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.

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.

Paul Feyerabend Interview (1993)

Paul Feyerabend (b.1924, d.1994), having studied science at the University of Vienna, moved into philosophy for his doctoral thesis, made a name for himself both as an expositor and (later) as a critic of Karl Popper’s “critical rationalism”, and went on to become one of the twentieth century’s most famous philosophers of science. An imaginative maverick, he became a critic of philosophy of science itself, particularly of “rationalist” attempts to lay down or discover rules of scientific method. (Source)

Deception (or truth elision) in communication

To communicate, we often must ignore the truth or falsity of a statement, our own or someone else’s.

I believe it is an instinct to do this; that it is part of our instinct to communicate at all. Communication requires cooperation, an agreement to be agreeable enough to get the message through.

We might call ignoring truth or falsity in communication “truth elision” or “psychological elision.” Elision means to omit something. Psychological elision would mean omitting or not mentioning psychological truths.

We do a lot of truth elision to save time. In professional or group settings it is hard to communicate any other way because there is not enough time to be perfectly truthful and most people will not care. They just want to socialize and/or get the job done, not search for truth.

Most communication is like that. Most messages are not even superficially analyzed. Semiotics glide through our minds without any thought to their deep origins or interpretations. Truth and falsity are frequently elided.

Like all instincts, our instinct to cooperate by ignoring the truth or falsity of many statements can be misused to consciously deceive.

Indeed, we frequently deceive even ourselves by accepting our own statements as true when analysis would show they are not. One way we succeed in doing this to ourselves is by simply avoiding the analysis—analysis elision.

This is where a simple instinct starts to go bad. A basic need to cooperate on the signs and symbols of communication gets twisted into tricking people, deceiving them, even deceiving ourselves.

The way to see this most clearly and to stop doing it with at least one other person is FIML practice. One of my main goals for this website is to show how and why communication goes bad and how and why it harms us. At the same time, I present a practical way to fix the problem described—FIML.

 

Psychology as “signs of something else”

When we see a human behavior as a “sign of something else” we begin magnifying it.

When we live in a culture where people normally do this, we tend to think it is right to do this even to ourselves.

People often feel relieved when their “signs of something else” have been analyzed—either professionally or by self-administered questionnaires—to reveal what that “something else” is.

Once analyzed and categorized, the “something else” itself becomes a sign, or a meta-sign, a diagnosis that explains behavior while directing us to a cure based on whatever that “something else” is.

The DSM reads like a Ptolemaic system of circles and spheres. In it signs are identified, quantified, and classified to indicate what they stand for, what their “something else” is.

Professionals are needed to do this work of course, and though the manual rests on “scientific” tests and other measurements, it changes every few years and very few people are getting better because of it. Moreover there is very little consensus among thoughtful people, including psychologists, about what the classifications of “mental illness” or “personality disorder” actually mean.

This is a sure sign that something is wrong.

I submit that what is wrong is our systems of classification of mental disorder do not describe the actual disorders because these descriptions exist on a different level from the disorders themselves.

It is widely observed that many disorders as currently classified blend into each other, share attributes, are co-morbid. It is also widely known that when disorders are extreme, sufferers can exhibit symptoms of all of them.

This indicates that the human mind is a complex system that becomes disordered by over-emphasizing or under-emphasizing parts of its system.

And this may be why drugs, psychedelics, shock therapy, or shamanic rituals sometimes help. Because they reset the entire system.

If you don’t want to use drugs, can’t get psychedelics, don’t want to undergo shock therapy or shamanic ritual, I suggest you try FIML practice. If you have a good partner, are fairly intelligent, and want to truly optimize your psychology (not just terminate your ambiguous disorder), FIML will probably do this for you. In fact, even if you can get psychedelics, FIML is better.

A disorder is unique to its system and though we can speak of some generalities that may apply to it, these generalities exist at a different level from the disorder itself and cannot provide a cure.

To cure a disorder the disorder must be experienced as it is happening by the sufferer. If too much of the disorder is revealed at once or the sufferer is simply confronted with its classification, more harm than good may result. If small bits of the disorder are revealed over a longish period of time, however, the sufferer will be much more likely to gain beneficial insight into the disorder.

In my view, all people everywhere are deeply disordered and thus all people everywhere would benefit from FIML practice. People who may not benefit from FIML include, among others, those who cannot self-observe, who are severely alcoholic, whose disorder prohibits self-analysis (narcissism, for example) and, sadly, those who cannot find an honest partner.

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First posted March 14, 2018