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Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (The Terry Lectures Series) Hardcover – May 25, 2010

3.7 out of 5 stars 48 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Robinson's new nonfiction work is drawn from her 2009 Terry lectures at Yale. More precisely, they are "lectures on religion in the light of science and philosophy." The charge is ambitious, and Robinson brings to the task a suitably wide-ranging perspective. She takes aim at the modern scholarly propensity to debunk, a practice she calls "flawed learnedness." It pitches out the babies of human insight with the bathwater of the past, preferring what she calls "parascience," a kind of pseudoscience that prizes certainty. This "parascience" is a latecomer in human thought, the product of only the last 150 years or so. Because it closes off questions, it's not even scientific. Nor does it allow space for the human mind and all the mind has produced in history and civilization. This is heady stuff that will particularly appeal to those familiar with the history of ideas and the many thinkers she cites, and to anyone willing to ponder broadly and humanistically about imponderable matters. Those who savor Robinson's clear prose will also be gratified; her mind, in thought, is elegant.
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“Robinson's arguments [are] so much more interesting, capacious, and informed than most. . . . Robinson makes a strong, unapologetic case, not for mystery but for self-respect.”—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times



(Susan Salter Reynolds Los Angeles Times 2010-06-13)

"There is much to admire, and even to agree with, in Robinson's humanist passion. Her defense of the insights to be gained from religion and literature is as convincing as her attacks on the facile generalizations of parascience."--Adam Kirsch, Boston Globe (Adam Kirsch Boston Globe)

“[Robinson] is one of the best thinkers in American letters. Her new (nonfiction) work is a slashing attack on scientific fundamentalism, not on behalf of religion but of human consciousness and our traditional concept of mind.”--Maclean’s


"[Robinson] makes the case with exceptional elegance and authority--the authority not only of one of the unmistakably great novelists of the age but of a clear and logical mind that is wholly intolerant of intellectual cliché. . . . This book has a greater density (and sophistication) of argument than many three times its length; but it is one of the most significant contributions yet to the current quarrels about faith, science and rationality."—Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, Daily Telegraph
(Rowan Williams Daily Telegraph 2010-05-29)

"Robinson is one of the greatest Christian thinkers alive today. She is also one of the world's best novelists. . . . Absence of Mind is a slim but compelling volume."—Luke Coppen, Catholic Herald

(Luke Coppen Catholic Herald 2010-04-23)

“Marilynne Robinson asks hard questions. She challenges readers with a severe, sophisticated and spellbinding style and a determination to change the conversation about contemporary American culture. . . . Absence of Mind is important not so much as a brief for religion but as a tenacious and often trenchant critique of modern Western thought.”—Glenn Altschuler, Minneapolis Star-Tribune


(Glenn Altschuler Minneapolis Star-Tribune 2010-06-05)

“What Robinson has over both the parascientific writers whose work she rejects and the religion writers with whom she finds common ground is a long career (though few books) as a fiction writer, where she has demonstrated—and in her way, provided evidence of—the very contemplative, subjective lives of the faithful she defends in her new book.”—Scott Korb, The Revealer


(Scott Korb The Revealer 2010-06-09)

"These impassioned pages require and reward very close attention."—Michael Dirda, Washington Post
(Michael Dirda Washington Post)

"[Robinson reveals] how deep a debt both science and religion owe to art. . . . It is a rare treat to have a novelist express herself so forcefully, and so eloquently, in another medium."—Ingrid Rowland, American Scholar
(Ingrid Rowland American Scholar)

"The scope of Robinson's erudition is stunning, and she shares it with generosity and no dissembling."—Linda McCullough Moore, Books & Culture
(Linda McCullough Moore Books & Culture)

"Marked by a luminous intelligence and a rather attractive intellectual severity. . . . One really must read it to appreciate how powerful a counterinsurgency it mounts against many of the peculiar superstitions of our age."—David B. Hart, Big Questions Online
(David B. Hart Big Questions Online)

