Desire Definition

Girard discovered that we come to desire many things not through biological drives or pure reason, nor as a decree of our illusory and Sovereign Self, but through imitation.

That idea was unpalatable to me the first time I heard it. Are we all just imitation machines? No. Mimetic desire is only one piece of a comprehensive vision of human ecology, which also includes freedom and a relational understanding of personhood. The imitation of desire has to do with our profound openness to other people and to the world around us, which is one of the things that makes us uniquely human.

Desire, as Girard used the word, does not mean the drive for food or sex or shelter or security. Those things are better called needs—they’re hard-wired into our bodies. Biological needs don’t rely on imitation. If I’m dying of thirst in the desert, I don’t need anyone to show me that water is desirable.

But after meeting our basic needs as creatures, we enter into the uniquely human domain of desire. And knowing what to want is much harder than knowing what to need.

Girard was interested in how we come to want things when there is no clear instinctual basis for it.[i] Out of the billions of potential objects of desire in the world, from mates to careers to lifestyles, how do people come to desire one of them more than others? And why do the objects and intensity of our desire seem to fluctuate constantly, lacking any real stability?

In the universe of desire, there is no clear hierarchy. People don’t choose objects of desire the way they choose to drink a glass of water. Instead of internal biological signals, we have a different kind of external signal that motivates these choices: models. Models are people or things that show us what is worth wanting. It is models—not our “objective” analysis, our central nervous system, or any other biological mechanism—that shape our desires.

The universe of desire is filled with models that fluctuate constantly, rising and falling in status and importance. And with these models, people engage in the secret and sophisticated form of imitation that Girard termed mimesis (mi-mee-sis), from the Greek word mimesthai (meaning “to imitate”).

[i] Girard uses the word “desire” (or désir in French) because desire was a hotly debated category in philosophical circles in mid-twentieth-century France. After World War II, the question of “desire” dominated French literature and intellectual life. When Girard began exploring the topic, Sigmund Freud, Jean-Paul Sartre, Alexandre Kojève, Jacques Derrida, and others were already wrestling with it. So Girard took up their category (désir) and radically transformed it. For Girard, desire is the most salient feature of the human condition and imitation the most fundamental feature of human behavior.