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A New Synthesis in Process and Mimetic Theory

Processing Mimetic Reality: Harmonizing Alfred North Whitehead and René Girard by Andre Rabe Center for Process Studies Blog

The following is an excerpt from the recently published Processing Mimetic Reality: Harmonizing Alfred North Whitehead and René Girard by Andre Rabe (SacraSage Press, 2024). 

A New Synthesis in Process and Mimetic Theory

We’re all in the process of making sense of our reality. Finding ourselves in an environment already filled with symbols, meanings, and stories, we naturally join in this meaning-making activity. We have moments of clarity on this journey in which the complex narratives that flood our world make sense. Contrasts find harmony, chaos finds a pattern, fragments find their place in the whole, scattered symbols find their sequence within a larger story, and we see our part in this unfolding beauty.

Two exceptional thinkers who can help us find such moments of clarity are the French academic René Girard (1923-2015) and the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947). Some would consider Whitehead and Girard unlikely conversational partners. After all, Girard is known for his anthropological theory, and Whitehead is generally known for his metaphysics. However, I intend to show that deep, broad, and significant harmonies can be developed between process philosophy and mimetic theory. Harmonizing these two thought frameworks can transform the way we create meaning and enrich our experience.

René Girard

Girard’s mimetic theory begins with a central insight into the nature of human desire. Consciously, we consider ourselves the authors of our desires, but unconsciously desires are formed by our imitative/ reflective relationships with others. From there, his narrative explanation expands, exploring the processes that made us human, including the development of symbolic thought, the evolution of culture and religion, and the dramatic way the biblical narrative subverts the meaning of the symbols that shaped us.

Mimetic desire, the unconscious way in which humans reflect the desires of others, shapes us individually but also communally, socially, and culturally. Girard recognized that desire does not erupt spontaneously between a person and the object of desire. Rather the movement of desire is triangular. Humans connect intimately with the interiority of others who are like them. And when we recognize in others what we think we lack in ourselves, they become models … unconsciously. Consequently, their desires become our desires and the triangular movement is set in motion between subject, model, and object of desire. This mimetic capacity intensifies our ability to love… and to do violence. Girard does not sugar-coat the darker side of human development but acknowledges our capacity for both good and evil. He insists that we look at what we prefer to ignore. Humans have natural biases, blind spots produced by the very processes that made us human. For him, becoming human wasn’t a smooth transition from animalistic violence to greater rationality. Instead, violence increased in proportion to our increased mental capacities. However, humans invented an ingenious way of controlling violence, making religion and civilization possible.

Girard recognizes the positive aspects of mimesis but primarily develops his theory around the conflictual/violent elements.¹ He explicitly acknowledged this focus on the negative: “Thus, in my work, the ‘bad’ mimesis is always dominant, but the ‘good’ one is of course even more important.”² This emphasis on the negative has understandably cast the mold for Girardian scholarship. Some have even suggested that his ideas constitute an ontology of violence.³ Girard himself considered such an interpretation to be mistaken.⁴ Nevertheless, the emphasis on the negative side of mimesis remains predominant in Girardian scholarship.

Good mimesis is an underdeveloped area I intend to address in this present work, which “is of course even more important.” Girard acknowledged the transformative effect of the revelation of Christ on human history, but for much of his career he eschewed the theological aspects.⁵ I will show instead that mimetic theory gives us a realistic understanding of our past, can be harmonized with Whitehead’s creative ontology, and leaves ample room for a hopeful future. Without diminishing Girard’s sobering and honest view of human history, I will develop his thoughts concerning the revelation of Christ and creative desire further to give them greater emphasis.

Girard’s method of inquiry began with literary criticism. This discipline brings to us an inherent appreciation for narrative intelligibility. However, narrative for Girard is more than fantasy. Trevor Merrill notes:

In contrast to the once-fashionable deconstructive school, for which reality is a text, Girard placed great emphasis on his theory’s realism: in his view texts speak about concrete reality and not only or primarily about themselves.⁶

René Girard

Girard believes that great narratives expose our illusions of independent individualism and unveil the relational structure of reality. His first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961), argues that what distinguishes great novels from the mediocre is the surprising conclusion in which the protagonists experience a type of conversion by recognizing how desire has bound them to their model/rival.⁷ This revelation makes a profound reconciliation between the self and the other possible. In contrast, mediocre novels maintain the ‘romantic lie’ of an independent self and so remain blind to the true nature of conflict as well. Thus, Girard’s literary insights begin spilling over into other disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, and philosophy.

