Criticism, Philosophy, & Love: An Exchange with Javier Rivera

My friend, Javier Rivera, has posted a video about the relationship between religion and philosophy. Specifically, he talks about the duty of philosophers to ask, “What is religion?” Javier points out the dominant tendency in philosophers to fixate on their own discipline, asking again and again, “What is philosophy?” but a similar kind of (philosophical) attention is rarely devoted to religion. What we need, Javier argues, is a philosophical interest and engagement with religion. Something that (a) religion cannot provide for itself and (b) philosophy’s excessive interest in itself hinders.

Javier says that religion cannot be fairly (critically?) treated from a religious standpoint. He uses the metaphor of family members and how familial relations prevent us from adopting certain attitudes: You cannot speak about your mother critically, Javier points out, especially in public and in front of strangers. He generalizes this point and says: You cannot criticize something you love. The implication here is that philosophers are either not loving or they have been trained to sidestep their loving attitude.

But what would we tell the philosopher who is completely uninterested in religion? Why would we want to convince him to take religion as the subject-matter of her philosophical investigations. You might not want to criticize your mother in public, but when it comes to a stranger’s mother, you might not even be interested in thinking about her. It is, of course, possible to fake interest in order to get a career going. You can call yourself a philosopher of religion and ask for research grants, but there would be something missing from such a purely professional attitude. We can call what is missing “genuine interest,” or “genuine involvement,” and I think it wouldn’t be a big mistake to call it love.

Let me show all my cards at this point. I believe you can only truly criticize what you love. Not only that, but the duty to criticize–to be truthful, to shed illusions, to help the beloved grow–comes with love. I am dissociating criticism from other, superficially-similar types of “attack,” and I have in mind a critical attitude that arises out of care. Criticism is a part of our full engagement with what we love. At the age of 21, I left Islam and I did so consciously. I did not wish to criticize it. I could not criticize it, since I was unable to care for it. I simply wanted nothing to do with the religion. That decision was based on a naive–and I should add unloving–attitude toward the past and the future. You cannot drop-and-leave your religious upbringing the way you do with a backpack. Am I better positioned now to re-engage with the past and the future? I’m not sure.

One last note on Javier’s metaphor. Metaphors limit our treatment of the subject-matter. Thinking about religion in terms of a Mother is overly limiting, because it places us in the position of children. We are not only children. We are not always children, even in relation with the mother. What if you think of religion in terms of a child, putting yourself in the position of a responsible adult, a doubtful adult, a hesitant adult, but an adult nevertheless. Think of St. Christopher carrying Jesus-as-child on his shoulders. That is the duty. That is the spirit I want injected into my criticism–mindful, responsible, and loving. We cannot wait for professional philosophers to do our criticisms for us. We cannot regard their unloving attitude as a strength and our love as a weakness. The duty is ours, philosophically or otherwise.

Update: Javier has responded to my post with a follow-up video on his channel. I include the second video here, too, because I found it excellent! His replies to comments shows his open heart, his commitment to truth and to advancing the argument cooperatively. Importantly, I believe he managed to synthesize our positions–despite the apparent inconsistency between us–into a unified vision. I am grateful to Javier and our on-going exchanges and I’d encourage you to see the second video. (Only one very minor note to keep in mind as you watch the video: In it, Javier refers to this blog post as Patreon-only content, which it isn’t. Although Patreon-only content, all videos, are listed on this website and accessible through my Patreon page.)

A Different Kind of Loss

Having a good conversation about a painful topic is bittersweet. Having a good conversation about loss, for instance, has sweetness mixed with the core bitterness of the topic, and I think the sweetness comes from the truth we discover and the understanding we come to share. Even loss–and our attention to loss–can become a way of connecting with others, a way of discovering and sharing insights.

A few days ago, I listened to a recent NBN interview with Claudia Heilbrunn on her book What Happens When the Analyst Dies: Unexpected Terminations in Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2019). The main title of the book puts the emphasis on the death of the analyst, while the subtitle shifts the emphasis on the termination of the analysis. The main title, referring to the analyst as a person, doesn’t associate death with the unexpected. A person is mortal, it is not all that surprising that they die, if we keep in mind their personhood. The subtitle, referring to the analysis, brings in the word “unexpected.” Analysis itself isn’t a mortal being, and because of that we might forget that it can end. The termination of an analysis could be surprising, very surprising, in so far as we regard analysis as infinite. Isn’t this a general point about our projects and how they affect our self-understanding? The open-endedness and infinitude of what I do (a project) conceals the finitude of what I am (a mortal subject).

