The contributions of Rene Girard

Carl L asks: Address the scapegoating theory of René Girard in general, and its possible application to economics. Peter Thiel has repeatedly cited Girard as an important influence and has even said his theory was partly the reason he invested in Facebook.

From my idiosyncratic point of view, here are a few of Girard’s major contributions, noting that I am putting them into “stupid simple” language, rather than trying to communicate his nuances:

1. His understanding of Christianity as fundamentally and radically different from earlier religions, as it exalts the individual victim rather than the conqueror.  Here is one point from a summarizer: “Christianity is the revelation (the unveiling) of what the myths want to veil; it is the deconstruction of the mono-myth, not a reiteration of it—which is exactly why so many within academe want to domesticate and de-fang it.”

2. Seeing violence as a chronic problem of human societies, rather than as the result of a bug in rational choice or the collapse into a bad game-theoretic solution.

3. Understanding the import of “mimetic desire,” namely the desire to copy others, and also why this is not always an entirely peaceful process, due to scarcity.  The tech world, by the way, at least pretends to have found a solution to this in its extreme scalability of product; we’ll see how that pans out.

4. A theory of mediated and triangulated desire, not yet absorbed by behavioral economics, and partly summarized here: “Whereas external mediation does not lead to rivalries, internal mediation does lead to rivalries. But, metaphysical desire leads a person not just to rivalry with her mediator; actually, it leads to total obsession with and resentment of the mediator. For, the mediator becomes the main obstacle in the satisfaction of the person’s metaphysical desire. Inasmuch as the person desires to be his mediator, such desire will never be satisfied. For nobody can be someone else. Eventually, the person developing a metaphysical desire comes to appreciate that the main obstacle to be the mediator is the mediator himself.”

5. First and foremost approaching societies from an anthropological point of view, prior to the economic method.

6. Understanding various social situations in terms of the need of finding a scapegoat to sacrifice, if not violently with some kind of resolution and catharsis.  These days one of those victims would be the big tech companies, as it is remarkable how many weakly-argued critiques of them make the paper every day.  You’ll understand these writings through the eyes of Girard, not economic theory.  Girard is also one of the best lenses for understanding the writings of bad and manipulative pundits.

7. Girard is of great use for understanding literature.  Try any Shakespearean play with “doubles,” Merchant of Venice, Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge (an all-time favorite), or Coetzee’s Disgrace, all Girardian to the core and very much illuminated by familiarity with his key ideas.  These are perhaps his most underrated contributions.  Shakespeare, by the way, is Girard’s most important precursor, also throw in the New Testament, Hobbes, Tocqueville, and maybe Montaigne.

What should you read by him?: Violence and the Sacred, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Theatre of Envy.

Where is Girard weakest: His theory of language, his overemphasis on the destructive nature of mimesis, excess claims to have discovered universal mechanisms, just making lots of stuff up, and not knowing enough economics or empirical anthropology.

How important is he?: If you had to pick twenty thinkers from the latter half of the 20th century, he is definitely one of them.  By the way, Foucault and Baudrillard might be the other French writers on that list.


Sounds like a mediocrity who rehashes stale ideas. The main reason for citing him seems to be that he's relatively obscure and he was cited by Thiel. It's like when people would cite lame bands just because they were obscure. It didn't matter that they were lame, the important thing was that not many people had heard of them. And it's a way to toady up to a semi famous rich person who cited the same person.

Harsh Bob. But a grain of truth. I would say this guy is from a proud French 20th century tradition of obscure and hard to follow philosophers. But by analogy, R. Girard may be like say an average professional sports figure compared to a 'superstar'. What is the difference? Not much, as a commentator from another thread put it, the difference between a superstar running back in American football and a good but not household name running back is a mere 0.3 yards per carry. But you hardly ever hear of the 'good running back' while everybody knows about Earl Campbell, Hershel Walker, Bo Jackson, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, LaDainian Tomlinson, OJ Simpson, Jim Brown. Same with FG% (field goal percentage) in basketball: most superstars shoot just over 50% while the average is about 45%, not a big difference. By contrast, in chess you can, via Elo, measure real differences that can be quantified, usually about a 200 to 300 Elo difference between the very top and the ordinary grandmasters (meaning the very top will win 75% to 95% of the time) though there are those that say at the very top Elo is inflated (the top 100) and they're not that much better than say the top 500 grandmasters (it's hard to say since ordinary grandmaster rarely play the very top except in certain "open" tournaments, which are not that common).

