René Girard

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René Girard
Rene Girard.jpg
Girard in 2007
René Noël Théophile Girard

(1923-12-25)25 December 1923
Avignon, France
Died4 November 2015(2015-11-04) (aged 91)
Education École Nationale des Chartes (MA)
Indiana University (PhD)
Known for Fundamental anthropology
Mimetic desire
Mimetic double bind
Scapegoat mechanism as the origin of sacrifice and foundation of human culture
Girard's theory of group conflict
Spouse(s)Martha Girard [1]
Awards Académie française (Seat 37)
Knight of the Légion d’honneur
Commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
Scientific career
Institutions Duke University,
Bryn Mawr College,
Johns Hopkins University,
State University of New York at Buffalo,
Stanford University
Doctoral studentsSandor Goodhart
Other notable students Gamaliel Altamirano Cancino, Peter Thiel, Andrew Feenberg
Influences Claude Lévi-Strauss
Signature Rene Girard.svg

René Noël Théophile Girard ( /ʒɪəˈrɑːrd/ ; [2] French:  [ʒiʁaʁ] ; 25 December 1923 – 4 November 2015) was a Frenchhistorian, literary critic, and philosopher of social science whose work belongs to the tradition of anthropological philosophy. Girard was the author of nearly thirty books, with his writings spanning many academic domains. Although the reception of his work is different in each of these areas, there is a growing body of secondary literature on his work and his influence on disciplines such as literary criticism, critical theory, anthropology, theology, psychology, mythology, sociology, economics, cultural studies, and philosophy.

Historian person who studies and writes about the past

A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past, and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race; as well as the study of all history in time. If the individual is concerned with events preceding written history, the individual is a historian of prehistory. Some historians are recognized by publications or training and experience. "Historian" became a professional occupation in the late nineteenth century as research universities were emerging in Germany and elsewhere.

The philosophy of social science is the study of the logic, methods, and foundations of social sciences such as psychology, economics, and political science. Philosophers of social science are concerned with the differences and similarities between the social and the natural sciences, causal relationships between social phenomena, the possible existence of social laws, and the ontological significance of structure and agency.

Literary criticism study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature

Literary criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. Modern literary criticism is often influenced by literary theory, which is the philosophical discussion of literature's goals and methods. Though the two activities are closely related, literary critics are not always, and have not always been, theorists.


Girard's fundamental ideas, which he developed throughout his career and provided the foundation for his thinking, were that desire is mimetic (i.e., all of our desires are borrowed from other people); that all conflict originates in mimetic desire (mimetic rivalry); that the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry; and that the Bible reveals these ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism.

Mimesis is a term used in literary criticism and philosophy that carries a wide range of meanings which include imitatio, imitation, nonsensuous similarity, receptivity, representation, mimicry, the act of expression, the act of resembling, and the presentation of the self.

Culture Social behavior and norms found in society

Culture is the social behavior and norms found in human societies. Culture is considered a central concept in anthropology, encompassing the range of phenomena that are transmitted through social learning in human societies. Cultural universals are found in all human societies; these include expressive forms like art, music, dance, ritual, religion, and technologies like tool usage, cooking, shelter, and clothing. The concept of material culture covers the physical expressions of culture, such as technology, architecture and art, whereas the immaterial aspects of culture such as principles of social organization, mythology, philosophy, literature, and science comprise the intangible cultural heritage of a society.

Girard was professor at Johns Hopkins University from 1957 to 1981, and subsequently at Stanford University. He was also a member of the Académie française from 2005 until his death on 4 November 2015.

Johns Hopkins University Private research university in Baltimore, Maryland

Johns Hopkins University is a private research university in Baltimore, Maryland. Founded in 1876, the university was named for its first benefactor, the American entrepreneur, abolitionist, and philanthropist Johns Hopkins. His $7 million bequest —of which half financed the establishment of Johns Hopkins Hospital—was the largest philanthropic gift in the history of the United States up to that time. Daniel Coit Gilman, who was inaugurated as the institution's first president on February 22, 1876, led the university to revolutionize higher education in the U.S. by integrating teaching and research. Adopting the concept of a graduate school from Germany's ancient Heidelberg University, Johns Hopkins University is considered the first research university in the United States. Over the course of several decades, the university has led all U.S. universities in annual research and development expenditures. In fiscal year 2016, Johns Hopkins spent nearly $2.5 billion on research.

Stanford University private research university located in Stanford, California, United States

Leland Stanford Junior University is a private research university in Stanford, California. Stanford is known for its academic strength, wealth, proximity to Silicon Valley, and ranking as one of the world's top universities.

Académie française Pre-eminent council for the French language

The Académie française is the pre-eminent French council for matters pertaining to the French language. The Académie was officially established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. Suppressed in 1793 during the French Revolution, it was restored as a division of the Institut de France in 1803 by Napoleon Bonaparte. It is the oldest of the five académies of the institute.


Girard was born in Avignon on 25 December 1923. [lower-alpha 1] Between 1943 and 1947, he studied medieval history at the École des Chartes, Paris. The subject of his thesis was "Private life in Avignon in the second half of the fifteenth century" ("La vie privée à Avignon dans la seconde moitié du XVe siècle"). [3] [ page needed ]

In 1947, Girard went to Indiana University on a one-year fellowship. He was to spend most of his career in the United States. He received his PhD in 1950 and stayed at Indiana University until 1953. The subject of his PhD at Indiana University was "American Opinion of France, 1940–1943". [3] Although his research was in history, he was also assigned to teach French literature, the field in which he would first make his reputation as a literary critic by publishing influential essays on such authors as Albert Camus and Marcel Proust.

