Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Talking Cure

Jacques Lacan's famous discussion of Freudian psychoanalysis as a form of talking cure, in which the analyst is able to shape the meanings of the subject's hangups and mental infirmities, came to my mind during the recent exchange between Rick, Paul, Rob, and others (see below) on the issue of quizzing political candidates about how their religious beliefs will affect their decisions.  Yesterday, as my colleague Mark Movsesian notes, Ross Douthat had a column on the issue, with a number of interesting recommendations for journalists.

But I had a thought that may strike some here as perhaps a little heterodox.  I want to make a point in (partial, limited) defense of the Rortian "religion as conversation-stopper" view (which Rorty only really very partially revised after an elegant intervention by Jeffrey Stout a few years ago).

When candidate X makes a speech in which she claims that she is informed in her thinking about political issue Y by her religious beliefs and traditions, this is sometimes (not always, but often enough) not the sort of claim that can be understood thoroughly by the voting public through thorough public discussion, stimulated by extensive question and answer sessions devised by journalists otherwise hostile to the candidate's political position.  What is more likely to happen is that religion -- whether the candidate's or not -- will be used as a kind of instrument through which the journalist's political orientation can be reaffirmed and re-cemented.

Two points are often heard against this view, which I'll call Response One and Response Two.  Response One is that this is the candidate's own fault.  He, after all, is using religion in his speech for political advancement of one kind or another.  Why is it not then fair to use religion to knock him down -- to erase the political advantage that he has gained, and to strike political blows against him to boot?  The candidate did not have to mention religion; but now that he has, religion is "fair game."  Response Two is that engaging with the candidate's religious views takes religion and the candidate himself seriously -- it engages in discursive good faith with the candidate.  We do not say to the candidate, "You have improperly introduced a forbidden subject into the political exchange."  We say instead, 'We want to understand you, and since your religious tradition seems to be important enough to you that you raise it to explain, or ground, or at least situate your political position, we would like to probe your religious views by the medium of public discourse.  We'd like to understand your view, which you've informed us is religiously grounded, by talking through it to see if we find it persuasive.  Talking will help."

I want to examine the responses in turn.  Response One is motivated by an adversarially political aim, and it seems to me that it is a true reflection of the way in which political discourse is and always has been conducted.  That is because political discourse is, fundamentally (though of course not universally), shallow.  Political speeches are in the main occasions for scoring shallow points, using facile and accessibly appealing rhetoric.  They are occasions for giving people something easy to cheer.  The introduction of religion into a shallow speech does not make the speech profound; it only gives a shallow speech religious color.  Naturally, there have been beautiful political speeches that have used religious imagery or made religious references, and the beauty of those speeches has been enhanced by that imagery or those references.  But the introduction of a religious reference does not alter the generally shallow quality of political discourse.  

Since so much political speech-making is shallow, why should we expect that political commentators and talking heads who are deeply opposed to the political positions staked out by a particular candidate who makes a speech with a religious reference are interested in knowing in any depth about the candidate's religious views?  They are mostly, of course, interested in scoring correspondingly easy political points among their own readers, just as the candidate was interested in scoring easy points among his constituents.  Religion is an instrument through which each political partisan can make his or her hay more effectively; it is conscripted to be the handmaid of politics, and the politician or the journalist, like the psychotherapist, imprints the meaning that he wishes on the subject -- the listening public.  The appearance of religion -- pro or con -- is not likely to change this quality of political discourse.

That brings me to Response Two -- the view that when a candidate raises a religiously based argument, it will help our political discourse to talk through the candidate's religious ideas, because it will give us a better sense of what the candidate is all about.  As an initial matter, Response One seems to be somewhat incongruous with Response Two.  If we were really interested in understanding the candidate's religious tradition, in knowing precisely what role religion has played in the development of the views that the candidate is now expressing in her speech, we would recognize that it is extremely unlikely that people who are strongly opposed to the candidate's political views would be in a very good position to serve as interlocutors on this issue. 

But let's set that point aside.  Suppose we were dealing with a pure Response 2 kind of person, someone with no ideological or political axe to grind and who wished really to understand the religious underpinnings of a candidate's views.  Sometimes that sort of person can, with effort, illuminate something profound about the relationship of religion and politics.  When that happens, it is lovely to behold.  The difficulty, though, is that contemporary political discourse is exceptionally ill-suited to achieve the kind of engagement and understanding that the Response 2 person desires.  Response 2's model of political discourse is...academic discourse, whose beau ideal is a kind of Socratic dialogue in extenso, across years of deepening exchange.  And yet even in academic discourse, the dark byways and subterranean passages of a person's thought are exceptionally difficult to uncover in full.  Certainly, that kind of knowledge about someone else's religious views cannot be had by recourse to a series of simple and uninteresting questions cooked up in response to simple and uninteresting political rhetoric.  The essential triviality of ordinary political discourse -- the rapidity with which it is conducted, the lack of complication that is the leitmotiv of the political talking point, its stubbornly ephemeral nature -- cannot be remedied by the talking cure, whether we talk about religion or any other similarly consequential subject.