" the difference between the very top and the ordinary grandmasters"

is like the difference between the very top saviors and the ordinary saviors, the day-to-day Christs compared to the godlike Christs

@savior - I don't see your point. In Hinduism and Buddhism and ancient Greek religion they had many gods, of different powers, roughly equal, like GM Botvinnik's quote of primus inter pares, which underscores my point actually.

In the early days the Hebrews must have had many gods, as the ten Cs remind us. (It's striking that that memory may have survived for many centuries given how late in the day the books of the OT were written. Or maybe someone just made it up. How can we know?)

The only one of those I know is OJ Simpson.

Rehashing stale ideas? Which stale ideas do you mean?
The thing with Girard is that he is difficult to read, but not impenetrable, and that, imho, he is highly original and illuminating.

How does Girald's prose understandability rate vis-a-vis these philosophers here:, specifically, JD: "Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) was an Algerian-born French philosopher, known as the founder of deconstruction. His voluminous work had a profound impact upon continental philosophy and literary theory."

Derrida’s influence will turn out to be zero. He is an obscurantist, a fraud even. His theories impossible to precisely pin down


He had a big influence on how I now view literature and Christianity.

What I came here to say. This blog is just a continuous output of virtue signalling posts devoid of any real meaning

Girard is a giant.

No, he’s actually genuinely innovative and interesting, even though mistaken about some things (scapegoating?), and too Catholic for my taste.

Unlike the majority of post war French thinkers, who embraced one hideous and counter intuitive (and untestable) theory after another, as long as it promoted their careers, Girard build his work on a bedrock of psychology and anthropology. (The others were either Marxists or Maoists, outdoing themselves in mathematizing philosophy, denying reality/realism, or in bashing Sartre.)

Derrida: linguistic determinist
Lyotard: slapdash know nothing
Baudrillard: tried to outpostmodern the postmodernists
Lacan: a egomaniacal charlatan who jettisoned anything they might eventually have linked Freud to empirical research
Deleuze: the very epitome of the 68-er left, and while the jury is out on his film theories, his marriage if Marx and Freud hit a plateau and amounted to nothing
Althusser: murdered his wife and admitted that when he wrote his hugely influential books on Marx, he had never read Marx
Foucault: a “power determinist” and social constructionist, who incidentally hated most of the others, and the clear winner in this sweepstakes of awfulness in that his cynicism underpins most contemporary social theory. Unparalleled in his ability to find victims.

(One should mention the French philosopher who looked clearly at the above mentioned purveyors of BS and wrote an essay “Why I am so unFrench”.)

Trust me, Girard’s contempt for this lot was justified.

The way no.1 is formulated, it sounds like it could be a rehash of Nietzsche's "inversion of values" but is actually part criticism, part further development.

Right. Anyone can read the magnificent paper of Girard on Nietzsche:

Bob, you say "Sounds like a mediocrity who rehashes stale ideas". Did you come to this view after reading Girard's work as well as what has been written about it by others ? If not you are being unfair to him.

@Prof. Cowen - Why don't you just give us your list of the most important/interesting (not necessarily influential) thinkers from the 2nd half of the 20th century?
A follow up question would be most underrated/overrated thinkers from that time period.
Probably the least intellectually productive/interesting half century in the last few hundred years, I'm interested to see what you would make of it.
I would say (just for a start):
Chomsky (number 1, by far), Quine, Foucault, Derrida, Kripke, Kuhn, Kahaneman and Twersky

Foucault? Leon Foucault (, the physicist whose name is also engraved in the Eiffel Tower, is a different story. His pendulum btw exhibits chaotic nonlinear effects not mentioned in the otherwise excellent Wikipedia page.

There are many names in that time period that are not well-known to a wide public but are of fundamental interest and important and will exercise considerable influence on their fields as time goes forward. I would put Alexander Groethendieck and Robert Trivers in this category, possibly Juergen Habermas, to select three from very different disciplines. In addition, there are numerous names that have had alternated periods of great attention with great neglect and it will be interesting to track the long-term resonance of their work: Paul Feyerabend, for example.

Paul Feyerabend was ahead of his times it seems...the medieval ages. But he's probably right that there's no 'scientific method'. Wikipedia: Starting from the argument that a historical universal scientific method does not exist, Feyerabend argues that science does not deserve its privileged status in western society. Since scientific points of view do not arise from using a universal method which guarantees high quality conclusions, he thought that there is no justification for valuing scientific claims over claims by other ideologies like religions.

Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont rip apart Feyerabend and Kuhn in their book Fashionable Nonsense.

@freethinker -thanks for the cite, I've just downloaded it from my favorite pirate site, b-ok.