"Robinson applies her astute intellect to . . . science, religion and consciousness. Crafted with the same care and insight as her award-winning novels, the book challenges postmodern atheists who crusade against religion under the banner of science."—Washington Times
(Washington Times)

"Following the inward-looking path of her award-winning fiction, Marilynne Robinson's Absence of Mind is a finely wrought treatise in favour of religious belief."—Chris Lehmann, The National
(Chris Lehmann The National)

"This is a wonderful little book, full of wisdom, warmth and wit. . . . [Robinson] is able to apply her astute intellect, delicious sense of humour, incisive insight into human nature and down-to-earth philosophy of life."—Mark Patrick Hederman, Irish Times
(Mark Patrick Hederman IrishTimes)

"I'm enjoying arguing and agreeing with Marilynne Robinson's Absence of Mind."— Zadie Smith, The Observer

(Zadie Smith The Observer)

"Robinson's argument is prophetic, profound, eloquent, succinct, powerful and timely." — Karen Armstrong, The Guardian
(Karen Armstrong The Guardian)

"I have barely scratched the surface of this dense and yet endlessly entertaining little book. Marilynne Robinson is herself the best evidence of her own thesis--the exceptional mystery of the human mind." — Bryan Appleyard, Literary Review
(Bryan Appleyard Literary Review)

"I enjoyed reading Absence of Mind. The reason: it is always a pleasure to keep company with a person who takes ideas seriously." — Siri Hustvedt, Financial Times
(Siri Hustvedt Financial Times)

"It is worth admiring Robinson's bravery and intellectual independence, and noting the sheer force and capacity of language like hers to persuade." — Geordie Williamson, The Australian
(Geordie Williamson The Australian)

"A book of dense philosophy from a brilliant novelist with a poet's ear. It is stunning. It places Robinson among the very brightest of Christian history's thinkers and writers. . . . I cannot praise it too highly."—Kurt Armstrong, Christian Week
(Kurt Armstrong Christian Week)

“This deeply informed essay affirms mystery, imagination and wonder against the 19th-century remnants of positivism still delimiting the human in the name of a reduced and reductive science.”San Francisco Chronicle

(San Francisco Chronicle)

Named a Best Book of 2010--Globe & Mail, "2010 Globe 100"
(Globe & Mail)

"Readers interested in seriously thinking about science, culture, and religion, and their interrelationships, will find this book rewarding."—S. C. Pearson, CHOICE
(S. C. Pearson CHOICE)

"One of the best things about the literature of the New Atheists is that, for all the supercilious question-begging, it has provoked a number of highly literate and memorable responses. This is one of them."—Barton Swaim, The Weekly Standard
(Barton Swaim The Weekly Standard)

"Absense of Mind is a succinct and carefully reasoned challenge to those who would say that all our thoughts, beliefs, aspirations, and intimations of immortality are only a combination of wishful thinking and outdated primitive beliefs."—Dr. Jean McCurdy Meade, The Living Church
(Jean McCurdy Meade The Living Church)

"Marilynne Robinson is one of those rare novelists whose work, though galvanized by a theological impulse, is adored by believers and atheists in equal measure. . . . We experience [her characters'] interiority almost as naturally as our own, and respond to it emotionally, intellectually, even spiritually. Robinson's latest collection, Absence of Mind, gets to the hear of that creative force, while reminding us what little heed she pays intellectual fashion."—Stefan Beck, The New Criterion
(Stefan Beck The New Criterion)

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Product Details

  • Series: The Terry Lectures Series
  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; Second printing edition (May 25, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300145187
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300145182
  • Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 5.3 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #399,681 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Why do I get the feeling that, despite her calm exterior, Marilynne Robinson positively revels in her role as the one who would constantly - to misquote the Apostle Luke as rendered in the King's English - "kick against the pricks." (Acts 9:5)

What a great soul, great heart, and great mind this woman is. Frankly, it feels a little odd to be critiquing her in an Amazon review, yet here we are. Briefly, in these lectures, Mrs. Robinson takes on what she views as contemporary disregard for the soul, the felt life, the antiquities, and their importance to a balanced view of culture and history. In other words, she states a good case on behalf of just about anything that a quasi-empirical, western academia is attempting to marginalize, or failing that, simply choosing to ignore in order to justify the prescriptive, and often narrowly defined subtexts of "objectivity" and "skepticism" under which it labors. So that was a horrible sentence.

