Language, Daoism, Mimetic Desire

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Medieval philosophers spoke of words being ‘imposed’ for things, either directly or by way of the ideas of things. When we acquire language, we learn which words are imposed for which things. It is as if we begin by encountering the things and then wonder what they are called. Or perhaps we learn the names and then wonder what they name (Alfred North Whitehead wrote that whereas Adam saw the animals in the Garden and named them, modern children name the animals and then see them).

R.G. Collingwood lampooned this picture of language-acquisition:

…in a child’s acquisition of his mother tongue every word he is to use must first be explained to him; and it is actually supposed that this comes about by its mother, or other instructor, pointing to the fire and saying ‘fire’, giving it milk and saying ‘milk’, touching its toe and saying ‘toe’, and so forth. When the fact comes out that when a mother points to the fire she probably says ‘pretty’, when giving it milk, ‘nice’, and when touching its toe, ‘this little pig went to market’, the conclusion can only be expressed in the words of a (possibly mythical) schoolmaster: ‘parents are the last people in the world who ought to be allowed to have children.’ (Principles of Art, ch.11, §1)

For Collingwood, we do not acquire language by first wondering about the names of things. What we do is simply imitate a behaviour: that of making certain sounds in the presence of certain objects. The parent models this behaviour, and the child emulates it.

Why does the child imitate the parent? Collingwood warns against appealing to some ‘instinct of imitation’ here (Principles of Art, 11.3). A child imitating the exclamations of its mother, says Collingwood, does not simply imitate the mother but emulates her. The child strives not simply to do what the mother does, but to be, as Collingwood puts it, “as good a man as its mother”, that is, to attain her status. What lies at the root of language acquisition is the striving to emulate a superior — really an instinct of metaphysical rivalry, which is a point I’ll come back to.

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According to some scholars, there is a theory in Chinese philosophy that proceeds in a similar way.

To grasp it, we should first note a distinction that A.C. Graham points out(Later Mohist Logic, Ethics, and Science, 26). In the Aristotelian tradition, a definition tells us what it is for something to be; it is a “λόγος ο τὸ τί ην ‘ειναι σημαίνων”, (Topics 101b39). In the Chinese Mohist tradition, we could draw an approximate parallel and say that a definition tells us the shi (是) of a term. But Graham notes that shi is not like einai: “the word shih ‘this’, being a demonstrative, simply picks out one thing from others as the one in question” (Later Mohist Logic, 26). Whereas the Aristotelian definition expresses the real being — the esse or einai — of a thing, the Mohist definition merely distinguishes it from others.

Picking out an object from others means acting towards it in a discriminatory way — behaving differently towards it. This might involve uttering certain words in its presence, though it can involve more or less than this. This opens the possibility of seeing language as a set of ritualised, discriminating behaviours. In this case, as in Collingwood’s theory, one might acquire a language not by wanting to know the names of things and then learning them, but rather by simply imitating the discriminating behaviour of an exemplary model. This goes along with another Mohist doctrine, that of ‘conforming upwards’ (尚同) — emulating superiors.

This is the interpretation given by Chad Hansen, who makes explicit the idea that acquiring language is simply model-emulation: “Language is a convention transmitted by copying the performance of experts. Natural authorities (opinion leaders) determine usage by modelling language and behavior together” (A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought, 65). In this sense, we acquire language by imitating the patterns and rituals of those we look up to — by conforming upwards.

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The term shi-fei (是非) — ‘this’/‘not this’ — is used to refer to a normative concept of right and wrong as well as the idea of a discrimination. Hansen ascribes to Mozi the view that learning a word is learning a shi-fei, which is a bian (辯). I think that the meaning of bian, at least as Hansen takes it, doesn’t seem too far off that of Aristotle’s λόγος. And so where Aristotle suggests that a definition of ‘X’ is a logos telling us what it is for something to be X, we could say that Hansen holds a Mohist definition to be a logos of when it is right to use ‘X’. Learning a word is internalising a norm of correct usage, but correctness is bound up with a range of social activities rather than with a single activity imposing names for things:

To know how to use a name is to know how to shi [this:right] something (apply the name to it) and how to fei [not this:wrong] other things. We do this distinguishing and naming in the course of performing or executing an acquired competence at some social practice. (Daoist Theory, 126)

This seems to match the sort of notion found in some Western philosophy, especially after Wittgenstein, that the meaning of a sign is its use, or the possession of a concept is the ability to make discriminations, or something like that. Tradition would have it that, while mastering correct usage is a consequence of knowing the meaning of a sign, and making discriminations is a consequence of grasping a concept, meanings and concepts are things in their own right, standing beyond their consequences for human behaviour. On the theory proposed here, by contrast, there is nothing behind the patterns of ‘correct’ usage and discrimination besides layers of imitation.

