As the Western-centered world order established after WWII appears to be losing its grip, most significantly in the West itself, considerations of “scholarship” and “theory” can no longer be pursued as if in the context of a civilization confident of self-perpetuation. As GA makes clear, the underlying purpose of language, religion, and all the other trappings of human culture is simply to perpetuate humanity itself. What we may consider the nobility of this quest is that of a simple response to necessity, as a result of which our ancestors invented human culture, not out of some transcendental drive toward perfection, but in order to preserve their species’ existence.

Our species’ “transcendental” nature is a consequence of the fact that, being driven by necessity to create language, it has likewise been driven at every stage to improve its cultural functioning by the need to preserve itself, in what the French call a fuite en avant, a flight from the past toward the future. In past eras, this self-preservation was sought separately by communities, tribes, confederations, empires, and nations, but today, to an increasing extent, we feel the need to preserve humanity as a whole from self-destruction. Thus we combat, for example, the dangers of “climate change,” whose dangers we substitute for the far greater dangers posed to humanity by humanity itself, fearing—as we have always done—to face the latter directly.

In order to understand the point of GA as the solution to the quintessentially modern disillusion with the metaphysical rationalization of the sacred, we must ask ourselves how a minimalist understanding of the function of language, and by extension, of the human itself as a cultural phenomenon, can be of service in helping us to diagnose our present state of incipient crisis and hopefully thereby increase our species’ chances of survival.

The danger faced by the West in the cybernetic age is that the vast proliferation of the quintessentially human characteristic of “scenicity,” now transformed into the screenicity embodied most visibly in our ubiquitous smartphones, facilitates the intensification of what I have called the epistemology of resentment. This world-view, which grants resentment ipso facto moral truth, has generated since the French Revolution ideologies that on the one hand deny legitimacy to hierarchical differences, while on the other facilitating the accumulation of vast divergences in wealth and status, as the billionaire class, all the while denying any justification of privilege, profits from allowing the public to blanket the world with expressions of this same poisonous epistemology. The coexistence of multi-billionaires with the “anti-racist” doctrine of diversity-equity-inclusion or DEI can be considered an updated version of 19th-century Tory paternalism, but unlike its prototype, it is deliberately hostile to the traditional values of civil society including the rule of law and the traditional family, of which what increasingly seem the final remnants embody what we can still call “liberal democracy.”

As befits a student of the late René Girard, I have always been somewhat skeptical of the pretensions of Western philosophy. Hence I was from the first attracted to the dominant tendency in post-Hegelian philosophy to seek to escape the prison-house of language—a phrase become famous when Fred Jameson made a book title of Erich Heller’s fanciful translation of what Nietzsche had simply called “linguistic constraint” (sprachlichen Zwang: see Emily Apter, “The Prison-House of Translation?” Diacritics 47.4 2019, p. 54). What strikes me on reflection is that, as in one of those hippie drawings where the protagonist starts out enclosed in a cardboard box situated in a lovely landscape that he knows nothing of, this imaginary confinement is a condition based on what we may call the “metaphysical perspective” that is common to all of Western philosophy, even including its “existential” quasi-post-metaphysical stage. This perspective is founded on the tacit acceptance of Plato’s Myth of the Cave: viewing the “Ideas” of language as transcendent guarantees of ontology—of the ultimate understanding of reality. Which is to say that metaphysics is, very simply, the refusal to see that whenever we speak of thinking, we are speaking of language: the system of signs that permit us to communicate with our fellows—a system, as I have hypothesized, initiated in order to avoid the potential for intraspecific violence inherent in mimetic desire.

The only exception to the linguistic mode of thinking is the sort of reasoning that we can attribute to Kohler’s apes, who were capable of picking up a pole or building a pile of boxes in order to reach a bunch of bananas hanging from the ceiling. Humans too engage in such thinking; when we want to put salt on our food, we look for the salt shaker, perhaps having to open a cabinet, and on finding it, satisfy our need, presumably without any use of even “internal” language. But when it comes to the kind of thinking that goes into philosophy books, or even newspapers, as soon as “thinking” means performing an act of reasoning or affirming a “truth,” which really means a true proposition, we are talking about the use of words. Without words, without signs whose meaning is in principle shared by our community, we cannot communicate our thoughts to others, and the fact that we can think privately without such communication overlooks the fact that our words connect us willy-nilly to the community formed by their users, however broadly or narrowly defined.

