Finish… The Social Sciences?

It is often said that René Girard is like “the Einstein or Darwin of the social sciences or the humanities”. According to Girard, however, the social sciences as such as they came to flourish in the West’s modern age, and his own contributions are only possible because of a “superior” knowledge revealed in Judeo-Christian tradition. Jean-Pierre Dupuy puts Girard’s claim this way in his book The Mark of the Sacred – which is in many ways a further development of Girard’s main ideas:

Only a madman or a crackpot, disregarding all the conventions of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, could make the following outrageous claims today: That the history of humanity, considered in its entirety, and in spite – or rather because – of its sound and fury, has a meaning. That this meaning is accessible to us, and although a science of mankind now exists, it is not mankind that has made it. [And] that this science was given to mankind by divine revelation. That the truth of mankind is religious in nature…

That madman is René Girard.

In this post I will try to give a glimpse of the way mimetic theory is able to foster a fruitful dialogue between different strands of thought in the humanities and how this dialogue indeed seems the result of Judeo-Christian influence in the Western world. I try to show that mimetic theory is a good starting point, able to connect and sometimes “correct” (or “ground” more fundamentally) basic insights of people like Thomas Hobbes, Sigmund Freud, Rudolf Otto, Jean Piaget, Jacques Lacan, Emmanuel Levinas and even a sociologist like Niklas Luhmann – among many others. But first I’ll give “the outcome” of my explorations, in a diagram (that was conceived for my book Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll).

From EROS (a mimetically mediated desire for recognition / a love for one’s self-image) to THANATOS (mental and/or physical “death”):

two potential destructive reactions following the confrontation with an (always mimetically) experienced difference between oneself and another (as an individual or collective entity).



Diagram Interdividual Psychology (Erik Buys)



Here are some text fragments from books I have been reading that led me to an even better understanding of my own diagram :). Three books are involved: Totalité et infini by Emmanuel Levinas, For René Girard edited by Sandor Goodhart et al., and When These Things Begin by René Girard. I have to mention especially that, apart from Emmanuel Levinas and René Girard, I was very inspired by the texts of Eugene Webb, Wolfgang Palaver and Michael Hardin in For René Girard. After the quote from Levinas, I also give some personal comments as a guideline to somewhat connect the different text fragments. [For more on Girard and Levinas, click here].

Emmanuel Levinas:

La philosophie occidentale a été le plus souvent une ontologie: une réduction de l’Autre au Même, par l’entremise d’un terme moyen et neutre qui assure l’intelligence de l’être.

Translation: Western philosophy has most often been an ontology: a reduction of the other to the same by interposition of a middle and neutral term that ensures the comprehension of being.

(Emmanuel Levinas, Totalité et infini. Essai sur l’extériorité, Paris, Le Livre de Poche, Kluwer Academic, p.33-34).

Personal comments (also to the texts mentioned below):

It is important to note that Levinas speaks of a “reduction”. Whenever traditional Western philosophy thinks of what the kosmos is essentially made of, it always posits an “ideal”. The whole of reality then should be understood as a striving towards the manifestation of that ideal (Aristotle‘s entelechy), or at least as an attempt to manifestly distinguish the “eternal, ever-present ideal essence of reality” from “what reality sometimes seems to be but is not” (Plato‘s or Socrates‘s maieutics). The ideal essence of reality brings about an order (out of “chaos”) that actually is sacrificial, a “peace” that rests on the oppression of what seems to contradict the ideal. Hence one could say, together with Levinas, that the ideal – whatever features it gets in a particular philosophical system – reduces everything that is other than itself to itself. However, what enables this reduction precisely is the fact that there indeed really is something “other” to reduce to begin with! So one could say that whenever some ideal is postulated as “the essence” or “the being itself” of reality, the “fuller” or “more true” being of reality is “forgotten.” Being is reduced to a goal oriented movement from an incomplete world (the subject of movement) toward a “perfect” world (the object of movement).

Martin Heidegger identified the subject-object dichotomy as the Seinsvergessenheit (forgetting of being) of traditional Western metaphysics. He tried to “go back”, beyond the order of clearly defined dichotomies (the law of non-contradiction of course being one of them) towards a thinking inspired by the poets – who remain much closer to the unresolvable ambiguities of reality. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that, by leaving the unavoidably sacrificial peace of a so-called ideal world order and philosophy behind, Heidegger’s philosophy at first could not resist the temptation of glorifying and unleashing the powers of violence as part of the “revelation of truth” (see his interpretation of the Greek aletheia). In a profound sense he continued the philosophical project begun by Friedrich Nietzsche, without however “moralizing” his ontology (in a renewed sacrificial hero-cult).