According to Hansen, the Daode Jing draws from this theory the consequence that language shapes our choices and desires:

Learning names shapes our behavioural attitudes, our desires. This is because we learn names by mimicking their use in guiding choices in ordinary contexts. […] Hence we learn to let names guide us to make the same choices that our social models (teachers) do.

Hansen gives the example of students learning aesthetic terms, say ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly’, by observing and then emulating a teacher’s use of these terms (Daoist Theory, 212). Thus the students simultaneously master the use of some words and internalise some cultural norms. Looking up to their teacher, they acquire not only her distinctions but also her desires: in learning to shi the beautiful they learn to desire it, and to avoid the ugly. And so, from the theory of language-acquisition as model-emulation, we derive a theory of mimetic desire.

The term ‘mimetic desire’ is René Girard’s, and it is noteworthy that Girard traces its root to emulation — that is, the striving to acquire the superior status we perceive in another:

Once his basic needs are satisfied (indeed sometimes even before), man is subject to intense desires, though he may not know precisely for what. The reason is that he desires being, something he himself lacks and which some other person seems to possess. The subject thus looks to that other person to inform him of what he should desire in order to acquire that being. If the model, who is apparently already endowed with superior being, desires some object, the object must surely be capable of conferring an even greater plenitude of being. (Violence and the Sacred, ch.6, p.164 Bloomsbury ed.)

Girard is sometimes accused of rendering all desire mimetic, but here we see that that cannot be: mimetic desire only emerges in the first place because we desire being. It is this primordial desire that drives us to emulate the others — imitating their apparent tastes and wants. They, of course, acquired these by imitating others, and those from others in turn, and so on into a murky past. For some Confucians, this was a positive thing: the primordial ancestors received their desires directly from heaven; to stay on the right path we simply need to preserve the integrity of the mimetic chain.

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But Girard sees in it the vindication of Heraclitus’s statement: violence is the child and father of everything. Mimetic desire must lead to violence: “Two desires converging on the same object are bound to clash. Thus, mimesis coupled with desire leads automatically to conflict” (Violence and the Sacred, 164).

The author or authors of the Daode Jing (‘Laozi’) was perhaps sensitive to the same worry. According to Hansen:

Laozi’s image of the nameless pu [simplicity] — the uncarved block that is freedom from desire — captures the essence of his view. Nameless, it is uncarved, undivided. Freedom from names and distinctions is freedom from desire. (Hansen, Daoist Theory, 213)

Hansen doesn’t explain why one should want to be free of names, distinctions, and desires. Laozi’s ultimate goal, according to Hansen, is: “radical anarchy. As anarchy, it rebels not only against political authority, but all social authority. The way to remove the authority of society totally from your life is to remove language” (Daoist Theory, 229). Since we acquire desires in acquiring language, we are inevitably contaminated with the desires of our society when we learn its language. But why be a radical anarchist?

The connection between mimetic desire and violence can explain this. It connects this anti-language theme in the Daode Jing to two other classic Daoist themes: the importance of preserving one’s life and the primitivist emphasis on a rustic life, away from society. These are themes that early found their way into the tradition from Yang Zhu, whom Feng Youlan called the founder of the the first phase of Daoism (in The Spirit of Chinese Philosophy). Graham points out that the fate of Han Fei “helps one to appreciate why Yangists and Taoists recommended the relative security of private life” (Disputers of the Tao, 269). Han Fei became involved in political life around the court of Ying Zheng. Courtly life is organised around special languages, conventions, and rituals — all of which are learned through mimesis.

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Han Fei’s fate was that a former friend became a rival, plotted against him, and brought about his execution. Girard would find it no surprise that an environment so rich in mimesis should be so violent and dangerous. But mimesis is necessary for learning names and distinctions. Hence, perhaps, the Daoist theme that it is better to avoid society and language itself if you want to preserve your life.

So far Girard’s theory faces a barrier of immediate implausibility. If mimetic desire underpins language, and also leads to rivalry and violence, why aren’t rivalry and violence everywhere?

Girard’s famous answer is the scapegoating mechanism. Violence emerges when desires, through mimesis, converge onto the same limited objects. This creates a condition of generalised rivalry — a war of all against all, or what Girard calls a ‘mimetic crisis’. But what rescues the community from total self-destruction is the very same mimetic tendency that threatens it. The mimetic crisis begins with desires converging onto the same limited objects. But it is resolved when hostilities converge onto the same enemies. The community finds itself united against a single enemy. The destruction or expulsion of this single enemy brings temporary relief from the mimetic crisis. From a condition of universal rivalry and hostility, the community finds itself unified against a common scourge.

