- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2010


By Marilynne Robinson
Yale University Press, $24,158 pages

Here we have in the form of a short, readable book a series of lectures - the Terry Lectures - by the author of three much-loved novels firmly rooted in American cultural and intellectual history and two other works of well-cast prose argument. Marilynne Robinson is addressing the efforts made by many “modern” scientists - or purported scientists - to revise drastically downward the traditional understanding of human nature. Her principal targets are the latter-day followers of Darwin and Freud. Each of these groups takes its own way to the same end: to discredit the authority of what we think we are and have been doing.

Ms. Robinson devotes one of her four lectures to what she calls “The Strange History of Altruism.” Many prominent thinkers, including Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker and E.O. Wilson, have argued against the claim that most of us would naturally make that we often act out of a disinterested concern for fairness. But the just-listed scientists maintain that rather than acting ethically, we do what we are programmed to do for the sake of benefit to ourselves and those close to us. They equate the self not with the mind but with “the genetically determined factors in behavior.

Another lecture is devoted to what Ms. Robinson calls “The Freudian Self,” and here again, a relentless effort has been made in the name of science to discredit the authority of our consciously held motives for action in favor of promptings that we neither know nor have any hand in forming. The Freudian self, Ms. Robinson says, is “made passive through the [unconscious] internalization of an identity not its own.”

Ms. Robinson chooses not to discuss explicitly another influential group that also denies that we are the authors of ourselves and of our works: the postmodernist literary theorists who hold with these other thinkers that, as Steven Pinker is quoted as saying, “our brains are organs [passive instruments] not pipelines to the truth.” Hence we do not know what we are really doing and must await news on that score from outside observers. Accordingly, an abstract theorist is presumed to understand an artwork better than the artist.

All three groups, Darwinians, Freudians and postmodernist literary theorists, draw on key assumptions from 17th- and 18th-century science: that every part of reality is a machine governed by a few simple, fixed rules and it is best understood when viewed from outside. But neither of these principles really operates in modern science. Quantum theory, for example, finds that the workings of things are not at all simple - or even predictable; and in our observations of them, it is impossible to keep distinct what is objective from what is subjective: what comes from ourselves and our particular circumstances and means of investigation.

What Ms. Robinson calls parascience and I call scientism applies the assumptions and methods of science to the study of subjects, such as the nature of human nature, that may not be amenable to this approach. It also should be remembered that what we mean by the scientific approach alters with time. Ms. Robinson observes that practitioners of scientism always import the science of just one moment. And in the cases just mentioned, that moment would seem to lie fairly far back in the past.

Ms. Robinson points out both the illusion of objectivity and its denigration. What mainly gets lost is the value, necessity and even the very existence of the self in its “pensive solitude.” In losing a sense of the value of that condition, we also lose access to it. The self’s communion with itself has become “difficult to achieve.” The self is not unitary but a set of wonderfully interacting and cooperating parts: including both the conscious and the unconscious mind as well as what Walt Whitman called “the other I am,” one’s own body. And there is yet another part of the self that watches, appraises and interprets what comes forth from these “companions.”

John Ames, the protagonist in Ms. Robinson’s most famous novel, “Gilead,” realizes that we “do indeed stand apart from ourselves.” But these other parts of the self are appreciated associates. Mr. Ames declares for “the utter brilliance of the physical body.” The body - including the brain - is far from being the passively inert machine posited by many scientists, though decidedly not by the greatly humane neuroscientist Oliver Sacks. At 76, Mr. Ames says that ” this old body has been a pretty good companion” and “my mind, for all its deficiencies, has certainly kept me interested.”

The self’s parts provide several accesses to kinds of knowledge of reality, such that the self is not, as it has been for Freudians, “an encapsulated self with few ties to a larger reality.”

The self’s very particularity as well as that of its circumstances - these “gifts of particularity,” as Mr. Ames calls them - are main sources of its knowledge. For Ms. Robinson, “anyone’s [even a scientist’s] experience of the world is circumstantial and cultural.”

The self’s complex mode of being makes it impossible to fully understand. If we are indeed authors of ourselves and our works, that authorship is far from perfect. The final validity of our works remains problematic. Communicated perceptions of selfhood have been arrayed “across billions of [widely varying] subjectivities” spread over the millennia. And too few of those “moderns” interested in this matter have bothered to consult the historical record: the voices engaged in “an old and very rich conversation” coming from deep inside, not outside, the stream of things.

The modern scientistic “contempt for the past surely accounts for the failure to consult it.” Mad for clarity and certitude, scientism denies the detectable presence of the knowing self in its inwardness, not because the latter is really missing or absent but because, like many other real things, it is rather hard to see.

Robert Ganz is a professor of English at George Washington University.

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