After Anatta : Towards a Girardian Ethics

AFTER ANATTA : TOWARDS A GIRARDIAN ETHICS

Introduction

Buddhism and Mimetic Theory — the two far-reaching outlooks on humans and the world have gained an increasing interest in both western academia and popular culture. Buddhism was initially cherished by Romantic Europe for its fantasised nihilistic tendencies, and today, more accurately, for its concern for compassion and detachment, and its philosophical uniqueness: emptiness. Mimetic Theory is a multi disciplinary field started by French thinker René Girard in the early 1960s, which today finds applications in literary theory, mythology, history, anthropology, theology, political sciences and even biology and psychology. Could the two dialogue? Is their simultaneous growth of popularity revealing an equal relevance in responding to certain key contemporary questions?

I have argued, in a recent research work, that this dialogue can, and should be undertaken. One way to do so is to explore their philosophical underpinnings, as an explicit metaphysics with Buddhism and as a set of implicit assumptions with Girard, in order to reach what I believed to be a profound compatibility of the Mimetic Theory with the Buddhist notion of Anattā. But both Mimetic Theory and Buddhism seem to be particularly careful as to not dwelling in abstract theory. Both for Girard and Buddhist practitioners, the ultimate focus is our actual actions and behaviours, a practical concern in the lack thereof, the whole theoretical construction collapses. In other words, Girard and Buddhism are equally preoccupied with the realm underlying moral thoughts, attitudes and actions, known in philosophy as ethics.

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I believe that after being a philosophical support with regards to its fundamental metaphysical views, Buddhism could, once again, be the unique philosophical tradition to corroborate, or, more, inspire Girard’s mimetic theory to bring it towards what is arguably its final efflorescence: an ethical theory.

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One obstacle: Girard does not provide a clear message as to his understanding and conceptualisation of ethics. He would even refuse to be called a philosopher. On the other hand, Buddhism is so practically oriented that, as David J. Kalupahana argued, for the Buddhists, ethics is primal to other philosophical spheres, such as even metaphysics, logic or aesthetics. 1 In other words, Buddhism is possibly the most ethically oriented of all major philosophies, and therefore particularly insightful for the construction of any ethical approach. I believe that after being a philosophical support with regards to its fundamental metaphysical views, Buddhism could, once again, be the unique philosophical tradition to corroborate, or, more, inspire Girard’s mimetic theory to bring it towards what is arguably its final efflorescence: an ethical theory.

This exploration, outlined in the present essay, requires three stages. First, I will summarise the method and findings of my previous essay on the metaphysical connections between Buddhism and Mimetic Theory. I will emphasise on two new terminological propositions: desire through rather than from the model, and an interrelated rather than mimetic desire. Second, I will look at how Girard and Buddhism respectively address the question of reason as a, or presumably the human faculty. We will discover how their view coincide, even at the level of the form of their messages. Third is the core of our reflection: the constitution of a Girardian Ethics, with the help of Buddhist views on the question. I will first highlight how a number of statements by Girard confirm that his concern is ultimately ethical. However, it is a very subtle, if not completely hidden concern of his: Girard displays what we may call an ethical silence. Nonetheless, I argue that one can interpret his thought in the direction of establishing non-violence as the first fundamental ethical principle in Girard’s work, and such, in accordance with the Buddhist perspective. Finally, I will attempt to find in Girard’s thoughts a more original and evocative proposition, and one which responds at once to shared misconceptions provoked by the ideas of mimesis and of inter-connectedness: the ethics of distance.

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References

Image courtesy: Kristin Duvall

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Footnotes

  1. David J. Kalupahana, The Principles of Buddhist Psychology (New York: SUNY Press, 1987): 147.