The dogmatic mind

By Marilynne Robinsonnovelist In the Terry Lectures that became “Absence of Mind” I hoped to raise questions about the curriculum … Continued

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.

Read an excerpt from “Absence of Mind”

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  • farnaz_mansouri2

    Prof. Robinson,What a great pleasure to find you posting here! I wonder that “Housekeeping” is not included in your bio. Though very far from Protestant, Jewish, in fact, and atheist, that novel continues to inform my own sense of impermanence and loss. In fact, I’ve posted passages from it on this blog.”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.”If they are anything at all, they are not arbitrary. They are historical as the Nietzschian argument that precedes your conclusion should have shown you. Major events, perceived “exceptions,” such as those you note do, in fact, revise and recreate “history.” The “exclusions” you mention are historical.

  • areyousaying

    huh?George Will?Is that you?

  • aquarius-age

    Everyone has Religion. But No mind, No Religion. Religion needs Mind and the Mind needs the Brain.A Healthy Brain = A Healthy Religion. A Sick Brain = a Sick Religion.And being a Jewish Mind or Christian Mind or a Hindu Mind or a Buddhist Mind or a Muslim Mind etc.. have NOTHING To Do With Mystical Religions and other aberrational systems.When Birth comes, Religion comes conjoined and inseparably with it’s Natural “mmaculate-Conception” not Biblical. And The MIND (soul) can only be aware when the BRAIN (ionic, biocarbonic machinery)is Healthy. Even when a BRAIN is Ill, it still has Religio.The Brain is clad or immersed in this Natural-Religion i’m trying to explain. Meaning, Like monitoring ones “Pulse” or ones “Temperature” the Brain’s health is something to monitor in Sync. To “PRAY” (talk)? or and to “MEDITATE” (listen)?. Only the Miraculous-Brain and the Holy-Mind posses the Answer to almost any Question, let alone Glorious-Hope. My MIND (i) = My RELIGION (I). EXPERIENCE in and of the-Mind, is everything. Only the SELF (i) + (I) Religion within (Brain + MIND)!And For this “Reasoning” alone, it proves that No Individual needs another individual to assist them in Prayer and or Meditation. So, No Atheist, No Agnostic, No Religionists, No Humanist, No Priest, Rabbi, Imam, Guru, Dalai nor Group(s) etc.. can SAVE anyone from REALITY OF SELF! Meaning, Mind + Brain = LIFE. And Life = Love. Any so-called Religions used for Groups meeting is NO True-RELIGION.CHURCH’S (Synagogues, Temples, Mosques, Shrines etc..) are a thing of the Past. Example: Created by MEN, as the 1st form of CIVILITY, for their [organized] Groups, which brought Humanity (us) here, thus far. And such competing, for a name of a Creator(s) via Religion systems was instituted during the old time “PISCES-AGE.”Welcome to another AQUARIUS-AGE. As you all can once again attest to today that, we’re experiencing Reality: both Man made (cause) and Natural made (cause). Mind + Brain + Heart + Gut = thee bio-BIBLE (walking, Talking, Praying, singing, meditating..). We now realize (awakening phenomena) that; We don’t need Man-Made Religion(s)anymore and thus their man-made [Philosophical] System(s). Remember: The MIND + BRAIN = innate/Natural RELIGION. It’s Philosophy is Philosophic-Less! Behold; The Sign of the Times or No Signs of any TIM; WE (i+) are sinless & curse-less, yet, once again, miraculously appear in A New-Age which FREELY and RIGHTEOUS like born Us [ALL] From “IT”s Old!

  • aquarius-age


  • elizdelphi

    I totally agree with not regarding Kant or Freud as dogma. But I want to make a case for the positive value of GOOD dogma. Throwing out the deeper traditions of Western thought, and the dogmas, conclusions which people through the ages have reflected deeply on and come to affirm as true, is that at the same time it means throwing out the very notion of Truth, on the erroneous basis that each era and group of people has not only to renew but actually to invent from scratch their own way of thinking and being, which is ultimately just self-expression, a projection of meaning onto a universe that is assumed to be meaningless, rather than a real seeking of ultimate truth. This is relativism. It’s a dead-end, to anyone who is seeking truth.Good philosophy (philo-sophia, “love of wisdom”) does seek truth, and this is why good “dogma”, surprisingly enough to many of us today who have been taught this is a dirty word, is a guiding hand from lovers of wisdom down through the ages, for those of us who are beginners. Western civilization was built on the likes of Aristotle and Plato, and on great Christian thinkers like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, true lovers of wisdom who assimilated the thought of the Greek philosophers, and took their insights to new levels. The latter two applied themselves, with both humility and greatness, in the most salutary way, to pursuit of truth and the investigation of “what is good dogma?” Their work continues to have great value.

  • cornbread_r2

    elizdelphi:I’ve always wondered what Aquinas would have said about the claim that he could levitate.You might think that’s a trivial concern, but to a materialist like myself, the RCC’s claim to “ultimate truths” suffers irreparably when it countenances whoppers like that one.

  • davidweek

    Dr RobinsonI agree with Farnaz Mansouri’s comment that the godless secular worldview (which I have to confess some sympathies towards) is a product of a history. But this leads me to touch upon a larger question about your article, which troubles me: why is it so “anti”?It seems to me that a sane world in which some people can consider “great questions” really important, and central to their lives, and others can see the same questions as meaningless, without getting into a (in my view, unresolvable) fight about it. Similarly, some people I know consider their interiority enormously important to them. These friends tend to be “spiritually inclined” (or writers and musicians.) Others see that the most important matters as being what happens out there in the world. Do we have to have a fight about it?In my view, you also present a cartoon view of the secular world. I’ve worked with anthropologist, and have read many more. Nowhere do I find an obsessive minimization of the possibility of meaningful individual experience.I also can’t recognise my secularity in this statement: “modernity has supposedly debunked or excluded are a high estimate of human nature.” When I think of low estimations of human nature, I think of the doctrine of sin, and when I think of a high estimations, I think of evolutionary and biological theory, which sees as extraordinarily subtle beings in an extraordinarily subtle network of relations, and has no words for “good” or “evil”.I think you may be militating against the dominance of secularity in the modern world, so that any religious view is necessarily pushed out of the public realm, and confined to the “subjective”. This too has an historical basis: it developed as a way of stopping religions from using the machinery of state from warring against each other, or from oppressing minorities. Secular society is not the perfect “solution” to the fact that we do not all share the same interior experience. However, as Churchill said of democracy: it may be the worst for of government… except for all the others that have been tried.Secular philosophy does not exist apart from secular society, secular institutions, secular government, a secular compact between citizens to keep their interiority private, and only bring into public realm that which can be seen by others: that we call “objective”, or intersubjective, or exterior. If you are critiquing the philosophy, you are critiquing the society. It may be flawed as a social system: but what’s better?

  • poosky

    Yes well who exactly is being “dogmatic” here, the individual who in a spirit of open-ended scientific inquiry follows the evidence where it leads, or the individual who refuses to accept the evidence because it upsets their sensibilities? It is not “dogmatic” to ask for evidence for your beliefs. By the same token there is no virtue in holding onto an idea in the face of a lack of evidence.