At a time when the AI world is looking forward to reaching not merely superhuman intelligence but “sentience,” it seems useful to seek in the originary hypothesis a minimal model of human consciousness.

My original aim in writing The Origin of Language (UCPress, 1981, henceforth TOOL) was to create a minimal hypothesis for the origin of human language by putting aside all philosophical baggage. Philosophy from its very beginning as a formal discipline with Plato is founded on the basic principle of metaphysics, that the foundations of mature language—language as we know it—are independent of human origin: whence the Ideas whose shadows we see on the walls of the cave in Plato’s Republic.

On the contrary, from the minimal standpoint of generative anthropology (GA)’s originary hypothesis, the Ideas are in the first place words, human signs existing only posterior to the emergence of human language, and existing in the first place in human utterances.

GA’s hypothesis is that the first sign originated as an aborted gesture of appropriation, such as would occur, for example, when two people reach for the last canapé. This sign is an ostensive or pointing reference, presumably with a vocal accompaniment, that would remain in the memory of the human community as referring specifically to the designated object and/or the fact of its designation. Once this non-possessive and apotropaic gesture came to be expected and interpreted as a sign, the need for variance in its performance would follow as a matter of course to distinguish among possible referents, a process in which we must assume that the verbal accompaniment would become the principal vehicle, as it is in virtually all human languages. The focus of TOOL was on the origin of the syntactical forms of utterance, from ostensive to imperative and thence declarative/interrogative, but that is not my subject here.

For although it was not foregrounded in TOOL, the hypothetical circumstances of the emergence of the sign are inseparable from our understanding of language. Linguistics stricto sensu as the study of mature languages need not take them into account, but their neglect has prevented reflection on the originary identity of sacrality and significance, and more broadly, on the key factor that made the invention of language necessary, which is to say, in René Girard’s terminology, mimetic desire.

The originary hypothesis postulates that what made necessary the invention of language was the need to resolve a crisis brought about by an intensification of mimetic tension that accompanied the increase in proto-human intelligence. (See Chronicle 770 for a more detailed discussion.) As a result of this intensification, the process of serial distribution of common goods whereby the Alpha animal takes possession of the whole and removes his share, then passes it to the Beta animal, and so forth, would begin to break down, leading to a state of crisis making necessary the emergence of a new system in order to maintain the group’s cohesion.

Although the phenomenon of mimetic desire was hardly a new discovery, it was Girard’s insight to view it as key to “the human story”—first in the mature narrative form of the novel in Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (1961), and then, beginning with La violence et le sacré (1972), as the foundation of a new anthropology.

Animals too experience rivalry, but as Pavlov discovered, they are able to avoid conflict by means of reflexive inhibitions that prevent them from seeking to satisfy appetites that would subject them to risk from a more powerful fellow. But beyond unconscious inhibitions such as that which makes us pull our hand away from a flame, humans experience interdictions of which we are consciously aware, dictated by what we call our “conscience” or “superego,” and which are experienced as expressions of an external will, as exemplified canonically in the Ten Commandments. And as the Genesis account of Creation tells us, we are capable of disobeying such interdictions, with frequently disastrous results.

In GA’s originary hypothesis, the behavioral context for the emergence of language and human consciousness is the scene of representation, which emerged as a means for countering the breakdown of the old Alpha-Beta serial distribution system. According to the old system, the hominids would be assembled in a quasi-ritualized configuration centered on an appetitive object—for example, a large animal scavenged or hunted—but this activity would become a scene only once the serial appropriation of the object came to be deferred by what we may call after Jacques Derrida the différance of appropriative activity toward the object (see his “Différance”; Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass [Chicago & London: Chicago University Press, 1982]). The participants, no longer guided by the serial distribution mechanism, would first, like our partygoers before the canapé, seek tentatively to appropriate the object without daring to terminate their gesture, and this aborted gesture of appropriation would gradually come to be interpreted as a sign referring to the object as one that could not be immediately appropriated. Through the mutual communication of this gesture, the group could then come to the point where they would share the object equally among themselves, as in tribal ceremonies that exist to this day.

Once this solution has been found, and the mutual communication of the aborted gesture as the opening phase of a ritual feast has come to be expected, we may consider the gesture to have become an element of language: an ostensive sign pointing at and referring to the object without seeking to appropriate it. This analysis explains the curious fact that apes, who lack the category of the linguistic sign, do not point as we do, that is, as a mode of communication inciting the “joint shared attention” of their fellows.

