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  • The Nonself of Girard
  • Samuel Buchoul (bio)

Girard and Philosophy

According to René Girard, mimetic theory and philosophy cannot go together; mimetic theory must go beyond philosophy. More than an ideological disagreement, there is here an actual methodological divergence. Philosophy, he argues, tends to remain at the superficial level of pure intellectual understanding, whereas other human faculties must be accessed to overcome the illusions of an independent desire:

In reality, no purely intellectual process and no experience of a purely philosophical nature can secure the individual the slightest victory over mimetic desire and its victimage delusions. Intellection can achieve only displacement and substitution, though these may give individuals the sense of having achieved such a victory.1

Furthermore, Girard relates the impossibility of philosophy’s real progress to its incapacity to question the ultimate levels of introspection, namely, “ego,” “personality,” or “temperament”:

For there to be even the slightest degree of progress, the victimage delusion must be vanquished on the most intimate level of experience; and this triumph, if it is not to remain a dead letter, must succeed in collapsing, or at the very least shaking to their foundations, all the things that are based upon our interdividual oppositions—consequently, [End Page 101] everything that we can call our ‘ego,’ our ‘personality,’ our ‘temperament,’ and so on.2

In other words, Girard affirms that philosophy has always been biased by the romantic axiom par excellence: the existence of an autonomous self. However, one may argue that not all philosophical traditions of the world repeat this faith in the independence of the self. Buddhism is one of them, and it actually fulfils both of the aforementioned requisites of Girard’s theory.3 Buddhism, too, argues that a purely intellectual inquiry, without the practice of morality (Sīla), concentration (Samādhi), and wisdom (Prajñā), cannot suffice to reach the truth. Furthermore, Buddhism also refutes the hypothesis of an independent self; fighting this belief is actually the central element of the Buddhist path to liberation. Although Girard does not directly address ethics, we can gain much by extending his reflections into this realm. Doing so, we can discover certain values that may be common to Girard and Buddhism and that naturally point to the same conclusion: the need to forsake the romantic lie of the autonomy and independence of human beings in favor of a deep awareness of the interdependence in human life and all worldly phenomena. This awareness is the starting point and essential precondition to a new understanding of what an ethical life is.4 In this essay, I shall attempt to highlight some of the common features and possible meeting points of mimetic theory and Buddhist philosophy. This will be done on the basis of the Buddhist notion of Anattā, nonself, which Leo D. Lefebure already noted as offering a deep conceptual compatibility with the theory of mimetic desire.5 I will try to go further and present some initial arguments in favor of a more ambitious hypothesis: that mimetic theory could finally find, with Buddhism, support from a major philosophical tradition. This short article is intended as a speculative and provocative introduction to an intellectual encounter that deserves greater academic attention. In addition to advancing some preliminary arguments that will be developed further in subsequent works, the present essay, taken alone, still serves an important purpose: to introduce parts of Buddhist terminology that will be relevant for future philosophical and ethical studies of Girard’s work.6

Anattā: Nonself

Anattā is one of the unique contributions of Sakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism who lived in the fifth-century BCE in India. Along [End Page 102] with his rejection of the caste system and the practice of sacrifice, Buddha questioned the existence of the Ātman (Sanskrit) or Atta (Pāli), the self or soul7 widely accepted in Brāhmaṇism. The Ātman concept is similar to the idea that each person or thing has an independent self, a view that is shared by several main families of Western philosophy, from the Greek era to the Enlightenment. Walpola Rahula recalls that, in the Brāhmaṇical tradition, it was believed that “in man there is a permanent, everlasting...