At least since Hegel’s attempt at the dialectical fusion of philosophy with the totality of human history, Western thinkers have felt the urgency of escaping the realm of metaphysics inaugurated by Parmenides and Plato. By extending the world of Ideas to include all dimensions of human activity from the esthetic and religious to the political, Hegel had at the same time imprisoned those who accepted his organon in a secular equivalent of the Last Judgment.

As a summary of the post-Hegelian reaction, the success of Fred Jameson’s pseudo-Nietzschean title The Prison-house of Language was not fortuitous. Nietzsche was more deeply disturbed than the other early “existential” thinkers by philosophy/metaphysics’ fetishistic attitude toward language, for which words such as “Being” were looked upon as bottomless reservoirs of understanding that could be gleaned only through endless meditation.

One of the most significant offshoots of this dissatisfaction with metaphysics was the 20th-century interaction between philosophy, humanistic studies, and the social sciences that began with developments like the New Criticism in England and Russian Formalism. The structures of literary narration in particular, offering alternate stories to that of the Weltgeschichte, could be understood as agents of liberation from Hegel’s historical apotheosis.

What emerged from this interaction was the realization that the fundamental questions of human self-understanding could not be confided to a set of specialists in a single discipline. These questions can only be answered, however tentatively, through a constantly evolving dialogue among the cultural, religious, and philosophical dimensions of this understanding that remains in contact with the more narrowly empirical analyses of history and the other social sciences.

Throughout the history of Western philosophy and its offshoots such as phenomenology, its unique focus had been the individual mind, at the limit conceived as a solitary consciousness facing a mindless universe. Although in everyday life we were well aware that human existence takes place within communities, for the philosopher this was a secondary if not illusory reality. As Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida declares at the opening of his Inquiry into the Good, “pure experience” takes place only within one’s own mind; “we cannot experience someone else’s consciousness.” This does not mean that the individual must imagine himself as the sole mind in the universe, but that for the purpose of reflection, the philosopher cannot conceive or intuit or any element of experience other than as an element of his own subjective thought.

No doubt this is true in the tautological sense that one can only know the contents of one’s own mind, but such bracketing is unfaithful to our experience of human interaction, and most crucially, to our experience of language, which is the fundamental means both of interhuman communication and of subjective “thinking.”

It is a significant symptom of philosophy’s limitations in this regard that its assertions of the self-sufficiency of the human mind never address the simple fact that humans can acquire language only in a communal context. We are familiar with stories of “wild children” in whose early childhood this learning process was interrupted, none of whom have ever been able to acquire the language mastery of normal adults. Which is to say that the Ideas that philosophers treat as independent signs of Being can only be assimilated by the human individual in the context of what I call scenic communication with his fellows—and that the scene itself on which this communication takes place must become familiar to the child over a lengthy period of early mental development.

It is no doubt useful to discuss the meaning of words, as in Plato’s Dialogues, with the purpose of gaining a sharper understanding of the values shared by a given human community and, by extension, by any such community. But the Allegory of the Cave obscures the fact that the Ideas themselves acquire their meaning only through interactive use, not only in philosophical dialogues but in the less formal ones of daily life. There is no a priori essence of “courage” or “piety” or any of the words discussed in the Platonic Dialogues from which their uses may be said to derive; nor are Kant’s “transcendental” categories established elsewhere than on the human scene.

I emphasize the word scene because it is the locus of language and of all human interaction. The originary hypothesis that is the foundation of Generative Anthropology is that the sign was in its origin an aborted gesture of appropriation, that is, an appetitive act consciously deferred as the result of a desire to avoid conflict, and that this deferral, this suspension of worldly, goal-directed action, created the uniquely human shared state of contemplation that I call the scene, as well as the “pointing” gesture of designation that may be considered the most primitive signing or linguistic act.

I have always imagined this originary sign as that of a party guest, about to take the last canapé on a plate, who sees someone else also reaching for it and aborts his original gesture. The generalization of this hesitation, to which I apply Derrida’s term différance, usually translated as deferral, may on this example be understood to originate as a means to avoid conflict over the distribution of goods, most importantly, food, among our ancestors.

The prior assumption concerning the emergence of a need for a new conscious system for such distributions within the proto-human community is that, under the pressure of our ancestors’ increasing intelligence, as a result of which the strength of appetitive mimesis and the consequent rivalry among the members of the proto-human community would become intensified, the serial (Alpha-Beta-Gamma…) system of ape distribution, which involves a repeated one-against-all confrontation between the chosen member of the group and the mass of remaining participants, could no longer be maintained.

Let us then consider this configuration as taking place among a group of proto-human hunters hesitating to divide up the spoils of the hunt. Like the party guests with the canapé, when they each attempt to appropriate the spoils, each realizes that all the others are similarly motivated. If we consider this situation in the context of the breakdown of the serial distribution system, the introduction of the deferral of action through the abortion of the possessive gesture becomes a demonstration of how to avoid conflict—no doubt after many have previously taken place. While the symmetrical relationship of the pointing hunters to the central object of their desire, deferring any aggressive action, prefigures that of the human scene in general, and whose establishment of peaceful symmetry would naturally lead to the egalitarian distribution of the shared central desire-object.