No they didn’t. Either you haven’t read it, haven’t understood it or are deliberately misrepresenting it. They very clearly state, multiple times, that they distinguish a moderate and a radical reading of both philosophers and that they are pretty much on board with the moderate reading, mostly blaming the readers, not the authors, for the radical reading.

It’s all just anarchy, says the globe trotting anti science former opera singer and Wehrmacht Eastern front soldier, Paul Feyerabend, the epitome of Berkeley in the 60s.


And why do these nutters always focus on physics as their ideal/paradigm of science? Because it’s easier to show the radical breaks they are looking for.

Why not immunology or dentistry?

Ivo says of freethinker's comment : "No they [ Sokal and Bricmont] didn’t [ 'rip apart Kuhn and Feyerabend' as freethinker said they did]. Either you haven’t read it, haven’t understood it or are deliberately misrepresenting it." "
I read Fashionable Nonsense very carefully. The authors do say that Kuhn and Feyerabend are ambiguous and can be interpreted in a moderate way. OK then what do you do with this passage on page 75( I am quoting form Picador 1998 edition) : "... two Kuhns a moderate Kuhn and his immoderate brother—jostling elbows throughout the pages of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions"

In other words, the authors are stating that these two versions are not just in the reader's mind but in Kuhn's text itself and Kuhn too shares the blame for radical reading of his ideas. They are more critical of Feyerabend. After noting that it is difficult to know when to take him seriously, they say on page 79: "...we shall discuss what seem to us to be his fundamental errors, and illustrate the excesses to which they can lead." Note that they are talking about Feyerabend's errors and not the erroneous interpretation of his ideas by readers. from page 81:
"When Feyerabend addresses concrete issues, he frequently mixes reasonable observations with rather bizarre suggestions" Again, the fault lies with Feyerabend, not the readers.

Have you actually read Derrida or Foucault. Complete obscurantism by Derrida and mostly do by Foucault. Derrida manages to outdo Foucault. Try “ Violence and Metaphysics” by Derrida and see if you can understand just one sentence of the book ! They have very little to say. They try very hard to make it sound deep and learned. Their memory will turn to dust.

Derrida is, as you say, almost forgotten, and that’s a Good Thing, but his great enemy — their personal animosity was legendary — Foucault is practically the presiding saint of the academic left.

Unless it emerged that he molested some Swedish boy during his time in Uppsala or traded food for sex with some young lad during his time in Uganda, Foucault will continue his baleful reign over the social sciences and humanities for the next bleedin’ century.

The only good news is that his gayness impelled him towards some kind of mild libertarianism in the last decade of his life, as by then even he could see that neither Maoism nor the Ayatollah’s revolution would pan out.

" Complete obscurantism by Derrida and mostly do by Foucault. " sine causa is right and not just about these two. Here is the link to a delightful essay on how obscratism is deemed a virtue by postmodernists by an author who actually approves of postmodernism

That was excellent, thank you Ram Gopal.

By the way, the responder was humourless. Katz was spot on.

Re Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge" - This is a favourite of mine as well, as it sees the world as it is, not the rosy "for every boy there is a girl" of romantic fiction. Religions are also a mass of "comforting lies". No one can possibly know whether there is a god or not, but it is surely obvious that if there is one it does not have the properties ascribed to it by the world's many and varied religions.

What about multiverses? Does that change your point of view? Imagine a multiverse where there is an Abrahamic god. And he's really going to be pissed with you, John de Rivaz.

The multiverse hypothesis is like the god hypothesis - there is no real proof that it is correct. Indeed applying Occam's Razor suggests that it probably isn't. Google . It doesn't totally collapse the multiverse hypothesis, but it does weaken it.

As to universes created by and ruled by an Abrahamic god: if they exist there must also exist universes with every conceivable other sort of god, such as Greek and Egyptian gods and goddesses. Or indeed even one created by and ruled over by a golden calf. It would contain woo woo quantum physics whereby a lump of gold doped with appropriate impurities is capable of thought and consciousness.

Maybe we are all fortunate that sliding between alternative universes doesn't seem to be possible, as does any practical form of interstellar travel.

Google Spontaneous wave function collapse.
I put the grater than less than signs around it, and the server though it was an html instruction and did not render it.

But from another Frenchman, Pascal, we learn the value of "Pascal's Wager", and from Cantor set theory, since infinity plus one is greater than infinity (not at the limit, but as a set), then my believe in God (whether the Jewish or otherwise) means in a multiverse I'll be better off than you (by one state).