In fact, there may be a cost to embracing the talking cure too ardently -- the risk of mixing up Responses One and Two.  Most ordinary discourse about politics and religion, just like any other subject, is shallow, and this is as true for politicians as it is for journalists and the rest of us.  There is nothing wrong with that at all; shallowness gets us through the day -- thank God for it.  If I had to really think seriously about most of the things I read and hear, I would find myself paralyzed and probably incoherent (more than usual).  Yet what is problematic is to treat shallow discourse as something other than what it is because it claims the mantle of the talking cure -- because it says, "Oh, but I'm just hearing the other side out.  Audi alteram partem, after all, and respond in kind."  In the political arena, this is often not a tenable position, and rarely less tenable than when one is inquiring after a person's religious views.  What is more likely is that under cover of engaging in Response Two discourse, we will get more discourse partaking of Response One without declaring itself as such. 

This piece, from the Chicago Tribune and re-reported in the LA Times (it was just that appealing, apparently), is, I think, a nice example.  Titled, "A Few Catholics Still Insist Galileo Was Wrong," the piece reports on the views of some people who believe that the Earth is the center of the universe.  This position is associated by the author with Catholicism without much of an attempt to clarify what the official position of the Catholic Church today is on the subject.  Instead, the author notes coyly that a large gathering of these people was held close by the University of Notre Dame.  The whole piece is meant as a kind of lightweight ribbing of Catholicism.  It is shallow, just like so much that gets talked and written about today.  That's perfectly fine.  In fact, it is largely futile to think that the dominant mode of political and cultural discourse could look very different than this.  Insisting too much that modes of discourse which obtain in academia can be superimposed wholesale on, as Oakeshott had it, "the world of practice" can be deluding.  It can deceive us into believing that Response One is just a regrettable epiphenomenon of political discourse, to be remedied by the talking cure. 

Better, at least sometimes, to take religion as a conversation stopper; at least then, perhaps we'll have some blessed silence.

(X-posted CLR Forum)


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One small quibble or clarification: the first sentence sounds as if the notion of a "talking cure" comes from Lacan although of course the expression originates with Anna O. , the pseudonym of the Austrian-Jewish feminist, Bertha Pappenheim, a patient of Josef Breuer (from his book with Freud, Studies on Hysteria), and was later used, and thus made famous, by Freud himself.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 30, 2011 2:26:02 AM

(What Lacan did was critique Freud's understanding of 'speech' by way of Saussurean linguistics, 'speech act' theory and the Hegelian dialectic of recognition.)

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 30, 2011 2:40:37 AM

Thanks, Patrick, you are entirely right that the term originates with Anna O. I thought I remembered that Lacan, in 4 Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, uses the term "talking cure" as well in his discussion of Freud. I last looked at Lacan in a college course, though, so I could well be wrong. Am I mistaken?

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Aug 30, 2011 6:27:32 AM


You say: "This position is associated by the author with Catholicism without much of an attempt to clarify what the official position of the Catholic Church today is on the subject."

I am puzzled by the ability of Catholics to interpret the piece you link to as in some way "anti-Catholic." (It was discussed briefly on First Things, and there are comments following the article itself, and in both places, there are laments about the author's alleged attempt to embarrass Catholics.) I grant that it is a poor piece of journalism, but first, it never implies that more than a few Catholics are being discussed. Note the headline: "A Few Catholics Still Insist Galileo Was Wrong." Second, although I am not sure that the Church exactly has an "official position" on heliocentrism, the article does say, "But by challenging modern science, proponents of a geocentric universe are challenging the very church they seek to serve and protect." It could hardly be clearer that the author of the article thinks the "official position" of the Church is heliocentrism and not geocentrism. The article then quotes a spokesman for the Vatican Observatory (Brother Guy Consolmagno) saying, "I have no idea who these people are. Are they sincere, or is this a clever bit of theater?" Content-wise, it is a pretty worthless quote, but it does serve to show that the author of the article understands that Vatican does not associate itself with the "few Catholics" the piece is about.

You say: "Instead, the author notes coyly that a large gathering of these people was held close by the University of Notre Dame. The whole piece is meant as a kind of lightweight ribbing of Catholicism."

But the author in no way associates Notre Dame with geocentrism. In fact, she states

Astrophysicists at Notre Dame didn't appreciate the group hitching its wagon to America's flagship Catholic university and resurrecting a concept that's extinct for a reason.

"It's an idea whose time has come and gone," astrophysics professor Peter Garnavich said. "There are some people who want to move the world back to the 1950s when it seemed like a better time. These are people who want to move the world back to the 1250s."

Although not clearly stated, Professor Garnavich is from Notre Dame.

