When I came to UCLA in 1969, Existentialism was still the dominant philosophical current, and Sartre the best known philosopher, particularly in the French Department, whose leading figure was the devoted Sartrean, Oreste Pucciani. Reading Colin Wilson’s 1956 The Outsider (see Chronicle 766) took me back to those years when “Continental” philosophy struggled to integrate its transcendental perspective with humanity’s worldly engagement. Today, when the term is rarely heard, we must not forget the significance of Existentialism, upon whose insights both Girard and Derrida relied in formulating their respective conceptions of mimetic desire and deferral/différance.
As I pointed out in the previous Chronicle, the Outsider’s contempt for the Insider, complacently unconcerned by his blind acceptance of the world’s injustices, reflects the bourgeois-Romantic adolescent’s angst in becoming aware of these injustices and of his parents’ indifference to them. This is not the simple resentment that motivated the sans-culottes or the mobs led by the Bolshevik and Maoist revolutionaries. What repels the Romantic adolescent is more the bourgeois’ self-satisfaction than his exploitation of the lower classes. But in the broadest sense, like the Woke youth of today who condemns his fellow whites’ unconscious racism, the young Romantic saw in his parents’ complacency a refusal to admit that their social status violated the principle of moral equality. The difference from today was that these adolescent tendencies were generally rejected by adults—save when fearing for their lives in the revolutionary turmoil of, say, France in 1848, depicted with such delicious irony in Flaubert’s L’éducation sentimentale.
If Romanticism recognized adolescence as a newly-defined stage of life in modern/bourgeois society, for the Existentialist it provided a revelatory model for human life in general: the individual is obliged throughout his life to choose his path in the world rather than let it be predetermined for him by caste and family. It was as a result of the extension of adolescent uncertainty to an ever larger proportion of the population as the medieval Gemeinschaft gave way to the modern Gesellschaft in the nascent industrial age that Existentialism came into its own.
In this perspective, Existentialists from Kierkegaard on can be defined as post-Romantics, those who have seen through what Girard called the mensonge romantique, the romantic lie that sets the unsoiled adolescent above the adult social world, and yet who remain unwilling to renounce their intuition that bourgeois society cannot be complacently accepted and that they must remain Outsiders to the end. If today’s Wokism may be denounced as a sign of society’s failure to persuade its young people to get beyond their adolescence, Existentialism’s nobler aims could not be so easily rejected. The Outsiders, even the most extreme “men of resentment” in the fictions of Dostoevsky and Sartre, all bear a lesson for us.
Although the philosophical elaboration of Existentialism was strongly influenced by Husserl’s phenomenology, the impulse behind was not to map the internal configuration of our mind but to provide a model for human action in the broadest sense; whence Heidegger’s “being for/to death” or Sartre’s engagement, which was in his day (beginning in France under the Nazi occupation) the philosophy’s dominant theme. The existentialist ontology was most succinctly defined by the Sartrian formula that for humans, as opposed to other creatures, existence precedes essence.
How does the birth of the human in the hypothetical originary event allow us to interpret this ontological postulate? The underlying point of “existence precedes essence” is what Derrida, in an insight that brought him to the threshold of GA, would call la différance. In its original terms, Sartre in L’étre et le néant described this separation that grants precedence to worldly experience over metaphysics as dependent on a néant or “nothingness” between the pour-soi or human consciousness and its object, in contrast to the non-human en-soi, which he envisaged as a world whose contents were so to speak piled up against each other without empty space, recalling the classical determinist model of reality. (This model still survives among physicists: for example, in Sabine Hossenfelder’s Existential Physics [Viking, 2022], where reality however complex is conceived as determined from the outset through the interactions of its components.)
Sartre’s néant has a clear parallel in GA in the scenic space that separates the human pour-soi from its objects—and originarily, in the separation between the participant in the originary event and the central animal, the original object of his aborted act of appropriation, the gesture that became the first linguistic/semiotic sign. Humanity, whose mind allows it to stand back from its content and refer to it using language—to which Sartre, still a “classical” metaphysician, significantly pays no attention whatever in L’être et le néant—thereby manifests its freedom. Sartre’s central anthropological postulate is our rejection at every instant of any a priori determination of human behavior: even a prior decision must be tacitly reaffirmed each time it is put into action.
Stripped of its anthropological flesh, the formula existence precedes essence has all the defects of its metaphysical vocabulary, which reifies worldly categories whose value resides in their application to concrete circumstances: e.g., working from a blueprint (“essence”) to construct a machine or building (“existence”), or viewing a phenotype (“existence”) as a worldly version of an ideal genotype (“essence”). The point in claiming that the individual human “existence” acts in such a way as to determine his “essence”/soul? is that humans, unlike animals, must take responsibility for, accept the intentionality of, their actions. And more broadly, responsibility for their Dasein or being-in-the-world, which cannot, like that of natural phenomena (including other living creatures) be imputed to an a priori Essence.
The advantage of generative anthropology’s vocabulary over standard philosophical language in describing the difference between Hegel/Sartre’s pour-soi and en-soi is that in the place of metaphysical abstractions, GA refers to a concrete model of human behavior: that of the originary event. In contrast with whatever goes on in an animal’s mind when it decides between alternatives, a human decision, if the term is truly appropriate, must pass through the judgment of a human soul or conscience, in which resides the moral model of “good” and “evil” derived from the originary human experience.