Derrida understood différance in the context of mature language as permitting the speaker to choose within a preexisting paradigm of signifiers. But prior to the establishment of any such paradigm, différance as deferral is already necessary to permit the differentiation between a worldly act of appropriation and the performance of a non-appropriative sign. This phenomenon is equally understandable as an act of sacralization resulting from the interdiction of appropriative activity, making the referent of the sign for the duration of the scene no longer an object of appetite in the real world but a scenic object of contemplation. Before we can even begin to think of an “idea,” the sign (signifier) for the thing (referent) from which its “idea” (signified) can be retained in the mind must have been invented in the interpersonal context of the scene.

In all human societies there are multiple categories of scenes, which include collective events such as religious ceremonies, stage productions, or speeches, as well as everyday conversations between two or more individuals or, at a minimum, a single individual conceiving or thinking about an object or idea, contemplating an artwork, reading a novel, watching a film, etc. In all these cases, the scenic configuration is characterized by the deferral of the immediate, “appetitive”/appropriable reality of the referent and its removal to the sacred/untouchable status of the referent at the center of the scene.

The scene of representation is the minimal element of what we may call “culture,” the ultimate extension of the domain of the sign. In this configuration, a sacred interdiction cuts off the designated object from the world of action and makes it, whether a thing or an idea, an object of contemplation. This “cultural” or contemplative structure of the scene was prefigured in L’être et le néant by Sartre’s figuration of the pour-soi or human consciousness as a thinking self, separated from its object by a néant or empty space permitting contemplation—in contrast to the non-thinking world of the en-soi, which Sartre figures by the lack of such space, all things being “crowded together.”

Scenic presence, in other words, is mediated by absence. Animals, although able to evaluate their environment and communicate with each other via signals, while learning by Pavlovian means to avoid certain objects, are not capable of the scenic attitude of presence—as one can witness in attempting to get a cat to watch a movie. This is not to deny that animals are conscious of their experiences in the sense of being able to derive information from them that affect their responses as other than reflexive reactions; like Kohler’s ape, they are on occasion capable of discovering through reflection the solution to a problem. But they have no means other than physical demonstration to communicate their consciousness to others, whereas the signs of language allow the human individual to re-present the scene both to himself and to his fellows.

Once the sign has become unanimously recognized by the community as referring to its referent in the scenic configuration, we can truly say that language has come into being. At this stage, the potential speaker will realize a scene of representation within his mind, making its referent present to himself preliminary to bringing it to the attention of his audience by means of a sign.

However vague the first humans’ sense of exactly what is “meant” by the sign, at a minimum, it represents the referent’s scenicity, which as we have seen, is another word for its sacrality: its separateness from the world whose objects are accessible to appropriation. The famous beginning of the Gospel of John: In the beginning was the Logos, is a capsule account of the origin of humanity and its language.

To my knowledge, generative anthropology’s originary hypothesis is the first attempt to model this minimal human/cultural configuration in behavioral terms. Anthropology’s status as an empirical science has discouraged the attempt to trace all such configurations to a minimal model. As a counter-example to GA, we may compare Freud’s father-murder scene in Totem and Taboo.

It is easy to see that this configuration realizes the essential synonymy of sacred and significant. The referent is sacred insofar as it is removed from the real world and situated on a scene invulnerable to worldly action; and its significance, in the sense of worthiness of being signified (by a sign) cannot indeed be defined otherwise. The communal feasts typical of hunter-gatherer societies and, in a multitude of variants, of our own, depend on the collective, and at root, scenic distribution of the material to be consumed, a distribution whose orderliness was at the origin of humanity guaranteed by the symmetrical renunciation of appropriation for the unanimous utterance of the sign.

Philosophers have often proposed scenes of the origin of consciousness that begin with a single individual somehow coming to focus his attention on some object, after which he will recall it, even invent a word for it, and so on. But this sort of thought experiment violates Ockham’s razor by offering no necessary cause for this supposedly world-changing action, beyond a presumed increase of overall intelligence (measured, let us say, in number of neurons and synapses). Whereas the originary hypothesis explains in plausible evolutionary terms the necessity of the invention of language and the consciousness that supports it, in terms not of the isolated individual but of the proto-human collectivity, which ex hypothesi could only have survived if it had found a way to become, via the exchange of signs, a community capable of self-consciously sharing its resources. The model of the collective feast is the source of the egalitarian idea of morality that underlies even the most unequal human ethical systems.

Within the human community, the philosopher’s scene of contemplation may then be understood as a derivative of the originary scenic configuration. Having acquired the model of deferral of appetitive action and its substitution by a sign that leaves its object untouched, the individual human can then make use of the scene as a source of personal attribution of significance, one that can subsequently become a topic of conversation with his fellows. As a result, our individual attributions of significance can come to be tested in the real world, leading to the pensée sauvage of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and eventually to science in the modern sense.

To be continued…