Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory & The Scapegoat

Rene Girard, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, began developing his theories over 40 years ago, while researching the great stories in literature. He wanted to know what made these stories great and he discovered that they had some similarities. He further began to research the rituals and mythologies of primitive people. He noted the same common structural properties in those stories. These similarities in the world’s mythologies and rituals led to the development of his theories of mimesis and the scapegoat mechanism.

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Psychology as a feature (and bug) of language

Since almost all uses of language are ambiguous and since this ambiguity can only be resolved sometimes, it follows that whatever is not resolved is interpreted subjectively.

Since such subjective interpretations happen many time per day, it follows that individuals will tend to deal with unresolved ambiguity in idiosyncratic ways that tend toward becoming patterns in time.

This results in what we call “personality.” Extroverts seek to define the moment by asserting meaning while introverts tend to wonder about that or just accept the meaning asserted by the extrovert.

A paranoid person sees danger in unresolved ambiguity while a neurotic person worries and reacts to it.

Having experienced early trauma associated with unresolved ambiguity, borderline personalities are acutely aware that something is wrong and often mad about it.

Besides these rough categorizations, all people are molded by their habitual responses to unresolved ambiguity. Personality is little more than a name for our groping attempts to find or manufacture assurance and consistency in a world where little is certain.

Instead of talking about our feelings or pasts, we would all do much better if we talked about how we talk and how we deal with the ambiguity inherent in virtually all significant communication.

Language itself is neutral as a thing in itself, but they way we use it is not neutral. We assume too much and clarify too little.

How (intimate) interpersonal language functions

Parentheses around the word (intimate) indicate a spectrum from less to more intimate, less to more psychologically important.

1) If we study how (intimate) interpersonal language functions, we will discover that it is significantly both defined and impeded by errors in listening and speaking.

2) The more intimate interpersonal communication is the more idiosyncratic it is.

Since (intimate) interpersonal communication is psychologically more significant the more intimate it is, it follows that it is very important to analyze and understand this kind of communication. It also follows that (intimate) interpersonal communication is harder to analyze from the outside the more intimate it is.

It is essentially impossible for an expert to tell two lovers what their words mean or how to understand their acts of communication.

Therefore, the lovers must do it themselves. The expert can only show them how to do it themselves.

3) This is a fundamental truth that rests in the nexus between language and psychology: the more intimate the communication the more important it is psychologically and also the more important it is that the communicators be able to analyze their communication satisfactorily and correct errors that inevitably occur.

4) How to do that can be taught. This is a good job for psychologists. Doing the analyzing and correcting is the job of the intimate communicators.

5) If (intimate) interpersonal communications are not analyzed and corrected; if errors are not discovered and removed from the system, the psychologies of both communicators will be harmed.

6) Conversely, if (intimate) interpersonal communications are analyzed and corrected; if errors are discovered and removed from the system, the psychologies of both communicators will be benefited.

7) Indeed, removing error from an (intimate) interpersonal communication system will result in gradual optimization of both the system and the psychologies of the analyzers.


8) In sum:

  • communication error is inevitable in (intimate) interpersonal communication systems
  • it is very important to correct these errors
  • and to analyze them and the communication system itself in the light of these corrections
  • this optimizes both the communication system and the psychologies of both communicators

There is no other way to accomplish such sweeping improvement in both communication and individual psychology. There is no outside way for intimate communications to be analyzed and no one else to do it but the intimate communicators themselves.

This is a fundamental truth that applies both to intimate communication and psychology. And this makes perfect sense because psychology is determined by intimate communication and vice versa.

There Is No Such Thing as Conscious Thought

Why, then, do we have the impression of direct access to our mind?

“The idea that minds are transparent to themselves (that everyone has direct awareness of their own thoughts) is built into the structure of our “mind reading” or “theory of mind” faculty, I suggest. The assumption is a useful heuristic when interpreting the statements of others. If someone says to me, “I want to help you,” I have to interpret whether the person is sincere, whether he is speaking literally or ironically, and so on; that is hard enough. If I also had to interpret whether he is interpreting his own mental state correctly, then that would make my task impossible. It is far simpler to assume that he knows his own mind (as, generally, he does). The illusion of immediacy has the advantage of enabling us to understand others with much greater speed and probably with little or no loss of reliability. If I had to figure out to what extent others are reliable interpreters of themselves, then that would make things much more complicated and slow. It would take a great deal more energy and interpretive work to understand the intentions and mental states of others. And then it is the same heuristic transparency-of-mind assumption that makes my own thoughts seem transparently available to me.” (Source)

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Please be sure to read the whole article. I find in it a great deal of Buddhist thinking and FIML practice. See The five skandhas and modern science for more on the Buddhist aspect of Curruthers’ thoughts.

See this quote from the article for more on the FIML aspect:

…It would take a great deal more energy and interpretive work to understand the intentions and mental states of others. And then it is the same heuristic transparency-of-mind assumption that makes my own thoughts seem transparently available to me.

Curruthers maintains that we interpret ourselves with the same mechanism we use to interpret others. This is where FIML practice is especially useful: FIML asks us to spend the extra time and energy understanding others (as well as ourselves) while also providing the tools to do this.

The two biggest problems with FIML are finding a suitable partner and having enough time to do the practice.

Edit 12:30: Curruthers says:

If someone says to me, “I want to help you,” I have to interpret whether the person is sincere, whether he is speaking literally or ironically, and so on; that is hard enough. If I also had to interpret whether he is interpreting his own mental state correctly, then that would make my task impossible. (emphasis added)

No, the task is not impossible! It can be done with a suitable partner. This is exactly what FIML does. FIML helps both partners interpret all of their mental states more correctly.

This is how and why FIML practice optimizes individual psychology while also doing the same for communication and mutual understanding. They all upgrade together.