Chronicles of Love and Resentment

Richard van Oort and Eric Gans

A GA Conversation (III)

(see also parts I and II)

No. 76: Saturday, January 18, 1997

RvO - By suggesting that the ultimate value of the originary hypothesis is ethical are we not suggesting that the hypothesis has more in common with religion that with science? Nevertheless you maintain that generative anthropology is a research program, not a belief system. What allows us to make this distinction? What makes generative anthropology not simply a belief system but a theory with a corresponding methodological program?

The claim is that we are dealing with hypothetical knowledge, not with revealed knowledge. The crucial difference between religion and generative anthropology, then, is the hypothetical status of the latter's model of the human. But the originary hypothesis still requires an "act of faith" of sorts, does it not? That is, one must accept the hypothesis as prima facie plausible in order to become acquainted with its heuristic power. The hypothesis itself is not something that can be rejected out of hand. Its particular formulation can be modified, even radically reconstructed, but the fact that the theory always begins with a minimal hypothesis is something that we have to accept at the outset. And this opening gesture is something that may be called a minimal act of faith.

So far, this seems uncontroversial. A theory must always be granted the courtesy of its central hypothesis before it can be evaluated. But at this point the scientist will object. For have we not said that the originary hypothesis, that minimal anthropological knowledge, is unfalsifiable? And if this is the case, then how can we claim scientific status for our theory? A hypothesis which cannot be disproved is something that cannot be objectively verified. Therefore its truth is something that can only be accepted, like religious revelation, on faith.

What then is scientific or methodological about the theory? The only methodological claim it appears we can make for the originary hypothesis is that it be constructed in minimal fashion. Does this criterion of minimality constitute a bona fide method? It certainly gives us an objective means by which to evaluate anthropological theories. But what motivates the criterion of parsimony? Is it merely a scientific principle that we accept as necessary? Or does it answer to a deeper anthropological need? In other words, in what way is minimal thinking also ethical thinking?

Throughout this dialogue, the suggestion has been that minimal thinking is not simply a reflection of an unquestioned faith in a certain scientific principle, but at once also a reflection of a certain historical narrative, namely, the rise of the international exchange system. Anthropologically speaking, minimality also means decentralization of the exchange process. It is the movement from "maximal" ritual acts of exchange to "minimal" secular acts of exchange. This is an ethical development. It designates the point where ethical control becomes truly self-regulating, where the social order is seen as anthropologically motivated, not as somehow imposed from without the process of exchange in which the community is created.

So there appear to be three strands that we are trying to thread together: minimality, method, and ethics. With regard to the last two, it appears that in the case of method we are unlikely to satisfy the scientists, and in the case of ethics we are unlikely to satisfy the believer. But it is nevertheless via the first principle--minimality--that GA proposes both a method and an ethic, and thus a synthesis of two hitherto incompatible viewpoints.

EG - Originary anthropology takes us back to first principles in a more rigorous and systematic way than the critical philosophies of Descartes or Kant. Minimality as expressed by Ockham's razor, that is, as a principle of thinking and research, is also an ethical principle in a more general sense: the idea that the thinker should intervene as little as possible in the world he studies has clear analogies in the politico-economic sphere.

RvO - The issue of intervention suggests the etic/emic dilemma of the field anthropologist. How can the anthropologist truly understand the society being studied without at once becoming an integrated member of that society? But to become a member of that society completely is no longer to study it. So where does the anthropologist stand? As insider or outsider?

Fortunately, the situation is different for GA. Here the focus is not the local differences of individual "cultures," but the underlying representational scene upon which these differences depend. So the etic/emic distinction functions at a different level. Emically we must inevitably consider ourselves as common participants in the process of becoming-human. We share in common with the participants of the originary event the scene of representation. Our everyday linguistic acts illustrate this, but they do not explain it. For that we need a theory, a hypothesis. Hence the need to reconstruct "etically" the event in which our humanity first emerges. What makes our situation different from the original humans is that we have the benefit of history. Thus we are more than merely participants in the originary event--more than merely "spontaneous" language-users. We are also theorizers of this inheritance. But this discussion of minimality in terms of the etic/emic dilemma will not satisfy the demand for a hypothesis that is empirically falsifiable. What response is there to the methodological objection that the originary hypothesis is not falsifiable?

EG - The point of Popper's principle of falsifiability is that theories should avoid tautology and provide information. This is common sense expressed in an arresting manner. I don't think Popper's enunciation of the principle has had much effect on scientific practice; scientists have always wanted to measure and predict phenomena within as small a margin of error as possible. Kuhn's idea of paradigms has been more useful to scientists because it recognizes that their theories are hierarchical and that the highest level of even a physical theory can always be reconciled--via "epicycles"--with any given set of facts. GA is not a Popperian-falsifiable theory but a Kuhnian paradigm, a way of thinking about the human.

