René Girard

French historian, literary critic, and philosopher of social science / From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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René Noël Théophile Girard (/ʒɪəˈrɑːrd/;[2] French: [ʒiʁaʁ]; 25 December 1923 – 4 November 2015) was a French polymath, historian, literary critic, and philosopher of social science whose work belongs to the tradition of philosophical anthropology. Girard was the author of nearly thirty books, with his writings spanning many academic domains. Although the reception of his work is different in each of these areas, there is a growing body of secondary literature on his work and his influence on disciplines such as literary criticism, critical theory, anthropology, theology, mythology, sociology, economics, cultural studies, and philosophy.

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René Girard
Girard in 2007
René Noël Théophile Girard

(1923-12-25)25 December 1923
Avignon, France
Died4 November 2015(2015-11-04) (aged 91)
EducationÉcole Nationale des Chartes (MA)
Indiana University (PhD)
Known forFundamental anthropology
Mimetic theory
Mimetic desire
Mimetic double bind
Scapegoat mechanism as the origin of sacrifice and foundation of human culture
Girard's theory of group conflict
SpouseMartha Girard[1]
AwardsAcadémie française (Seat 37)
Knight of the Légion d’honneur
Commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
Scientific career
InstitutionsDuke University,
Bryn Mawr College,
Johns Hopkins University,
State University of New York at Buffalo,
Stanford University
Doctoral studentsSandor Goodhart
Other notable studentsAndrew Feenberg
InfluencesClaude Lévi-Strauss, Marcel Proust, Sigmund Freud, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ferdinand de Saussure, William Shakespeare, Friedrich Nietzsche, Miguel de Cervantes, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas,Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Edgar Morin, James George Frazer
InfluencedRaymund Schwager, James Alison, Robert Barron, Peter Thiel, Timothy Snyder, Jean-Michel Oughourlian, Jacques Ellul

Girard's main contribution to philosophy, and in turn to other disciplines, was in the psychology of desire. Girard claimed that human desire functions imitatively, or mimetically, rather than arising as the spontaneous byproduct of human individuality, as much of theoretical psychology had assumed. Girard found that human development proceeds triangularly from a model of desire who indicates some object of desire as desirable by desiring it themselves. We copy this desire for the object of the model and appropriate it as our own, most often without recognizing that the source of this desire comes from another apart from ourselves completing the triangle of mimetic desire. This process of appropriation of desire includes (but is not limited to) identity formation, the transmission of knowledge and social norms, and material aspirations which all have their origin in copying the desires of others who we take, consciously or unconsciously, as models for desire.

The second major discovery of the mimetic theory proceeds from considering the consequences of the mimetic nature of desire as it relates to human origins and anthropology. The mimetic nature of desire allows for the anthropological success of human beings through social learning, but is also laden with potential for violent escalation. If the subject desires an object simply because another subject desires it, then their desires are bound to converge on the same objects. If these objects cannot be easily shared (food, mates, territory, prestige and status, etc.), then the subjects are bound to come into mimetically intensifying conflict over these objects. The simplest solution to this problem of violence for early human communities was to polarize blame and hostility onto one member of the group who would be killed and interpreted as the source of conflict and hostility within the group. The transition from the violent conflict of all-against-all would be transformed into the unifying and pacifying violence of all-except-one whose death would reconcile the community together. The victim who was persecuted as the source of disorder would then become venerated as the source of order and meaning for the community and seen as a god. This process of engendering and making possible human community through arbitrary victimization is called, within mimetic theory, the scapegoat mechanism.

Eventually the scapegoat mechanism would be exposed within the Biblical texts who categorically reorient the position of the Divinity to be on the side of the victim as opposed to that of the persecuting community. All other myths, such as Romulus and Remus, for example, are written and constructed from the point of view of the community whose legitimacy depends on the guilt of the victim in order to be brought together as a unified community. By exposing the relative innocence of the victim within the scapegoat mechanism it is no longer able to function as a vehicle for generating unity and peace.