As far as I interpret and try to understand both Heidegger and Levinas, Heidegger considers violence (understood as the “struggle or concern for being”) as the basic answer to the ever-present possibility of death, while Levinas points to another possibility as far as human beings are concerned: the encounter with the Other (my fellow human being, my neighbor). In encountering the Other I discover my own struggle for being (against the fearful possibility of death) as a potential threat to the life of the Other. In other words, I get to know my own being as a potentially violent being. It is the “disinterested connection” to the Other – in other words “love without ulterior motives” – that both limits and opens up my struggle for being to a “being for the Other.”

Speaking with René Girard, it’s our mimetic (i.e. imitative) ability that connects us to the Other and that also allows us to discover the irreducible nature of the Other. True, it’s our mimetic ability that allows us to empathize with the Other, to “feel one” with the Other (to be able to “pretend” that we are the Other and to imagine what he feels, expects or desires we have to be able to imitate him). But on the other hand, the process of mimesis is only possible because of a distance, an insurmountable gap between myself and the Other, that is discovered precisely in the act itself of mimesis!

Because we are mimetically connected to each other, we are able to adapt ourselves to an image that we think would answer to the expectations of the other. When this becomes our main preoccupation, we reduce each other to mere means to fulfill a mimetically generated desire for recognition. Let me try to explain this a little better.

The originally disinterested connection to the Other (upon which all “interested” connections are – “parasitically, satanically” – dependent) might be corrupted when we imitate each other’s desires. It’s because you are (mimetically) able to identify yourself with the desires of others that you, first, might discover yourself as an object of (their) desire and, second, that you might discover someone else as well as object of (their) desire. Because your desire imitates (and is thus engendered by) the desires of others, your desire towards yourself as the object of the desires of others will generate admiration or envy towards that other who seems to be also desired by others. You’re not only mimetically able to identify with the desires of others to discover yourself as an object of desire, but you’re also able to mimetically identify yourself with an other who seems to posses the desire (and thus recognition) of others. What happens, time and again, is that we develop a desire to be like an admired / envied other. This implies that we cannot love ourselves anymore, but it also implies that we can no longer love the other. We often desire recognition, not for ourselves, but for the prestige we have constructed in jealously comparing ourselves – not to others, but to what we imagine about others. We, as human beings, don’t just want what we need, we want what seems desirable by others as well (the BMW instead of…), and this grants us prestige.

GoetheSee this insightful quote by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in his The Sorrows of Young Werther: We are so constituted by nature, that we are ever prone to compare ourselves with others; and our happiness or misery depends very much on the objects and persons around us. On this account, nothing is more dangerous than solitude: there our imagination, always disposed to rise, taking a new flight on the wings of fancy, pictures to us a chain of beings of whom we seem the most inferior. All things appear greater than they really are, and all seem superior to us. This operation of the mind is quite natural: we so continually feel our own imperfections, and fancy we perceive in others the qualities we do not possess, attributing to them also all (those talents) that we enjoy ourselves, that by this process we form the idea of a perfect, happy man, — a man, however, who only exists in our own imagination.

The Sorrows of Young Werther Goethe quote

As René Girard shows in discussing the presence of mimetic desire in groups of primitive humans, the mutually (mimetically) enforced competitive desire for prestige – mimetic desire, in short – might spread throughout individuals of the same group in such a way that the group finds itself in a veritable crisis wherein all differences disappear and each rival resembles the others more and more. The solution to this crisis might be the mimetic unification against one rival. Indeed, my (or another’s) rival might become the enemy of all if everyone imitates my enmity against that rival. The war of all against all becomes the war of all against one, and a new difference – a new foundation for further differences and order – is established. When the common enemy is banned from the group or even beaten to death, the scapegoat mechanism sets in. The group experienced turmoil as long as their victim was around, while, on the other hand, it experiences a renewed stability when the victim is no longer around or alive – the victim is present as dead. According to Girard, groups of primitive humans gradually projected their own violence unto the victims of group violence, wrongfully experiencing these victims as responsible both for crisis and the resolution of crisis.

Also gradually, primitive communities will associate new situations of disorder with the resurgence of a former victim of group violence. In other words, they experience a person who is not visibly present anymore, but whose presence is ‘felt’ in situations of turmoil. In other words still, one of the former victims of group violence has become a ‘ghost’ or a ‘god’. At the same time, primitive human societies also ‘learn’ that killing someone apparently restores order. So together with the belief in ghosts and gods considered responsible for all kinds of possible violent disasters, the belief originates concerning the effectiveness of sacrifices to restore, renew or keep order, life and stability in human society. If primitive societies would have seen that the victims of group violence are no more responsible for violence than other members of the group, they would not have developed these beliefs. Violence became something sacred because the victims of group violence were considered exclusively responsible for the violence they were associated with. Those victims were, in other words, scapegoats. [For more on Girard’s account on the origin of religion, click here].