The NBN host, Christopher Russel, was great in guiding the conversation and adding his own insights to the interview. It was clear that both Christopher and Claudia cared about the topic, had been personally impacted by the kind of loss they were talking about, and indeed wanted to talk about it. It was a bittersweet conversation, which is to say it was a good conversation. It was warm, simple, finite, inspired by and aware of human finitude and our mortality. Yes, even the analyst dies. Even the teacher dies. Despite the fact that these figures might seem like the most stable part of one’s otherwise chaotic reality. And what does our surprise say about us? What does the difficulty in communicating the pain of such a loss say about us? What now? Where do we go from here?

There was another feature of the conversation that I very much liked: it started small, with a well-defined and -specified topic, and then moved into broader territories. We might begin by recognizing that not all losses are the same, and later we recognize that there might be common qualities in different kinds of losses, if we think about them–and try to make sense of them–long enough. Christopher and Claudia moved into other relevant areas–attachment, relationships, memory, self-image, family, and place (as in the place of therapy), and I think they couldn’t have dealt with those related topics so beautifully, had they not started their conversation with a very specific kind of loss, which was deeply relevant to them both, the reality of which they both felt and recognized.

Videos on Don Quixote (Cervantes)

In my list of 22 books for the year 2022, Don Quixote was number one. While reading the novel, I also read a little from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote, and I made references to Nabokov on Parts II and III. I enjoyed these livestreams and I’d like to continue doing them, despite the interruptions and disfluencies. I am going to miss Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, after having spent about a month with them and their adventures, and I suspect I’ll return to this novel in the near future. Hope you enjoy the videos and if you have any feedback, or other thoughts on Don Quixote and/or Cervantes, feel free to share them with me.

Videos on Sigmund Freud

We are working through Fathali Moghaddam’s Great Ideas in Psychology with a group of students. Our next topic (Chapter 4) is “the Freudian Unconscious.” Here I am collecting some of the videos I have posted about Freud and you can watch them in the order they appear below. Feel free to add comments or questions below the page.

On Anthony Storr’s Very Short Introduction to Freud

On Freud’s Outline of Psychoanalysis

On Freud’s Group Psychology & the Analysis of the Ego

Remembering, Repeating, & Working Through

More on Remembering & Repeating (w/ Barney Stinson)

Discussing Freud with Dan Brown’s Inferno

Never Just…

I have been listening to a few songs from K Republic’s 2010 album, All Those Things I Left Behind, and I have been really enjoying them, especially the first song in the album (“Speed”). What is significance to me, at this moment, about the experience of listening and loving music is that such an experience is never just about listening to one particular song, it is never just about enjoying this song, or loving just this song. Appreciating something (or someone) is never confined to appreciating only that thing (or person). The appreciation, the enjoyment, spills over to other moments. When you dance to one song, you are not just dancing to that particular song–you are dancing with the world. The song is, of course, important and essential. The song gives you the key, the insight, the angle, the way into seeing how dancing with the world is possible. And, it isn’t just the world. It is you who is dancing and loving.

When you need music and listen to a song, when you feel thirsty and get a drink, when you are lonely and find a friend, etc. the discovery, the satisfaction, the fulfillment is more than that particular fulfillment. If someone learns to trust another person, some–particular–one, they are at the same time learning to Trust. When someone enjoys some–particular–song, they are at the same time enjoying Music. They are also enjoying their own capacity to enjoy music.

Friendship is never about one friend (and isn’t that a great quality? Isn’t it great for the joy of a particular experience never to be confined within that experience?), it is about the world within which friendship is possible. It is about learning–or remembering–that trust is possible. It is, at the same time, the joy of learning–or remembering–that one has the capacity to be a friend to others.

A particular friend, assuming that it is a true and real friend, is a bridge to the rest of humanity, an ambassador, a peace-maker or a peace-keeper. The friend becomes the insight that enables loving humanity (since loving humanity isn’t possible without the mediation of particular human persons). A song, likewise, is a bridge to the world music. I don’t need many songs to maintain that connection, I don’t need many friends, I don’t need many books, because having a few (songs, books, friends) already enables the access to something greater, because I am connecting to something greater through these particular experience. That is why these particular (finite) experiences, and these particular (finite) friends, songs, books, moments, are enough–truly enough. Because these particular experiences are never just about these particular experiences.