In other words, why can I not shake the feeling that it was only after hearing this lecture from Mrs. Robinson that Richard Dawkins stopped calling himself an atheist? Simply put: she addresses the odd, and mostly recent, inclination of academicians in the hard sciences to wander outside their areas of specialization to speculate on matters that don't fit their expertise. Biologists, resolute in their dedication to what is measurable, suddenly commenting on God. Linguists who chime in on 'delusional' people of faith, though the linguists don't seem to know anything about the context, culture, or the texts from which that faith is drawn.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In quintessential Robinsonian non-fiction style (intelligent, well-read, affirmative, sarcastic), Marilynne Robinson refutes an atheism which posits itself as scientific. The book is not a vindication of religion or of theology, per se, but rather a rejection of what Robinson calls the "parascientific" nature of writings which seek to deny much of human experience. It is an affirmation of the complexity of the mind and of existence. My least favorite chapter was "The Freudian Self," but it was insightful in its own right. "The Strange History of Altruism" and "Thinking Again" were both very good. Fans of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett will find something worth considering in this tendentious yet radiant prose.
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Ms. Robinson is obviously a very talented writer of fiction-very talented, indeed. I'm fully in her camp when it comes to the neoscientific age which we are experiencing that feels like the worst distortions of the Enlightenment-namely, that any day now, we'll understand everything worth knowing, and all of metaphysics will be seen as a charade. My Ph.D. is in chemistry and so quantum mechanics, etc. are etched in my brain...hence I am not naive when it comes to scientific arguments-but live and let live, say I. If you want to be an atheist or a devout believer, swell...I won't be writing any multi-paragraph renunciations of your worldview. O.K., that's out of the way: believe what you'd like-I personally side ontologically with the author.

O.K., then why only two stars? Ms. Robinson is at best an apprentice at the art of writing non-fiction. "Absence of Mind" is a murky text at best, replete with a lack of topic sentences but bursting with obfuscations: it is outright painful to read; the reader will be very thankful that the text is only 170+ pages long. Clarity is nowhere to be found. Here's the plot: Existence is more complex than die-hard rationalists would have us believe.
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This little volume by an accomplished novelist ("Gilead," "Housekeeping," "Home") is her erudite and intriguing venture into philosophy and metaphysics, taking the Good Housekeeping broom to the likes of Freud and Nietzsche while seeming to be cautiously protective of spirituality in general, Descartes and Jung in particular.

The work, published by Yale Press, consists of four loosely coupled essays, any one of which can stand alone, titled "On Human Nature," "The Strange History of Altruism," "The Freudian Self," and "Thinking Again."

In attempting to find a pithy phrase to convey the thrust of Robinson's work, I am of necessity reduced to oversimplification. Suffice it to say she agrees with the position which I believe has been stated repeatedly and effectively by Professor Seale, that science is only a tool which we use to chip away at the shadows, never an end or a solution in itself.

One of Robinson's paragraphs may replace Mark Twain's account of Tom whitewashing the fence as my favorite ever. From "Thinking Again:"

". . . What is man? One answer on offer is, An organism whose haunting questions perhaps ought not to be meaningful to the organ that generates them, lacking as it is in any means of "solving" them. Another answer might be, It is still too soon to tell. We might be the creature who brings life on this planet to an end, and we might be the creature who awakens to the privileges that inhere in our nature - selfhood, consciousness, even our biologically anomalous craving for "the truth" - and enjoys and enhances them. Mysteriously, neither possibility precludes the other. . . ."
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