Girard argues that all other associations regarding ‘the sacred’ rest on this first association between violence and divinized victims of group violence. Everything that can be associated with violence had the potential to become sacred or divinized as well. Sexuality became sacred. Indeed, sometimes males fight over females. Food became sacred. Indeed, people fight over food sometimes. Territory  became sacred. Indeed, people go to war sometimes because of territory. Nature as a whole became sacred. Indeed, natural disasters are ‘violent’ and provoke violence if they cause lack of food and water… And so the world and the experience of man became sacred. The ambiguity of the erstwhile victims of group violence also explains why gods have a ‘dual’, ‘ambiguous’ quality.They’re good and bad… Good aspects of the gods can be allowed in rituals, while bad aspects of the gods are forbidden and taboo. For instance, sacrifice is a form of ‘good’ (controlled) sacred violence to be distinguished from ‘bad’ sacred violence, which is to be avoided and is taboo…

Religions came and went, but the age-old associations regarding the sacred were transmitted down the generations, albeit in varying forms (human sacrifice becoming animal sacrifice, for instance). The Greeks still had Ares, god of war, as they had their goddess of love, Aphrodite. The Romans copied (indeed, ‘imitated’) the Greeks and spoke of Mars and Venus. Asked why they perform their rituals and sacrifices and why they respect their taboos, primitive societies always answer: “Because our ancestors did it, and because we have to respect the ghosts and the gods in order to sustain our community…”

The image or model for the cultural order in a particular society – with its particular taboos and rituals that have to be respected – rests on the wrongful perception of the victims of group violence. Human culture can be understood as the continuous attempt to justify the violent death (murder or suicide) of one (monstrous and/or heroic) member for the salvation of (the order in) a whole group. Christianity, however, undermines this justification. Christ is a victim of the same sacrificial system which grounds human culture, but he is said to be innocent! This allows human beings to discover the true origin of violence and crisis. It is not something “alien” that comes from the gods and is demanded or justified by them, it’s something that comes from (mimetic) interactions between human beings themselves. Hence the possibility of a “true” psychology, sociology and anthropology. The Christ event also allows human beings to (re)discover their own responsibility before each “Other” and to part ways with the justification of a sacrificial order – whether expressed in mythology or philosophy. In a paradoxical way, Christ invites us to imitate him and to sacrifice our sacrificial identity. Instead of just imitating and accepting a given order, we should ask ourselves at what (or better, whose) expense we continue this order.

One final remark. The abandonment of sacrifice to ground a given order is, as Girard has shown following Judeo-Christian revelation, deeply ambiguous: it allows for new types of competition, rivalry and even violence between human beings as it also allows for “Love born out of freedom” for each Other (true Love that is, not out of fear of not having an admirable “self-image”).

In short, the image of an ideal world – in whatever context of human life – results from mimetically mediated desires between human beings, and is, as we have said already above, essentially sacrificial. It does not only “forget” the “otherness” of the Other, but also the “otherness” of myself. To escape this mimetically generated tendency to (mentally and/or physically) “kill” myself and the Other in favor of the idol of “an ideal”, we should redirect our mimetic faculties to their origin: the mysterious, disinterested connection to the Other – Love. Historically, the Christ event unleashes the possibility of this redirection in a fundamental way.

Emmanuel Levinas Qote on Faith

Eugene Webb:

Lacan proceeded more directly from the tradition of Freud than did Girard, and he uses the imagery of sacrifice in a more positive way, but both can be interpreted as revisionist figures in the Freudian tradition. For both, desire tends to have a mimetic character, in that it is closely tied up with the perceived or presumed desires of others. Also for both, desire tends to be metaphysical, in that it generates a falsely conceived self. For Lacan, the false self is any object (a person or an image) in which the ego tends to lose itself through identification, but it is especially the objectified image of a self that forms in what Lacan termed “the mirror stage” of development, the child’s “jubilant assumption of his specular image.” Out of this enchantment by one’s own objectified image evolves what Lacan called l’imaginaire: a fundamentally narcissistic fascination that tends to draw all relationships into an unrealistic and futile striving for identification with an objectified “other” – one’s own self-image, or the mother, or some other object – in a sort of “fusional cannibalism.” In this process, the individual confuses his and the other’s desires, seeking to see himself as the object of the other’s desire and, by imaginative identification with that other, to desire himself with that same desire, so as to believe in his own reality as an object. Put concisely, the fundamental human temptation is to avoid the risk of being an actual subject by becoming an imaginary object. […] Despite Girard’s distrust of the language of sacrifice, there is a sense in which the transcendence Girard seeks of the self generated by mimetic desire could also be described as something like the sacrifice of a false self for the sake of discovering a new, true life animated by the spirit that was in Christ.