Indiana University university system, Indiana, U.S.

Indiana University (IU) is a multi-campus public university system in the state of Indiana, United States. Indiana University has a combined student body of more than 110,000 students, which includes approximately 46,000 students enrolled at the Indiana University Bloomington campus.

French literature is, generally speaking, literature written in the French language, particularly by citizens of France; it may also refer to literature written by people living in France who speak traditional languages of France other than French. Literature written in French language, by citizens of other nations such as Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, Senegal, Algeria, Morocco, etc. is referred to as Francophone literature. France itself ranks first in the list of Nobel Prizes in literature by country.

Albert Camus French author and journalist

Albert Camus was a French philosopher, author, and journalist. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature at the age of 44 in 1957, the second youngest recipient in history.

Girard occupied positions at Duke University and Bryn Mawr College from 1953 to 1957, after which he moved to Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, where he became a full professor in 1961. In that year, he also published his first book: Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Deceit, Desire and the Novel, 1966). For several years, he moved back and forth between the State University of New York at Buffalo and Johns Hopkins University. Books he published in this period include La Violence et le sacré (1972; Violence and the Sacred , 1977) and Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde (1978; Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World , 1987).

Duke University Private university in Durham, North Carolina, United States

Duke University is a private research university in Durham, North Carolina. Founded by Methodists and Quakers in the present-day town of Trinity in 1838, the school moved to Durham in 1892. In 1924, tobacco and electric power industrialist James Buchanan Duke established The Duke Endowment and the institution changed its name to honor his deceased father, Washington Duke.

Bryn Mawr College Historically womens liberal arts college in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, US

Bryn Mawr College is a women's liberal arts college in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Founded as a Quaker institution in 1885, Bryn Mawr is one of the Seven Sister colleges and the Tri-College Consortium. The college has an enrollment of about 1,350 undergraduate students and 450 graduate students.

<i>Violence and the Sacred</i> book by René Girard

Violence and the Sacred is a 1972 book by the French anthropologist René Girard. The book received both positive and mixed reviews.

In 1981, Girard became Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature, and Civilization at Stanford University, where he stayed until his retirement in 1995. During this period, he published Le Bouc émissaire (1982), La route antique des hommes pervers (1985), A Theatre of Envy: William Shakespeare (1991) and Quand ces choses commenceront ... (1994).

In 1985, he received his first honorary degree from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands; several others followed.

In 1990, a group of scholars founded the Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R) with a goal to "explore, criticize, and develop the mimetic model of the relationship between violence and religion in the genesis and maintenance of culture." [4] [5] This organization organizes a yearly conference devoted to topics related to mimetic theory, scapegoating, violence, and religion. Girard was Honorary Chair of COV&R. Co-founder and first president of the COV&R was the Roman Catholic theologian Raymund Schwager.

René Girard's work has inspired interdisciplinary research projects and experimental research such as the Mimetic Theory project sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. [6]

On 17 March 2005, Girard was elected to the Académie française.

On 4 November 2015, he died at his residence in Stanford, California, following a long illness. [1]

Girard's thought

Mimetic desire

After almost a decade of teaching French literature in the United States, Girard began to develop a new way of speaking about literary texts. Beyond the "uniqueness" of individual works, he looked for their common structural properties, having observed that characters in great fiction evolved in a system of relationships otherwise common to the wider generality of novels. But there was a distinction to be made:

Only the great writers succeed in painting these mechanisms faithfully, without falsifying them: we have here a system of relationships that paradoxically, or rather not paradoxically at all, has less variability the greater a writer is. [7]

So there did indeed exist "psychological laws" as Proust calls them. [8] These laws and this system are the consequences of a fundamental reality grasped by the novelists, which Girard called mimetic desire, "the mimetic character of desire." This is the content of his first book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel (1961). We borrow our desires from others. Far from being autonomous, our desire for a certain object is always provoked by the desire of another person—the model—for this same object. This means that the relationship between the subject and the object is not direct: there is always a triangular relationship of subject, model, and object. Through the object, one is drawn to the model, whom Girard calls the mediator: it is in fact the model who is sought. Girard calls desire "metaphysical" in the measure that, as soon as a desire is something more than a simple need or appetite, "all desire is a desire to be", [7] it is an aspiration, the dream of a fullness attributed to the mediator.

Mediation is external when the mediator of the desire is socially beyond the reach of the subject or, for example, a fictional character, as in the case of Amadis de Gaula and Don Quixote. The hero lives a kind of folly that nonetheless remains optimistic. Mediation is internal when the mediator is at the same level as the subject. The mediator then transforms into a rival and an obstacle to the acquisition of the object, whose value increases as the rivalry grows. This is the universe of the novels of Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust and Dostoevsky, which are particularly studied in this book.

