By Marilynne Robinson
In the Terry Lectures that became “Absence of Mind” I hoped to raise questions about the curriculum that lies behind educated contemporary thought–not on account of its content, but because of the very entrenched habit of treating it as establishing an orthodoxy or a body of dogma.
The characteristic form of a statement about the impact of a modern writer or event is: Since X it is impossible to think Y, or to believe Z. Whence a modern condition of enlightened disillusionment–“modern” in this sense meaning post-1859, or post-1789, or post-1914 or some other date, depending on context. The figures in this curriculum are indeed important historically.
This is not to say that the kind of authority that has been imposed on them is legitimate or productive. No thinker, however great, can foreclose the possibility of further thought, different and contrary thought, and surely none of them would wish to foreclose it. Kant, brilliant as he was, did not make any final and definitive statement about how consciousness proceeds, and Freud neither originated the idea of the unconscious mind nor made any indisputable account of its nature.
Two features of human thought and culture that modernity has supposedly debunked or excluded are a high estimate of human nature and the understanding of existence that sustains and is expressed in religion. These exclusions are entirely arbitrary.
As with any dogma, their intention and their effect is to constrain thinking. This effect is reinforced by an anthropology that, especially in its contemporary form, obsessively minimizes the possibility of meaningful individual experience, of inwardness and reflection. It is naive, and it is not at all humane, to treat the great questions as if they were, or could be, closed.
Marilynne Robinson is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Gilead,” “Home,” and her latest book, “Absence of Mind,” published by Yale University Press.