Like most writers, I tend to refer back to those who were active when I was developing my own ideas, whence my frequent references to Girard and Derrida, or to earlier writers such as Durkheim and Lévi-Strauss (whom I do remember hearing speak at Johns Hopkins). Now that the era of “French theory” is over, I have found few newer writers of interest, and having had little contact with the international intellectual scene in recent decades, I have focused on developing GA largely to the exclusion of following the work of my contemporaries.

The last time I saw my much regretted friend and mentor Michel Deguy in Paris in 2019, he recommended to me a little book, scarcely a hundred pages long, by Giorgio Agamben, What is philosophy? / Che cos’è la filosofia? (tr Lorenzo Chiesa, Stanford, 2018), originally published in 2016. I have had this book out from the UCLA library for some time and have leafed through it, intrigued by its focus on language, but I finally thought that I owed it to Michel, who was after all not only a poet but a professor of philosophy, to read it through.

On opening it I learned that Agamben was born in 1942: a fellow octogenarian. Reading through it, I was struck in the first place by the total absence of the kind of political considerations that have generally turned me away from the writers of this generation, as from the later Derrida. This is truly a work of philosophy, of metaphysics in its most serious sense: based on the idea that language is something that comes to man from without rather than being invented by him as the solution to a practical problem. And although his little book cites medieval and modern philosophers, Agamben retains throughout a classical perspective on philosophy; while not unaware of the various paradoxes raised by this perspective, he sees no reason for rejecting it for a truly anthropological one—one which, as I hope to have shown, owes more, in the broader scheme of things, to the Judeo-Christian than to the Greek element of Western Civilization.

On finishing this little volume I realized that I could find no more useful example of a modernized yet untroubled metaphysical perspective against which to measure the ideas of GA. Agamben studied with Heidegger and takes him seriously, but his analyses are far more centered on Plato and Aristotle and their Hellenic followers such as the Stoics that on their Existentialist critics, and he remains faithful to their world-view to the point of entering into their disputes over terminology—limiting himself to Greek and Latin while ignoring Heidegger’s attempts to “ontologize” German as the Ursprache.

It is no secret that I see GA as a way of getting beyond the problems of metaphysics, as in his own way did Girard, by recognizing the greater anthropological profundity of the Judeo-Christian component of Western thought. But my aim here in discussing this material is not to “deconstruct” it, but rather to show how GA’s originary perspective helps to demystify a vision that is founded on the idea that language is something that humanity encounters rather than invents. In this perspective, the fact that our religious tradition attributes the creation of language to God need not be considered to be in contradiction with our hypothesis, because we understand the sacred, as embodied in God, as coeval with human language. Thus it was as a student of Girard and not of Derrida that I was able to apply the latter’s notion of différance to the human genesis of language.

Near the end of the first chapter of What is Philosophy? entitled “Experimentum vocis,” we find what might be called a tentative metaphysical version of the originary hypothesis. I will for the purpose of this discussion divide this passage into two parts:

[1] . . . we can advance a hypothesis on the origin of language that is not more mythical than others . . . . Like all animals, the primate that was going to develop into Homo sapiens was always endowed with a language, which was certainly different but perhaps not so dissimilar from the one we know. What happened was that at a certain point—coinciding with anthropogenesis—the primate of the genus homo became aware of having a language [lingua], that is, he separated it from himself and exteriorized it out of himself as an object, and then began to consider, analyze, and elaborate it in an incessant process—in which philosophy, grammar, logic, psychology, and computer science followed one another . . . —a process that has perhaps not yet been accomplished. . . .

This means that language is neither a human invention nor a divine gift, but a middle term between them, which is located in a zone of indifference between nature and culture, endosomatic and exosomatic . . .

