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Marilynne Robinson on the Mind

May 12, 2010

Anyone who has lived in Iowa City knows the name Marilynne Robinson. I certainly recognized the name when the latest issue of Commonweal arrived on my doorstep last week. In 2008-2009, the year I taught at the University of Iowa, Robinson’s novel Housekeeping was recommended as assigned reading for all Interpretation of Literature classes. I declined, but the name kept reappearing on the shelves of the Prairie Lights bookstore, and in conversations overheard in the English-Philosophy building: Marilynne Robinson.

Last night, I expected to finally meet Robinson the fiction writer. Much to my surprise, Commonweal did not publish a short story or excerpt from a novel, but “Thinking Again: What Do We Mean By Mind?” a chapter from Robinson’s forthcoming philosophical work, Absence of Mind. I was admittedly skeptical: doesn’t the Writer’s Workshop teach poetry and fiction, and not philosophy? Was Robinson up to the task of critiquing materialist notions of mind, as the article purported to do?

We live in an era of specialization — an era in which literary artists craft dainty sentences, and philosophers theorize amongst themselves in a jargon largely unintelligible to outsiders. Robinson, however, turns out to be as accomplished a philosopher as she is a prose stylist.

Here is one of the article’s more stirring passages:

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. Our nature will describe itself as we respond to new circumstances in a world that changes continuously. So long as the human mind exists to impose itself on reality, as it has already done so profoundly, what it is and what we are must remain an open question.

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