However surprising it may seem, the simple idea that the human may be defined by the communication of signs on a scene seems never to have been previously thought of as sufficient unto itself as a definition of the human. Yet it neatly and unambiguously distinguishes homo sapiens from all other species. And although we all recognize that language in the human sense, even including pointing, is unique to our species, the idea that the scene is as well never seems to arise. (The bee-dance famously analyzed by Karl von Frisch is no exception: see Chronicle 724.) But all that is characteristically human is dependent on the cultural phenomenon of language, communication via non-instinctive signs, which can more specifically be described as gestures/sounds/inscriptions emitted deliberately, and whose utterance can be traced to a uniquely human act of what Jacques Derrida called différance: the deferral of the attempt to appropriate the object of semantic reference.

Derrida understood the deferral embodied in an utterance as permitting the speaker to choose within a paradigm of words, for example, in deciding what color to call a given object. But the fundamental relationship of language to deferral is simply that language—think again of pointing—begins with a deliberate substitution of reference for appropriation. Thus I believe that we can say with some degree of confidence that the first sign may be defined as an aborted gesture of appropriation. Instead of grasping for something, we point at it—something which, surprisingly, animals, even chimps with hands, do not do as an act of communication.

The scene of human interaction is not, as some of my early formulations of the originary hypothesis may have suggested, entirely defined by its “interdicted” center. But this configuration is indeed the source of the sharp gradient of meaningfulness between objects of interest and the empty space that surrounds them. Jean-Paul Sartre captured this aspect of the human scene in L’Etre et le Néant by speaking of a néant or nothingness (a term we shall encounter in Nishida) separating the human Self or pour-soi from its objects, a space which is so to speak an invisible barrier and consequently the source of desire. But more broadly, the human scene is a space of cultural interaction. A degree of potential scenicity exists between any two human beings; in the normal circumstances of “civil society,” their interaction will involve at least in part the mediation of language. The theatrical scene, or stage, which gave its name to this phenomenon, offers its audience a passive spectacle. But on the scene of everyday human interaction, there need be no predesignated participants and/or spectators. Indeed, making this distinction explicit defines, outside the norms of everyday human activity, the worlds of ceremony and art, a basic definition which is not modified in its essence by the postmodern violations found in spectator interactions with “installations” and the like.

What permits this delimitation is what we call the sacred. The aborted or “deferred” gesture of appropriative action that came to be interpreted as a sign reflected a sense of interdiction surrounding the desired object, which we can only designate because we feel the attempt to possess it is impossible. The justification for calling it sacred is that it is experienced as the effect of an external interdiction whose authority we feel we should obey, but as Adam and Eve discovered, we may indeed choose to disobey, often but not always at a cost.

My pet example of this experience—the simplest way for us to re-experience the originary event of human language—is our hesitation to take the last canapé on the serving dish at a party when we see another person reaching for it. Our aborted gesture feels “instinctive,” but it is not a reflex action like pulling your hand back from a hot surface. This action of deferral may indeed be considered the minimal human experience, the germ of both language on the one hand (designating the canapé rather than grabbing it) and religion on the other (treating the canapé as an interdicted or sacred object that we must admire from a distance without attempting to possess it).

When I claim that GA is truly a new way of thinking, I do not mean that no one else has ever sought to provide an explanation for the origin of language. As I discussed in Chronicle 614, primatologist Richard Wrangham in The Goodness Paradox (Pantheon, 2019) emphasizes the human need to contain violence, and at one point suggests that the first use of language would have been to organize coalitions for the purpose of eliminating any member of the proto-human group found to be particularly prone to violence. Another explanation I have seen recently is that, having learned to use tools, proto-humans became able to inflict greater damage on each other than species fighting with bodily weapons alone, leading to the need for language to permit conscious negotiations that would defer conflict.

But such superficially attractive hypotheses are anything but minimalistic, and above all, they fail to take into account the fundamental difference, which Terrence Deacon traces back to their control by different parts of the brain, between reflexive signals and conscious (and “arbitrary”) signs, which depend precisely on what I have been calling, after Derrida, deferral. Thus most recent writing about language origin deals, as in these examples, with the potential correlation with language of empirical details of primate interaction such as sociality or brain function, and seeks, in popular-science terms, to demonstrate that crossing the “Rubicon” of language wasn’t really all that great a problem.