No way of thinking can allow us to live without making falsifiable predictions. Our economic and political decisions, indeed, all our life-decisions, are actualizations of implicit or explicit hypotheses. When the Republicans propose lower taxes whereas the Democrats propose new governmental programs, they are expressing rival hypotheses for the attainment of a "good society" whose general parameters both parties agree on. And when we decide whether to reelect a politician, we take a stand on the falsification of his hypothesis by history.

RvO - So an anthropological hypothesis is "falsified," not by a timeless reference to empirical data, but by the course of human history. The fortunes of political and economic models are constantly being "falsified" in this sense. In a fashion, they have to be. A model that was not falsifiable by history would be the end of history. We would have attained the scientific ideal of a closed and consistent system. There would be no new information, but only tautology. The challenge for an anthropological theory is not to predict the end of history by formulating ultimate truths about the human, but to present truth in terms of a historically specific event of the human-becoming-human, i.e., in terms of a hypothesis that explains why we have such an ideal moral model of the human at all. Unlike the truth of a political party's doctrine--the "verification" of which is generally limited to a brief period of empirical politics (i.e., the short span of time in which the party is in power)--GA posits no endpoint against which the theory may be verified. There is no eschatology to GA. But there is a minimal beginning.

EG - The usefulness of the originary hypothesis in, for example, political decision-making is in clarifying our idea of the "good society" that is the end of political activity. We hypothesize that our shared ethical ideal of the good society has its minimally necessary point of departure in the first human event, the first use of language, the first instance of culture. We can present no "falsifiable" physical evidence of such an event. But originary thinking is nontrivial in a more fundamental sense. To the skeptic who fails to see the need for our hypothesis, it asks: how then do you account for our general agreement that the good society is one that promotes human equality? Why do we all agree "instinctively" on the same model of reciprocal morality, the Golden Rule, aimez-vous les uns les autres? Animals don't think in such terms.

RvO - I think that this is one of the most powerful ideas of GA, i.e., the idea that our status as language-users is the source of our intuition of our moral equality.

EG - This model is implied even by doctrines that preach something apparently different, like national or racial superiority. Even Sade cannot imagine a world without mutual recognition among the masters--and the reader! Nor can Nietzsche. The baseline of human morality can be taken as given; on the contrary, the refusal of moral standing to the Other--even the Other as victim and divinity--is found only as a complement to the group's own solidarity. GA reminds moral theorists that they should found their doctrine not on arbitrary "first principles" but on a minimal hypothesis. If the human is minimally constituted by language, the reciprocity of linguistic exchange must be the model for moral reciprocity in general. This explains the paradox that doctrines like that of Sade can only make their claim of domination to a reader who is ipso facto an equal partner in dialogue.

A sociobiologist might protest that our common moral values are the result of evolutionary adaptation. This is certainly true; it is even a truism. But what is missing in the biological approach to culture is... culture itself. If we had "instincts" to enforce morality, why would we need language and rules to do so? Our moral tendencies conflict with our biological tendencies--and it is precisely this that is adaptive. What sociobiologists fail to explain is not why our cultural traits are conducive to survival, but why they are cultural, or in other words, human, in the first place.

RvO - Indeed. The reductive theses of sociobiology promise to explain away the anthropological fundamentals of the human world. But once these have been explained away, so too is the only means by which the explanation can be imparted--i.e., the scene of representation upon which the ability to theorize depends! So the sociobiologists are too minimal in their explanation. So minimal in fact, that they are prepared to forfeit their own status as persons for the sheer biology of the palpitating organism. Curiously, in their neglect of representation, they perversely undermine their own theory of evolutionary adaptation. If language, morality, religion, etc., are irrelevant then why on earth were they ever present? Minimal thinking must be distinguished from reductionism. The key to understanding the human is not to reduce the human to the nonhuman, but to think minimally in terms of what in means to be human--to be both a participant in and a theorizer of human culture. Since our claim is that the human world is irreducible to the empirical world of biology, the burden of the argument lies with us--indeed with all those in the humanities--to agree on a set of minimal principles that defines this irreducible anthropological content. The construction of an originary hypothesis is thus simply the attempt to clarify this content in a nondogmatic, methodologically open fashion.


EG - But even if we win these arguments in abstracto, people remain skeptical as to GA's usefulness. Next time, let's talk about the practical value of the originary hypothesis in designing concrete research programs.

To be continued...

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Eric Gans / gans@humnet.ucla.edu
Last updated 1/16/97