Darwin of the Human Sciences: René Girard, 1923-2015

Rene Girard
René Girard (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)
René Girard, whose academic career began in literary theory, and whose own theory of mimesis influenced people ranging from J.M. Coetzee to the founder of PayPal, died last week at his home at Stanford in California. He was 91.

Despite the currency his ideas would gain — French President Francois Hollande described him as a “demanding and passionate intellectual” —  Girard was in some respects an outsider: a French-born academic teaching in the United States but mostly writing in French, a vocal Christian in a generally secular world, an explorer of novels who used the insights gained to theorize about social science.

“Girard influenced such writers as Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee and Czech writer Milan Kundera – yet he never had the fashionable (and often fleeting) cachet enjoyed by his peers among the structuralists, poststructuralists, deconstructionists and other camps,” wrote his biographer, Stanford’s Cynthia Haven, in a glowing memoriam on the Stanford website. “His concerns were not trendy, but they were always timeless.”

Haven went on to quote Stanford literary professor Robert Pogue Harrison:

I’ve said this for years: The best analogy for what René represents in anthropology and sociology is Heinrich Schliemann, who took Homer under his arm and discovered Troy. René had the same blind faith that the literary text held the literal truth. Like Schliemann, his major discovery was excoriated for using the wrong methods. Academic disciplines are more committed to methodology than truth.

In a long career that eventually saw him honored as Guggenheim Fellow, an immortel of L’Académie Française and a holder of Spain’s Order of Isabella the Catholic, it is tough to distill his scholarship into bullet points. Nonetheless, two theories, of mimetic desire and of the scapegoat mechanism, are firmly associated with him. In the former, explored in his first book, 1961’s Deceit, Desire and the Novel, suggested that human motivation, and hence behavior, is built around imitating what others already want. He used the term mimesis and called his contribution mimetic desire, and argued that while imitation itself can be benign, memesis can evolve into brutal competition.

To escape this downward spiral, Girard suggests a less brutal proxy can substitute for grand-scale violence. That proxy, the scapegoat, can unite competitors in a common goal – the attack on a shared enemy. The theory’s resemblance to Christianity’s story of Christ dying for our sins set many a critic’s teeth on edge.

Reflecting his Franco-American perch, Girard could often be nonchalant when criticized. As he said in 1981, “Theories are expendable. They should be criticized. When people tell me my work is too systematic, I say, ‘I make it as systematic as possible for you to be able to prove it wrong.'” (By the same token, he could describe his critics own pursuits as “the comprehensive unionization of failure.”)

His influence ranged far beyond literary theorists, into neuroscience, economics and psychology — — sometimes taking those disciplines unawares. As Girard himself wrote (in French) in the 1978 book, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World:

In the science of man and culture today there is a unilateral swerve away from anything that could be called mimicry, imitation or mimesis. And yet there is nothing, or next to nothing, in human behavior that is not learned, and all learning is based on imitation. If human beings suddenly ceased imitating, all forms of culture would vanish. Neurologists remind us frequently that the human brain is an enormous imitating machine.”

Fellow Stanford prof Michel Serres described Girard as the “Charles Darwin of the human sciences” in 2005 when Girard joined les immortels, and it seems that his reputation may prove more honored in the biological and social sciences for now than in philosophy.

Among his obituarists, many saw his greatness as flowing from standing on the shoulders of perhaps fictional giants, a perch they argued Girard would have appreciated. As Grant Kaplan at America: the American Catholic Review eulogized:

Even in taking full measure of Girard’s impact on the human and social sciences, it seems silly to label Girard a “genius.” Besides being a Romantic descriptive that Girard would have certainly abhorred, such a moniker ignores the fact that Girard’s great insight was not his at all. His primary talent was to notice how others captured the mimetic quality of human desire, and the consequences of this peculiarly human way of desiring.

René Noël Théophile Girard was born on December 25, 1923 in Avignon, France, where his father was for a time curator of Palais des Papes, the Palace of the Popes. That paternal influence appeared in Girard’s early career choice, as he became an archivist-librarian. He took a fellowship at Indiana University in 1947; while the fellowship was in his role as a historian, he taught French literature and began his real academic journey at that point.

After earning his doctorate at IU, he taught at Duke University, Bryn Mawr College, Johns Hopkins University and State University of New York at Buffalo until 1981, when accepted the position of Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature, and Civilization at Stanford, where he remained until retirement in 1995.

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