[2] What is now happening before our eyes is that language, which was exteriorized as the thing [cosa]—that is . . . the “cause”—par excellence of humanity, seems to have accomplished its anthropogenetic itinerary and want to go back to the nature from which it comes. The exhaustion of the project of comparative grammar . . . was in fact followed by the emergence of generative grammar, in other words, of a conception of language [lingua] whose horizon is no longer historical and exosomatic, but, ultimately, biological and innatist. And the promotion of the historical potentiality of language [lingua] seems to be replaced by the project of a computerization of human language that fixes it as a communicative code that rather recalls that of animal languages. (12-13)


We may take the first part of the passage as the outline of a theory of the origin of language composed by a thinker who, very different from Derrida, does not treat the paradoxicality of language as an instrument of political criticism/deconstruction, but simply as inherent to metaphysics. Thus language in the human sense (as opposed to the one with which homo “was always endowed”) emerges at the moment in which our proto-human “become[s] aware of having a language.”

The metaphysical flavor of this text is above all reflected in the prior attribution of language to the genus homo, such that this primate became human when it became aware of having a language simultaneously as an individual and as a species. There is nothing here that corresponds to Derrida’s différance or deferral, which situates this discovery in the context of a specific linguistic performance, or for that matter, of an act of posterior reflection. The “becoming aware” is an instantaneous event of pure (self)-consciousness whose motivation not only need not concern us, but can properly not be spoken of, since the revelation embodied in this new awareness is of a “transcendental” nature that from a metaphysical perspective could not be motivated by any worldly phenomenon. That the mind is, if not independent of the body, at any rate fully capable of taking action on its own, is central to the metaphysical ontology that treats language proper as extra-natural, nuanced in Agamben’s case by his use of language in a prehuman sense to refer to animal signals.

Thus there is no need to explain the passage from nature to culture, or the necessity of their separation, other than as the product of a tacit Hegelian dialectic in which the mind, already having “natural” language, proceeds to take it as a thesis, and by thus exteriorizing it as an object makes it the basis of culture.

Although Agamben uses the term anthropogenesis, he need not concern himself with the worldly needs of this proto-human primate and certainly not feel bound to explain its externalization of language in terms of its material relationship to the world, let alone to his fellow primates who are, in the true spirit of metaphysics, implicitly absent from the scene. For there is no scene, no scenario that displays a living primate in a worldly situation where something like an “externalized” language as a new medium of communication might become necessary because his original “language” has become inadequate. Indeed, the element of communication, which had presumably been the purpose of prehuman “language,” is altogether absent from the entire exposition. Whatever gave rise to the mind’s revelations, there is no indication that it was either a pragmatic worldly situation or an interactive one. Indeed, the idea of seeking to construct such a scene or scenario is rejected from the outset as a “mythical” activity. Thus the lack of any indication of worldly causality must be understood not as a lacuna, but rather as a sign of the metaphysical wisdom that sees no need to imitate the mythopoetical “others” mentioned in the opening sentence.

Yet the fact is that the “externalization” of human language is precisely what makes it a medium of communication in a very different sense than animal “languages,” one that, as Terrence Deacon pointed out in Symbolic Species, is instrumentalized in a different part of the brain from the “language” that our primate shares with his fellow animals. But rather than seeing human language as a different kind of phenomenon from animal communication, Agamben finds it sufficient to posit, in a gesture of Hegelian dialectic, its externalization in the mind as the sole significant difference that would lead through the centuries to its elaboration in philosophy, grammar, etc.

My point here is not to criticize Agamben’s text as though it were a rival theory of language origin. It is rather to point out the inherent blindness of the metaphysical perspective to the very need for a theory of language origin. Clearly, as he suggests (“perhaps not so dissimilar from the one we know”), Agamben as a good Hegelian would prefer that the original “language” that the primate was unable to “externalize” were essentially identical to the externalized one, which would only upon externalization begin to evolve in the direction of philosophy, etc., so that the properly dialectical point of inflection would involve no modification other than coming-to-consciousness itself.

One can date the origin of the metaphysical way of thinking from Parmenides’ poem that distinguishes between the “way of opinion” and the “way of truth.” Philosophy is the love of true propositions, and its task is to find the means to differentiate these from mere “opinions” that can be presumed to reflect individual desires—typified for the philosophers by the “Sophistical” arguments of rival attorneys. Parmenides’ distinction tacitly recognizes that the expression of these desires, along with the attempt to persuade others of their justification, is prior to the disciplined search for truth that will define the history of philosophy, mathematics, and the natural sciences. From a metaphysical perspective, these practical functions may be elements of human reality but are not language’s true vocation, of which Wittgenstein’s Tractatus logico-philosophicus may be thought of as the ultimate Parmenidean realization. In any case, whether expressions of truth or “opinion,” the purpose of language is to formulate propositions.