PS--I did quickly look at "Ghirardi–Rimini–Weber theory" and it seems to negate quantum entanglement, which to me implies a step backwards. With quantum entanglement we can have possibly faster than light movement, but it seems GRW is a dead end.

A tidbit - Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge was made into a famous Bollywood movie by the name "Daag" in the 1970s.

For those interested in learning more about this great thinker, his books are a tough place to start.

I suggest the 5-part series of CBC interviews with him from just a few years back, all available on YouTube.

Part 1:

Following up on Jeff's suggestion for an introduction to Girard, I'd like to mention Cynthia Haven (of The Book Haven: ) has a book on Rene Girard coming out. "Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard" will be released April 1.

But for time starved people, like me, in the US 1%, this video is better: (René Girard's Mimetic Theory in 4 Minutes)

seems the "scapegoat" @2:12 min mark in the four min above video, is the weakest link in Girard's argument. Why do we need a scapegoat? I can imagine many societies without a scapegoat. M. Mead needs to chime in here.

Why would MM have anything to offer?

She was probably hoaxed by her native informants, and her entire anthropological edifice (of extreme cultural relativity) was therefore build on, er, Samoan sand.

Yeah from my admittedly limited understanding of Girard that short video does a relatively good job of explaining the basics.

The scapegoat is a pre-historic method that people used to get out of the trap of mimetic rivalry. That is, if mimetic rivalry is part of who we are as a species (plausible) then, in theory, we should have all killed each other long ago.

Girard proposed that we were able to survive through scapegoating - and by doing so kept the peace and our lives.

It’s a model - and like all models it’s surely wrong but the question is whether it’s useful.

I defer to the experts but it seems to explain difficult-to-grasp rituals like child sacrifice.

Why are his books a tough place to start ? Why can’t these people write more understandably? I suggest it’s because their ideas are not as groundbreaking as they claim.

Partly because the terms he uses - e.g. mimesis - are very rich and take a lot of explaining.

In the interviews, he does explain clearly and with passion and humour. The books are much more dense and so might be harder to follow.

Not everyone can get their point across in simple prose, I reckon.

But the prose Girard uses is pretty simple, with no jargon. Well, he writes his books in French, so I am not sure how they are in translation, but I see no reason they would be so hard to read. They are long, for sure.
And sometimes Girard writes directly in English, as in the paper I linked above. You can try and see it by yourself: the prose is quite clear, and the article quite understandable at least if you know what he is talking about -- in this case, Nietzsche's famous aphorism where the sentence "God is dead" appears first, in The Gay Science.

'These days one of those victims would be the' ...

gun grabbers or gun nuts?

right to choose or right to life?

supporters of free speech or supporters of punishing hate speech?

those opposed to monopolies and those justifying them?

... 'as it is remarkable how many weakly-argued critiques of them make the paper every day.'

'just making lots of stuff up'

Come now, that is clearly a strength in today's America.

'as it is remarkable how many weakly-argued critiques of them make the paper every day.’

While these arguments are weakly argued they appear to have a big impact on the board of Google.

“For the past several years, Google has had and implemented clear and irrefutable policies, memorialized in writing and consistently implemented in practice, of systematically discriminating in favor job applicants who are Hispanic, African American, or female, and against Caucasian and Asian men,” the civil suit states.

How extensive will the movement be to trump merit with race in hiring at tech firms?

Cowen: "[Girard's] overemphasis on the destructive nature of mimesis". Overemphasis, really? Of course, that view is consistent with the view that tech companies are the victims, the scapegoat in "weakly-argued critiques" of tech companies. I'm not sure if this blog post is meant as a compliment of Girard or as a defense of tech companies. One can defend tech companies, in particular social media, against its destructive nature but not simultaneously with the elevation of Girard as one of the top thinkers in the second half of the 20th century. Social media, and the subject of tech companies generally, is mimetic desire on steroids. Give Thiel credit for his insight. Social media creates an illusion of reality, much more so than novels, through a combination of immediacy, intimacy, and repetition. Girard makes the distinction between mediation that is external and mediation that is internal, the former when the mediator is beyond the reach of the subject, such as a fictional character in a book, the latter when the mediator is at the same level as the subject. When the mediation is internal, the mediator transforms into a rival and an obstacle to the acquisition of the object; thus, the destructive nature of mimesis. With social media, all mediation is internal.

This entire mimetic desire thing seems like a weak rehashing of Nietzsche, who analyzed this phenomenon in terms of the homogenizing pressures imposed by "social selection". Am I missing anything?

Probably not, but keep in mind Girard adds the 'scapegoat' and then "the Bible is against the scapegoat persecutors" themes, which are the value-add of G's theory. That from the four minute video I link to above.