In this domain, the philosophical tradition retains its advantage over the empirical social sciences: the passage to language is indeed a Rubicon, and the empirical sciences lack a conceptual category into which a Rubicon can fall. What Engels called the “dialectic of nature” cannot be expressed in a scientific vocabulary. The fact that GA’s originary hypothesis, following Roy Rappaport’s neglected conclusion in his 1999 Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge UP) that the birth of language and religion must have been coeval, insists on introducing the category of the sacred to explain the sense of interdiction that gives birth to language tells us that empirical science is not capable of formulating a hypothesis for crossing this “Rubicon,” although this does not mean that its positive results, in this case the emergence of the human conscience or moral sense, remain in any way a transcendental mystery.

Unlike the hard sciences, the fields of the “humanities” were not conceived as laboratory-based endeavors. Since the 19th century, literature and art themselves, and then the study of literature and art, had come to be seen as a privileged avenue toward understanding the human-in-general—that is, toward anthropology. 20th-century developments in this direction included Anglo-American “new criticism” and Russian formalism. Arguably the post-WWII French version of this movement, la nouvelle critique, sometimes spoken of as “post-structuralism,” was its last and most ambitious stage.

This ambition was greatly stimulated in the US by the 1966 conference on The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, organized at Johns Hopkins University by René Girard and his colleagues, which brought a number of postmodern French thinkers to the US for the first time, many of whom continued to visit our campuses. This produced what literature departments at the time called “French Theory.” Jacques Derrida’s rock-star status in the 1980s and 90s, scarcely believable today, along with the only slightly lesser stardom of several other French critics (Foucault, Lacan, Deleuze, Althusser…), reflected its phenomenal outreach, which went beyond language and literature departments to influence scholars in the social sciences.

Thus in the French Theory era, the ambition to escape from metaphysics led thinkers on the border of the humanities and social sciences to seek to understand the human at its root—to create what Girard called fundamental and I have called generative anthropology. This attitude was prevalent in the literary fields when I began my studies in the 1960s—and had the good fortune to study with the one humanistic thinker who had more faith in the anthropological truth of religion than of philosophy.

But ironically, just at the moment around 1990 when GA’s humanistic theory of language origin emerged within “French Theory,” the era of its currency was coming to an end. (Hegel would no doubt have appreciated the dialectical nature of this transition.) Instead, the “deconstructive” element that had been focused on escaping the metaphysical “prison” turned its attention away from abstract thought to the directly political domain of Left politics and to what I have called the epistemology of resentment, the foregrounding of the resentment of inequality as the source of moral values, as though it were independent of the very structure of the human community that the originary hypothesis explains in terms of the sacred. With the emergence of “Wokeness,” humanistic thought turned away from its ambition to understand the human at its root, electing instead a Manichean pseudo-Marxism that saw the human community as from the beginning divided between oppressors and victims.

Today, when survivors of French Theory such as Judith Butler can only spout post-Marxist varieties of Wokism, GA may appear somewhat passé. Yet we should remember that fashion is a poor indicator of what really matters in the course of humanity’s ongoing attempt to understand itself.


In our conference in Nagoya in 2017 (see Chronicles 515516), I compared the paradoxes of the Greek Eleatic philosopher Zeno, the best known of which is that of Achilles and the Tortoise, with the paradoxes of Nagarjuna: the traveler who doesn’t travel, etc. It is easy to see from a modern perspective that Zeno’s paradoxes of motion could be “solved” by a more advanced mathematical system in which the infinite number of “steps” required for Achilles to catch up with the Tortoise could be reduced to the sum of an infinite series. In contrast, Nagarjuna’s critique did not concern the accurate description of motion, or of anything else, but what he grasped as the necessarily paradoxical relationship of language to reality: that no sentence or series of sentences could fully “reproduce” or “embody” the traveler’s action.

I concluded from this example that “Western” thought was ultimately concerned with reducing the world to an efficient system of notation, one that would permit such things as distances and the area under curves to be calculated, whereas the “Eastern” point was rather that no act such as the traveler’s could ever be fully captured by one or any number of sentences; what primarily mattered was not to improve our techniques of representing reality, but to realize that it was the scene of representation on which we observed and spoke together about these phenomena that was the fundamental, necessary element. That is, language was not unimportant, but its practical function in telling us about the world was less significant than the fact that as humans we possessed a scene on which we could share our experiences through language and other representational forms, however incapable we would always be of fully expressing the reality it represented.

