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Robert Pogue Harrison (left) with René Girard outside the Stanford Faculty Club, California (© Ewa Domańska)

Why do we want what we want? Where do our desires come from? Why do we chase the things that elude us?

René Girard, one of the leading thinkers of our era, dedicated his life to such questions. In the course of his journey, the Stanford professor, who died in 2015 at the age of 91, bypassed prevailing orthodoxies and “isms” to offer a bold, sweeping vision of human nature, human history and human destiny. He has been called “the new Darwin of the human sciences” and was one of the immortels of the Académie Française.

He began his work in the 1960s with a new concept of human desire: our desires are not our own, he said: we are social creatures, and we learn what to want from each other. From that starting point, he went on to write about imitation, envy, competition, violence, scapegoating, rituals, sacrifice, and warfare.

History, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, religion, psychology and theology all figured in his oeuvre. “Girard is one of the titans of 20th-century thought,” says the Stanford Professor Robert Pogue Harrison. “And I believe that the 21st century will vindicate the cogency of his theories in a clamorous way.”

In 2005, Girard met Harrison, author of Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age; Forests: The Shadow of Civilisation; and The Dominion of the Dead, for a two-part interview on Harrison’s celebrated Entitled Opinions radio and podcast series, available on iTunes. Together, they recapped Girard’s long career and thought. This is the first of the two interviews. Both transcripts will be included in the forthcoming Conversations with René Girard (Bloomsbury), edited by Cynthia L. Haven, who is also the author of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard (2018).                      

Cynthia Haven

Robert Pogue Harrison: The founding adage of western philosophy is “know thyself.” That’s not an easy proposition. To know yourself means, above all, to know your desire. Desires lurk at the heart of our behavior, determine our motivations, organise our social relations, and inform our politics, religions, ideologies, and conflicts. Yet nothing is more mysterious, elusive, or perverse than human desire.

Our government invests billions of dollars in scientific research every year so we might better understand the world of nature, so that we might continue our pursuit of knowledge, yet commits only a tiny fraction of that to advancing the cause of self-knowledge. Most of our major problems today are as old as the world itself. The problem of reciprocal violence, for example. You would think we would want to understand its mechanisms, its psychology, and its tendencies to spiral out of control. Instead, we keep on perpetuating its cycles much the way our ancestors have done for centuries, and even millennia. Nor are we any closer to knowing the deeper layers of our conflicting and conflict-generating desires than they were.
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