The notion of paradox may be said to begin with Zeno and Achilles never catching the tortoise, which we found in Chronicles 515–516 to be equivalent to Mahayana Buddhist Nagarjuna’s idea of the traveler who never travels: something obviously possible in reality becomes “unthinkable” when the language used to describe it is subjected to an arbitrary constraint, such as being obliged to list every step of an infinite series, or, as in the second case, simply describing all phases of an action from start to finish.
None of this, one might say, is relevant to real-life situations. But then one encounters real-life situations that lead not merely to intellectual anomalies, but to genocide—and one suspects that paradox is not confined to tricks of language. Although Zeno’s Western successors’ solution to his paradox of motion—to treat the infinite series as a mathematical construct rather than a series of necessary steps toward a solution—provides us with a satisfactory resolution of the Achilles-tortoise case, Nagarjuna’s more absolute conclusion implies that in order to fully guarantee us from self-destruction, language—and implicitly, all of human culture—must be banished to the realm of the profane, out of reach of the sacred, whose scene remains essentially unencumbered by the “illusory” worldly objects that become referents of human signs. And indeed, the practice of Buddhism, far more explicitly than that of the Western religions, counters human violence by rejecting its foundation in desire, which focuses on an object/referent at the center of the scene of consciousness rather than, as Buddhist practices teach us, on the sacred primordiality of the empty scene itself to which referential objects are merely contingent—sacrificing in the process the worldly dynamism that led the West to modernity.
One consequence of this contrast is that the Buddhist sense of the sacred is incompatible with the originary hypothesis, which describes the sacred as emerging along with language from an encounter with a common object of desire, which would be for the Buddhist an illusory intrusion on the purity of the scene. And the popularity in the contemporary West of Buddhist-inspired techniques of emptying the scene of consciousness reflects not simply the diminishing force of Western religion, but what I have long observed as a taboo on attempting to conceive the common origin of both our language and our sense of the sacred—what by the very logic of the phenomenon must be described as the first event, the first phenomenon to leave a durable impression in communal/historical memory—as anything but a gradual process with no clear beginning or end.
GA’s originary hypothesis of the origin of language describes the resolution of a hypothetical breakdown of the pre-human serial system of distribution in which each individual knew his place at a moment when the intensification of mimetic desire overcomes the inhibitions that had regulated this system. The solution, understood throughout the group as the command of a sacred will—a will external to the proto-human community—is to defer individual attempts to possess the desired object through the entire group’s designating or representing it by a common sign, the originary form of which is an aborted act or gesture of appropriation—pointing.
I have long remarked in these Chronicles on the taboo that seemingly prevents the originary hypothesis from being understood as a valid contribution to humanity’s efforts at self-understanding, having been struck by the utter lack of significant response to the theory of the origin of language that I first presented over 40 years ago in The Origin of Language: A Formal Theory of Representation (UC Press, 1981). And, in an apparently unrelated case, I have experienced the same lack of response to the view of antisemitism presented in Adam Katz’s and my book entitled The First Shall Be the Last: Rethinking Antisemitism (Brill, 2015)—a book whose publication, ironically enough, was sponsored by an organization specifically dedicated to the study of antisemitism, the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP).
The general discomfort aroused by these two ideas hardly suffices to demonstrate any relationship between them, and for a long time I did not think of them as connected. But following the painfully revelatory experience of the Hamas atrocities of 10/7/2023 and the public reaction to it, the significance of this seemingly fortuitous connection now strikes me as an important contribution to the West’s self-understanding. For it allows us to define our era in no uncertain terms as one in which the West can no longer maintain its former unquestioned hegemony through technological superiority, but can only survive as a civilization if it can find a way to integrate its spiritual values into an increasingly global—and potentially hostile—culture.
The discomfort aroused by these two ideas is not simply a matter of unfamiliarity or indifference. To reflect on the connection between these two “paradoxical” origins: on the one hand, the emergence of humanity from the merely biological realm, and on the other, the emergence of the idea of the sacred as a single force governing all of humanity—what we call monotheism—forces us to reflect on Western civilization’s increasingly problematic role in the world. We cannot help fearing that what is in the process of replacing Western hegemony—always assuming that a catastrophic breakdown can be avoided—is a “globalist” human community within which what was originally Western technology is broadly adopted by an international collective hostile to the fundamental aspects of the West’s political values and their basis in its underlying Judeo-Christian religious culture. For at the same time as the West increasingly denies and even attacks the religious bases of its own culture, on the frontiers of which only an extremist Muslim variant fully maintains its self-confidence, its once-unique technological mastery has become increasingly accessible even to dictatorships as underdeveloped in every other sense as that of North Korea.