The attempt to draw a contrast between Nishida and Western philosophy is obviously complicated by the fact that he was the Japanese philosopher most preoccupied with Western philosophy. But between his 1911 Inquiry into the Good  and his final work, The Logic of the Place of Nothingness and the Religious Worldview, published after his death in 1945, there is an obvious return from his interest in Western thought to a more characteristically Eastern perspective. Interestingly enough, this change is above all evident in his constant references to nothingness as achieved by self-negation.

Rather than immediately attempt to explicate these “Eastern” uses of the notion of nothingness, it will be more useful in the context of my own “Western” doctrine of generative anthropology to return to them following a discussion of the best-known use of the term “nothingness” in Western philosophy—that of Jean-Paul Sartre, whose most significant philosophical work was entitled L’être et le néant, translated as Being and Nothingness—a work published in 1943 that Nishida presumably did not have a chance to read. (We should note in passing that the French word néant is a much more natural term than “nothingness,” which exists only in philosophical discourse, whereas néant is often used as an emphatic synonym for “nothing.”)

There is a fascinating and little-known “Japanese connection” relative to Sartre’s use of néant. In “The Problem of the Self in the Later Nishida and in Sartre,” Philosophy East and West, 44, 2 (Apr 1994): 303-316, Brian Elwood pointed out that in 1928, the 23-year-old Sartre had weekly discussions in Paris with the Japanese philosopher Kuki Shuzo. Quoting Elwood:

Apparently Kuki and the young Sartre engaged in conversations on the topic of modern French philosophy. Although it is not clear that Sartre exerted any special influence on Kuki, it is now evident that it was Kuki who played the crucial role of introducing Sartre to the thought of both Husserl and Heidegger. (303)

This last detail is certainly ironic: this celebrated European existentialist first learned about existentialism’s major sources from a Japanese philosopher! Thus it is far from impossible that Sartre’s adoption of the term néant was an effect of Kuki’s influence.

Ellwood’s focus on Sartre’s use of néant is entirely “existential,” referring either to the self’s lack of a preconstituted essence or its ultimate death. Yet Sartre’s use of this term in what I would call an anthropological sense is not related to abstractions like our mortality or lack of an “originary essence.” It is, in contrast, the key element of his description of the human self-consciousness or “for-itself,” in French pour-soi, translating Hegel’s für-sich. The néant, the “free space” in the human self, a term that has no counterpart in Hegel, is what permits the pour-soi or human Self to contemplate its objects, cut off from the urges of appetite. This separation from our “instincts” is precisely what distinguishes human language from animal communications. It is on this self-conscious basis that we have built around our use of signs the rest of human religious, esthetic, and scientific culture. All derives from what was at its origin the scene of language on which the human self, Sartre’s pour-soi, contemplates its objects, separated from them by a néant which is a space of freedom.

The spatial metaphor of the néant referring to the free space between the self-conscious human pour-soi and its object is the very root of Sartre’s “existentialist” philosophy of human freedom—distinguishing him from Heidegger and all the others, none of whom provide a simple physical analogue of what we can call the scene of consciousness.

Clearly when Sartre described the human self as a pour-soi incorporating a spatial néant that separates the self from its object, he did not have in mind GA’s hunting/scavenging scene and even less its scenario of the origin of language. For, ironically enough, a striking feature of Being and Nothingness is that language as such is barely mentioned. Sartre makes a categorical distinction between the human self/mind and those of animals that reprises Descartes’ idea that animals were “soulless” like machines. Yet he never refers to our use of signs; he attributes this distinction entirely to the nothingness within the pour-soi or human consciousness that, by separating the self from its objects, makes it completely free in its relationship to them, but fails to consider the anthropological source of this néant in the individual’s relationship with his community.