In his second book, Violence and the Sacred (1972), Girard analyzes classical origin myths showing that despite cultural differences, similar events gave birth to similar stories.⁸ Structurally, these myths contain elements of mimetic desire, conflict, and what he identifies as scapegoating violence. One can see a definite shift in focus to anthropology in this work. The book received a positive review by G-H de Radkowski in Le Monde, heralding it as an “enormous intellectual achievement” and “the first truly atheistic theory of religion and of the sacred.”⁹ In this context, Girard’s third book, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (1978), came as a surprise. Divided into three sections, it deals with anthropology (no surprise), psychology (no surprise), and the Judeo-Christian Scriptures (surprise!)¹⁰ And so, with this book, Girard enters the theological domain from an anthropological perspective.

The strength of Girard’s theological contribution lies in this anthropological approach. However, the theological contribution made by mimetic theory can be limited if it is not contextualized within a creation or cosmological theology. This present work aims to provide a larger context and a trajectory to the Girardian narrative. Both Girard and Whitehead recognize a common weakness among many philosophies in the tendency to become entangled in theory and removed from experience. Mimetic theory provides process philosophy with a more grounded historical narrative, in which its concepts can find concrete application. In turn, process philosophy provides mimetic theory with cosmological context and ontological depth.

Alfred North Whitehead

Whitehead’s ideas are an adventurous quest into the nature of reality and the structure of possibility. Whitehead’s universe is a living organism, made of intertwining processes—a flux of pulsating, rhythmic, and meaningful events. He shows us how contrasts seek harmony, and in the process, produce tension that fuels a creative advance. These are not mere mechanistic movements—they are more like organisms. For him, processes have an internal dimension that includes all the richness of feeling, motivation, and meaning. To convey this depth of what he means by process, Whitehead uses the word experience in a new way to denote a single and most fundamental ontological category.

We can’t be disconnected observers with this view of reality. Human experience is not an exception in an otherwise mindless universe; rather, it is an exemplification of, and gives us insight into, the structure and workings of our universe. Whitehead sees his conceptual framework as a “system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.”¹¹ He also recognizes a collective direction to events: “The teleology of the Universe is directed to the production of Beauty.”¹² Process philosophy concerns itself not only with explanation but also with appreciation. Reality appeals to our sense of value and worth. Our cosmos is ordered in such a way as to make the actualization of value possible. This value derives from the fact that God’s valuation of possibilities is oriented toward truth, beauty, and goodness.

There are many nuanced ways of reading Whitehead. One of his terms, atomism, has led to significant differences in interpreting him, altering the meaning of his philosophy. What did he mean by this term? Many have interpreted Whitehead’s atomism, and consequently his concept of an actual entity, to refer to very small particles. However, several scholars have opposed this view. Wallack, for instance, describes such an interpretation as reducing Whitehead’s philosophy to “a colorful and poetic atomism created for our literary delight.”¹³ Auxier and Herstein also argue for a more careful reading of Whitehead. They interpret Whitehead’s actual entity/occasion as both a unit of existence and an explanatory tool:

… we really must stress that Whitehead’s concept of the “actual entity” is not a bit of physical existence. It is a conceptual tool that helps the inquirer arrest temporal passage and the flux of the physical universe.¹⁴

This interpretation of Whitehead is of particular relevance in chapter four where I begin analyzing mimetic processes using this perspective. As will become clear, I interpret atom to refer to a unit of value and epoch to refer to a unit of time.

Alfred North Whitehead

Intertwining Narratives

Whitehead and Girard’s ideas have inspired many in diverse disciplines. The areas of overlap most relevant for this project are psychology, anthropology, philosophy of religion, and theology. Underlying all these areas of inquiry is Whitehead’s understanding of the nature of reality, his metaphysics. This metaphysical schema provides us with the most creative possibilities for new meaning as we harmonize it with Girard’s understanding of the processes that made us human. Whitehead’s metaphysics can be further categorized as ontology and cosmology. Ontology considers the nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter and between possibility and actuality—what sounds like a standard definition of ontology. However, when we realize that reality refers to something very different within a process approach than in a typical substance approach, the meaning completely changes. Reality refers more to an ontology of becoming than being, for reality is not made of things but processes. This open ontology aims not at certainty but enriched experience. Based on these ontological assumptions, cosmology considers the origins, development, and future of our universe.

