According to Girard, the Mimetic Theory and philosophy can’t go together; the Mimetic Theory must go beyond philosophy. More than an ideological disagreement, there is here an actual methodological divergence. Philosophy, he argues, tends to remain at the superficial level of pure intellectual understanding, while other human faculties must be accessed in order to overcome the illusions of an independent desire:
In reality, no purely intellectual process and no experience of a purely philosophical nature can secure the individual the slightest victory over mimetic desire and its victimage delusions. Intellection can achieve only displacement and substitution, though these may give individuals the sense of having achieved such a victory. 1
Further, Girard relates the impossibility of philosophy’s real progress to its incapacity to question the ultimate levels of introspection, namely, ‘ego’, ‘personality’ or ‘temperament’:
For there to be even the slightest degree of progress, the victimage delusion must be vanquished on the most intimate level of experience; and this triumph, if it is not to remain a dead letter, must succeed in collapsing, or at the very least shaking to their foundations, all the things that are based upon our interdividual oppositions—consequently, everything that we can call our ‘ego’, our ‘personality’, our ‘temperament’, and so on. 2
Buddhism, too, argues that a purely intellectual inquiry, without the practice of morality (Sīla), concentration (Samādhi) and wisdom (Prajñā), cannot suffice to reach the truth. Further, Buddhism also refutes the hypothesis of an independent self; fighting this belief is actually the central element of its path to liberation.
In other words, Girard affirms that philosophy has always been biased by the romantic axiom par excellence: the existence of an autonomous self. However, one may argue that not all Philosophical traditions of the world repeat this faith in the independence of the self. Buddhism is one of them, and it actually fulfils both of the aforementioned requisites of Girard’s theory. 3 Buddhism, too, argues that a purely intellectual inquiry, without the practice of morality (Sīla), concentration (Samādhi) and wisdom (Prajñā), cannot suffice to reach the truth. Further, Buddhism also refutes the hypothesis of an independent self; fighting this belief is actually the central element of its path to liberation.
Girard does not directly address ethics in his work, but such an attempt would certainly prove highly insightful. We may discover, then, certain values that would be common to Girard and Buddhism, naturally pointing to the same conclusion: the need to forsake the romantic lie of an autonomy and independence of human beings, in favour of a deep awareness of the interdependence in human life and all worldly phenomena. This awareness is the starting point and essential precondition to a new understanding of what an ethical life is. 4
In this essay, I shall attempt to highlight some of the common features and possible meeting points of Mimetic Theory and Buddhist Philosophy. This will be done on the basis of the Buddhist notion of Anattā, non-self, which Leo D. Lefebure already noted as offering a deep conceptual compatibility with the theory of mimetic desire. 5 We will try to go further and present some initial arguments in favour of a more ambitious hypothesis: that Mimetic Theory could finally find, with Buddhism, actual support from a major Philosophical tradition. This short article is intended as a speculative and provocative introduction to an intellectual encounter that deserves more academic attention. In addition to advancing some preliminary arguments that would be developed further in subsequent essays, the present text, taken as such, may still serve an important purpose: to introduce and frame elements of Buddhist terminology in the direction of future philosophical and ethical studies of Girard’s work.
This paper is not meant as a comparative study of two systems of desire — desire sprouting in ignorance and ending in suffering for Buddhism, vis-a-vis the mimetic and rival desire as theorised by Girard. It is beyond the scope of this essay to draw all the possible lines of comparison between Buddhism and Mimetic Theory; this reflection is limited to the possible postulation of Anattā as a “metaphysical” basis for Girard’s theory, and to drawing the consequences this may imply for the intuition of the mimetic desire.
Originally presented at
the COV&R Conference, July 2012, in Tokyo, Japan.
Later published in
Contagion, Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, Volume 20 (2013).
Image courtesy: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra
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- René Girard, with Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort. Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987), 399.
- Girard, Things Hidden, 399-400.
- Buddhism is not the only Philosophical tradition which questions the alleged foundation of the self. Several pre-Socratic thinkers as well as some Phenomenologists, such as Merleau-Ponty, also share this concern.
- Thomas Crowley argues that the awareness of interdependence is not so much ethical as such, but pre-ethical, that is, necessary for the development of any ethical attitude. (Thomas Crowley, “From “Natural” to “Ecosocial Flourishing” – Evaluating Evaluative Frameworks,” Ethics & The Environment 15 (2010): 69-100.)
- Leo D. Lefebure, “Mimesis, Violence and Socially Engaged Buddhism – Overture to a Dialogue,” Contagion 3 (1996): 121-40 and “Buddhism and Mimetic Theory: A Response to Christopher Ives,” Contagion 9 (2002): 175-84.