The Fossils of Concepts

Justin E. H. Smith


Trilobite1 To speak of a 'cheap whore' is, among other things, to utter a bisyllabic dysphemism. Orthophemized, the phrase lengthens to 'inexpensive prostitute', and from there it can be launched into the tortured register of euphemistic speech –where no one who means what he says ever goes– that gives us phrases like 'down-market sex worker'. But let us not allow the harshness of the first formulation to get in the way of profounder analysis, for it is very often the short, gruntlike dysphemisms that are the most deeply rooted in our linguistic heritage. 'Cheap whore' for example, whatever else it has wrong with it, turns out upon inspection to be not only offensive, but also, like 'wireless cable', a contradiction in terms. In learning why, we may learn a lot else besides.


I would like to say a few words about intention, action, desire, and lack, and about the possible connections between these that are revealed by the vocabularies of a number of natural languages. I had initially intended to do this in my Etymology from Memory series, where the rule of the game is to see how many threads of a common lexical root I am able to follow without having recourse to any information other than what is stored in my own brain. I do this as a sort of act of resistance to the increasing reliance of our society on external memory-storage devices (if in the end it is our brains that are the detachable prostheses of Google, rather than vice versa, we still need to make sure that our brains are good for something when they are detached). I decided in the end to do this one hors-série, however, since I realized after I had begun the importance of getting it right this time. My prostheses, if this makes a difference, were all made out of paper.

Lack is a cousin, as well as an outlier, to what really interests me, so let's start there. Currently, the standard way of expressing desire in English, with the verb 'to want', is really a borrowing of a verb that until recently meant something quite distinct: 'This room wants a fireplace', 'May you never want for affection', and so on. There is also a nominal form of the same word, as in: 'Children are dying for want of access to clean water'. There doesn't seem to be any intentionality here at all: the room doesn't desire anything, or feel a lack that it hopes to fill. Rather, the room has a lack, as a matter of fact, even though the room itself does not care one way or another about this.

So wanting is in its primary sense simply lacking, and is only secondarily, or belatedly desiring, which is to say lacking plus longing for the lack to end. Now willing is in turn a longing for some condition to end, or a longing for some new condition to obtain, coupled with some sort of ability to change one's condition or the condition of one's immediate environment. Interestingly, the notion of willing –also sometimes concretized into a thing that produces acts of willing, i.e., 'the will' (German, der Wille)– furnishes another way of expressing what modern English speakers mean by the verb 'to want'. Thus, while the more polite and euphemistic way of saying what one wants in German forces one to say what one 'would like' (ich möchte, etc.), the more direct way is by means of the verb willen, plainly a cognate of the noun –'the will'– for the thing that Western metaphysics supposes to be the source of voluntary actions: ich will etwas essen. I want to eat something; I will to eat something.

Here moreover one would not be altogether naïve to discern a connection with the most common form of the future tense of the English verb 'to be'. I will to eat something; I will eat something. There is evidently a fine line between registering one's own intention, and predicting the future. This assumes of course that our wills are translatable into reality, that there will be no impediments that prevent us, notwithstanding what we might will, from, say, eating. There are many philosophers (Hobbes, I take it, and surely Spinoza) for whom this 'disconnect' (as they say these days) is just fine, since 'willing' is really just an agreeable sensation that accompanies certain determined events, but not others. In Russian, for questions concerning the immediate future, the future tense of the verb 'to be' may often be used interchangeably with the verb 'to want': thus ty budesh' chaï? (You will tea?, i.e., Tu seras du thé?) and ty khochesh' chaï? (You want tea?) are two equally fine ways of asking someone whether she would like tea. It is as if we are all little gods when it comes to the satisfaction of small desires, where we need but will something in order for it to become the case.

From what is desired, we get what is done. If we were to express this in Sanskrit, we could say that there is a motion, often presumed to be automatic, from kāma to karma, from desire to deed. Alas, there is a good reason why the professionals do not do etymology from memory: we often misremember, and where we did not bother to check in the first place, our intuition is often wrong. Much of what I had hoped to be able to say in this essay –and probably would have said, if I had been saying it in the From Memory series, in which I permit myself to be wrong– had depended upon the presumption of a shared root for the Sanskrit words karma and kāma, deed and desire. But no such root exists.