Not as I see it. Girard didn’t care for Nietzsche, and rarely read him, unlike say Derrida and Foucault who despite disliking each others’ work, both took to heart Nietzsche’s radical skepticism about truth (“only a mobile army of metaphors”) and reality.

Yea but trust me your undergraduate philosophy seminar pose is way more valuable to you than anything you will get out of Girard.

Girard wrote an essay on Nietzsche in Modern Language Notes.
Dionysus versus the Crucified, René Girard, MLN, Vol. 99, No. 4, French Issue (Sep., 1984), pp. 816-835

Girard was far from a re-hasher, but his theories do owe a debt to Durkheim. As for being a "mediocrity," you can read him yourself or just visit wiki and scan his accomplishments (MLA lifetime achievement award, member of the French Academy, and on and on). Finally, it's worth mentioning that Girard headed up the famous (infamous?) October 1966 literary conference at Johns Hopkins, where Derrida's influence in the American academy began. (To be clear, Girard was later quite critical of deconstruction.) If you're interested in the history of that conference, search for Cynthia Haven's essay, "The French Invasion."

I agree Girard under-explores the positive side of mimesis, especially since he claims mimesis is unavoidable. We "can't not" copy.

I think the Straussian reading though would lead you to the conclusion that Girard's conclusion is that we must mime the divine - the only truly self-sacrificial non-competitive all-loving being. In that "strange loop" of "theo-mimesis" we find consciousness and avoid all the downsides of "homo-mimesis".

The Christian version shared by Paul in 1 Cor 11:1 - "Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ."

Jeff - not sure he under-explores the positive side, he clearly states that in order to avoid catastrophe (or, literally, the apocalypse) that we need to imitate Jesus. Jesus brought to light the scapegoat mechanism so that it no longer works to "clear" a mimetic crisis, and so now the only way to avoid all out violence and self-destruction is to imitate Jesus.

Tyler - thanks for addressing this!

> I agree Girard under-explores the positive side of mimesis

I do not think that's true. For him, mimesis is what makes human human. He sees no such strong tendency toward mimesis among apes, and he speculates sometimes about when it appeared in the evolution to the human genus and our species -- and that would be for him te real beginning of humanity.

"For him, mimesis is what makes human human"

I agree with that! In my view, it is the strange loop of consciousness. (hat top Douglas Hofstadter).

One of the odder things about Girard - he spent his academic career in America. He wrote my favorite books of his (Violence and the Sacred and Things) while he was at the University of Buffalo.

Yes -- he had harsh words for academics, both those in France and in the US. He harshly disagreed with many of his colleagues on both side of the Atlantic. Ha had his share of problems with the political correctness of the academia in the US, which he mocked. But for some reason in the US he felt more free. I believe he was right for there hime he made the bunch of his carrer (about 1960-2000). Not sure that would be true anymore -- things have gotten worse in academia.

I found The Girard Reader a good introduction to his thought.
I think he moderated his negative view of memesis somewhat later in his career as he saw positive aspects as well.
I work in a field (winemaking) where I think the idea of memetic desire is almost self-evident.
His insight into the nature of Christianity important to me personally as I am a Cattholic convert in adulthood too.

Legit never heard of this dude before and consider myself sort of well read, but now I need to reassess that.

To 7 you might add the author of Gawaine and the Green Knight, with its deliberately imposed, impossible and non-negotiable challenge.

It seems to me that there are several ways that these ideas could influence economics; and those ways are not discussed here.

1. Consumer theory in which an individual's utility is influenced by the extent to which others share the individual's choices.
2. Theory of bubbles (fads).
3. Other applications to marketing.
4. Applications to political economy.

exactly right.

Girard is leaving the Christian theological space at fairly high speed---a hyperbolic orbit. He himself would say he was not a theologian and not providing a coherent view of Christianity; he was a literary critic. As any Catholic theologian will tell you, there is no more fundamental error in thought than to view Christ's death as an instructive example rather than the actual act of redemption.

And his anthropology is poor enough that he is/will become subject to the 'just so story' criticism leveled at evolutionary biologists. His interesting idea is the mimetic nature of humans, and that will be explored.

And Girard is every bit as opaque as the other French philosophers; he was uneasy with them because they were competing over the same ground.

This is the high point for Girard. Christian believers and (to a lesser extent) conservatives latched onto him as one of the few in the same field as the large number of 'lefties' (if a true accusation, if even an accusation), but just like all hedgehogs, they tend to overvalue completeness versus accuracy.

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