Through their characters, our own behaviour is displayed. Everyone holds firmly to the illusion of the authenticity of one's own desires; the novelists implacably expose all the diversity of lies, dissimulations, maneuvers, and the snobbery of the Proustian heroes; these are all but "tricks of desire", which prevent one from facing the truth: envy and jealousy. These characters, desiring the being of the mediator, project upon him superhuman virtues while at the same time depreciating themselves, making him a god while making themselves slaves, in the measure that the mediator is an obstacle to them. Some, pursuing this logic, come to seek the failures that are the signs of the proximity of the ideal to which they aspire. This can manifest as a heightened experience of the universal pseudo-masochism inherent in seeking the unattainable, which can, of course, turn into sadism should the actor play this part in reverse[ citation needed ].

This fundamental focus on mimetic desire would be pursued by Girard throughout the rest of his career. The stress on imitation in humans was not a popular subject when Girard developed his theories,[ citation needed ] but today there is independent support for his claims coming from empirical research in psychology and neuroscience (see below). Farneti (2013) also discusses the role of mimetic desire in intractable conflicts, using the case study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and referencing Girard's theory. He posits that intensified conflict is a product of the imitative behaviors of Israelis and Palestinians, entitling them "Siamese twins". [9]

Fundamental anthropology

Since the mimetic rivalry that develops from the struggle for the possession of the objects is contagious, it leads to the threat of violence. Girard himself says, "If there is a normal order in societies, it must be the fruit of an anterior crisis." [10] Turning his interest towards the anthropological domain, Girard began to study anthropological literature and proposed his second great hypothesis: the scapegoat mechanism, which is at the origin of archaic religion and which he sets forth in his second book Violence and the Sacred (1972), a work on fundamental anthropology. [11]

If two individuals desire the same thing, there will soon be a third, then a fourth. This process quickly snowballs. Since from the beginning desire is aroused by the other (and not by the object) the object is soon forgotten and the mimetic conflict transforms into a general antagonism. At this stage of the crisis the antagonists will no longer imitate each other's desires for an object, but each other's antagonism. They wanted to share the same object, but now they want to destroy the same enemy. So, a paroxysm of violence would tend to focus on an arbitrary victim and a unanimous antipathy would, mimetically, grow against him. The brutal elimination of the victim would reduce the appetite for violence that possessed everyone a moment before, and leaves the group suddenly appeased and calm. The victim lies before the group, appearing simultaneously as the origin of the crisis and as the one responsible for this miracle of renewed peace. He becomes sacred, that is to say the bearer of the prodigious power of defusing the crisis and bringing peace back. Girard believes this to be the genesis of archaic religion, of ritual sacrifice as the repetition of the original event, of myth as an account of this event, of the taboos that forbid access to all the objects at the origin of the rivalries that degenerated into this absolutely traumatizing crisis. This religious elaboration takes place gradually over the course of the repetition of the mimetic crises whose resolution brings only a temporary peace. The elaboration of the rites and of the taboos constitutes a kind of empirical knowledge about violence.[ citation needed ]

Although explorers and anthropologists have not been able to witness events similar to these, which go back to the earliest times, indirect evidence for them abounds, such as the universality of ritual sacrifice and the innumerable myths that have been collected from the most varied peoples. If Girard's theory is true, then we will find in myths the culpability of the victim-god, depictions of the selection of the victim, and his power to beget the order that governs the group. Girard found these elements in numerous myths, beginning with that of Oedipus which he analyzed in this and later books. On this question he opposes Claude Lévi-Strauss.[ citation needed ]

The phrase "scapegoat mechanism" was not coined by Girard himself; it had been used earlier by Kenneth Burke in Permanence and Change (1935) and A Grammar of Motives (1940). However, Girard took this concept from Burke and developed it much more extensively as an interpretation of human culture.[ citation needed ]

In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), Girard develops the implications of this discovery. The victimary process is the missing link between the animal world and the human world, the principle that explains the humanization of primates. It allows us to understand the need for sacrificial victims, which in turn explains the hunt which is primitively ritual, and the domestication of animals as a fortuitous result of the acclimatization of a reserve of victims, or agriculture. It shows that at the beginning of all culture is archaic religion, which Durkheim had sensed. [12] The elaboration of the rites and taboos by proto-human or human groups would take infinitely varied forms while obeying a rigorous practical sense that we can detect: the prevention of the return of the mimetic crisis. So we can find in archaic religion the origin of all political or cultural institutions.

According to Girard, just as the theory of natural selection of species is the rational principle that explains the immense diversity of forms of life, the victimization process is the rational principle that explains the origin of the infinite diversity of cultural forms. The analogy with Darwin also extends to the scientific status of the theory, as each of these presents itself as a hypothesis that is not capable of being proven experimentally, given the extreme amounts of time necessary for the production of the phenomena in question, but which imposes itself by its great explanatory power.