What turns the aborted gesture into a sign of language is the conscious motivation of its non-completion. As with the canapé, what prevents the gesture from fulfilling its original aim is no longer a reflexive inhibition of the type Pavlov induced in his subjects, but a sense of interdiction that emerges from the symmetrical stasis of the situation—a sense we should not hesitate to call the origin of our sense of the sacred. To abort my gesture out of a desire to avoid conflict makes of this deferral of action the originary moral act, one that appears to me to be dictated by a force of interdiction independent of my will.

In this scenario, the aborted gesture is not originally an intended action at all, but the interruption, the deferral of an action. Yet it is a physical act observable, and imitable, by all of the group of potential rivals for the prey/canapé, whether two or a hundred. Similarly, as the gesture itself does not culminate in its originally intended purpose, it has at first no worldly function. Yet to the other members of the group, the aborted gesture of each, at the same time as it indicates the renunciation of the act of possessing the desired object, may be said to point to it. And in doing this to avoid conflict, each indicates to the others an example to follow—just as in the canapé example, the other party will normally abort his original gesture in the same way. As a result, the group of hunters can be said to all be pointing at an object which (1) they desire to possess, and that concentrates their attention; (2) whose possession they renounce in deference to the others. In this way, the aborted gesture, transformed into an act of designation, becomes the originary sign.

Thus the aborted gesture of appropriation may be understood as the originary event of language. The generalization of this act of hesitation/renunciation, which leads to a situation of communal contemplation, comes to be understood by the participants as a sign designating the object as interdicted to individual appropriation, which is to say, made sacred for the members of the group. A set of individual acts of appropriation, through being aborted, has thus been converted into a common act of signification, which is to say, the emission of a sign of renunciation understandable by the other members of the group.

The payoff for this new behavior could then be realized through the replacement of the no-longer-functional serial distribution system by a new, collective system, in which, all parties having renounced their individual appropriation of the prey, all agree to divide it equally. And we know from the remaining hunter-gatherer societies of our day that the collective acts of egalitarian sharing characteristic of such distributions correspond closely to this hypothetical outcome of the originary event.

This post-hunting scene can serve us as the originary model and the point of departure of all semiotic communication. Every scene of human interaction involves in principle the expectation of and readiness for the sharing and interchange of linguistic signs by means of what Derrida called différance, the deferral of worldly action. Depending on the nature of the scene, these exchanges operate in everyday life either as means of mediating practical cooperation, or as serving the religious function of uniting the community, whether in a shared evocation of the sacred will that the participants feel has obliged them to convert their appetitive act into an act of communication, or simply in exemplifying their new propensity to shared contemplation.

At the same time, through the conscious renunciation of its object, appetite enhanced through the mimetic observation of others in the same situation acquires the character of desire. Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque / Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, René Girard’s 1961 analysis of desire mediated by the real or imagined desire of others as exemplified in a series of great novels marking the epoch of modernity in Western culture, may be considered the point of departure of originary anthropology.

The essential semiotic element of the hypothetical scene, the pointing gesture designating the central object in what I call an ostensive, is intuitively easy to understand once the group comes to share it—and we should recall that animals, including even chimpanzees, do not communicate via such gestures. For the first time, a living creature has performed an act that acquires a meaning from its employment in its community rather than through inherited instinct. This scenic aspect of language is essential; it is thus that language both creates and is created by what can simply be called the human scene.

In The Origin of Language (TOOL; UC Press, 1981), I proposed a model of the evolution of the syntactical forms of language, beginning with the ostensive,  passing through the imperative and interrogative, and culminating in the declarative, in which language becomes “self-conscious” in that it can provide its own meta-language—the characteristic of recursiveness that Chomsky considered the key feature of human language. At that time, I had been concerned to show in what way the model I proposed could be related to the “emissary murder” scene of human origin proposed by Girard in La violence et le sacré (Grasset, 1992). In contrast, the hypothesis as presented here takes as its first signified the prey from a hunt rather than the “emissary victim” of Girard’s scenario. This allows for a considerable simplification, since the spoils of the hunt are prima facie an object of desire, which immediately poses the problem of its distribution. Similarly, the sacred, in this version of the hypothesis, is first experienced not as incarnate in an object, but as a commonly felt force that prevents the members of the group from coming into conflict, an experience that the canapé example illustrates in an everyday context.

By situating concepts such as deferral and sacred in a practical worldly context, generative anthropology demystifies the language of philosophy whose own scene, its laboratory, so to speak, had benefited from its air of mystery, but at the expense of the humility toward reality that the positive sciences know—and which I believe that human self-reflection must learn as well if it is to pursue its task of liberating humanity from its illusions.