René Girard's Fundamental Anthropology

1. Introduction

What Girard sets out to do is to try to find the missing link between two problems that have occupied several scientific disciplines. On the one hand anthropologists and ethnologists have tried to find the origin of religion and the variety in religions, but because they failed to find this common origin—especially between 1860 and 1920 the expectations were very high—they declared that this kind of research was pointless (E. E. Evans-Pritchard and G. Dumézil, among others; CC 12). On the other hand ethologists have tried to explain the process of hominization—i.e. the evolutionary development of characteristics, especially mental ones, that are held to distinguish man from other animals—and have recognized the problem of the origin of symbolicity. On the one hand, human scientists have often used a typically human characteristic, such as the incest taboo, an economic or a socio-political motive as a starting point for the evolution from animal to man. Some anthropologists insisted that all human behavior originates in the use of symbols (Haviland 37). In Totem und Tabu (1913), Freud based his theory on the assumption that the Oedipus complex is innate and universal, which did not convince the anthropologists. The major objection against these approaches is that it is methodologically unsound to found all phenomena which are typically human, all manifestations of culture, on a characteristic unique to humans. On the other hand, ethologists, who used an animal characteristic as a starting point, could not find a satisfactory explanation for the origin of such phenomena as language, religion and morals. For example, the assumption that the incest taboo is natural in origin does not convince anthropologists like Lévi-Strauss (Lévi-Strauss 100-01). René Girard’s account, however, starts from an animal instinct, imitation, and shows how it can lead to the human social systems that have come to replace those of our ancestors.

2. Mimesis

The point of departure in René Girard’s theory of culture is mimesis or imitation, terms with a long and rich tradition that started with Plato and Aristotle. In Plato’s account, which influenced all subsequent thinking on imitation, mimesis only refers to behaviour and forms of speech that are essentially forms of representation; and Aristotle wrote, as is well-known, that man differs from the other animals in his greater aptitude for imitation. Some psychologists and sociologists at the end of the nineteenth century considered mimesis as the sole basis of social harmony and progress. Mimesis is a term used to refer to imitation in the learning process, biology, the description of rituals, drama, literature etc. However, according to Girard, our understanding of human behaviour and human culture in general has been hampered by the exclusion of the kind of behaviour involved in appropriation in all Western thinking on imitation.

Neurologists have repeatedly reminded us that the human brain is an enormous imitating machine. In Das sogenannte Böse, the ethologist Konrad Lorenz pointed out that the importance of individual experience and learning in social animals increases with the level of development; as the experience of the oldest individual in a group increases, so the passing down of individually acquired information becomes more important in comparison with innate or instinctive patterns of behaviour (51-52). Lorenz concludes that natural selection in social animals works in the direction of a better development of learning abilities, because not only each individual but also the group as a whole benefits from this. In order to establish a science of man, Girard argues, it is necessary to compare human imitation with the mimetic behaviour of animals and to map the typically human forms of mimetic behaviour. There is no reason to exclude from such research the kind of behaviour involved in appropriation, since it is important in humans as well as in other living beings and liable to be imitated.

The belief in mimesis as a cohesive force is the consequence of a narrow conception of the term. There seems to be no reason to think that young animals and children, when imitating, do consciously distinguish between behaviour they have to learn—e.g. hunting animals learn the best methods of killing their prey by watching their parents do so—and behaviour aiming at the appropriation of food or objects. The latter type of behaviour is called ‘acquisitive mimesis’ (‘imitation acquistive’, ‘mimésis d’appropriation’) and can be observed in primates and in children alike. If one ape sees another reach for an object, it is immediately tempted to imitate the gesture. It also happens that the animal resists the temptation, because, like adults, it has learned to fear the rivalry that could ensue from several hands reaching for the same object. Such conflicts that spring from mimesis have also been observed in experiments with children: if a certain number of children are put into a room with the same number of identical toys, it is unlikely that the distribution of the toys will proceed without quarrelling. Many of our rules of polite behaviour seem to be designed to prevent precisely this type of conflicts. Apparently, human societies, as those of many species of animals, are continually trying to control acquisitive mimesis.