Origin of language

According to Girard, the origin of language is also related to scapegoating. After the first victim, after the murder of the first scapegoat, there were the first prohibitions and rituals, but these came into being before representation and language, hence before culture. And that means that "people" (perhaps not human beings) "will not start fighting again." [13] Girard says:

If mimetic disruption comes back, our instinct will tell us to do again what the sacred has done to save us, which is to kill the scapegoat. Therefore it would be the force of substitution of immolating another victim instead of the first. But the relationship of this process with representation is not one that can be defined in a clear-cut way. This process would be one that moves towards representation of the sacred, towards definition of the ritual as ritual and prohibition as prohibition. But this process would already begin prior the representation, you see, because it is directly produced by the experience of the misunderstood scapegoat. [13]

According to Girard, the substitution of an immolated victim for the first, is "the very first symbolic sign created by the hominids." [14] Girard also says this is the first time that one thing represents another thing, standing in the place of this (absent) one. This substitution is the beginning of representation and language, but also the beginning of sacrifice and ritual. The genesis of language and ritual is very slow and we must imagine that there are also kinds of rituals among the animals: "It is the originary scapegoating which prolongs itself in a process which can be infinitely long in moving from, how should I say, from instinctive ritualization, instinctive prohibition, instinctive separation of the antagonists, which you already find to a certain extent in animals, towards representation." [13]

Unlike Eric Gans, Girard does not think that there is an original scene during which there is "a sudden shift from non-representation to representation," [13] or a sudden shift from animality to humanity. According to the French sociologist Camille Tarot, it is hard to understand how the process of representation (symbolicity, language...) actually occurs and he has called this a black box in Girard's theory. [15]

Girard also says:

One great characteristic of man is what they [the authors of the modern theory of evolution] call neoteny, the fact that the human infant is born premature, with an open skull, no hair and a total inability to fend for himself. To keep it alive, therefore, there must be some form of cultural protection, because in the world of mammals, such infants would not survive, they would be destroyed. Therefore there is a reason to believe that in the later stages of human evolution, culture and nature are in constant interaction. The first stages of this interaction must occur prior to language, but they must include forms of sacrifice and prohibition that create a space of non-violence around the mother and the children which make it possible to reach still higher stages of human development. You can postulate as many such stages as are needed. Thus, you can have a transition between ethology and anthropology which removes, I think, all philosophical postulates. The discontinuities would never be of such a nature as to demand some kind of sudden intellectual illumination. [13]

Judeo-Christian scriptures

Biblical text as a science of man

In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Girard discusses for the first time Christianity and the Bible. The Gospels ostensibly present themselves as a typical mythical account, with a victim-god lynched by a unanimous crowd, an event that is then commemorated by Christians through ritual sacrifice — a material re-presentation in this case — in the Eucharist. The parallel is perfect except for one detail: the truth of the innocence of the victim is proclaimed by the text and the writer. The mythical account is usually built on the lie of the guilt of the victim in as much as it is an account of the event seen from the viewpoint of the anonymous lynchers. This ignorance is indispensable to the efficacy of the sacrificial violence.[ citation needed ]

The evangelical "good news" clearly affirms the innocence of the victim, thus becoming, by attacking ignorance, the germ of the destruction of the sacrificial order on which rests the equilibrium of societies. Already the Old Testament shows this turning inside-out of the mythic accounts with regard to the innocence of the victims (Abel, Joseph, Job…), and the Hebrews were conscious of the uniqueness of their religious tradition. With the Gospels, it is with full clarity that are unveiled these "things hidden since the foundation of the world" (Matthew 13:35), the foundation of social order on murder, described in all its repulsive ugliness in the account of the Passion.[ citation needed ]

This revelation is even clearer because the text is a work on desire and violence, from the serpent setting alight the desire of Eve in paradise to the prodigious strength of the mimetism that brings about the denial of Peter during the Passion (Mark 14: 66–72; Luke 22:54–62). Girard reinterprets certain biblical expressions in light of his theories; for instance, he sees "scandal" ( skandalon , literally, a "snare", or an "impediment placed in the way and causing one to stumble or fall" [16] ) as signifying mimetic rivalry, for example Peter's denial of Jesus. [17] No one escapes responsibility, neither the envious nor the envied: "Woe to the man through whom scandal comes" (Matthew 18:7).[ citation needed ]

Christian society

The evangelical revelation contains the truth on the violence, available for two thousand years, Girard tells us. Has it put an end to the sacrificial order based on violence in the society that has claimed the gospel text as its own religious text? No, he replies, since in order for a truth to have an impact it must find a receptive listener, and people do not change that quickly. The gospel text has instead acted as a ferment that brings about the decomposition of the sacrificial order. While medieval Europe showed the face of a sacrificial society that still knew very well how to despise and ignore its victims, nonetheless the efficacy of sacrificial violence has never stopped decreasing, in the measure that ignorance receded. Here Girard sees the principle of the uniqueness and of the transformations of the Western society whose destiny today is one with that of human society as a whole.[ citation needed ]

Does the retreat of the sacrificial order mean less violence? Not at all; rather, it deprives modern societies of most of the capacity of sacrificial violence to establish temporary order. The "innocence" of the time of the ignorance is no more. On the other hand, Christianity, following the example of Judaism, has desacralized the world, making possible a utilitarian relationship with nature. Increasingly threatened by the resurgence of mimetic crises on a grand scale, the contemporary world is on one hand more quickly caught up by its guilt, and on the other hand has developed such a great technical power of destruction that it is condemned to both more and more responsibility and less and less innocence. So, for example, while empathy for victims manifests progress in the moral conscience of society, it nonetheless also takes the form of a competition among victims that threatens an escalation of violence.[ citation needed ]


Psychology and neuroscience

Jean-Michel Oughourlian in his book A mime named desire (Un mime nommé désir - Grasset 1982) has used Girard's theories in psychopathology. Hysteria and obsession are explained through mimetic rivalry and the priority of desire.

