johnathan bi on mimetic theory and rene girard

Johnathan Bi on Mimesis and René Girard | EconTalk with Russ Robert

Check out the Episode Page & Show Notes 

Key Takeaways

  • According to René Girard, there are two types of desire: physical and metaphysical
    • Physical desire is a desire for physical utility – that is, what the object can provide us in and of itself
    • Metaphysical desire is a desire for identity – that is, what the objects say about us
  • Girard believes that humans desire persistence (wanting our names to last), power, and social reality (recognition, fame, and to be lauded by the social groups we’re in)
  • Girard believes we fulfill these fundamental desires by making associations with objects by choosing models whom we already think have this heightened being
  • Girard thinks our fundamental desires – our moral paradigms – are anchored to these models and their associated objects and values
  • Girard argues that the strength of your desire can’t indicate its authenticity and whether it’s truly yours or not 
  • Girard sees metaphysical desire as the original sin; it is the drive to rival God and his metaphysical splendor 
  • Johnathan believes there are two solutions to metaphysical desires:
    • Identify that the metaphysical desire is completely perverse and not seek it
    • Align your physical and metaphysical desires
  • There is also a negative component to mimesis: the desire to be distant from objects associated with having a deficiency of being
  • Our sense of being is fundamentally shaped and determined by the cultures we’re in and the models we’re exposed to 
  • Machiavelli saw people as fundamentally egocentric, and that social participation was not the end, but the instrumental means to satisfy appetite and self-preservation
  • We come to view our social aspect as a way to serve our appetite; we’ve become reduced to these utility-maximizing creatures without consideration of spirit at all 
  • Once our core human ends are satisfied, most economic decision-making comes from the social dimension that is difficult to model with mathematics 

Intro 

  • Johnathan Bi (@JohnathanBi) is a philosopher and co-founder of Opto Investments. Johnathan’s seven-part lecture series “Interpreting Girard” has hundreds of thousands of views. The series can be found on Youtube on his channel Johnathan at Limbo.  
  • In this conversation, Johnathan Bi and Russ Roberts discuss Mimetic Theory, Rene Girard, physical desires vs metaphysical desires, authenticity, positive vs negative metaphysical desires, how what’s considered desirable evolves over time, intellectual history, economic utility, and more
  • Check out these Podcast Notes on Johnathan’s Introduction to Mimetic Theory Lecture 
  • Host – Russ Roberts (@EconTalker

How Johnathan Found Philosophy and Girard

  • Johnathan grew up in China, got a full ride to Columbia to study computer science, and dropped out his freshman year to launch a startup that ultimately failed 
  • Johnathan wanted to figure out why he was responsible for the startup’s failure, and he discovered that philosophy was the API document of the human soul 
  • He used philosophy to debug himself like he would debug a software application 
  • Johnathan was attracted to the continental social theorists, also known as the recognition theorists, which consisted of three traditions:
    • Scottish moral tradition with Hume and Smith 
    • German tradition with Hagel 
    • French tradition with Rousseau and Girard
  • Social theorists see humans as fundamentally social creatures, not individuals
  • The social theorists view humans as people who are “helplessly penetrated at all times by subjects around them”, and ones that cannot form desires in a vacuum     
  • Many students are elite universities are prestige-seeking; there is a large disjoint between what they really want to do and what is expected from them 
  • Girard’s philosophy helped Johnathan climb out of this trap 

Mimetic Theory 

  • Girard defined two kinds of human desire: physical and metaphysical 
  • Physical desire is a desire for physical utility – what objects can provide us in and of themselves 
  • Metaphysical desire is a desire for identity – what the objects say about us 
  • You can go to the casual ramen place for sustenance (physical desire), or the Michelin star restaurant for sustenance and the social conception that comes with fancy dining (metaphysical desire)
    • There is some physical desire when going to the fancy restaurant because it probably makes high-quality food, but there’s something else going on if the meal is 30x more expensive than another restaurant serving the same entree 
  • You may do a job that you enjoy, or you may do a job that you perceive as prestigious
    • Both pay the bills, but there is a splitting of desire beyond the utility that the job provides
  • Girard believes that humans desire persistence (wanting our names to last), power, and social reality (recognition, fame, and to be lauded by the social groups we’re in)
    • These are abstract, so how does one fulfill them?
  • Girard believes we fulfill these fundamental desires by making associations with objects by choosing models whom we already think have this heightened being
  • Girard thinks our fundamental desires – our moral paradigms – are anchored to these models and their associated objects and values
  • Mimesis is a fancy word for imitation
  • Girard is interested in positive and negative imitation of values, specifically 

Rene Girard 

  • Generally, there are two types of certainty when it comes to objects: descriptive and normative 
  • Descriptive certainty: humans can arrive at these descriptions independently by their own investigations, such as the color of the table, or how many fingers someone has 
  • Normative certainty is more abstract, and includes questions like “what is good?” and “what is beautiful?” 
  • The Enlightenment tries to access normative truth through reason and romanticism
    • Reason: each of us as individuals, through our own investigations, can come to our own understanding 
    • Romanticism: the primacy of the individual’s intuition
  • Girard dispels reason and romanticism as the drivers for thinking
    • He argues that reason is so often a lawyer and spokesperson for normative values that we’ve actually ingested tribalistically through our social needs 
    • He argues that we do not always desire authentic desires
  • Girard argues that the strength of your desire can’t indicate its authenticity and whether it’s truly yours or not 

