Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self
by Marilynne Robinson.
Yale University Press, 2010.
176 pages, $24.

Marilynne Robinson is America’s leading literary Calvinist. This title may give her short shrift, for she is also a rigorous philosophical and cultural thinker, best seen in her 2005 book, The Death of Adam: Essays in Modern Thought, which ranges widely, analyzing, among other ideas, the theology and character of John Calvin, Darwinism, and the theological and civic origins of the famous McGuffey readers of nineteenth-century public schools. The Pulitzer Prize winning novelist of Gilead and author of four other novels, Robinson explores in the tightly argued philosophical essays comprising Absence of Mind the ways the modernist intellectual impulse marginalizes the inward, subjective experience of the self.

In Robinson’s terms what is lost by modernity’s intellectual hierarchy “is the self, the solitary, perceiving, and interpreting locus of anything that can be called experience.” Excluded is the self that wonders about the whole and finds in metaphysical speculation and religious practice something deeply felt, real, and articulable to others in a manner that mediates the whole of reality to the self. The parascientist, however, expertly dismisses these moral and transcendental contents articulated by the self and announces that the perennial problems of human existence are not moral problems, mediated as they may be by religion, but technical problems that can be measured, defined, and solved.

Robinson is concerned with the relegation of ultimate questions pondered by the anxious “I” to the margins of human concern in favor of a complete science that can now answer questions about the nature of reality, “if only by dismissing them.” Such exclusion is best observed in “the core assumption . . . through all the variations within the diverse traditions of “modern” thought . . . that the experience and testimony of the individual mind is to be explained away, excluded from consideration when any rational account is made of the nature of human being and of being altogether.” Robinson uses the term parascientific to describe this intellectual practice. She defines it as follows:

a robust, and surprisingly conventional, genre of social or political theory or anthropology that makes its case by proceeding, using the science of its moment, from agenesis of human nature in primordial life to a set of general conclusions about what our nature is and must be, together with the ethical, political, economic, and/or philosophic implications to be drawn from these conclusions.

There is also, Robinson observes, a deeply historicist account made here in that a “threshold” is believed to have been crossed “that separates old error from new insight.” The trait of modernity is to believe that one has “passed through a door that could swing only one way.”

Parascientific thought was born in positivism’s insistence that the only relevant inquiries are those that can be measured and answered with empirical data. This logically followed from the belief of Auguste Comte, the founder of positivism, that a complete science had made scientific perfection of existence the final part of man’s historical mission. To this Robinson retorts that such an understanding of an all-encompassing science may have been standard in Comte’s day, but no one doing hard science today would make such a pronouncement. The evidence does not support it. This underscores one weakness of the parascientific method—its dependence on the present state of actual science, a state of knowledge and learning that those engaged in the hard sciences, as opposed to the parascientists, understand as ever-evolving to new discoveries. Thus new discoveries in theoretical physics, for example, which cast doubt on a “complete science,” never inspire, mutatis mutandis, the same humility in parascientific practitioners.

Robinson’s list of observable manifestations of the parascientific style consists of pure anthropological and social approaches to religious phenomena, neo-Darwinism, and Freudianism. One might wonder why Robinson does not list Marxism as another instance of this pattern. It may be an economically discredited theory, but so is Freudianism in its own field, and Marx’s pillorying of free enterprise, private property, and religion still retains a surprising, if unacknowledged, hold on dominant segments of the Western mind. But this is only to quibble.

For Robinson the center holding all of these disparate groupings together is their need to “impress all thought with one character.” The traditions of modern thought are surely inconsistent with one another, “however rigorously self-consistent,” except in “their shared impulse to nullify individual experience.” On this score, Robinson observes that our modern malaise may best be understood in the disconnect that has opened between our experiences and our language. In short, we struggle to describe who we are and what we are about to others because parascientific thinking both defines the accounts of reality that matter and then excludes “the felt life of the mind” from offering anything substantial to the conversation.

Cracks begin to emerge, Robinson argues, in accounting for altruism or in our desires to help others with no tangible benefits accruing to ourselves. Malthus’s Theory of Population and Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man attempted to explain that man’s conscience and humane sentiment were superfluous to helping the poor or in objecting to warfare. To these powerful instances of man’s inward self responding to tragedy, parascientific thinking posits in its neo-Darwinian turn “an objective, amoral force to which every choice and act is subject. In light of this fact our own sense of things is shown to be delusional, insofar as it might persuade us that our behavior is not essentially self-interested in a narrow sense of that term.”

Language posits another problem within neo-Darwininism because the speaker provides useful information to the listener, often with little benefit accruing to the speaker. But this observation is, Robinson argues, just one more curiosity that must be dismissed because as Geoffrey Miller responds, “Evolution cannot favor altruistic information sharing any more than it can favor altruistic food-sharing. Therefore, most animals’ signals must have evolved to manipulate the behavior of another animal for the signaler’s own benefit.” Miller further notes that man’s singular capacity for language must have evolved for the needs of verbal courtship. The smile you see will only be your own; the altruism conundrum posited by language is solved by “sexual payoff.” Or as Robinson concludes on this point, “[O]ur nature is defined as if determined by the nature of hypothetical primitives, humanlike in their ability to have and give information, but finding neither use nor pleasure in doing so.”

The matter of poor Phineas Gage also looms in neo-Darwinist reasoning as evidence of how purely determined are the human person’s acts, moods, choices, and responsibility by the physicality of the brain. Robinson launches her inquiry of Gage because of the paucity of considerations applied by most observers to his behavioral status post-accident. Gage was the nineteenth-century railroad worker whose skull was pierced by a spike in an explosion. He survived the damage that left him partially blind and impaired (it is widely believed by Gage commentators) in the part of the brain where control of the emotions rests. Most observers point to Gage’s post-accident emotional volatility, seen in his frequent anger and cursing fits, for the proposition that aspects of personal behavior we label as free will, character, and personality are solely reducible to brain matter. On Gage’s profanity being directly caused by brain damage, Robinson humorously says, “It is as if there were a Mr. Hyde in us all that would emerge sputtering expletives if our frontal lobes weren’t there to restrain him.”