Girard's work is also attracting increasing interest from empirical researchers investigating human imitation (among them Andrew Meltzoff and Vittorio Gallese). Recently, empirical studies into the mechanism of desire have suggested some intriguing correlations with Girard's theory on the subject. For instance, clinical psychologist Scott R. Garrels wrote:

What makes Girard's insights so remarkable is that he not only discovered and developed the primordial role of psychological mimesis (...) during a time when imitation was quite out of fashion, but he did so through investigation in literature, cultural anthropology, history, and ultimately returning to religious texts for further evidence of mimetic phenomena. The parallels between Girard's insights and the only recent conclusions made by empirical researchers concerning imitation (in both development and the evolution of species) are extraordinary (...). [18]

Economics and globalization

The mimetic theory has also been applied in the study of economics, most notably in La violence de la monnaie (1982) by Michel Aglietta and André Orléan. Orléan was also a contributor to the volume René Girard in Les cahiers de l'Herne ("Pour une approche girardienne de l'homo oeconomicus"). [19] According to the philosopher of technology Andrew Feenberg:

In La violence de la monnaie, Aglietta and Orléan follow Girard in suggesting that the basic relation of exchange can be interpreted as a conflict of 'doubles', each mediating the desire of the Other. Like Lucien Goldmann, they see a connection between Girard's theory of mimetic desire and the Marxian theory of commodity fetishism. In their theory, the market takes the place of the sacred in modern life as the chief institutional mechanism stabilizing the otherwise explosive conflicts of desiring subjects. [20]

In an interview with the Unesco Courier, anthropologist and social theorist Mark Anspach (editor of the René Girard issue of Les Cahiers de l'Herne) explains that Aglietta and Orléan (who were very critical of economic rationality) see the classical theory of economics as a myth. According to Anspach, the vicious circle of violence and vengeance generated by mimetic rivalry gives rise to the gift economy, as a means to overcome it and achieve a peaceful reciprocity: "Instead of waiting for your neighbour to come steal your yams, you offer them to him today, and it is up to him to do the same for you tomorrow. Once you have made a gift, he is obliged to make a return gift. Now you have set in motion a positive circularity." [21] Since the gift may be so large as to be humiliating, a second stage of development—"economic rationality"—is required: this liberates the seller and the buyer of any other obligations than to give money. Thus reciprocal violence is eliminated by the sacrifice, obligations of vengeance by the gift, and finally the possibly dangerous gift by "economic rationality." This rationality, however, creates new victims, as globalization is increasingly revealing.


Girard's influence extends beyond philosophy and social science, and includes the literary realm. A prominent example of a fiction writer influenced by Girard is J. M. Coetzee, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. Critics have noted that mimetic desire and scapegoating are recurring themes in Coetzee's novels Elizabeth Costello and Disgrace. In the latter work, the book's protagonist also gives a speech about the history of scapegoating with noticeable similarities to Girard's view of the same subject. Coetzee has also frequently cited Girard in his non-fiction essays, on subjects ranging from advertising to the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. [22]



Some critics have pointed out that while Girard may be the first to have suggested that all desire is mimetic, he is by no means the first to have noticed that some desire is mimetic – Gabriel Tarde's book Les lois de l'imitation (The Laws of Imitation) appeared in 1890. Building on Tarde, crowd psychology, Nietzsche, and more generally on a modernist tradition of the "mimetic unconscious" that had hypnosis as its via regia, Nidesh Lawtoo argued that for the modernists not only desire but all affects turn out to be contagious and mimetic. [23] René Pommier [24] mentions La Rochefoucauld, a seventeenth-century thinker who already wrote that "Nothing is so infectious as example" and that "There are some who never would have loved if they never had heard it spoken of." [25]

Stéphane Vinolo sees Baruch Spinoza and Thomas Hobbes as important precursors. Hobbes: "if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies." [26] Spinoza: "By the very fact that we conceive a thing, which is like ourselves, and which we have not regarded with any emotion, to be affected with any emotion, we are ourselves affected with a like emotion. [27] Proof… If we conceive anyone similar to ourselves as affected by any emotion, this conception will express a modification of our body similar to that emotion." [28]

Wolfgang Palaver adds Alexis de Tocqueville to the list. "Two hundred years after Hobbes, the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville mentioned the dangers coming along with equality, too. Like Hobbes, he refers to the increase of mimetic desire coming along with equality." [29] Palaver has in mind passages like this one, from Tocqueville's Democracy in America : "They have swept away the privileges of some of their fellow creatures which stood in their way, but they have opened the door to universal competition; the barrier has changed its shape rather than its position." [30]

Maurizio Meloni highlights the similarities between Girard, Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud. [31] Meloni claims that these similarities arise because the projects undertaken by the three men—namely, to understand the role of mythology in structuring the human psyche and culture—were very similar. What is more, both Girard and Lacan read these myths through the lens of structural anthropology so it is not surprising that their intellectual systems came to resemble one another so strongly. Meloni writes that Girard and Lacan were "moved by similar preoccupations and are fascinated by and attracted to the same kind of issues: the constituent character of the other in the structure of desire, the role of jealousy and rivalry in the construction of the social bond, the proliferation of triangles within apparently dual relations, doubles and mirrors, imitation and the Imaginary, and the crisis of modern society within which the 'rite of Oedipus' is situated."

