Thus the post-Hegelians saw themselves in some way as post-metaphysical, in particular as rejecting philosophy’s Platonic basis in the Ideas, while recognizing at the same time that we can only think in ideas, that is, in concepts. Whence Fred Jameson’s para-Nietzschean title The Prison-House of Language as an iconic description of the plight of post-metaphysical philosophy.
Francis Fukuyama is hardly in Hegel’s class as a philosopher, but his faux-naïf Kojevian understanding of the West’s victory in the Cold War as embodying the “real” end of history should not be dismissed as a sophomoric application of Hegel to our age. However absurd it may seem to talk literally about the end of history, Fukuyama’s real point (however much he was or is aware of it) is that this apparent defeat of Marxism by liberal democracy—which despite its increasingly problematic existence in this century has by no means been superseded as the world’s dominant political system, let alone its most attractive one—may be said to mark the “end of history” insofar as history can be conceived as a Hegelian/metaphysical dialectic. Marx had been the most direct and influential challenger to Hegel and to philosophy in general (changing the world vs understanding it), so that the defeat of Marxism could be said to demonstrate that its attempt to add a new and truly final stage to the historical dialectic had been revealed as a failure.
Thus we can take Fukuyama seriously as having demonstrated not the “end of history,” but the end of the quest for a metaphysical understanding of history. The ironic truth of Hegel’s dialectic as an attempt to make sense of history is that it self-terminates, not by attaining conceptual perfection, but by reaching a degree of complexity at which the most advanced social order can only follow Churchill’s immortal formula of being “the worst… except for all the others,” that is, the one that, by allowing the maximum of degrees of freedom, is therefore the least predictable.
It is not without significance that GA’s “new way of thinking” emerged from the universe of literary anthropology at much the same time as this Fukuyaman demonstration. The minimal narrative of GA’s originary hypothesis transcends Hegel’s metaphysical dialectic by revealing, as philosophy itself had been unable to do, the fundamental flaw in the ontology that metaphysics had sought to construct—a flaw that cannot be corrected, as the Existentialists thought, by such formulas as existence precedes essence, for “essence” is nothing but the language in which we seek to describe “existence,” on whatever level of description we reach. Pace the ancient, modern, and Existentialist philosophers, there is no such thing as Being/Sein/Etre in any sense other than as a mark of significance or sacrality, which is simply to say: critical importance to the human community as most broadly conceived.
The demystification of metaphysics allows us to understand the phenomenon of transcendence in anthropological terms as simply another term for representation. Prior to the meta-representation of Ideas, the origin of the human as language/culture/the sacred/significance/transcendence marks the passage from the “natural” world to a representational doubling of the world by means of signs. The Hegelian dialectic, the Aufhebung of concepts through contradiction and synthesis, could operate only as a consequence of the origin of language itself in the ostensive re-presentation of reality.
This transcendence is the foundation of the human: the creation of a world of signs shared among the human community, grasped along with their represented objects as signifier and signified, allowing us to think in the context of the community with whom we share these signs. The recursivity that Chomsky postulates as characteristic of language is a simple consequence of the fact that signifiers as themselves worldly phenomena can in turn become objects of representation, as animal signals can never be.
Hegel’s dialectic began with Being as the most general form of what-is-represented. But to speak about Being is already to speak in propositions. Being is the exemplary case of a word that can be conceived only as an element of declarative language.
Myth and Model: Scenic narrative in religion and anthropology
If we had asked the 19th-century anthropologists why they focused above all on religion, their answer would have been that the peoples they studied were most significantly distinguished by the myths and rites they knew and practiced, both from pre-humans in general and from other human communities in particular. Religion was understood, in the terminology of Roy Rappaport (Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, Cambridge, 1999) as coeval with language at the origin of humanity.
Today, in contrast, anthropology no longer sees religion as fundamental to the specific difference that separates us from other animals. The subject matter of what might be called originary anthropology is dominated today rather by the analysis of specific hominin-to-Sapiens behaviors and their physiological and above all neurological substrates. Thus a meticulous analysis of language origin such as Planer and Sterelny’s From Signal to Symbol: The Evolution of Language (MIT Press, 2021) seeks to break down linguistic practices into fundamental elements that can be examined in terms of the mental and physical capacities of the creatures that produce them.
