Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self


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In this ambitious book, acclaimed novelist Robinson applies her astute intellect to some of the most vexing topics in human thought--science, religion, and consciousness.

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Sep 27, 2018

A Novelist's Thoughts On The Mind

Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize winning novel "Gilead" portrays an aging, dying minister in a small Iowa town who reflects upon his life and family, on God, and on the United States for the benefit of his young son. The book is written eloquently and poignantly. "Gilead" is thoughtful in its simplicity, but never forgets its form as a work of fiction.

I was eager to read more of Robinson. Instead of turning to her other novels, I found her recent book of essays, "Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self." (2010) I also found an excellent review that Robinson had written for the December 13, 2010, issue of "The Nation" of "The Heart of William James", a new selection of essays by the great American philosopher with an introduction by Robert Richardson. The Heart of William James (John Harvard Library) Judging from "Absence of Mind", Robinson has learned a great deal from James. In particular, Robinson focuses on James' pluralism and on his great interest in broad philosophical questions together with his scientific efforts. James opposed explanatory monism -- the effort to explain all human experience by reducing it to a single theory -- whether that theory was Hegelian idealism or scientific materialism. Investigative trains need to be followed where they lead but not necessarily beyond them. Human life requires a multiplicity of of explanatory paths, and lived experience, for James, always has primacy over theory rather than the other way round. Throughout his life, James struggled with questions of theism and ultimately developed his own concept of an evolving God that, to the extent I understand James, owes little to traditional Judaism or Christianity. Much of what is best in "Absence of Mind" seems to me the result of Robinson's engagement with James.

The essays in "Absence of Mind" derive from lectures Robinson gave at Yale under the auspices of the Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation Lectures on Religion in the light of Science and Philosophy. The aim of these lectures is to broaden and purify religion by considering and integrating within its framework the teachings of the sciences. Accordingly, Robinson takes as her broad subject the relationship between religion and certain forms of thinking claiming to derive from science. Her broader subject is the individual human mind and its subjectivity and the creation of art and culture.

Unlike, "Gilead" which moves with simplicity and unforced persuasion, "Absence of Mind" is dense, difficult, and at times sharply polemical. The style of the book is elegant and shows the personal touch of a creative writer. And the theme of the book is akin to "Gilead" as Robinson celebrates self and humanity against various modernisms. There is a great deal of insight in "Absence of Mind" but Robinson frequently does not help herself, as, it seems to me, she elides important distinctions, moves too quickly at times, and offers illustrations and critiques that sometimes appear to have little relevance to the points she is trying to make. This short book is a struggle. It is worthwhile, but Robinson is less effective as a philosopher or essayist than she is as a creative writer.

Robinson targets what she terms "parascience" -- which many modern writers refer to as scientism. It is a form of reductivism that tries to show how scientific discoveries in one or several fields suffice to answer questions outside the field and to eliminate or rephrase questions of religion, philosophy or, broadly, human culture. For Robinson, these reductivisms, which are inconsistent with each other, brush away the individual mind, its subjectivity, and its ability to reflect upon itself. What she says is valuable and important. It seems to me that she doesn't distinguish clearly enough different approaches to reductivism. At times, she speaks in the language of transcendence, or Cartesianism, by apparently considering mind as a thing separate from physical bodies. Usually she avoids this ontological dualism. In the last and best of the four essays included here, "Thinking Again" she seems willing to grant that the mind in an important sense is "part of" the brain.(my term) She says that human inner life and culture cannot even so be explained solely in physicalist or evolutionary or other reductivist terms. This too is an important point, but it should not be conflated with ontological dualism, and it should be seen to be independent of any necessary commitment to theism.

The reductionists Robinson considers include Sigmund Freud in a long and interesting essay on Freud's metapsychology. Robinson does not challenge the analysis Freud made of individual patients (although she might) but instead she attacks claims that Freud made in his late books about the origins of civilization and religion in claimed universal acts of sexual repression. Robinson argues against this claim as reductivist and as based upon Freud's own extrapolation from the political situation in the Europe of his day. What she says is interesting but not necessarily convincing insofar as it proposes to explain the origins of Freud's theories. Other more contemporary writers that Robinson considers and rejects for reductivism include Herbert Spencer, and the contemporary writers E.O. Wilson, James Kugel, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, among others. The first essay, "On Human Nature", I found a confusing effort in which Robinson moves from James' treatment of religion in "The Varieties of Religious Experience" to other ostensibly scientific approaches to religion which would remove the importance of the heart of the individual. The second essay, "The Strange History of Altruism" argues that sociobiologists and other reductionists are unable to account for the prevalence of altruism in human thought and behavior. The remaining two essays, on Freud, and on mind-brain reductivism, are more challenging than the first two essays, and I have touched on them earlier.

Robinson is at her best when she describes the intimacies of the human heart and the achievements of human culture. Thus she writes well of

"the odd privilege of existence as a coherent self, the ability to speak the word 'I' and mean by it a richly individual history of experience, perception, and thought. For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as a final redoubt, not as argument but as experience, that haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer to so diligently." (p. 110)

Robinson writes well and convincingly when she speaks in her own voice and discusses individual subjectivity and human culture. She also did well in her focus on William James, a thinker who will repay many rereadings and rethinkings. In her attacks on scientism, I think Robinson is broadly correct, but her considerations of specific authors and positions tends to be fuzzy and obscure.

Robin Friedman

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