At times, Girard acknowledges his indebtedness to such precursors, including Tocqueville. [32] At other times, however, Girard makes stronger claims to originality, as when he says that mimetic rivalry "is responsible for the frequency and intensity of human conflicts, but strangely, no one ever speaks of it." [33]

Use of evidence

Girard has presented his view as being scientifically grounded: "Our theory should be approached, then, as one approaches any scientific hypothesis." [34] René Pommier has written a book about Girard with the ironic title Girard Ablaze Rather Than Enlightened in which he asserts that Girard's readings of myths and Bible stories—the basis of some of his most important claims—are often tendentious. Girard notes, for example, that the disciples actively turn against Jesus. [35] Since Peter warms himself by a fire, and fires always create community, and communities breed mimetic desire, this means that Peter becomes actively hostile to Jesus, seeking his death. [36] According to Pommier, Girard claims that the Gospels present the Crucifixion as a purely human affair, with no indication of Christ dying for the sins of mankind, a claim contradicted by Mark 10:45, Matthew 20:28. [37]

The same goes for readings of literary texts, says Pommier. For example, Molière's Don Juan only pursues one love object for mediated reasons, [38] not all of them, as Girard claims. [39] Or again, Sancho Panza wants an island not because he is catching the bug of romanticism from Don Quixote, but because he has been promised one. [40] And Pavel Pavlovitch, in Dostoevsky's Eternal Husband, has been married for ten years before Veltchaninov becomes his rival, so Veltchaninov is not in fact essential to Pavel's desire. [41]

Accordingly, a number of scholars have suggested that Girard's writings are metaphysics rather than science. Theorist of history Hayden White did so in an article titled "Ethnological 'Lie' and Mystical 'Truth'"; [42] Belgian anthropologist Luc de Heusch made a similar claim in his piece "L'Evangile selon Saint-Girard" ("The Gospel according to Saint Girard"); [43] and Jean Greisch sees Girard's thought as more or less a kind of Gnosis. [44]

Non-mimetic desires

René Pommier has pointed out a number of problems with the Girardian claim that all desire is mimetic. First, it is very hard to explain the existence of taboo desires, such as homosexuality in repressive societies, on that basis. [45] In Girard's defence on the other hand, Jean-Michel Oughourlian exemplifies the situation by noting that "one homosexual admitted to me that he just wanted to be somebody else."

Second, every situation presents large numbers of potential mediators, which means that the individual has to make a choice among them; either authentic choice is possible, then, or else the theory leads to a regress. [46] Third, Girard leaves no room for innovation: Surely somebody has to be the first to desire a new object, even if everyone else follows that trend-setter. [47]

It should be noted that it is not clear that the first objection really provides a challenge to Girard's theory, as even in repressive societies men are still desired (albeit by women). However, such a response leaves unexplained why homosexuals would imitate the desires of heterosexual members of the opposite sex. [48] One might also argue that the last objection ignores the influence of an original sin from which all others follow, which Girard clearly affirms. However, original sin, according to Girard's interpretation, explains only our propensity to imitate, not the specific content of our imitated desires. [49] Thus, the doctrine of original sin does not solve the problem of how the original model first acquires the desire that is subsequently imitated by others.

Beneficial imitation

In the early part of Girard's career, there seemed no place for beneficial imitation. Jean-Michel Oughourlian objected that "imitation can be totally peaceful and beneficial; I don't believe that I am the other, I don't want to take his place. …This imitation can lead me to become sensitive to social and political problems." [50] Rebecca Adams argued that because Girard's theories fixated on violence, he was creating a "scapegoat" himself with his own theory: the scapegoat of positive mimesis. Adams proposed a reassessment of Girard's theory that includes an account of loving mimesis or, as she preferred to call it, creative mimesis. [51]

More recently, Girard has made room for positive imitation. [52] But as Adams implies, it is not clear how the revised theory accords with earlier claims about the origin of culture. If beneficial imitation is possible, then it is no longer necessary for cultures to be born by means of scapegoating; they could just as well be born through healthy emulation. Nidesh Lawtoo further develops the healthy side of mimetic contagion by drawing on a Nietzschean philosophical tradition that privileges "laughter" and other gay forms of "sovereign communication" in the formation of "community." [53]


Various anthropologists have contested Girard's claims. Elizabeth Traube, for example, reminds us that there are other ways of making sense of the data that Girard borrows from Evans-Pritchard and company—ways that are more consistent with the practices of the given culture. By applying a one-size-fits-all approach, Girard "loses … the ability to tell us anything about cultural products themselves, for the simple reason that he has annihilated the cultures which produced them." [54]


One of the main sources of criticism of Girard's work comes from intellectuals who claim that his comparison of Judeo-Christian texts vis-à-vis other religions leaves something to be desired. [55] There are also those who find the interpretation of the Christ event—as a purely human event, having nothing to do with redemption from sin—an unconvincing one, given what the Gospels themselves say. [37] Yet, Roger Scruton notes, Girard's account has a divine Jesus: "that Jesus was the first scapegoat to understand the need for his death and to forgive those who inflicted it … Girard argues, Jesus gave the best evidence … of his divine nature." [56]

Honours and awards


This section only lists book-length publications that René Girard wrote or edited. For articles and interviews by René Girard, the reader can refer to the database maintained at the University of Innsbruck. Some of the books below reprint articles (To Double Business Bound, 1978; Oedipus Unbound, 2004; Mimesis and Theory, 2008) or are based on articles (A Theatre of Envy, 1991).