Significantly, neither religion nor ritual appear in the book’s index; the many behaviors described as potential incentives for language take place in the context of individual interactions rather than communal events, in contrast to the old anthropology that put such events—recitations of myths, festivals, rites of passage…—at the center of its study. Scriptures are primarily narrative accounts; rites are event-forms whose repetition is considered essential to reinforcing the communal presence of the sacred. More generally, cultural materials, whether religious or secular, function in scenes, whether as performances or as art- or cult-objects around which scenes are constructed. Thus in visiting a museum, one is often distressed by the impossibility of taking the time to conceive a scene on which each painting or sculpture may be examined; most must be seen only in passing, their call for scenicity rejected.
The phenomenon of presence, which Derrida criticized as essentially a theistic subterfuge, is in fact a necessary element of the scene, where it implies not in-your-face obtrusiveness but, on the contrary, the separation of the observer from the observed by a Sartrean néant. The existence of a number of persons or animals in proximity does not make them present to each other; this is possible only in a scenic context, whether it be a conversation between two individuals or a crowd of thousands watching a sports event.
In our day, with the decline of its focus on religion, anthropology finds its models rather in the “life sciences.” Because these sciences do not foreground the scene/event except as a laboratory construct (i.e., the experiment), its role as the fundamental locus of human interaction tends to be forgotten. Contemporary anthropology prefers to break down human behavior into elements whose scenicity is merely an occasion to examine the elements of the behavioral database that they exhibit. Even where, in a discussion of, say, the manufacture of a stone axe, the completion of the axe as a tool clearly marks the end of the “event” in which the maker is engaged, this framework is simply taken for granted, just as the emission of a phoneme becomes a focus that ignores the conversation in which it is pronounced. Once such analytic procedures become dominant, the fundamental purpose of anthropology, the understanding of what is uniquely human, is deferred to the point where it ceases to appear essential, leading to a mindset in which events/scenes are no longer understood as the fundamental moments of the human condition.
Generative anthropology, as a “new way of thinking” that foregrounds the centrality of the scenic, justifies the early anthropologists’ intuitive focus on religious rites and myths as intuitively grasping anthropology’s central point: that these religious phenomena emerged because they were necessary in order to preserve nascent human communities from dissolution in mimetic conflict.
Understood in this context, the originary hypothesis is not simply an uncertain model of an event that may or may not have taken place, but an attempt to construct a minimal model of the event that separates humanity from pre-humanity. No doubt the hypothesis can be called a “myth of origin,” a point that has sometimes been made in accusation. As a younger colleague once put it diplomatically, my attachment to it reflects my belonging to an older generation—although I’m not sure what others of my generation have proposed similar hypotheses.
I defend my hypothesis not as a myth but as a model. No doubt Freud’s father-murder in Totem and Taboo is also an originary model, but one constructed without any attempt to minimize its presuppositions—most significantly, the presence of language. Did the sons who kill their father use language? Freud was not interested in this question, because, however sensitive he may have been to language as part of the “talking cure,” he was not concerned with the origin of the human as such, only with that of the “Oedipus complex.”
The Two Modes of Originary Anthropology
The origin of language and the sacred is the unique focus of the originary hypothesis, as it is the focus of the creation scene in Genesis. No doubt the hypothetical scenario is minimized as the biblical one is not. But the two have in common their respect for the scenic event. The anthropological significance of the Bible, which René Girard nearly alone of his generation of literary scholars valued over the pseudo-scenes of metaphysics, is inseparable from its narrative/mythical construction.
To accept GA’s scenic focus is to refuse to dismiss as myths the religious narratives that have served societies as objects of faith in order to seek a “scientific” understanding of the human from the study of physiology, neurology, and primate behavior. Such micro-examination throws out the baby with the bathwater. GA and religion share the understanding that the human is inseparable from our unique capacity for scenic events.
It is this fact that allows GA to provide a bridge between, to reprise a title of a book I wrote many years ago, science and faith. The originary hypothesis and the biblical Creation narrative should be understood as two ways of representing the origin of humanity. Rather than suggesting that the biblical narrative be replaced by the originary hypothesis, I propose rather that both accounts of origin can be most fruitfully reread from a standpoint that refuses to choose between them; in one case, understanding humanity as the creation of an omniscient and omnipotent being whose transcendent status provides external mastery of our world, in the other, attempting to conceive the event during which our world’s internal processes of evolution succeeded in creating a being able to represent from within the world these processes by means of signs.
Whence the promise of a fruitful post-metaphysical dialogue between GA and religious thought. My fondest hope is that this conversation may mature and flourish.