Science and Interpretation:
 Girard and the Scientific Discourse

If the ToE or Theory of Everything is the Holy Grail of science, one may notice that such a wide enterprise could use certain recent works of the humanities to serve as a basis. Indeed, while they may not seem interested in providing an answer for all the physical events of the cosmos, a number of historians, anthropologists and philosophers have formulated their own version of a ToEH or Theory of Everything Human. In other words, their corpus of research and hypotheses claims to satisfactorily explain all that makes and that has constituted the history of human societies. Among them is René Girard, an interdisciplinary French thinker whose works span across the fields of psychology, literature, anthropology, mythology, theology, philosophy of religion, and politics. Girard would probably not deny his hope to find a ‘theory’ with a hermeneutical power much larger than the more usual contextually-defined academic works. And to build this claim, one notices Girard, in his second major work, Violence and the Sacred (1972), arguing that his results are slowly combining into a proper ‘theory’ that should legitimately earn the quality of a ‘scientific’ undertaking. But did Girard go a bit too fast on this claim? What are the justifications that he brings to assert this very specific qualification for his hypotheses, and do they suffice to make a set of ideas ‘scientific’? If Girard’s theory is too hermeneutically powerful, that is, if it can claim to respond to virtually all possible questions, is the ‘scientific’ label still valid? Is not science, in its classical understanding, more narrowly defined? And what are the reasons that may push Girard to portray his ‘theory’ as belonging to the side of science? These are the central questions that surround Girard’s sudden turn to a scientific discourse, and we shall try to attempt an answer to the same in the course of this essay.

Before addressing this thread of central questions, we must recall the main lines of Girard’s hypotheses. Girard’s ‘theory’ starts in the early 1960s with Deceit, Desire and the Novel, in which he suggests a new reading of five novelists (Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust and Dostoyevsky). He argues that, unlike many other writers, those five portrayed characters whose desires were irremediably mediated by other individuals, whom they were basically imitating. Thus, Girard formulated the first phase of his theory: mimetic desire is, according to him, the real structure of human desire, behind all the hopes for uniqueness, independence and individuality that characterize the modern subject. In 1972, with Violence and the Sacred, Girard enters the fields of anthropology and the study of myths to present another hypothesis: sacrifice is the central human activity, around which societies have formed and evolved. This is so – following the first phase of the mimetic desire – because, unless groups divert their tension to a single and common individual, the scapegoat, the very mimetic nature of desire would make humans go for the same object of desire and risk to simply kill each other on the way. In other words, the institution of the scapegoat would have been devised by primitive societies as the only solution for the group to survive: the tensions of a period cumulate and culminate in the ritualized moment of the scapegoating, which purges the group of its tension and allows for another period of positive interactions to start, until progressive tensions would need another sacrifice – another sacrifice proper, or just its representation, through a ritualistic re-enactment of the original event. Girard substantiates these hypotheses through a rereading of the works of the main anthropologists of the 19th and 20th centuries, and by looking at early Greek tragedies, which he perceived as mediums through which the institution of the scapegoat were visible, but in a dissimulated manner. The third major work of Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978) adds one major contention: if humanity is the history of dissimulated scapegoating, one historical event must be pointed as its exception: the Christ on the cross. For Girard, this specific event is the turning point of humanity’s history, or when the innocence of the sacrificed victim was finally known to all. And it is this event, Girard argues, that allowed for the emergence of today’s Western societies, where scapegoating has become a taboo, and where the care for potential victims has become such an anxiety that claiming unjust victimhood is often the most effective way to attract public attention. Following the method employed in his two previous works, Girard substantiated these ideas with an extensive recourse to classical sources: this time, Biblical texts. In the rest of his career, Girard published tens of other works, bringing forth new evidences to consolidate his by then full-fledged ‘theory’. One must also notice, and mention, the emergence of a community of researchers around his works; they have provided support to the various hypotheses of Girard, showing how they apply to their own disciplines. As a sign of this movement, one may note the publication of a collection of articles entitled Mimesis and Science (2011), where major ‘Girardian’ scholars defend the claim that Girard’s thought has been at the root of major breakthroughs in psychiatry, infant and child psychology, social theories, communication, interpersonal psychology, political sciences and international relations, existentialism and history. This may suffice to speculate a close link between Girard’s thought and science.

It is in Violence and the Sacred that Girard indulges in the first methodological reflections pointing to a self-affirmation of his ‘theory’ as ‘scientific’: “Whether my theory proves to be true or false, it can, I believe, lay claim to being “scientific,” if only because it allows for a rigorous definition of such terms as divinity, ritual, rite and religion” (Girard 2005, 333). These claims are found at the end of his work, where, like in Deceit, Desire and the Novel, he builds up all his textual analyses to slowly lead to the formulation of his theoretical conclusions. A few lines below, Girard becomes more precise, and suggests a series of steps that the reader can undertake to verify that his theory is indeed scientific:

“Our theory should be approached, then, as one approaches any scientific hypothesis. The reader must ask himself whether it actually takes into account all the items it claims to cover; whether it enables him to assign to primitive institutions an origin, function, and structure that cohere to one another as well as to their overall context; whether it allows him to organize and assess the vast accumulation of ethnological data, and to do so in a truly economical manner, without recourse to “exceptions” and “aberrations.” Above all, he must ask himself whether this theory applies not in single, isolated instances but in every conceivable situation” (ibid, 333-334)

Here are clearly presented what, for Girard, would constitute a scientific theory: the clarification of fundamental terms, an exhaustive treatment of all available data, the non-contradiction of claims, the suggestion of a structure allowing a coherent access to a field’s experimental results, and all such concerns, expressed in an economic fashion. Could any writer proposing claims on history, society or culture, and following such methodological cares, claim to be doing a ‘scientific’ work? That is the complex argument that Girard seems to be presenting here.