See also


  1. Noël, his second name, is also French for "Christmas", the day on which he was born.

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  1. 1 2 Haven, Cynthia (November 4, 2015). "Stanford professor and eminent French theorist René Girard, member of the Académie Française, dies at 91". Stanford University . Retrieved November 4, 2015.
  2. "René Girard CBC interview part 1 of 5 (audio only)"
  3. 1 2 An excerpt from this thesis was reprinted in the René Girard issue of Les Cahiers de l'Herne (2008).
  4. 'The rationale for and goals of "The Bulletin of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion"' COV&R-Bulletin No. 1 (September 1991)
  5. "Constitution and By-Laws of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion" COV&R-Bulletin No. 6 (March 1994)
  6. Imitation, Mimetic Theory, and Religions and Cultural Evolution - A Templeton Advanced Research Program, Mimetic theory.
  7. 1 2 Girard 1994, p. 32.
  8. For example in Time Regained (Le Temps retrouvé, volume 7 of Remembrance of Things Past): "It is the feeling for the general in the potential writer, which selects material suitable to a work of art because of its generality. He only pays attention to others, however dull and tiresome, because in repeating what their kind say like parrots, they are for that very reason prophetic birds, spokesmen of a psychological law." In French: "...c'est le sentiment du général qui dans l'écrivain futur choisit lui-même ce qui est général et pourra entrer dans l'œuvre d'art. Car il n'a écouté les autres que quand, si bêtes ou si fous qu'ils fussent, répétant comme des perroquets ce que disent les gens de caractère semblable, ils s'étaient faits par là même les oiseaux prophètes, les porte-paroles d'une loi psychologique."
  9. Roberto Farneti, Mimetic politics (Michigan State University Press 2015), pp. 34-38, 58-65, 69-71.
  10. Girard 1994, p. 29.
  11. Thomas Ryba (ed.), René Girard and Creative Reconciliation, Lexington Books, 2014, p. 19.
  12. Durkheim, Emile (1915). The elementary forms of the religious life, a study in religious sociology. London: G. Allen & Unwin. Retrieved 2014-05-19.
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 Müller, Markus (June 1996), "Interview with René Girard", Anthropoetics, II (1), retrieved November 1, 2008.
  14. Girard 2004 , p. 157. "premier signe symbolique jamais inventé par les hominidés"
  15. Tarot, Camille (2008), Le symbolique et le sacré[The symbolic & the sacred] (in French), Paris: La Découverte, p. 860.
  16. "Skandalon", The New Testament Greek Lexicon, Study light.
  17. Girard, René (April 1996), "Are the Gospels Mythical?", First Things.
  18. Garrels, Scott R (1 May 2004), Imitation, Mirror Neurons, & Mimetic Desire: Convergent Support for the Work of Rene Girard (PDF), p. 29, archived from the original (PDF) on 27 March 2009 (an earlier version of the paper that appeared as Garrels, Scott R (2006), "Imitation, Mirror Neurons and Mimetic Desire: Convergence between the Mimetic Theory of René Girard and Empirical Research on Imitation" (PDF), Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, 12-13: 47–86, archived from the original (PDF) on 2009-03-27).
  19. René Girard, Cahier de L'Herne (89), pp. 261–65.
  20. Feenberg, Andrew (1988), "Fetishism and Form: Erotic and Economic Disorder in Literature", in Dumouchel, Paul (ed.), Violence and Truth, Athlone Press & Stanford University Press, pp. 134–51.
  21. Anspach, Mark (May 2001), Blanc, Yannick; Bessières, Michel (eds.), "Global markets, anonymous victims" (PDF), The UNESCO Courrier (interview), archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-11-19.
  22. Andy Lamey, "Sympathy and Scapegoating in J. M. Coetzee," in J. M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, Anton Leist and Peter Singer eds. (New York: Columbia University Press 2010). For Girard's influence on Coetzee, see pages 181-5.
  23. Nidesh Lawtoo, The Phantom of the Ego: Modernism and the Mimetic Unconscious, East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013.
  24. René Girard, Un allumé qui se prend pour un phare, Paris: Kimé, 2010, p. 42
  25. La Rochefoucauld, "Maxims," maxims 230, 136.
  26. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, I,13, World's classic, Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 83. Quoted by S.Vinolo in S.Vinolo René Girard: du mimétisme à l'hominisation, pp. 33–34
  27. Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata Part. III Prop. XXVII : "Ex eo, quod rem nobis similem, et quam nullo affectu prosecuti sumus, aliquo affecti imaginamur, eo ipso simili affectu afficimur" quoted by Stéphane Vinolo, René Girard: du mimétisme à l'hominisation, L'Harmattan, Paris, 2005, p. 20 ISBN   2-7475-9047-X. English translation H. M. Elwes's 1883 English translation The Ethics – Part III On the Origin and Nature of the Emotions
  28. H. M. Elwes's 1883 English translation The Ethics – Part III On the Origin and Nature of the Emotions.
  29. Wolfgang Palaver: De la violence: une approche mimétique Traduit de l'anglais par Paul Dumouchel. In Paul Dumouchel (Directeur), Comprendre pour agir: violences, victimes et vengeances. Paris: L'Harmattan, 2000, pp. 89–110. ISBN   2-7637-7771-6 English version