Finally, the piece gives the last word to the spokesman from Vatican Observatory, noting that he says (though this part is not a direct quote), "[T]he very premise of going after Galileo illustrates the theory's lack of scientific credibility." And if that weren't enough, there is a huge picture of Consolmagno with the caption, "Brother Guy Consolmagno of the Vatican Observatory takes a modern view of Earth's place in the universe."

Posted by: David Nickol | Aug 30, 2011 7:54:58 AM

David, thanks, please note that I did not say that the piece was anti-Catholic (as in my post on the Norwich book, I did not make this characterization, though it was assigned to me). I said that it was intended as a lightweight ribbing of Catholicism, not that it was anti-Catholic. I also said that it was shallow, a characterization upon which, I think, we can agree, given your description of it as a "poor piece of journalism." The shallowness of the piece goes to the subject of my post.

I do think that if the author were trying to make the piece less shallow, a clearer discussion of the history of heliocentrism and the Church's changing position in relation to it would have been useful. As I noted, that does not appear in the piece, and it contributes to my sense that the piece was not seriious. I also think (and this may simply be a disagreement between us) that the author's discussion of the gathering of these folks right next to Notre Dame was meant to tease. I agree with you that it was not meant as a claim that Notre Dame, as an institution, agrees with these people about geocentrism.

I don't know about the discussion over at First Things; while I respect that journal and the writers there, I also respectfully do not think that this piece was virulently anti-Catholic, so I take it that we agree on that point. I just think it was another piece of shallow political discourse about religion -- and again, this is the point of the post.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Aug 30, 2011 8:21:50 AM


Lacan has used the expression, but it is rather commonplace both inside and outside psychoanalytic circles, and among both supporters and detractors of Freudian (and post-Freudian) psychology, the latter by way of implying that there is nothing theoretically advantageous or unique to psychoanalytic therapy, it being merely one of many such psychological "talking cures," in which case, for example, what is paramount is that both therapist and patient "believe" in the "truth" and thus efficacy of the theory, psychoanalytic or otherwise, the therapists and patient accomplices in a mutually beneficial folie à deux. Illustrative of its non-pejorative meaning within the psychoanalytic tradition is the title of a book by Robert S. Wallerstein: The Talking Cures: The Psychoanalytic Psychotherapies (1995) (a survey Otto Kernberg described as 'the most systematic study of the theory and practice of psychoanalytic psychotherapy that I know').

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 30, 2011 8:38:00 AM

Thanks, Patrick, for all corrections and clarifications. As always, very helpful.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Aug 30, 2011 8:49:06 AM

More directly relevant to the topic at hand and better than a journalistic "ribbing" of Catholicism by way of a puff piece on some recalcitrant geocentrists, would have been something on (or along the lines of) Paul Feyerabend's* treatment of the "Galileo v. Catholic Church" episode as discussed in his "Galileo and the Tyranny of Truth" (from his 1987 volume, Farewell to Reason**). Here and elsewhere, Feyeraband's discussion takes us beyong the "[bad]Church v. [good]Science" polemics which usually structure this historical episode. Barry Stocker captured some of Feyerabend's larger argument in a comment thread several years ago at Leiter Reports:

"Feyerabend argues that the Church was philosophically justified in opposing Galileo because its arguments against Galileo were those of Instrumentalist Philosophy of Science. They demanded that Galileo recognise that Copernican theory was a useful instrument in predicting observations, but was not true. I believe that Popper made the same comparison in *Conjectures and Refutations* but in order to attack Instrumentalism. Feyerabend's argument on the social and ethical aspect is that the Chucrh had an integrated world view in which Scripture defines the horizons of knowledge. Such a view is also a view about social harmony based on scriptural values. Since there is no correct method or final truth in science, it is perfectly reasonable for the Church to limit knowledge in that way, particularly as science develops through external impulses not through internally consistent method. Galileo himself was dishonest and inconsistent in both supporting and opposing Church doctrine. He was not harshly treated by the standards of the time, as he was merely placed under house arrest. On Feyerabend as provocateur, someone who studied with Lakatos and is now at UCl confirmed the impression to me fairly recently that Feyerabend wrote in a very rhetorical and provocative way without regard to whether he fully supported the positions he was using to make his anti-Rationalist points, at that time."

* Described in the SEP entry on his as "one of the twentieth century's most famous philosophers of science."
** See too p. 133 of Against Method (3rd ed., 1993).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 30, 2011 9:30:51 AM


I agree that it was a shallow article, and I should make it clear that when I said . . .

I am puzzled by the ability of Catholics to interpret the piece you link to as in some way "anti-Catholic."

. . . I didn't mean to imply, by putting "anti-Catholic" in quotes, that you (or anyone else) had said the words "anti-Catholic." Those were "scare quotes."

I believe the viewpoint of the article, badly done as it was, was something along the lines of, "A few Catholic crackpots are taking a position that Notre Dame astrophysicists and the Vatican consider to long ago have been proven false."

Posted by: David Nickol | Aug 30, 2011 9:56:02 AM