To the human pour-soi, Sartre contrasts the in-itself or en-soi, a parallel Hegelian term that describes being that is not “for”-itself, but simply is, like that of a rock—a category within which, following the example of Descartes, Sartre includes all other living beings, even the higher animals. Thus in contrast to the néant inside the pour-soi, Sartre conceives the entire world of the en-soi, from the stars and planets to grains of sand, as lacking in free space, as a collection of objects so to speak jammed up against each other. The idea of le néant as being embodied, for example, by interstellar “empty” space, is just the opposite of Sartre’s idea: his néant is solely a metaphorical mental space between the subject and the object that embodies human freedom.

Let us now return to the East and try to understand what relationship Sartre’s néant bears to nothingness in Nishida and in the Buddhist tradition. In this tradition, rather than one thinker’s neologism, nothingness/Nirvana is a central conception at the intersection of religion and philosophy—indeed, one that makes the need for this Western distinction all but unnecessary. I hope to persuade you that, if we can justify this rapprochement, our understanding of Eastern thought will be shown to confirm and enrich my earlier point in describing Nagarjuna’s paradoxes as not so much critiques of language as reminders that the specific correspondence between language and “reality” is a less fundamental component of language than its demonstration of the néant that characterizes the scene of representation. And this is true not merely of the scene of language, but of the cultural scene in general, whether taking place within an individual mind, in a ritual or theatrical setting—or in a simple conversation, an exchange among humans where all freely emit, receive, and interpret the signs exchanged among the parties, each of whom embodies Sartre’s conception of a pour-soi inhabited by a néant.

As I mentioned in my 2017 talk, the very idea of “mindfulness” that Westerners associate with Eastern thinking makes clear that these exercises that turn the mind’s attention to its own activity, for example by making you focus on some trivial object or repeat a mantra, are in the first place demonstrations of the néant within the pour-soi, all the more convincing for dispensing with philosophical terminology.

What is “liberating” about focusing on a candle-flame or repeating a nonsense-word? It is superficially just the opposite of a “free” activity. But its point is to exemplify your own power over your attention, which implies your power to direct it elsewhere: the purpose of the exercise is to make you aware of this non-reflexive, conscious freedom to focus your attention, which is the real sense of the néant.

It is in this context that the entire structure of Eastern thought centered on “nothingness” must be understood. Nothingness is the stuff of freedom. Just as samsara is meant to progress through a series of incarnations to the nothingness of Nirvana, so our specific intentionalities are, like the sentences whose incomplete grasp of reality Nagarjuna rejected, merely steps on the way to the universal freedom of the pour-soi as embodied in the néant from within whose protection we contemplate the world.

To demonstrate these points, let us examine a few selections from Nishida’s final work, The Logic of the Place of Nothingness and the Religious Worldview (emphases mine):

(69) Because God, or the absolute, stands to itself in the form of a contradictory identity—namely as its own absolute self-negation, or as possessing absolute self-negation within itself—it exists and expresses itself through itself. Because it is absolute nothingness, it is absolute being.

(70) A God merely transcendent and self-sufficient would not be a true God. God must always, in St. Paul’s words, empty himself.

(78) To know of one’s own death is already to exist while being nothing. To exist while being absolutely nothing is the ultimate self-contradiction.

(87) The true absolute does not merely transcend the relative . . . It must absolutely negate, and thereby express, itself within itself.

My position is . . . that eternal life is gained at the point where birth and death (samsara) and no-birth and no-death (nirvana) are realized as one. Samsara and nirvana, the self and the absolute God, are for me expressed in that verse of Daito Kokushi which refers to the paradoxical relation of simultaneous presence and absence of the self and the absolute.

Buddha and I, distinct through a billion kalpas [1 kalpa=4.32 billion years] of time,
Yet not separate for a single instant;
Facing each other the whole day through,
Yet not facing each other for an instant.

(96) The true individual arises as a unique, momentary self-determination of the absolute present. . . . I interpret “having No Place wherein it abides, this Mind arises” in this light.

I think the comparison between the néants of Sartre and Nishida allows us to understand why, despite all Eastern accomplishments in mathematics (zero, the “Arabic” numbers) and in science, as detailed in Joseph Needham’s series on Science and Civilization in China, it was the West with its conception of individual liberty, the freedom of the individual scene of representation, that opened up the world to modernity. Eastern nothingness is impersonal; it is not the nothingness inside my mind, as in Sartre, but nothingness as the limitless fecundity of what is in fact the mind, but a mind de-personalized—Sartre’s pour-soi extended to the endless womb of the universe.