Summer School theme

Exploration of the Summer School theme 'Crisis and Truth'

Wiel Eggen

Postmodern quips stating that no truth is absolutely true mark the relativist crisis which René Girard thoroughly loathes, but somehow embraces and even radicalizes. While he refuses to discard the notion of truth, he actually signals an inevitable untruth in any ‘truth’.

Eternal truth
To grasp this enigmatic position one needs to review the philosophical itinerary of that notion after its Greek and Hebrew roots had merged in early Christendom. Their religious idea of an eternal truth, located in the supreme God, in fact prolonged a political project which Plato started by penning down his master Socrates’ struggle against the relativism of the Sophists. Plato held that a polis of accountable citizens is to be built on the sharing of unquestionable Ideas, which he saw as transcendent entities grouped round the Idea of Goodness.

Human constructs
Christians identified the Idea of Goodness with Israel’s God who revealed Himself in Jesus, the messianic Logos. This hybrid merger gave rise to a huge cultural construct that started to crack, however, when medieval clergy claimed lavish privileges as representatives of God’s presence. What thus started as a conflict within the church got framed philosophically as the nominalist thesis that truths are only human constructs. How could human words hold truth, if indeed the ‘table of 3’ has no legs, and the legs of a table are no legs anyway? How to find truth? By reasoning or by empirical research? But, both rely on words with cultural origins.

What to do?
Even synonyms like ‘truth’ and ‘verity’ stem from roots that contain different etymological links. So what to do? Throw up one’s arms  and resign to a nihilistic deconstruction of language? Or, argue with the structuralists that any concept is part of human systems the brain construes with the help of basic, binary mechanisms to process the myriads of data, but without any claim to absolutes? Or again, with Freud and Marx, point to the irrational influences of psychic and social forces? Or even, seek help from non-Western data?

Rivalry and differentiation
Girard values and criticises these ‘strategies of suspicion’, only to carry them further to an (un)comforting new insight. They indeed all agree that there is no reality to which human knowledge has unmediated access, given that knowledge originates in social processes marked by languages. One needs to grasp which basic force is steering these processes and shaping language. Greek classics like Aristotle had already noted that humans – like animals - learn by mutual imitation. Recently, the role of mirror neurons in this mimetic process was discovered. But Girard goes beyond the classics to follow Heraclitus and stress that all reality emerges from strife for identity of the self versus others. The oppositions humans perceive in mimetic learning are a typical version of that all-pervasive rivalry and differentiation.

Hidden process
By his study of literary giants and the perspicuity of novelists, Girard identified interpersonal rivalry as the core mechanism by which humans structure perceived data. All truth claims are thus marred by obscuring social processes, rendering them untrue from the outset. A hidden urge drives the search for differentiation and causes certain aspects to be deemed damaging for harmonious togetherness and therefore sacrificed. Girard recognised this as a practice of scapegoating, which he traced back through ethnological and psychological documentation. His conclusion was that all truth is built on a sacrificial logic that seeks to link mimesis as a learning tool to the ongoing search for personal identity.

Truth and trust
Sacrificial rites re-enact a camouflage of that basic process of creating (un)truth, that is both uncomfortable and comforting. Seeking truth by exclusion, as in the usual scientific method, thus appears in mimetic theory as linked to scapegoating, but also to a value that shows in the etymological roots of both truth and verity. Indeed, the root *dreu of truth means 'reliable strength', and appears in such derivations as trust and the GermanTreue; in turn, the word verity (French vraie, German Wahr, Polish wierny) has a similar root meaning of truthfulness. Content-wise this relates back to the Hebrew notion of ameth, indicating the divine reliability beyond human turmoil. For Girard, truth is a crucial idea in this double sense of awareness that all human formulas reflect a sacrificial act, and yet seek a possible healing (salvation) in which sacrificial differentiation will give way to the more basic wholeness which mimesis as a learning tool aims at. 

Unraveling the relativist rejection of truth
This double perspective explains how Girard may claim that his mimetic theory unravels the relativist rejection of truth. He may follow Derrida telling Lévinas that no one can ever respect total otherness, as this is recuperated via language. But Girard denies placing the foundation of communication again in a divine absolute, when he returns to the biblical God; for he sees this as surmounting of the sacrificial urge to use relativism as a weapon like Nietzsche does.

Amsterdam, March 17, 2010