Critique of Steven Pinker’s Idea of Enlightenment

What Steven Pinker and his critics get right and what they get wrong

Image for post
Salon of Madame Geoffrin — Classic retrospective view of the French Enlightenment (the painting is from 1812)

The psychologist and author Steven Pinker has spent decades making valuable contributions to his field and popularizing it for general audiences. He gets quite a lot right. Indeed, his Blank Slate (2002) did a great deal to reinforce various arguments demolishing forever the naive notion that the mind is a ‘blank slate.’ A more recent work, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined(2011) reinforces the view that life, overall, has gotten better for people in a number of ways over the past several centuries. The overall narrative though potentially problematic in methodology (a point Nassim Taleb brings up on occasion).

In Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), Steven Pinker returns to the reality of progress over the past few centuries and the role Enlightenment values had to play in this transformation. Pinker challenges narratives in popular culture about the world getting worse (due in part to news proliferation and increased amounts of information available). His work shows the value of employing empiricism as a key tool to improving our societies over the course of recent history.

In an interview with Gareth Cook in the Scientific American, Steven Pinker outlines his idea of progress and goal for Enlightenment Now: “Actually, the Enlightenment idea of progress is not a crystal ball or a reading of chicken entrails with a prognostication of what will inevitably happen in the future. It’s the conviction that that if we apply knowledge to increase human flourishing, then progress may happen. (If we don’t, it won’t.) Regarding technology’s supposed control of attention: social media, the panic du jour, gets blamed for everything that seems to be going wrong in the world. But the chronology is wrong: trust in institutions has been declining since its high point in the 1960s, and the trend toward political polarization predated Facebook and is driven far more by educational and occupational segregation.

As to “whether it concerns me” — once again, the question misunderstands the nature of progress and the point of Enlightenment Now. It’s not that we shouldn’t be “concerned” about new problems, as if human improvement were driven by a guardian angel or a fairy godmother. It’s precisely because people are concerned that progress can happen.”

Steven Pinker has also written an article for Quillette in which he outlines some of his key arguments in response to objections to Enlightenment Now. Pinker does a great job of defending himself in this article, written a year after publication of his book. One of the objections to his narrative that I do wish to bring up is the association of Enlightenment with the slave trade. Steven Pinker addresses this and I think it is important to include his response as part of the positive opening in this analysis. Pinker rightly points out that the values popular during the Enlightenment were increasingly at odds with the practice of slavery. While many people in the era held slaves and what we would now recognize as racist views, the Enlightenment saw the rise of strong antislavery arguments. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Josiah Wedgewood, William Wilberforce, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Benjamin Rush were all abolitionists. Thomas Jefferson recognized the evils of slavery and worked to limited its expansion and oversaw the ban on importing slaves into the United States in 1808. In short, slavery was pre-Enlightenment. Racial slavery was a product of scientism (this is not something Pinker touches on but it is something which is relevant to arguments at hand).

My critique of Enlightenment Now, will not be an exercise in disputing the overall narrative of the text as far as the utility of specific tools in promoting human flourishing. Nor do I seek to try push against Pinker’s response to the proliferation of negative news in our contemporary age.

I want to begin my critique with Pinker’s constant use of the term ‘humanism.’ He and other moderns have bastardized this term beyond nearly all recognition from its original meaning. Humanism emerged during the Renaissance to as a term associated with a bunch of philologists interested in the liberal arts, the ancient world, and how to situate desire for developing one’s talents with humility before transcendental values. In short, humanism is associated far more with the humanities than with the modern sciences. The Italian humanist Pier Paolo Vergerio the Elder (1370-c.1445) had this to say about the liberal arts: “We call those studies liberal, then, which are worthy of a free man; they are those through which virtue and wisdom are either practiced or sought, and by which our minds are disposed towards the best things.” The Latin word ‘liber’ means book. It is also the root of the word ‘libertas’ (freedom). Thus, there is an association between learning from the Great Books of the past and the freedom of the individual.

What recent intellectuals, mostly scientists, have done is ransack the past for uplifting-sounding words to reuse without regard for their original context. Modern ‘humanism,’ as espoused by such thinkers is mere scientisim. This is the case with the rather stale New Atheists and is the case with Steven Pinker. Building on the tradition of Classical Renaissance Humanism, it would make more sense to situate empirical knowledge within a larger framework rather than but ‘reason’ and ‘science’ on a pedestal while also trying to create complex complex atheistic arguments for a moral existence. On this latter point, one can explore the complexities through the various discussions between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris.

Historigoraphically, I would argue that the Renaissance offers a more compelling view of Western values. This is, in part, because the development of reason had not gone so far as to make compelling the displacement of transcendental values with the tool of empiricism. I should note that by transcendental values, I mean those which exist over the course of countless generations and cause individual betterment through their pursuit. As Jordan Peterson notes, an ideal is always a judge. We always fall short and we, thus, always strive to improve. Transcendental values have been associated with gods and the Abrahamic god (though I would make the claim, unlike Peterson, that monotheism is an extreme which has far too many deficiencies and that the metaphysical substructure of any civilization is better represented through a polytheistic pantheon of gods).

The Enlightenment is a gloss on top of a much larger Western narrative (now global). The history of the West really begins with the Greco-Persian Wars of antiquity. The very beginnings of an Occident and Orient can be linked to this particular conflict which made apparent two radically different types of civilization- bottom-up with relatively (for the ancient world) democratic elements (the Greeks) and top-down authoritarianism (the Persians). The Fertile Crescent, the Babylonians, the Egyptians were antecedents to both but the Greco-Persian Wars mark a significant rupture. Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro have analyzed the Enlightenment as a gloss, essentially, in their discussion on Dave Rubin’s YouTube Channel with Peterson bringing evolutionary biology to the mix. In short, the popular theme among intellectuals that the Enlightenment represents a kind of turning point or rupture is, at best, overplayed. This is not to diminish the importance of Enlightenment though and innovation. Modernity has its origins in the Renaissance but owes much to what may be called the Industrial Enlightenment (the Anglophone Enlightenment and beginnings of the Industrial revolution — these things are inextricably linked).

Steven Pinker gets a certain amount right and a certain amount wrong. His work is a valuable overview of the development of certain values and positive changes over the past several centuries. Enlightenment values (it should be noted, however, are a subset of Western values) have had a positive impact. We can and should debate what is meant by ‘Enlightenment values’ to come to a better understanding of the contours of the arguments at play. I would encourage Steven Pinker and the New Atheists to STOP bastardizing the word humanism by employing it to mean scientism or secularism. Real humanism has value which vastly exceeds these shallow modern intellectual shells.

Artist | Content Creator | Pantheist | Bohemian | Philosopher | Anti-Authoritarian, Pro-Decentralization/Localism| http://www.instagram.com/kevinshau/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store