It was thought by many in the post-WWII era that the foundation of Israel, giving the Jews a nation in the Westphalian sense, a contiguous territory under their own jurisdiction for the first time since the last Roman-Jewish war in 132-6 AD, would resolve the problem of antisemitism by putting an end to the Jews’ anomalous situation as a people without a land. But as we have just seen, even after 75 years, the global result of Israel’s restoration of its ancient homeland has been rather the intensification than the evaporation of antisemitism; the world’s reaction to the October 7 massacre speaks for itself.
The very name of this millennial hatred is a paradox; Jew-hatred is a term no less unsatisfactory than antisemitism. To the extent that there is something that can be called Western civilization, this unique resentment embodies the very essence of historical paradox: the desire to perpetuate this civilization through the negation, not to say, the annihilation, of the bearers of its originary conception of the sacred—to consecrate the result by desecrating its origin. Now that the Jews have returned to their original homeland, Israel has become the unique nation in the world whose legitimacy is subject to constant denial. Thus we should be not at all surprised that the net result of Hamas’ barbaric assault, although inspiring revulsion in many, has rather been to grant a new legitimacy to the drive for a Jew-free “Palestine from the river to the sea.” The North-South colonial-native dichotomy has only been intensified by the fact that the Jewish “colonizers” are historically more native than the Palestinian “natives”; it is for that very reason that their rights to the land are denied by many and questioned by nearly all.
The first shall be the last. And in a very different context, the refusal to accept the origin of language and culture from mimetic desire expresses the same paradox—and René Girard’s refusal to accept this theory of origin as an all but necessary consequence of his own theory of mimetic desire partakes of the same perverse quality.
The source of the taboo that prevents not just the acceptation, but the serious consideration of the originary hypothesis is that by touching on human language, it touches on the sacred. As opposed to gradualist attempts to explain human language as a series of quantitative extensions of animal communication, this hypothesis has the audacity to situate in the real world the origin, in tandem with language, of the “other-worldly” category of the sacred.
Hence although I have many times cited Roy Rappaport’s prescient notion of the “coevality” of language and the sacred (see in particular Chronicle 282), it had never previously been attempted to explain the origin of language and the sacred as a simple extension of proto-human behavior. The transcendental relationship of language to worldly reality had inevitably been presented as a given that is at the same time external to the world of human experience. Language, like mathematics, had always been understood as having been discovered—or as I like to say, “downloaded”; and even when this is not explicitly stated, it is presumed.
In Chronicle 796 I discussed an attempt to claim that life itself, self-reproducing creatures, should already be understood as bearing meaning: that the genetic code’s construction of a new being was not simply an algorithmic mechanism but must be understood as semiotic. One might say that such thinking seeks to raise the level of biological processes to that of human thought. But what it really does is prevent us from grasping the essential difference between human thought and the genetic code—which is akin rather to a cybernetic process. That such an attempt at explanation is made at just the historical moment when AI has passed beyond the Turing test to put into question the specificity of human thinking is surely not coincidental.
But whatever the need to protect the specificity of the human from the dangers inherent in its mechanical simulation, it is irrelevant to the question of the origin of this specificity among hominins. The term that a scientific critic of the originary hypothesis would find least acceptable—if indeed any such critic could be found, as opposed to those who reject the hypothesis out of hand—would be sacred. Such an “otherworldly” notion, we must understand, has no place in the world of science. The preoccupation of early anthropologists with “elementary” religion is today understood merely by way of demonstrating that there is no such thing as primitive culture. Durkheim and his predecessors had sought through studying preliterate societies to trace human culture to its roots, but they had never attempted hypothetically to project this process back to the moment at which the “elementary structures” of religion emerged among creatures who previously had no such structures. Yet Rappaport’s intuition was valid: language and the sacred, like esthetic culture and religious belief and practice, are indeed the fundamental objects of anthropological science, and—like the phenomenon of faith itself—must be studied in worldly terms.
It has taken me over forty years from my first formulation of language origin in 1981 to appreciate the organic connection of language with the specificity of the human, and in particular, its connection to the sacred. If I understood the principles of generative anthropology as I do now while Girard was alive, I might well have been able to convince him that, far from betraying his intuition of the centrality of mimetic desire to the human species, the originary hypothesis is rather a demonstration and confirmation of it.
Given that the Jews’ proleptic revelation of the unity of human culture as monotheism, which is most simply understood as the unity of the sacred for all humanity, has been the source of this people’s over-generous portion of misery throughout the ages, this one Jew must be thankful that the taboo that bears on his thought has been accompanied not by hatred but by indifference. But it is more than ever my conviction that if we indeed share the desire for the continued flourishing of our species, the “way of thinking” of the originary hypothesis will provide the anthropological basis of the solution.