It is important to emphasize at this point that my differences with Agamben are not matters for argument, for we are not seeking the same thing. The reason that the specifically communicative aspect of language is never referred to here is that metaphysics/philosophy takes for granted that the purpose of language is the formulation of propositions, whether to communicate them to one’s fellows or simply to “think” them, and one may even presume that this was always already the purpose of animal language. (Thus Agamben leaves undetermined the question of whether animal language should be considered as itself propositional, as though the fact of externalization were not necessary to the proposition itself, but only to the consciousness of the proposition as embodied in metaphysical thought.)

Yet reference to the sacred is by no means absent from Agamben’s little book, which refers at length to the sacred or “Museic” nature of language. The last chapter, or “Appendix,” entitled “The Supreme Music. Music and Politics,” begins with the gnomic affirmation: “Philosophy is today possible only as a reformation of music” (97), which is explained in the next sentence by the need to “call music the experience of the Muse,” a familiar association in Classical Greece where the Muses were the goddesses of the arts in general.

This evocation of the sacred in relation to language, although it makes no attempt at Ockhamist minimality, adds an essential element that the Hegelian exposition of the first paragraph makes no attempt to include. Which leads me to discuss the second passage cited above.


Agamben interprets the passage from comparative to generative grammar as a regression from the exosomatic to the endosomatic, as though it were this distinction above all that differentiated man from the animals. But generative grammar as Chomsky conceived it was not meant as a rejection of comparative grammar, but rather sought to establish it on the basis of what he hypothesized as the psycho-physiological underpinnings of modern man’s language capacity. That Chomsky postulates a Language Acquisition Device in the brain of the modern human is hardly a denial of the externality of human language in the sense of its accessibility to consciousness, and more precisely, to the grammatical (meta)language that allows us to refer to it, as of course animals cannot.

Chomsky’s concept of a “Device” may no doubt be criticized as over-specified. To quote from Chronicle 537,

The apparent fact that the Pirahᾶ language lacks recursive structures, a discovery of anthropologist Daniel Everett . . ., may be a sign that not all modern languages possess all the features of mature language, but whether or not Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device has heuristic, let alone biological validity is not something that GA need concern itself with.

But the presumed discovery that this particular language does not permit indefinite recursion gives us no reason to reject the very idea of such a Device. The fact that, as far as we know, any human taught any language from childhood is capable of becoming its “native speaker” suffices to demonstrate the basic soundness of Chomsky’s idea.

It seems clear that Agamben’s critique of what he sees as a regression from exosomatism to endosomatism is the result of his metaphysical understanding of the anthropogenetic passage from “internal” animal language to “externalized” human language as consisting merely in the dialectical phenomenon of thematizing language, rather than seeing this “exteriorization” as a mode of deferral, of conscious withdrawal from instinctive appropriation by means of language as a sign of renunciation of appetitive action, as is made explicit in our interpretation of the originary sign as derived from an aborted gesture of appropriation.

But such visceral considerations appear beneath consideration by metaphysics, for which reference to worldly deferral is unnecessary because the separation of the mind from the practical world is always already a tacit presupposition of the philosopher’s ontological understanding.

And this brings us back to the fundamental incompatibility between metaphysical and generative-anthropological thinking. Unlike the religious perspective that understands the paradox inherent in Jesus’ need to feed the crowd with a limited number of loaves and fishes, that of the metaphysician, like the mathematician, has no problem with the multiplication of ideal entities. Euclid had no need for a miracle to generate as many circles or triangles as he needed. Which is why we cannot explain the origin of language—or of geometry—on the basis of the “externalization” of the infinitely reproducible signs of language without referring them back to the non-metaphysical worldly realities whose miraculous multiplication can be explained only through the agency of the sacred—or of the humans whose peaceful cooperation the sacred guarantees.