Key Notes

Eric Gans


… is Distinguished Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Author of 16 books and over 80 articles, Gans received his PhD from Johns Hopkins in 1966, where he studied with René Girard, who was an important early influence. While Gans’s work shares the same broad anthropological aims as Girard, his theory is distinct and original. According to Gans, those categories deemed fundamental to humanistic inquiry must be traceable to their appearance in the “originary scene” of human culture. Because human culture is transmitted nongenetically, purely biological explanations of culture can only ever be partial. Rather than seek to imitate the methods of the natural sciences, the most powerful research strategy for the humanities is to minimize the number of nonbiological explanatory categories by tracing them to their genesis in the first cultural scene, a minimal account of which Gans proposes in his “originary hypothesis.” Gans calls this procedure “Generative Anthropology,” and he has written eight books on the topic, including The Origin of Language (1981), The End of Culture: Toward a Generative Anthropology (1985), Science and Faith: The Anthropology of Revelation (1990), Originary Thinking: Elements of Generative Anthropology (1993), Signs of Paradox: Irony, Resentment, and Other Mimetic Structures (1997), The Scenic Imagination: Originary Thinking from Hobbes to the Present Day (2008), A New Way of Thinking: Generative Anthropology in Religion, Philosophy, Art (2011), and The Girardian Origins of Generative Anthropology (2012). Gans’s keynote will address the conference theme directly by exploring the affinities and differences between Derrida’s abortive, paradoxical attempt at a “science of writing” and Generative Anthropology’s own attempt at a “non-positive” or “non-natural” science of the human.

William Flesch


… is a Professor of Literature at Brandeis University. He teaches literature and philosophy and is the author of Generosity and the Limits of Authority: Shakespeare, Herbert, Milton, Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of our Interest in Fiction, and The Facts on File Companion to British Poetry: 19th Century. Flesch’s research interests range from Renaissance through the 20th century literature, to film. He has also written on a broad range of topics, including the theory of the novel, narratology, poetic theory, Freudian psychoanalysis, and cognitive literary studies. His interdisciplinary analysis of narratological issues has been enhanced by cross-referencing recent research in cognitive science and evolutionary biology. Thus he has shown that a cognitive and evolutionary understanding of a “theory of mind” can have an important impact on literary studies. Among other things, evolutionary models of “costly signaling” and game theory can yield profound insights into the operation of narrative interest and character identification. What William Flesch shares with Generative Anthropology and symbolic theories of cognitive science, however, is his “culturalist” approach. While he recognizes that scientific models with their emphasis on survival and reproduction have some relevance to the origin of literature, he treats literature as a separate, emergent phenomenon. Literature is no longer steered by the evolutionary exigency of reproductive fitness but instead transmutes direct, intermediary, and even incidental evolutionary goals, distilling them into specifically literary pleasures and incentives. In addition to his explicit engagement with cognitive science, there are several intriguing points of intersection between Generative Anthropology’s view of narrative and Flesch’s theory of narrative desire that he develops in Comeuppance, which will make him a valuable participant in this dialogue between the humanistic and cognitive paradigms.

Peter Gärdenfors


… is a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Lund University. He is an author of The Dynamics of Thought, How Homo Became Sapiens, Cognition, Education, and Communication Technology, Conceptual Spaces, and The Geometry of Meaning: Semantics Based on Conceptual Spaces, in addition to a great many articles. In his broadly interdisciplinary work, Gärdenfors has contributed to an impressively wide range of disciplines and research areas, such as philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, cognitive linguistics, cognitive and evolutionary psychology, and evolutionary development of language, technology, and education. He is a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History, and Antiquities, as well as a recipient of several prestigious prizes and awards. In his 2003 How Homo Became Sapiens, Gärdenfors makes a special claim on behalf of language. Unlike many other scientists, who view language as an effective tool of communication, he emphasizes the radical new symbolic capacity that does not exist in the animal world, having first emerged with language. According to Gärdenfors, symbolic thinking was a ground-breaking evolutionary adaptation which enabled the emergence of detached cognition. Animals, as Peter Gärdenfors argues, also possess a rudimentary form of communication, which based on so-called cued cognition, communicating about objects immediately present. But only humans can represent to each other objects that are out of reach or do not yet exist, and thus communicate about future goals. He thus shares an exceptionalist view of language and culture with Generative Anthropology and mimetic theory. A dialogue between the cognitive view, with its emphasis on cooperation, and the last two theories, with their recognition of conflict, would be of enormous value and interest.