As soon as it was published, Violence and the Sacred was remarked for the unusually vast claims of his author, and the potentially problematic methodological assumptions in place. In his review of the book (1978), Hayden White, acclaimed author of Metahistory in 1973, had a closer look at the underlying project of Girard, and its loopholes. White suggested that Girard wished to give his theory a scientific quality in the hope of more effectively opposing their antitheses, already prevalent as the standard claims of post-Enlightenment, a-religious scholarship. And these were expressed in a scientific language. Girard only indulged in a play of reversal: “Girard’s truths are always the antitheses of those “lies” which an “enlightened” humanity propagates out of pride in its own achievement. In order to find the truth, it is necessary only to identify a lie, turn it inside out, and assert the truth of this reversed image” (White 1978, 7). In other words, Girard would call his discourse ‘scientific’ to be able to be heard by the scientific claims of the more widely accepted Western scholarship. White’s focus on the religious tone of Girard’s works is a surprisingly accurate argument, since the critic wrote his article a few months before Girard would publish Things Hidden in French, where for the first time his religious argument are clearly presented. But White insists that, beyond any potential agenda, it is the very claim for ‘scientificity’ that is most problematic:

“The fact that his principal competitors, Freud and Levi-Strauss, are guilty of such comprehensiveness in no way justifies his own holistic aspirations. Like Freud and Levi-Strauss, Girard explains too much. What is lacking, in his work as in theirs, are any criteria of falsifiability, any specification of the kind of data one would have to produce in order to disprove his contentions about the nature of religion, society, sacrifice, myths, and so forth. There is nothing about culture and society that Girard’s theories cannot predict. In this respect, they are exactly like any religious system or any metaphysical one. This does not make them useless, but it is fatal to the claim of scientificity” (ibid, 7)

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If an ethnographic account, or a mythological narrative, do not explicitly mention a scapegoat event, it is, according to Girard, because the narrative was itself designed by the persecutors. The very lack of a mention of the scapegoating is, for Girard, a proof of the scapegoating.

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White, here, rejects the claim for scientificity of Girard, in virtue of the criterion of falsifiability as explained by Karl Popper. Indeed, for instance, the theory of heliocentrism is falsifiable: if tomorrow someone proves that celestial bodies revolve around another element than the sun, the former hypothesis will be left out. This is not the case with Girard: if an ethnographic account, or a mythological narrative, do not explicitly mention a scapegoat event, it is, according to Girard, because the narrative was itself designed by the persecutors. The very lack of a mention of the scapegoating is, for Girard, a proof of the scapegoating. ‘A scapegoat remains scapegoat only as long as it is not believed to be scapegoat’, as Girard will often explain in his following works. Arguably, Girard, here, is close to the ‘pseudo-sciences’ discussed by Popper: psychoanalysis, in which a rejection of the analyst’s interpretation can be read as an denied acknowledgement, or astrology, in which an individual’s refusal of a particular prediction is believed to be itself predictable.

Another problem disturbs White, regarding Girard’s use of the qualifier ‘scientific’ for his theory. Girard was never a fieldwork ethnographer, or a first-hand historian, bringing to the public totally new sources. What Girard did, fundamentally, was to reinterpret ancient texts, and modern works of scholarship, in new ways. This is what leads White to argue “Girard’s theories tell us more about the “literature of ethnology” than they do about that “culture” which is the ethnologist’s supposed object of study” (ibid, 8). If the social scientist is only a researcher working on earlier textual sources, he cannot claim to be in contact with ‘nature’ or ‘culture’ itself. According to White, this is the crux of the problem, because, unlike for scientific phenomena, information on human history and culture are always mediated: “history and society are not present to us as putative objects of perception, even in the way that a text is, but are always known only mediatively, by way of other texts in the form of memory, documents, monuments, and historical accounts themselves, which themselves come bearing their own interpretations” (ibid, 9). What are the implications of such a view? Social sciences are not sciences in the classical sense: they are overwhelmed with interpretative concerns; “there can be no science of history or society of the sort that we can have of nature” (ibid).

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By insisting on the ‘scientific’ nature of his work, Girard is only going against the handicapping assumptions associated with his fields of inquiry: literary theory, mythology, anthropology. What Girard tells us here, is that physical events and universal constants are not the only phenomena that can tell us about the actual reality of our world: texts, even the most mediated ones, can do it just as well. If not much more.

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Is it really plausible to argue that Girard was not aware of such fundamental methodological aspects of science? A few lines before his claim for scientificity, Girard wrote, very unambiguously, a line that could have been found in White’s critique itself: “There is no true science of religion, any more than there is as science of culture” (Girard 2005, 333). And if we re-read his aforementioned quote, we can notice his particular choice of words: “Whether my theory proves to be true or false, it can, I believe, lay claim to being “scientific”…” (ibid, 333 – our italics). In other words, Girard believed that, at least at this stage of his reflection, his theory could still be proven wrong. And it could be proven wrong in a way that is finally similar to the heliocentric contention: if an alternative arises and provides more meaningful interpretations, that is, if a competing theory turns out to be more powerful. It is, perhaps, a slightly different sense of the word ‘science’ that Girard meant here, in this usage. Even though there is a claim for historical truth and anthropological accuracy in his hypotheses, Girard also knew that his claims were greatly interpretative, in a way that is not definitely as subjective when one addresses the question of heliocentrism. By insisting on the ‘scientific’ nature of his work, Girard is only going against the handicapping assumptions associated with his fields of inquiry: literary theory, mythology, anthropology. What Girard tells us here, is that physical events and universal constants are not the only phenomena that can tell us about the actual reality of our world: texts, even the most mediated ones, can do it just as well. If not much more.

References

Image courtesy: Telerama

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