Absence of Mind, which originated in the Terry Lecture Series at Yale, is subtitled: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. That subtitle ought to tell you whether you want to read this little book or not. What is “inwardness”? What is “the Modern Myth of the Self”? Are these agreed terms with which we are all conversant?
My odd suggestion is that you not read this book despite the fact that in its labored and pretentious prose it makes a good case and offers a wonderful critique of Freud and a few other notable thinkers in the process.
Here’s the gist: Real scientists, in Robinson’s view, use questions to proceed to more questions; they don’t use answers to questions in order to shut down more questioning.
Specifically, she quarrels with materialistic, positivistic thinkers who reduce humanity to neo-Darwininian collections of self-perpetuating genetic biology. She includes Comte, to a certain extent, in this group and is particularly tough on Steven Pinker and E.O.Wilson, whom she classes as parascientists, not real scientists.
She argues that altruism and other features of human behavior and possibility contradict the fundamental survival/selfishness upon which neo-Darwinists make their case. She posits that the brain is not the mind and argues that mind is, in effect, somewhat autonomous of the biological basis and organs that provoke its storms of genius. She is religious and argues at length that materialistic determinism seeks to close, falsely, any discussion of the “metaphysical.” We will never reach a point where there won’t be one more question about the meaning of life that exceeds the limits of mere survival and self-perpetuation. She doesn’t argue against evolution; she uses evolution as a means of suggesting that unforeseeable disjunctures occur separating us from primeval primates and pushing us toward deeper explorations of the human experience. So that’s more or less her thesis. I tend to agree with it.
The only part of the book I really enjoyed was her critique of Freud, which is novel and amusing even if Robinson is a sententious writer in this expository mode. In short, she asks, Isn’t it incredible that a man living in the center of an anti-Semitic storm would strive so endlessly to universalize human experience by condensing it to sexual issues…while not tackling the specific horrors of the cultural deformities radiating out from Vienna all across continental Europe? Was Freud compensating for his insecurity about being a Jew with a theory that tended to argue all humankind is the same, subject to the same sexual drives…and thereby including persecuted Jews in the mass of Europeans (in this case) who were doing Jews (and by extension Freud) such grave injury? As Robinson presents the Freudian case, the ostrich element is pronounced and persuasive. Why didn't Freud focus on the immediate cultural context in which he lived and recognize that culture and history and conflict is particularistic, subject to man-made values that could be made better rather than worse? Why didn't he see the world as William James saw it--as a collection of subjective, imaginative, yearning human spirits who could, by luck and by faith, transcend their fundamental biological drives (and fears)? This is one of the best studies of a controversial and difficult man I have read since reading James Hillman’s comments on Hitler in a book I believe is called Blue Fire.
The point Robinson makes over and over again is that parascientific thought is reductionist; it wants to pin humanity down, like butterflies in a box, not watch it fly. At least that’s what I take from her book, whose thought is good but admittedly erudite prose is pretty unpleasant to read. (Final comment: Freud was narrow in his analysis, rigid in his beliefs, and much more a humanist in his general thinking than a scientist, but he did write well, and I'm sure that has enhanced his role in intellectual history beyond the merits of his thought.)
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World Wildlife Fund