The freedom implicit in the priority of existence over essence is not simply the name for our capacity to choose among alternatives, which we share with animals; it is founded on this necessary moral decision. In biblical terms, it is Eve and Adam’s decision to disobey God by eating the fruit of the tree that demonstrates this freedom, which at the same time transforms them from Edenic creatures obedient to God into humanity’s original sinners.
As noted above, Existentialism was the intellectual ambiance that nourished both René Girard, and less directly, Jacques Derrida, whose relationship to phenomenology remained closer to the great philosophical tradition, beginning with his doctoral work on Husserl. Indeed, the rapprochement I have made between Derrida’s concept of différance and Sartre’s néant is one that I do not believe he ever made, nor would likely have accepted, although the undertone of political dissatisfaction with bourgeois society is equally clear in both cases.
The importance of Sartre’s inspiration for Girard’s psychological analyses, which was the object of a colloquium sponsored by the French Association Recherches Mimétiques in 2014 (see https://www.rene-girard.fr/57_p_44713/girard-sartre-existence-et-transcendance.html ) need not occupy us here. It suffices to recall Sartre’s analyses of mauvaise foi (bad faith) in L’être et le néant or La nausée to see in germ Girard’s conception of the mensonge romantique.
Derrida’s différance is conceived as a paradoxical notion within the Saussurian model of linguistics as a system of differences, far indeed from the Sartrian néant between the mind and its object. But if we rethink both these concepts from the standpoint of GA’s originary hypothesis, both deferral/différance and the néant—deferring action on one hand and on the other, maintaining a differential space between the human subject and the object of his desire—refer to the same phenomenon in the scenic configuration of the originary event, described from different perspectives. The physical distance between the peripheral participant and the central animal is the experiential model of the “nothingness” within the individual’s internal scene of representation between his desiring presence and the object of his desire, the internal correlative of his remaining physical separation from this object upon the abortion of his original gesture of appropriation. The fact of contemplating the central object in the course of the event involves not simply being physically distant from it, but understanding this distance as the worldly expression of an interdictory sacred space surrounding the object which can be breached only by the group’s eventual common agreement to divide up the animal for consumption in a communal feast.
Although Derrida never to my knowledge explores the “existential” sense of what it means to defer an action or what a deferral seeks to avoid, our act of pointing out, in a very non-Saussurean insight, that these differences are products of deferral is nonetheless to bring to (post)-structuralism an anthropological turn whose further implications cannot be ignored. Deferral is inseparable from the inhibition of action, which in turn points to some reason for the delay, the most existentially obvious being the perception that the action might risk dangerous consequences.
We can be grateful to Derrida for not paying attention to these existential matters for the sake of his grasping the relationship between difference and différance that we might otherwise fail to notice—the space of deferral opening up the possibility of multiplying the originary sacred signifier/signified distinction by an indefinite number of subordinate sacralities. The genius of this most metaphysical of post-metaphysicians is to have been an anthropologist sans le savoir, wholly concerned with revealing the secret flaws of a philosophical world of concepts to which, in the way of the French intellectuals of recent generations, he then attached leftist political meanings, so to speak as modes of common sense. Deconstruction thus becomes the demolition of a myth-based order of oppression whose creators impose their will on their subjects by pretending to demonstrate through their “voice” the “presence” of gods that are in fact mere chimeras.
Thus the notion of différance should not be understood as a merely post-structural(ist) concept; it links the differentiating nature of language to deferral in the worldly sense of putting off a “natural,” “instinctive” act. Derrida has no idea of the need to trace “differencing” to its root, which is not the Saussurian difference among signifiers and signifieds, but the first, the originary difference between the object/referent and the sign. For the sign begins as an acte manqué of assimilating the object that defers its appropriation—and as a consequence, includes its difference from the sign in a new kind of behavior called language, in which the difference between sign and referent communicates to other language-users the sacrality of the object, its sacred demand not to be appropriated but to remain as an object of significance, which is also to say, of desire. This is far from the Platonic basis of language that Derrida continues nonetheless to take for granted in what we may call his final act of allegiance to metaphysics.
Where Sartre saw Hegel’s pour-soi as constructed on the model of a scene, on which the presence of the referent/object to its peripheral contemplators is determined by its interdiction—in a word, its sacrality—Derrida goes farther in bringing out the deferral of action that is implicit in Sartre’s schematism. Yet by not realizing the need to define the anthropological reality of the human scene, which is, prior to the confrontation of an individual with his object of desire, the sacred/revelatory encounter of the community with an object of common desire, he fails to grasp the behavioral basis of la différance.
And for this, we can thank Girard, indifferent to language as such, but whose anthropological instincts bring him closer to scenic reality because, his sense of the sacred having made him a close reader of narrative from the Bible to the modern novel, he is able to understand that language is born in an anthropological and not a metaphysical context.
It was from being able to work with these apparently very different but strangely compatible models that it became possible to formulate the originary hypothesis.