On deep agreement

Here is Rene Girard in an interview with David Cayley describing his first discovery of the phenomenon of mimetic desire:

I went to Indiana University with a student visa. And I was doing a PhD in history because I was more of a historian than I was a — I was not at all a literary man — and I was teaching the French language at Indiana University and very quickly they gave me some literature to teach — novels: Balzac…Stendhal…Proust, you know — and much of the time I was just a few pages ahead of my students [laughs]. You know, I hadn’t read the books and I didn’t know what to say. And I decided that I should look — very deliberately — that I should look for what made these books alike rather than for what makes them different from each other, which is what literary criticism, even in those days, was after. You know, a book was a masterpiece only if it was absolutely one-of-a-kind, if you could find nothing in it that would be in another book, which is complete nonsense of course! So I became interested in human relations in the novel, you know — how the vanity in Stendhal, how close it is to the snobbery in Proust…

— From the CBC IDEAS radio show. Here’s a link to the whole series produced by David Cayley called “The Scapegoat.”

What I find interesting is Girard’s decision to look for similarities in novels, rather than differences, as a way of getting at something that would be lost if one fixated on differences. There is a common tendency, one to which Girard alludes, to treat the essence of a thing as that which makes it different from other things. In the history of ideas, we think we understand a thought best when we set it against another — Plato vs. Aristotle or Catholic vs. Protestant — when in fact, the similarities probably greatly outweigh the differences in such pairings.

(Aside: I stumbled across a book at the book store a few weeks ago called The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman. It is pretty much as bad as it sounds. I maintain that while there are many differences between Plato and Aristotle, in both style and emphasis, they are in basic agreement concerning what most matters to each. To take Mr. Herman’s approach is to mostly miss what can be discovered in exploring their deep kinship and thus to fail to understand either.)

Let’s entertain the hypothesis for a moment that when it comes to the truth of an idea, deep agreement with other ideas is more vital than open disagreement. Perhaps kinship and commonality are where the real power lurk within ideas. If so, there are two important things to be said:

  1. Such agreement makes communication possible. Diverse minds can only understand one another when they have access to a common reality. As Heraclitus writes “To be thoughtful is common to all.  (Fragment 113: Xynon esti pasi phronein.)  To take a hard perspectival (Protagorean) view and deny that we share a common mental reality is to deny communication at all — a self-contradictory sharing. And since the vehicle of communication is the medium of thought, i.e. the logos, we are attempting to meaningfully deny meaning, another performative contraction. Again we turn to Heraclitus and his concept of to xynon (“the common”): “The logos is common, most live as though they have a private wisdom.”
  2. But where there is agreement, no communication is really necessary. Therefore, what is deeply common usually doesn’t get expressed at all. Common understanding is tacitly assumed and therefore never becomes an object of open reflection or communication. What do get voiced are points of disagreement, which assume the common noetic reality, without ever really expressing it. We notice the points at which we disagree and fail to notice the more fundamental places where we are in unshakable agreement, just our vision is alert to things that move but become inured to what never does. Alfred Whitehead once remarked that “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” What is tacitly assumed, but not spoken of because too obvious, is perhaps more definitive of a society that whatever verbal formulations it may entertain concerning itself. The Platonic/Socratic challenge to adequately define virtue, in concert with all the failed attempts to do so, points toward tacit possession of what cannot be voiced.

All of this relates to my project of defective reading. If the common is usually not summoned in to speech, it underlies all our speaking such that we can recognize that something is wrong/missing in a verbal account without being able to give adequate voice to it.

What I’m Currently Reading

1. Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Volume III  — I just received this in the email and am eager to plow through it this weekend. The Norwegian writer’s Proustian memoir, six volumes in all, are slowly being published in English. I think this is one of the finest works of literature in our time — at least based on my reading of the first two volumes.

2. Aristotle, Politics, translated by Joe Sachs — I am studying this as part of my research into the topic of homonoia (like-mindedness) for the paper I will presenting in Germany this summer. (I just completed a study of his Eudemian Ethics for the same reason.) I just discovered that Sachs had translated it and am obviously delighted. My one disappointment is that he didn’t write the introduction. I have nothing bad to say about Lijun Gu‘s introduction, but Sachs’ other introductions are some of the best short pieces on Aristotle.

3. Kostas Kalimtzis, Aristotle on Political Enmity and Disease: An Inquiry Into Stasis — A nice study of the concept of stasis, which means something like political disorder/disagreement/civil war. Stasis is the contrary of homonoia, so it is important for me to well understand stasis.

4. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, translated by Lewis White Beck — I am reading this with a friend who is doing some work on Kant. I have read the Groundwork many times, but have not read the Second Critique since 20 years ago. As I have been doing some reflective thinking on homonoia, it suddenly occurred to me that Kant had already figured out much of what I had been discovering. The Categorical Imperative might even be an articulation of the condition of the possibility of homonoia.

5. John McCumber, Hegel’s Mature Critique of Kant — I picked this up as a complement to my Kant reading and am finding it quite stimulating. Hegel thought through some implications of Kant quite well, however idiosyncratically, adapting Kant to his own purposes. Hegel’s relation to Kant reminds me of Aristotle’s to Plato. Interpreters often focus too much on disagreement and not enough of the treasure of deep and tacit agreement between each pair. I am frustrated with a common tendency to emphasize disagreement at the expense of deeper agreement. The riches of the tradition are more to be found in homonoia than doctrinal conflict.

6. Rene Girard, Battling to the End — I am still working through this slowly as one of the core textual sources of my paper. A provocative work, at once stimulating and maddening. Girard thinks through the war theorist Clausewitz as a way of understanding the apocalyptic dangers of our age. Girard’s last major work, more important than I thought on my first superficial reading.

7. Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers, translated by John Woods — Somehow I convinced my reading group to take up this massive 1500 page epic, a work that Mann had considered his best but which had suffered from a bad English translation until Woods remedied that. We start in a couple of weeks. We’ll see…




What I’m reading (or just read)

1. Middlemarch. As I mentioned before in this blog, I have been leading a reading group on George Eliot’s masterpiece. We will be discussing Book V tonight. Here’s a nice quote that bears on my blog’s themes: “[The] egoism which enters into our theories does not affect their sincerity; rather, the more our egoism is satisfied, the more robust is our belief.” True, isn’t it?

2. Everything is Obvious (*Once You Know the Answer): How Common Sense Fails Us by Duncan Watts. Very good so far. The subtitle tells it all. As the blurb says, the book is about “how common sense reasoning and history conspire to mislead us into believing that we understand more about the world of human behavior than we do; and in turn, why attempts to predict, manage, or manipulate social and economic systems so often go awry.” Definitely speaks to the limitations of opinion (since common sense is a type of opinion/doxa in Plato’s sense.)

3. Battling to the End by Rene Girard. A book on the important of the Prussian war strategist Clausewitz (of all people) for understanding the contemporary crisis and its basis in total war and the duel. I read it far to hastily when it came out and am reading much more carefully this time around in preparation for my presentation at the Colloquium on Violence and Religion in July. I still can’t tell if this is Girard’s best book or worst book — I am only two chapters in. I will figure it out and write a review later on. (As a side note I actually participated in a study group at Stanford with Girard when he was working though some of these ideas.)

4. Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis. This just came out yesterday and I haven’t received my copy yet, but if Lewis’ previous books are any indication, I will finish this book within a day or two of starting it. I have read an excerpt and (again) Lewis’ books always make useful case studies for some of the epistemological ideas that I explore in this blog. If you told me Michael Lewis’ next book was on sock manufacturing, I would still guess it would be a gripping read.

5. The Up side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success by Megan McArdle. I just finished this one. A couple of people I respect let me know that this would be a book that I would like and they were definitely right. The book is on failure, which turns out to be an engaging and informative theme — much like my favorite subject: ignorance!

6. Physics by Aristotle, translated by Joe Sachs. I spend the rest of the semester on Aristotle and just reread Books 1 and 3 in preparation for the Ancient Greek Philosophy Class I am teaching. Hopefully I will be able to communicate my excitement in reengaging the great Aristotle!

“Metaphysical Desire in Girard and Plato”

That’s the title of a paper that I presented at the 2010 Colloquium on Violence and Religion at Notre Dame — a version of which was published in the journal Comparative and Continental Philosophy (Volume 2.2, 2010). Here is a link to the Notre Dame version, which I introduce in lieu of a substantive post: Metaphysical Desire in Girard and Plato.

I mention it so that I can segue from a detour into Peirce & Girard back to my (still Girardian) reading of Plato. Now that I have discussed the importance of mimetically-mediated shared attention in human meaning-making through a discussion of Peirce and Girard, I would like to now emphasize its importance in Plato through this paper, particularly the way philia/friendship works to shape such attention. I also want to gesture toward a way out of the violent foundations upon which most of human meaning-making is unfortunately and unintentionally based.

The issue of “positive mimesis” is a controversial one in Girardian circles. On the one hand, the pessimist/realist camp of Girardians tend to dismiss most talk of positive mimesis as forms of  mythological disguise manifesting a Pelagian avoidance of the hard truths of mimetic desire and scapegoating (and it can tilt that way in practice); on the other hand, the optimist/romantic camp observes correctly that Girard himself accepted that mimesis is not all bad, that there are (and must be) positive forms of it, as in the Imitatio Christi. I admit to a sympathy for both points of view and in developing my own (dialectical?) version of positive mimesis, I pray that I don’t overlook the true insights of the “realist” side, a side to which I belong by disposition (I am a Calvinist after all.) I guess my claim would be that while our cosmology/anthropology should be realist, our eschatology/ecclesiology had better not accept current reality as fated necessity. Human beings must live in a “tension of existence” between these two poles of realist acceptance and eschatological aspiration — see Soren Kierkegaard and Eric Voegelin as champions of this point of view.

Peirce and Girard and the semiotics of desire

There is a big ice storm in Georgia (where I am) and the power is out — so writing anything substantive is fairly difficult. So I can only hint for now at one of the themes of my projected paper, “Mimesis and the Mediation of Meaning,” beginning with a comparison of the central ideas of Rene Girard and Charles Sanders Peirce that I find so enticing.

Here is Rene Girard on mimetic desire: (more…)

What Girard missed in Plato

One of the pleasures of being a member in good standing of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion is that every so often I am sent a pile of books by Michigan State University Press by Girardian authors. Yesterday’s surprise included two new books by Rene Girard himself: When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michel Treguer and The One by Whom Scandal Comes. What a treat!

However, one of the chapters of the Conversations book has the title “Mimetic Desire: Shakespeare rather than Plato.” (You can picture my grimace if you’d like.) There are really only a few terse mentions of Plato in the chapter from which I will quote. Note that the book is an extended interview and “MT” is Michel Treguer and “RG” is Rene Girard: (more…)

René Girard 1985

An very good interview with Rene Girard from 1985. The actual interview is in English although the introductions are in Dutch. Thanks to the blog Mimetic Margins for making this available.

Mimetic Margins

In 1985, René Girard received his first honorary doctorate at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. More followed at various universities throughout the world. In December 2006, he was installed as a member immortel of the Académie Française, the highest honor a French intellectual can achieve in his home country.

A month after René Girard received his first honorary doctorate an interview with him appeared for Dutch television (IKON). The interview is in English with Dutch subtitles.


There is also footage from the ceremony for the honorary doctorate at VU Amsterdam.


View original post