The Impartial Spectator 

  • Getting from Smith to Girard is a slight tweak; you go from having an objective eternal spectator (Smith) to partial spectators that are molded by your cultural upbringing (Girard)
  • To Girard, the impartial eternal spectator does not exist 
  • There are neurons in the brain that fire both when you do an action and when you observe someone else do the same action
    • There is a biological basis between observing and doing the action yourself 

The Two Solutions To Metaphysical Desires 

  • Johnathan believes there are two solutions once you identify that there are physical and metaphysical desires
  • The first solution is to identify that the metaphysical desire is completely perverse and to not seek it
    • Girard believes the metaphysical desire is essentially a desire to be God 
  • According to Guirard, seeking the metaphysical desire is satanic because you’re desiring persistence, power, and recognition – pushing these desires to their extremes are the metaphysical qualities of the Judeo-Christian God 
  • Girard sees metaphysical desire as the original sin; it is the drive to rival God and his metaphysical splendor 
  • The second solution is derived from the German theorists, who believe that there is a healthy way to exist in society by aligning your physical and metaphysical desires
    • Example: If you really like to do philosophy, don’t hang out with construction workers. Hang out with other philosophers. 
  • Johnathan does not know which of the two solutions is the right one
  • “It’s better to be aware of your susceptibility to social pressure, but eventually if you’re not careful, you start to think it’s not even possible.”Russ Roberts 
  • The mark of a good philosopher is to challenge you so much that you think the rug is being pulled underneath your feet    

Authenticity

  • All desire has metaphysical desire, but not all desire is metaphysical desire
  • Girard argues that once you can calm down your metaphysical desire, you are better able to access it 

Positive and Negative Metaphysical Desires 

  • You can positively or negatively be caught up in the metaphysical desire of your group 
  • The object of metaphysical desire is to secure an object that is associated with a model who we consider to have a heightened degree of being 
  • There is an opposite force as well – that is, the desire to be distant from objects associated with having a deficiency of being 
    • In high school, you want to wear the brands that the cool kids are wearing, and you want to steer clear of the places where the social outcasts hang out at 
  • Nietzsche calls the negative form of metaphysical desire “resentment”
    • Example: Some progressive economists call for wealth distribution not out of love for the poor, but out of hate for the rich
    • They don’t have a problem with money, they just want money so much  
  • The lie of romanticism is that it confuses difference for autonomy; it confuses distance for authenticity 
  • There is a narrative in modernity that to be different from the group means to be authentic   
  • Some people rebel for the sake of rebelling, like Marlon Brando in The Wild One    

Negative Mimesis  

  • Showing up to a dinner party in a $5 t-shirt when everyone else is wearing $500 suits is more of a power move than showing up in a $5,000 suit 
  • Wearing the $5 t-shirt tells all the people wearing the $500 suit that their value of wearing expensive clothes is inferior
  • Another example of negative mimesis is the High Septons in Game of Thrones wearing basic cloth robes despite their immense wealth and power 

Elastic Desires  

  • Our sense of being is fundamentally shaped and determined by the cultures we’re in and the models we’re exposed to 
  • Having multiple wives was once applauded in some cultures, but now it is something that most cultures frown upon 
  • Being slim is desirable today, but there was a time when “roundness” signaled wealth and status 

Intellectual History 

  • Plato has a tripartite conception of the human soul; there was appetite, reason, and spirit, and each of these had a means and an ends
  • Authors of antiquity, such as Aristotle, saw participation in the community itself as a fundamental end – social participation was the end, or at the least one of the most important ends  
  • Machiavelli saw people as fundamentally egocentric, and that social participation was not the end, but the instrumental means to satisfy appetite and self-preservation
  • Hobbes said the default state of humanity is all-out warfare where people are after each other 
  • To Hobbes, the legitimacy of a state was to fundamentally protect appetite and self-preservation  
  • Adam Smith claimed that our propensity to barter, trade, and exchange out of concern for our own self-interest created the free market
    • Reason to get the ends of appetite
  • Through this influential lineage of thinkers, we’ve completely removed the idea of spirit  
  • We come to view our social aspect as a way to serve our appetite; we’ve become reduced to these utility-maximizing creatures without consideration of spirit at all 
  • Removing the social aspects into economics makes it impossible to quantify economics, which is why many economists think of humans as “rational actors”, when in reality, we are not 

Economic Utility 

  • Less is determined by the economic utility as you climb the economic ladder 
  • Once our core human ends are satisfied, most economic decision-making comes from the social dimension that is difficult to model with mathematics 
  • The economy will be more driven by spirit and less by appetite as we become more materially prosperous and enter into a post-scarcity world 
  • Economists try to model everything by this utility-maximizing creature, but there are times in people’s lives when they do not operate with this fundamental logic 

Girard on the United States and China 

  • In 2007 at the height of American optimism, Girard predicted that a conflict between the United States and China would emerge 
  • Americans care about cheap goods, but they also care about their relative position 
  • Girard believed that Americans would feel less good about their absolute rise in cheap goods relative to China’s rise and their closing proximity 
  • Girard argued that a shared value system between the U.S. and China would not necessarily result in harmony because it increases competition
    • Thinking that trade itself is the panacea to global peace is naive
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Notes By Stan Rizzo

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