Robinson notes that Gage’s subjectivity and personhood, his disappointments and pains from the injury never figure into analyses of his condition. Gage, we are told by one wag, could no longer “plan for the future . . . [or] conduct himself according to the social rules he had previously learned.” Robinson adds, “The same could certainly be said of Captain Ahab.” Noteworthy here is the lack of compassionate imagination applied to Gage’s situation that might make better sense of a twenty-five-year-old man who experienced disfiguring pain and partial blindness and struggled to live well—much like a contemporary man who endured a gross trauma might writhe in its aftermath. Robinson concludes that “The stereotyped appearance of this anecdote, the particulars it includes and those whose absence it passes over, and the conclusion that is drawn from it are a perfect demonstration of the difference between parascientific thinking and actual science.”

Scandalously asserted by Robinson is the missed role that meme theory could play in completely disarming the authority of parascientific thought. Memes, Richard Dawkins informs, are “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions . . . [that] propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs . . . [and] propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.” Robinson highlights memes because of the role they play in parascientific thinking as an explanatory device for the more problematic and confusing aspects of human behavior. If memes are so powerful to the neo-Darwinian persuasion, because “they account for the human mind and the promiscuous mélange of truth and error, science and mythology, that abides in it and governs it . . . . Then why assume a genetic basis for any human behavior?” Might the exception of memes to the general rule of evolutionary fitness finally overwhelm the normative parascientific project?

Altruism might be one example, Robinson argues, of a meme “leaping from body to body” sustaining itself and related memes like religion and family as constants in human civilization. In the dynamic imitative processes of memes and their leaping from brain to brain as they propagate, memes come to shape more of what we do and who we are than genes. Is not this, Robinson asks, at the least a rational implication of meme theory? Memes would seem a better way to account for what neo-Darwinian thinking terms the accidents of human beings: our massive brains, our total dependency on others in infancy, and the importance to us of culture, not to mention our unwieldy human nature.

A rejoinder might be that the memes resemble genes in that both selfishly depend on the human species for their survival and, therefore, impact its existence accordingly. However, Robinson cleverly dissects this point in the case of the meme and the singular individual for whom it can also be a consuming fire. Consider the act of martyrdom for one’s religion or country. Surely a meme, no? And yet, these memes gain force precisely because persons, typically the young and the strong, are willing to die for them—dulce et decorum est pro patria mori and all that. Their example of sacrifice, courage, and love becomes a sacred fire for a particular community, winging it forward from generation to generation. Survival of the fittest, yes, in a sense; however, this is a survival borne through sacrifice that is inspired by memes like love, honor, and glory. Further, the “destruction of the young and the strong,” who typically fight in wars, means that the victors actually lose in that they destroy “the genetic wealth of their adversaries.” Surely, then, reliance on memes to explain human behavior provokes as many questions as problems it solves when stacked against the “selfish” gene.

Robinson may be at her most deft in deconstructing Sigmund Freud, whom, she says, with his Oedipal myth and the fear and self-loathing it generates, made reality a threat, leading us to a “strict rationing of awareness” if we are to endure it. The consequences flowing from the Oedipal parricide remove us from our true self and from reality. As a result, neither civilization and its demands that we become ignorant of our true motives and inhibitions in order to maintain the peace, nor our own conscience can be authentically known by man.

Freud, Robinson maintains, offers his theory in order to restrain the raging narratives of primitive racial nationalism circulating in nineteenth-century Europe, narratives which utilized language, history, culture, philosophy, and statism to justify ethnic and national power. Freud’s scientific theory, rooted in sexuality, makes man passive, held under by guilt and fear as opposed to a racial or nationalist antagonist imposing his will on the self-defined other. Freudian man stands suspended between a founding parricide, for which he labors under guilt and fear, and a civilization constructed by alienated men as the terms of their own peace. Liberty of thought and nobility in action in Freudian anthropology are delusions that we do not have the luxury to indulge. We can hope for little more, Freud thought.

The burden of guilt and repression, for Freud, is so powerful that it is really a second self encapsulated within man that becomes more real to him than his primal self. Thus the psychoanalyst is needed to gradually introduce man to himself, a self that he represses, caught as he is between guilt and a civilization that he is never at home in. In Freud, we see the epitome of the parascientific reduction of man as the passive spectator unable to fully comprehend himself; his thoughts, longings, and language are so many leftovers from a primitive past that must be negotiated and parsed through if his existence is to be peaceable.

In reflecting on Robinson’s intensely argued essays, brimming with insight and wit in their critical stance against parascientific ideology, it becomes clear that the author most wants us to recover a sense of wonder and curiosity. This could sound banal, but reclaiming the sheer joy of being alive and of knowing that our lives do not present us with technical problems to be solved but opportunities to mediate our existential anxiety using the “felt life” of philosophical and theological wonder is the heroic task the author puts before us. Robinson has here demonstrated the intellectual obstacles blocking such fruitful practices and has also sketched a path to its reclamation. To meet and describe reality through our own subjective experiences, confident that reality and ourselves are things we can know with authenticity, that these are not superfluous or fearful, this is what it will mean to think again and no longer be absent from ourselves.  

Richard M. Reinsch II is a fellow at Liberty Fund and is the editor of the Library of Law and Liberty. He is the author of Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary (ISI Books, 2010).