  30. Tocqueville, Alexis de (1835). "Causes Of The Restless Spirit Of Americans In The Midst Of Their Prosperity". Democracy in America. 2. Translated by Reeve, Henry.
  31. M Meloni: A Triangle of Thoughts: Girard, Freud, Lacan, Psychomedia
  32. René Girard. 1965. Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure Translated by Y. Freccero, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1965 p. 120
  33. René Girard. 2001. Celui par qui le scandale arrive: Entretiens avec Maria Stella Barberi. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer. p. 19: "Dès que nous désirons ce que désire un modèle assez proche de nous dans le temps et dans l'espace, pour que l'objet convoité par lui passe à notre portée, nous nous efforçons de lui enlever cet objet | et la rivalité entre lui et nous est inévitable. C'est la rivalité mimétique. Elle peut atteindre un niveau d'intensité extraordinaire. Elle est responsable de la fréquence et de l'intensité des conflits humains, mais chose étrange, personne ne parle jamais d'elle."
  34. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, translated by Patrick Gregory, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977, p. 316.
  35. René Girard, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987, p. 167.
  36. René Pommier, "René Girard, Un allumé qui se prend pour un phare," Paris: Kimé, 2010, pp. 98-102.
  37. 1 2 René Pommier, "René Girard, Un allumé qui se prend pour un phare," Paris: Kimé, 2010, pp. 115-16.
  38. René Pommier, "René Girard, Un allumé qui se prend pour un phare," Paris: Kimé, 2010, p. 25.
  39. René Girard. 1965. Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure Translated by Y. Freccero, The Johns Hopkins University Press,Baltimore, 1965 p. 51
  40. René Pommier, "René Girard, Un allumé qui se prend pour un phare," Paris: Kimé, 2010, p. 27.
  41. René Pommier, "René Girard, Un allumé qui se prend pour un phare," Paris: Kimé, 2010, p. 45.
  42. Hayden White, "Ethnological 'Lie' and Mythical 'Truth'", Diacritics 8 (1978): 2-9, p. 7.
  43. Luc de Heusch: "L'Evangile selon Saint-Girard" Le Monde, 25 June 1982, p. 19.
  44. Jean Greisch "Une anthropologie fondamentale du rite: René Girard." in Le rite. PhilosophieInstitut catholique de Paris, présentation de Jean Greisch. Paris, Beauchesne, 1981.
  45. René Pommier, "René Girard, Un allumé qui se prend pour un phare," Paris: Kimé, 2010, p. 38.
  46. René Pommier, "René Girard, Un allumé qui se prend pour un phare," Paris: Kimé, 2010, pp. 33-34.
  47. René Pommier, "René Girard, Un allumé qui se prend pour un phare," Paris: Kimé, 2010, p. 18.
  48. René Girard's philosophy of romance is compared with Plato’s, Iain King's, and Arthur Schopenhauer’s in When Romance and Philosophy Meet (link to blog) retrieved 2013-12-02.
  49. Girard, René [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]. Retrieved on 2013-10-23.
  50. Jean-Michel Oughourlian: Genèse du désir. Paris: Carnets Nord, 2007, ISBN   978-2-35536-003-9. The French sentence goes: "L'imitation peut alors demeurer entièrement paisible et bénéfique; je ne me prends pas pour l'autre, je ne veux pas prendre sa place […] Cette imitation […] me conduira peut-être à me sensibiliser aux problèmes sociaux et politiques…
  51. Rebecca Adams (2000). "Loving Mimesis and Girard's "Scapegoat of the Text": A Creative Reassessment of Mimetic Desire" (PDF). Pandora Press US. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2009-03-27. Retrieved 2008-07-09.
  52. René Girard, The Girard Reader, Trans. Yvonne Freccero, Ed. James G. Williams, New York: Crossroad Herder, 1996, pp. 63–64, 269.
  53. Nidesh Lawtoo. The Phantom of the Ego: Modernism and the Mimetic Unconscious. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2007, pp. 284-304
  54. Elizabeth Traube, "Incest and Mythology: Anthropological and Girardian Perspectives, " The Berkshire Review 14 (1979): 37–54, pp. 49–50)
  55. E.g. see the criticisms in Violence and Truth: On the Work of René Girard, Paul Dumouchel ed., Stanford University Press, 1988
  56. Scruton, Roger (2014). The Soul of the World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 20.
  57. Università degli Studie di Padova: Honoris causa degrees Archived 2007-04-29 at the Wayback Machine
  58. Marie-Claude Bourdon: La violence et le sacré: L'Université remet un doctorat honoris causa au penseur René Girard iForum vol. 38 num. 28 (19 April 2004)
  59. University of St Andrews: Honorary degrees - June 2008.
  60. John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation: Fellows page: G Archived 2008-02-14 at the Wayback Machine
  61. Girard, René (2007). Wissenschaft und christlicher Glaube. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. p. 110. ISBN   978-3-16-149266-2.
  62. Simonse, Simon (April 2005), "Review of René Girard, Les origines de la culture" (PDF), COV&R Bulletin (26): 10–11, archived from the original (PDF) on 2009-03-27.

Further reading


Online videos of Girard

Interviews, articles and lectures by Girard

In chronological order.

Organizations inspired by mimetic theory

Other resources