(Sandor Goodhart et al. (editors), For René Girard. Essays in Friendship and in Truth, Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture Series, Michigan State University Press, 2009, p.151).

Wolfgang Palaver:

It was Eric Voegelin‘s comparison of Hobbes and Augustine that… opened my eyes and made me realize how far Hobbes had departed from Christian tradition. Voegelin’s insight – that Hobbes’s description of human nature is nothing but a description of pride, a “passion aggravated by comparison” – helped me to connect this departure with mimetic theory. Whereas Augustine distinguished the love of self (amor sui) from the love of God (amor Dei), Hobbes “threw out the amor Dei and relied for his psychology on the amor sui, in his language the self-conceit or pride of the individual, alone.” Christianity, in accordance with the biblical Revelation, always emphasized the human orientation primarily toward eternal or heavenly transcendent goods – especially the love of God – to avoid the lethal trap of mimetic rivalry following the soul’s longing for temporal goods. Both Augustine and Hobbes were aware how much human violence is rooted in mimetic rivalry. But it was only the Church Father who realized that there is a way out of this deadlock – namely, by searching first for the kingdom of God. This is the same insight that is expressed in the Ten Commandments. We are only able to follow the tenth commandment – the rule against mimetic rivalry – if we obey the first commandment and overcome idolatry.

(Sandor Goodhart et al. (editors), For René Girard. Essays in Friendship and in Truth, Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture Series, Michigan State University Press, 2009, p.192-193).

Michael Hardin:

At the Cross, our god concepts die. The New Testament writers and early Church Fathers called this death of the god concepts the conquering of the satanic powers, the powers that rule human life. In the Cross of Jesus, the horizon of the kingdom of God’s love and forgiveness is opened and our self-understanding is transformed, as we relate no longer to the gods of this world but to the Creator of heaven and earth. […] We become those who no longer imitate the desires of the world, the kosmos structured on a dysfunctional logos (1 John 2:15ff), but instead, like Jesus, become those who seek God and God’s rule with a singular focus. This transformation does not remove us from the world but enables us to be active agents of the transforming character of the love of God in all our relationships. […] The New Testament writers perceived the great power behind the imitation of the love of God expressed in Jesus. To desire as Jesus desired is to desire the transcendent in the immanent neighbor, to recognize that love of God and love of neighbor form a unity that cannot be broken. Rather than separating theology and ethics, mimetic theory grounds each in the other in the redemptive event of the Cross.

(Sandor Goodhart et al. (editors), For René Girard. Essays in Friendship and in Truth, Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture Series, Michigan State University Press, 2009, p.267-268).

René Girard in conversation with Michel Treguer:

MT: What do you think of the famous “death drive” introduced by Freud?

RG: It’s a good example of pointless complication. In my view, the death drive exists, but it is entirely linked to mimetic rivalry. Mimetic desire makes you into the rival of your model: you fight with him over the object that he himself pointed out to you. This situation reinforces desire and increases the prestige of the obstacle as such. And the supreme obstacle, of course, is death, it’s what can kill you. The death drive is the logical outcome of this mechanism. But Freud is unable to link this paradoxically narcissistic desire for a biological, inanimate state to the other phases of the process; nor even, to use his own concepts, to link it to the Oedipus complex, for example, even though he’s perfectly aware of the latter’s mimetic nature. He contents himself in some sense with adding an extra drive. This motley assemblage inspires awe in the credulous, but if it can be simplified, we have to simplify it.

MT: This is the question that comes to mind as I listen to you: “death drive” or “drive to murder”?

RG: [A pause] It’s the same thing! And eroticism tends toward both. Just think about the symmetry of the processes at play. Take Romeo and Juliet, who are defined perfectly by Friar Lawrence: “These violent delights have violent ends” (Romeo and Juliet, II, vi, 9). It’s always forgotten that Shakespeare starts by showing us the young Romeo madly in love with a woman who wants nothing to do with him. Shakespeare’s plays always contain things that contradict in specular fashion the conventional – and stubbornly romantic – image that, in spite of everything, we have of them. The cult of the obstacle drives human beings from their human condition toward what is most against them, toward what hurts them the most, toward the non-human, toward the inert, toward the mineral, toward death… toward everything that goes against love, against spirit. The skandalon that the Gospels speak of in relation to covetousness is the obstacle that is increasingly attractive the more it pushes you away. You want it because it rejects you. This seesawing back and forth between attraction and repulsion cannot fail to be mutually destructive and destabilizing at first, before leading to utter annihilation. Refusing God is the same thing because God is the opposite of the skandalon. God died for human beings. Remaining blind to God while going for the first super model who comes along – that’s what human beings do.

(René Girard, When These Things Begin, Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture Series, Michigan State University Press, 2014, p.106-107).