Rumination — repetitive and obsessive thoughts — are widely considered by the field of psychology to be pathological, associated with neuroticism and anxiety. However, in a lecture on Wednesday, Sept. 25, Professor Amanda Anderson offered a different view. Drawing on the field of literary analysis, she argued that rumination can also be productive and essential for ethical thought.
Anderson, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities and English and Director of the Cogut Institute for the Humanities at Brown University, addressed a full hall of students and faculty with her interdisciplinary talk, which critically examined rumination through the lenses of cognitive science, psychotherapy, moral theory, and literature.
Described by Anderson as “an understudied form of moral thinking characterized simultaneously by intermittence, persistence, distraction, and obsession,” rumination is difficult to convey. Yet, the medium of the literary novel has often served as a means through which to “acknowledge and represent” rumination, argued Anderson.
Through structures such as stream-of-consciousness writing, repetitive structure, and other literary forms, novels can replicate the state of rumination.
Ruminations are the result of “moral shock or disturbance,” explained Anderson. “They involve attempting to come to terms with these situations, and often involve acute ethical dilemmas.” The complicated processes of rumination, argued Anderson, is not adequately represented by psychology, in which rumination is often rendered feminine, associated with bitterness, and thought treatable with medicine.
Anderson offered positive counterexamples of rumination in novels such as “Middlemarch” and “Mrs. Dalloway” by George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, respectively.
In Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” “there are noteworthy instances where ruminations are viewed as productive for moral insight or acceptance,” explains Anderson. In certain cases, ruminations can serve as “a psychological coming-to-terms with the gap between a decisive moral action and the psychological complexities and backlash that can accompany it.”
Contrary to what the field of psychology might profess, analysis of rumination through literature can show the reality of productive rumination. “It leads to renewed commitment, or to the determination to act in a way that is expressive of that commitment,” she said.
Anderson then contextualized these ideas within Hannah Arendt’s theories of thinking expressed in “The Life of the Mind.” “Arendt argues that the modern age has substituted willing for thinking, elevating action above thought,” explained Anderson. Thinking, and thus, ruminating, is necessary for moral life, she concluded.
Anderson went on to contextualize ruminative thought within the stream-of-consciousness writing of Virginia Woolf and the writings of Iris Murdoch on moral reflection, decision, and choice.
Anderson finished her lecture by returning to the idea that productive and intrusive rumination are “bound up in one another.” Rumination can at once be worthwhile and troubling; such is the nature of moral thought.
The lecture, entitled “Moral Thought in the Age of Therapy,” was held at 4:30 p.m. in 106 McCormick Hall, and was open to the public. The lecture was sponsored by the Department of English and the Humanities Council, and was followed by a question-and-answer period.