Karma, coming most primordially from the hypothesized Indo-European root *k(w)er, and later from the Sanskrit verbal root kṛ, means, simply, 'to do'. Monier-Williams gives 'act, action, performance, business' as its primary definitions, and, secondarily, 'office, scpecial duty, occupation, obligation'. This root occurs widely beyond Sanskrit, as in the modern Persian verb 'to do' or 'to make' (kardan), or 'to work' (kār-kardan). Westerners know of karma principally in its more elaborate metaphysical expression, the so-called 'theory' of karma, whereby actions bring about cosmically fitting consequences. But at bottom karma is no more theoretical or metaphysical than the concept of 'deed'. This is not to say it is not theoretical or metaphysical; it is just not particularly so.

KamaSutra-002 Kāma, which gives its earliest signal in Proto-Indo-European as keh, and is subsequently widely attested beyond Sanskrit (e.g., Middle Persian and Parthian k’m-, 'to want'), seems to have signified desire from the beginning. In both the Rig Veda as well as in sundry occurrences in other Indo-Iranian languages it is usually compounded with another noun to indicate the thing desired: thus ryaskāma (desiring wealth), patikāma (desiring a husband), gokāma (desiring a cow), and so on. In the West kāma suggests above all the Kāma Sūtra, which is to say the sūtra or treatise pertaining to desire, in which, among other things, various sex positions are described, not because the ancient Indians cared a whit about the social-liberationist ends to which this treatise, in translation and adaptation, would later be put, but because sensual pleasure, along with virtue, prosperity and eventual liberation, was among the principle goals in the life of a religious, and socially perfectly conservative, person.

So as a borrowing kāma is racy, yet as the source of undetected cognates very often it is not. This is the same root which gives us caritas, and thus also charity: one of the words for that thing, sometimes also translated as 'love', that St. Paul said is even better than faith and hope. Kāma is connected to love, then, which means it is also connected to that which is cherished or dear, or –which is the same thing– expensive (as in the French cher). It is also, though perhaps less transparently, connected to the Gothic hors, and so also the English whore. And thus to speak of a 'cheap whore' is to lapse into oxymoron, but this just brings out explicitly the connection we've already detected between desire and expense.

Again, the dear, the expensive, the desirable, and the whorish are not directly connected with the karmic. Yet the non-connection of the words kāma and karma does not show that there's no connection between what is desired and what is done –the wonderful expression 'to do it', somehow euphemistic and direct at once, reminds us assuredly that there is–, but only that it can't be proven from these two faux parents. In fact, 'doing it', which is in the end what the Kāma Sūtra is about (Westerners got that much right), invokes a term from a semantic cluster in the Germanic languages –which includes do, deed, tun, die Tat, die Tatsache (i.e., the deed-thing, which is to say the fact)– that is the direct counterpart of karma and the other Indo-Iranian kar words. Want issues in deed; desire leads to doing it: all of which we might already have expected from the fact that, as we've already seen, the verb 'to want' overlaps with the future tense of the verb 'to be'.

When a deed becomes a thing, as in a Tat-Sache, it is done, which is to say, in Latin, factum. A fact is just what can't be undone, what is already completed (perfectum, which is to say perfect, but not necessarily good). Want leads to will, which issues in deed, which leaves us with fact. That's pretty much the scheme of things. We read in different philosophical details in different regions and eras: imagining here that willing comes from a thing-that-wills, and there that some deeds are approved by God, some induced by the devil. But the semantic clusters underlying these metaphysical flourishes have remained fairly fixed from the Rig Veda through the Critique of Practical Reason.

I could spin out a thousand more threads here. I could mention the pseudo-profound injunction of the pulp author and satanist Aleister Crowley, 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law'. I have my doubts about his conjugation of the archaic form of the second-person singular verb here, but what interests me is the connection he draws between willing and law. I have heard, and I do not remember where, that Crowleyanism is a sort of crypto-Kantianism, to the extent that it holds that moral action just is dictated by some sort of 'law within'. This is a very different connection between law and desire than the one implied, for example, in the title of Almodóvar's La ley del deseo. To speak of the law of desire here, I think, is just to suppose that desire governs things, that it moves us along on an iron track from lack to deed, and that the free choice beloved of both Kant and Crowley is no engine on this train. Again, though, these are just variations within a set of parameters already established in the vocabulary we managed to scrape together long before we started trying to figure out what it is that is happening, when we desire something, and what it is we're doing, when we do anything. I happen to think Almodóvar is closer to the truth, but what do I know?