Whitehead’s ontological claims directly affect Girard’s claims regarding the processes that made us human. Mimetic theory can be understood as a series of nested and overlapping processes. Human imitative capacities form the base process on which to build the process of mimetic desire, which is then nested in a more complex relational matrix that births, what Girard describes as the scapegoating process, which then becomes the basis for ritual and religion, and so on. Whitehead’s cosmology is inseparable from his ontological principles and seeks to understand the progression and trajectory of processes. As such, his cosmology offers a unique process perspective of Girard’s anthropological theory of how humanity, religion, and culture developed and where they may be heading.

Girard and Whitehead are both empirical thinkers—passionate about getting to the actual events that explain our ideas, rather than getting lost in abstract theories. Their respective structures of thought are logically coherent, for the most part.¹⁵ Their ideas also display a narrative intelligibility. The method by which I will bring their thoughts together should inherently include the empirical and logically coherent qualities. However, narrative intelligibility will be the primary method of harmonization. I aim to show that the various claims made by Girard and Whitehead enrich each other in a combined and enlarged narrative.

Mimetic theory naturally lends itself to a narrative progression, starting with the events that made us human, continuing with the evolution of culture and religion, followed by the textual developments in both origin myths and biblical scriptures, and finding a crescendo in the story of Jesus. Although process philosophy does not have such an obvious plot, on an ontological level, Whitehead unveils the narrative capacity in all reality, and on a cosmological level it unites the micro stories and provides a trajectory to the narrative.

Process and narrative can be considered equivalent when referring to a structured series of events. Both concepts speak of a pattern of events that unfolds organically. From a substantialist perspective, processes are meaningless mechanical movements, but from the process philosophical perspective, processes have meaning, internal relationships, and teleological aims. Process, in this context, is therefore closely aligned to what is meant by narrative. Whitehead also applies these philosophical insights when he speculates about the origins and history of culture and religion.

In combining these two systems of thought, Whitehead’s metaphysics provides both a cosmology and an ontology, complementing mimetic theory. Girard’s ideas mainly concern anthropology, but include some ontological observations. Within an enlarged story, Whiteheadian cosmology provides a larger context by which the trajectory of the combined narrative becomes clearer. Conversely, the Girardian anthropological narrative provides an opportunity for a concrete application of process concepts, thereby illustrating them in actual human history. In general, Girard enriches Whitehead through exemplification and Whitehead enriches Girard through an expansion of the overall narrative and deeper ontological insights into the processes. New opportunities for either harmony or conflict will emerge through new contrasts between the two discourses as well. As we navigate these potential conflicts, we embark on an adventure that can steer us to a beautiful new space: a larger and more useful meaning-making framework.

Some Girardian and Whiteheadian concepts have direct correlations and fit naturally into an ontological category. By ontological category, I mean that it is within the nature of reality for processes to have repeatable patterns. For instance, the process concepts of prehension and appetition¹⁶ correlate with the concept of mimetic desire.¹⁷ On a larger narrative scale, Whitehead’s idea that history has a general direction, moving from force to persuasion, might complement Girard’s idea that sacrificial violence undergoes a radical critique, culminating in the death of Christ which opens a new non-violent possibility of being human. But Whitehead and Girard also may disagree, especially about the evolution of religion and civilization. For Whitehead, the pursuit of beauty and peace fundamentally grounds the development of both religion and civilization. In contrast, Girard sees scapegoating violence as the origin and generative event behind religion and culture. These ideas so fundamentally inform their respective narratives that we may wonder if their potential incompatibility will greatly reduce the value of bringing the narratives together.

However, we should be able to overcome these potential obstacles and create what Whitehead calls, a novel complex harmony, greatly enriching the theological contributions made by each framework. Open and relational theology is a category that explores the non-deterministic nature of reality (openness) and the extent to which God is involved in temporal reality. Process philosophy explicitly supports open and relational theological views.¹⁸ Mimetic theory, in contrast, does not make many explicit statements about God. Rather, as its anthropological narrative unfolds, it is through the radical transformation of meaning that the true nature of God is implied. Are open and relational ideas implicitly present in mimetic theory? We’ll explore this question. I aim to make these implied meanings more explicit. 

The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1562. 

