I published an essay on Mimetic Theory two weeks ago, giving you an introduction to the theory, its origin, the scapegoat mechanism, and the scientific underpinnings.
To ensure you have an unbiased lens through which you perceive the theory, I aggregated the most critical criticisms of René Girard’s theory in this essay.
One of the main sources of this essay is a 21-page (might I say witty and engaging) paper written by Joshua Landy, a literature professor at Stanford University.
I recommend reading my previous essay on introduction to the mimetic theory before moving ahead.
Criticisms of Mimetic Theory
Mimetic Theory is a body of work by the late French anthropologist René Girard. It describes how our desires are collective and mimetic (and not individual and spontaneous).
Girard claims that mimesis leads to rivalry and conflict, which then leads to the scapegoating mechanism. He refers to dozens of examples from religious history (Christ’s resurrection, Pagan sacrifices, Salem witch trials) and classical literature novels (by Shakespeare, Proust, and Dostoevsky) to make his argument.
Speaking about Girard himself, he was:
- invited to be a member of the Académie Française,
- awarded ‘Order of Isabella the Catholic by the King of Spain
- has an organization built in his honor (Imitatio)
- a Guggenheim fellow
- and has thousands of devout followers on the internet who keep his theory alive.
So you could say that he was influential.
But, despite all the fame (or maybe because of it?) surrounding Mimetic Theory and Girard, it does have some gaping holes that need addressing.
It Claims Too Much
It’s one thing to say that some desires are mimetic, and some of that mimesis leads to violence, and some of that violence results in scapegoating.
That’s not what Girard says.
According to him, all desires are mimetic, eventually, lead to violence, and result in scapegoating.
As written in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP),
“Again, his scapegoating thesis may be plausible, in as much as it is easy to find many examples of scapegoating processes in human culture. But, to claim that all human culture ultimately relies on scapegoating and that the fundamental cultural institutions (myths, rituals, hunting, domestication of animals, and so forth), are ultimately derived from an original murder, is perhaps too much.”
It feels like Girard tried to do for the social sciences what Albert Einstein did for physics: build a unifying theory that explains everything (or everyone).
As Carl Sagan famously said,
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
And Girard, sadly, does not have it. At least, not empirical evidence. This brings us to the second point of criticism.
Lacks Scientific Ground
There is some scientific ground to Girard’s theory: the predilection for imitation in babies and the discovery of mirror neurons (more on this here).
We do learn by imitation, a lot. As babies, we look to our mothers and fathers to learn how to walk, talk, and eat. As we grow up, we look to our friends, teachers, and society to learn how to behave, grow, and exist in a community.
This ability we have to imitate is somewhat supported by the discovery of mirror neurons in 1996. But it’s far from complete.
And the root of the problem? Girard introduced mimetic theory before the discovery of both imitations in babies and mirror neurons. So when he boldly claimed that mimesis is the root of all evil and violence, it was done based on no (or very little) scientific evidence and mostly based on interpretations of works of fiction.
Confirmation Bias & Cherry-Picking
Confirmation bias is one of the ~200 cognitive biases we all suffer from.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values.
Reading Girard’s implications of mimetic theory sometimes feels like watching an animated victim of confirmation bias keep telling you why they’re right.
As Joshua Landy humorously put it in his paper,
I can drink Coke, as Penélope Cruz appears to be urging, or Pepsi, following the promptings of Cindy Crawford. (I can even stick to water, following my doctor’s more sensible advice.) I can take up arms like Malcolm X or resist nonviolently like Martin Luther King. I can be good like Abel or bad like Cain, gracious like Saint Francis, or vicious like Sade. For Girardian hermeneuts, finding an apparent model is like shooting fish in a barrel: there is always someone they can point to as the ostensible origin of my actions.
But what they can’t do is explain the mysterious lack of force field surrounding everyone else. Why, when I joined the left-wing party (ostensibly borrowing brother David’s example), was I not infected by my other brother’s desire? Why, when I chose the glass of water, was I immune to the combined charms of Mss. Crawford and Cruz? It’s true that we tend not to make choices in splendid isolation—I didn’t invent the left-wing party, nonviolent resistance, or sugary drinks—but we do make the choices. Other people cannot make them for us, precisely because there are too many other people, with too many different opinions.
Girard and Girardians are so consumed by mimetic desires that they see them everywhere, only to overlook other plausible explanations for the phenomena is being highlighted.
I too am a victim of this. After reading about mimetic theory (and continuing to ponder upon it), I found many instances in my life where I was fueled by mimesis. My need for academic excellence and awards seemed to stem from mimetic rivalry.
However, even if that were true, what about all the other instances in my life where I did not make decisions fueled by mimesis?
This leads to the final point.
Karl Popper, one of 20th century’s most influential philosophers, introduced a “Falsification Principle” to demarcate science from non-science. It’s described as follows:
For a theory to be considered scientific it must be able to be tested and conceivably proven false.
For example, the hypothesis that “all swans are white,” can be falsified by observing a black swan.
For Popper, science should attempt to disprove a theory, rather than attempt to continually support theoretical hypotheses.
By this logic, Girard’s theory fails. As described in the IEP,
- There is little possibility to know what may have happened during Paleolithic times, apart from what paleontology and archaeology might tell us.
- In some instances, Girard claims that his theses have indeed been verified. There have been plenty of archaeological remains that suggest ritual human sacrifice, and plenty of contemporary rituals and myths that suggest scapegoating violence.
- But, then again, the number of rituals and myths that do not display violence is even greater. Girard does not see this as a great obstacle to his theses, because according to him, cultures have a tendency to erase the track of original violence.
- Metaphorically speaking, when studying many myths, Girard is just seeing faces in the clouds and projecting upon myths some elements that are far from being clear.
He accepts evidence when it works in his favor, but disregards evidence when it doesn’t. This makes his theory unfalsifiable.
Why Girardians Exist
Despite the (pretty major) concerns expressed by his critics, Girardians continue to exist.
As Joshua Landy puts it,
Girardian doctrine is a theory of everything, on the cheap. It’s one of those systems that make you feel as though you know everything about everything while in fact requiring you to know almost nothing about anything; it’s enough to “know” the four stages [of the theory] mentioned above and bingo, you have an explanation for the stock market crash, the evils of capitalism, and your neighbor’s ugly divorce. (As a bonus, you can also feel superior to those who don’t see the deep truth of such things).
I still believe the mimetic theory is helpful in explaining some phenomena that I’m personally interested in, such as the origin of imposter syndrome, jealousy, competition in schools, and the desire for achievement.
However, I would be holding a big grain of salt when I use the mimetic theory lens to observe all these phenomena.
I suggest you do the same.