There is a widely held view that the sort of factoids I have been dredging up here have no proper place in philosophy, since philosophy is in the business of analyzing concepts, which are something quite distinct from the words we happen to use to express these concepts. On this widely held view, Heidegger, for example, was only waxing poetical, rather than thinking philosophical, when he noted the significance of the Greek word for 'truth': alētheia, which is to say 'uncoveredness' or 'disconcealing'. The pensive woodsman concluded that the Greeks must have thought that this is what truth itself is, a disconcealing, and moreover that they were right. But of course etymology doesn't really tell you what people are thinking when they use words, let alone whether they are right to be thinking this. Words are not so much concepts as they are the fossils of concepts.

It seems to me that the analysis of living concepts could be fruitfully complemented by a paleontological branch of one and the same broad endeavor: a branch that takes the analysis of etymologies seriously not because they tell you what word-users are thinking, as Heidegger seems to have supposed in his reflections on the exceptional profundity of the Greek language, but rather what they have forgotten, what must have been at least dimly present to some speaker's mind at some point, even if the idea has receded so far into the past that the word once associated with it can now be expressed without implicating the idea at all.

Often we find words for physical and spatiotemporal things fossilized in our own, living words for mental and abstract entities and events. Perhaps this is why philosophers tend not to like etymology: it reveals the humble, earthly, experiential origins of our loftiest thoughts. Many of these fossils extend back long before written records: who knows when understanding, for example, was first described in terms of standing under? With other terms, we can pinpoint the moment of their appearance. Thus for example Aristotle's word for matter, hylē, originally meant 'wood' or 'timber'. Aristotle borrowed it as a sort of analogy for the way form inheres in matter in general: it inheres, namely, the way furniture inheres in the wood out of which it is made. Aristotle certainly did not believe that matter just is wood, yet knowing that his hylomorphist metaphysics might amount to a sort of generalization of his observation of the carpenter's craft tells us at least something about where he was coming from, so to speak, and what he was trying to do.

Michel Foucault called for an 'archaeology of knowledge'. I am sympathetic to this idea, yet it seems to me that perhaps archaeology is too strongly associated with the human sciences as already practiced to enable this metaphor to work for what I have in mind (though when I have seen archaeologists at work they have appeared, admirably, to be more interested in the chemical analysis of soil than in projecting a priori ideas about the 'greatness' or 'decadence' of past societies onto material evidence). If I were in a position to call for a transformation in the way research in the human sciences is done, I would call for something closer to a paleontology of knowledge, where fossil evidence is examined under the working hypothesis that the way we talk about things is only the most recent freeze-frame of a very long, entirely improvised film; where concepts are analogous to organic functions and words to organic parts, and thus where a part of any present-day living organism does not necessarily reveal on first inspection all the functions it has served to execute in the course of its many transformations. Etymology, on such an understanding, will be the study of ancestral forms of the parts of today's living organisms, with an eye to understanding the functions they executed, and to understanding the forces that caused them to change.

At present, etymology is a lowly endeavor: something akin to crossword puzzles, something for fans of Jeopardy. If learning were organized according to my taste, it would be made the queen of the human sciences. It would be naturalistic rather than geistlich, giving no pride of place to Greek over, say, Persian or Parthian or Tocharian, positing no hierarchy that divides the lofty from the mundane, and not assuming at the outset that there is more to be learned from a word such as charity than from one such as whore, its fallen cousin.

Works consulted for this essay:

G. E. R. Lloyd, The Revolutions of Wisdom: Studies in the Claims and Practice of Ancient Greek Science, University of California Press, 1989.

Monier Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Etymologically and Philologically Arranged with Special Reference to Cognate Indo-European languages, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1899.

Julius Pokorny, Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, Vienna, 1959.

See also the excellent Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Database, online at

For an extensive archive of Justin E. H. Smith's writing, go here.

To follow him on Facebook, go here.

Like what you're reading? Don't keep it to yourself!
Share on Facebook
Tweet about this on Twitter
Share on Reddit
Share on LinkedIn
Email this to someone