Whitehead passed away before Girard developed his ideas but as we’ll see, many of his questions anticipated Girard’s ideas. We know Girard was at least aware of Whitehead, for in an article examining Girard’s place amongst philosophers, the author notes that Girard once quoted Whitehead.¹⁹ The book Girard quoted from was, unsurprisingly, Religion in the Making.²⁰ Girard writes: “In 1926, A. N. Whitehead deplored our situation, in which ‘Christianity lacks a clear-cut separation from the crude fancies of the older tribal religions.’”²¹ So Girard had at least a rudimentary acquaintance with Whitehead’s thought.

Any introduction to either Girard or Whitehead could easily fill a book, as scholars of these figures know. Indeed, many excellent resources do just that. So, instead of providing comprehensive overviews of their ideas, I will adopt a strategy stressing the aim of overall narrative intelligibility mentioned before. The next two chapters are written in a narrative style, introducing the respective theories of Whitehead and Girard. These stories will serve as background paintings, providing the outlines of a plot within which the progression of meaning will find context. Detailed analysis commences in chapter four. This narrative style might differ from that commonly used in academic works, but that is the function of backgrounds—they need to be less technically focused to emphasize the details to come.

  1. “But I would say that mimetic desire, even when bad, is intrinsically good, in the sense that far from being merely imitative in a small sense, it’s the opening out of oneself.” René Girard, “Violence, Difference, Sacrifice: An Interview with René Girard.” Interviewed by Rebecca Adams. In Violence, Difference, Sacrifice: A Special Issue of Religion and Literature 25 no. 2 (Summer 1993), ed. Rebecca Adams, 11-33. Reprinted in René Girard: Prophet of Envy, ed. Cynthia Haven, 51-72. (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020).
  2. René Girard, Evolution and Conversion. (London: Bloomsbury Revelations), 56.
  3. John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 397–98; “Stories of Sacrifice,” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture 2 (1995): 75–102,
  4. Girard said in his 1993 interview with Rebecca Adams that many have misinterpreted his views, “notably John Milbank.” Girard, “Violence, Difference, Sacrifice: An Interview with René Girard,” 20.
  5. Cynthia Haven explores the difficulty Girard had with speaking about his personal conversion within the academic world. See chapter 7 of Cynthia L. Haven, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2018), 148.
  6. James Alison and Wolfgang Palaver, eds., The Palgrave Handbook of Mimetic Theory and Religion. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2017), 459.
  7. René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).
  8. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred. (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).
  9. Chris Fleming, René Girard: Violence and Mimesis. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004), 111.
  10. René Girard, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. (London: Bloomsbury Ac-ademic, 2016).
  11. Alfred N. Whitehead, Process and Reality. Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Edinburgh During the Session 1927-28. (New York: Free Press. Kindle Edition), 3.
  12. Alfred N. Whitehead, Adventures of ideas. (New York: Free Press, 2010), 265.
  13. Wallack, F. Bradford, The Epochal Nature of Process in Whitehead’s Metaphysics. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980), 28, 29.
  14. Randall E. Auxier and L. Gary Herstein, Quantum of Explanation: Whitehead’s Radical Empiricism. (Abingdon, UK: Routledge), 7.
  15. Their ideas have been subject to extensive critical scholarship that have highlighted inconsistencies and proposed refinements. Yet, the central ideas have retained their integrity.
  16. Defined in Chapter 2.
  17. Defined in Chapter 3.
  18. Open and relational theologians might not support all the tenets of process philosophy. However, the openness and relational nature of reality are key principles for process philosophy and as such it explicitly supports open and relational theological views.
  19. Guy Vanheeswijck, “The Place of René Girard in Contemporary Philosophy.” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture 10, (2003): 95-110. doi:10.1353/ctn.2003.0004.
  20. Alfred N. Whitehead, Religion in the Making: Lowell Lectures, 1926. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
  21. René Girard, Je Vois Satan Tomber Comme L’éclair. (Paris: Grasset, 2016), 9.
Andre Rabe

Andre Rabe is a storyteller, theologian, philosopher, author, and public speaker. Andre earned his doctorate degree in theology from Northwind Theological Seminary. He is known for his contributions to research on mimetic theory, open and relational theology, process philosophy, science and religion, and how to make these ideas relevant to real life. He has authored numerous books, including the recently published Processing Mimetic Reality: Harmonizing Alfred North Whitehead and René Girard.