According to Girard, this mechanism is the birth of a symbolic order. The common scourge becomes the symbolic culprit for the whole mimetic crisis. The fact that the community is suddenly united when it turns upon a single individual creates the illusion that this individual was the cause of all its internal strife. The individual, in other words, becomes a scapegoat for the crisis. Girard thus sees scapegoating as the original symbolic act of humanity. The scapegoat is a symbol and gives rise to more symbols, as the community begins ritually re-enacting what Girard (following Freud) calls its ‘founding murder’ in rites of sacrifice, symbolising the original destruction of the scapegoat. Sacrifice lies at the heart of the whole symbolic order of a community. One of the most apparently irrational features of human culture, it is in fact the source of it. And this includes language: “to refer to the origin of symbolic thought is to speak as well of the origin of language” (Violence and the Sacred, 267).

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In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Girard is asked how he can explain the origin of a symbolic order — a system of signs — without appealing to the idea of binary opposition then in vogue among structural anthropologists. The popular theory was that every sign is defined in terms of an opposing sign — the Raw and the Cooked, in Claude Levi-Strauss’s example. Girard answers:

There is no need to engender this particular binary opposition. […] There is a simpler model that is uniquely dynamic and genetic — but also completely ignored. This is the model of the exception that is still in the process of emerging, the single trait that stands out against a confused mass or still unsorted multiplicity. It is the model of drawing lots, of the short straw, or, of the bean in the Epiphany cake. Only the piece that contains the bean is truly distinguished; only the shortest straw, or the longest, is meaningful. The rest remain indeterminate. (Things Hidden, 95, Bloomsbury ed.)

During the mimetic crisis, differences are abolished. Desires mimetically conform to each other; everyone becomes an imitator and a rival of everyone else. There is no symbolic order, only an undifferentiated mass. This sounds like the Uncarved Block, the pu (樸) of the Daode Jing, also the dao shu (道樞), the ‘hinge of daos’, in the Zhuangzi: the indiscriminate centre from which one can travel outwards into any discrimination. The selection of a scapegoat produces the first discrimination: the first shi-fei. This is the birth of a symbolic order.

In the Daoist literature the point of zero discrimination is associated with peace and tranquility. It is the place that is safe from all distinctions, all naming, and all desire. For Girard the ‘confused mass’ from which discrimination emerges is a point of crisis — a chaos of violence so intense and generalised that it obliterates all differences. But one could reply that Girard’s ‘unsorted multiplicity’ has already taken on the beginnings of discrimination. It is contaminated with mimesis, which is what eventually produces the symbolic order.

To entirely resist violence, in the ‘Daoist’ sense explored here, requires resistance not only to the imposition of a symbolic order on one’s thought and action but, deeper than this, to the very mimetic tendency that makes the survival of society depend upon its emergence. To do without it, we must refuse to have not only discriminations but even desires imprinted onto our hearts by others.

But for Girard, as we saw, what drives mimetic desire is the one desire that is not mimetic: the desire for being. We cannot want to be without knowing what we want to be. And where can we get our notion of this if not by looking for models to emulate? “Without the Other”, says the second inner chapter of the Zhuangzi, “there is no Self”. The irony is that pursuing being in this way leads to emulation, then rivalry, then violence, and ultimately a threat to our survival. Survival can be reconciled with mimesis through the scapegoat mechanism, which allows for the emergence of a symbolic order in conditions of relative peace. But this solution builds the whole order upon an act of false accusation (this is why Satan — the Accuser — is the prince of this world).

The Daoist, at least the Daoist I am inventing for the purpose of this blog post, wants to get off before the first stop: to resist being contaminated with mimetic desire in the first place. For this we might need to renounce our desire for being — not the desire to exist at all, but the desire for any particular sort of being — the striving to pursue a distinct metaphysical status. Many forms of anarchism oppose political control in favour of individual self-determination. Here perhaps we have a form of anarchism so radical that it opposes both.

So far this has been a blog post about things I don’t really know about. But here is a hypothesis: Spinoza’s notion of beatitude, or self-acquiescence (acquiescentia in se ipso) is the same idea. To acquiesce in your being is, after all, no longer to pursue being. But since that’s something I’m supposed to actually know about, it’s a topic for a book rather than a blog post.

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