The Enlightenment Problem of Steven Pinker

The Enlightenment Problem of Steven Pinker February 26, 2018

Someone get this man some Enlightenment, stat!


Do You Science?

Steven Pinker and the humanities have a troubled relationship. The cognitive psychologist and pop-science writer took academics in humanities departments to task in a pretty crass rant published in 2013, wherein he suggested they act more like scientists: hit ’em with lots of data and keep it simple. Now he’s decided to put on his historian hat by writing a book on the Enlightenment, and he’s taking his own advice. Does it work?

Not according to Peter Harrison, an Australian Laureate Fellow and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland. Harrison writes in an article for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that Pinker makes a lot of amateur historian mistakes and betrays even the scientific objectivity he supposedly champions.

The Enlightenment and Reason

Pinker doesn’t appear to realize that there’s a wide range of expert opinion on what the Enlightenment even was. He takes at face value the “Age of Reason” rhetoric, regardless of whether historians think that approach has whiskers on it. Like Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, Pinker’s book is a cartoon history of Europe that imposes contemporary norms onto what’s supposed to be an objective study of the past.

Harrison appears amused that Pinker not only thinks his old-fashioned take is something new and exciting, but also believes Enlightenment thinkers had his modern attitude toward reason:

But throughout the book reason is treated as an unproblematic given, as if we all know what it is and are happy to sign up to Pinker’s version of it. Alas, reason is a notoriously slippery notion. Problematizing it and challenging its authority turns out to be one of the signal achievements of the Enlightenment. Pinker seems blissfully unaware of this.

That’s what happens, unfortunately, when you do very little real research into a complex subject. Enlightenment thinkers like Locke and Hume had a much different approach to reason than we do, and Harrison points out that “Reason does figure centrally in discussions of the period, but primarily as an object of critique. Establishing what it was, and its intrinsic limits, was the main game.” Pinker has every opportunity to study the complexity and diversity of Enlightenment thought through not only existing historical analysis, but also through the work of the thinkers themselves. However, Pinker doesn’t seem interested in doing anything except pushing his own agenda about science, reason and progress, regardless of whether the heavy hitters of the Enlightenment would have agreed with him:

If we put into the practice the counting and gathering of data that Pinker so enthusiastically recommends and apply them to his own book, the picture is revealing. Locke receives a meagre two mentions in passing. Voltaire clocks up a modest six references with Spinoza coming in at a dozen. Kant does best of all, with a grand total of twenty-five (including references). Astonishingly, Diderot rates only two mentions (again in passing) and D’Alembert does not trouble the scorers. Most of these mentions occur in long lists. Pinker refers to himself over 180 times.

[Emphasis added.]

Looking Down on History

Pinker seems to think there’s nothing difficult in the work of historians, like establishing historical causation. He simply assumes that the ways our civilization represents an improvement over, say, the Middle Ages derive directly from the Enlightenment. According to Harrison:

For the sceptical reader the whole strategy of the book looks like this. Take a highly selective, historically contentious and anachronistic view of the Enlightenment. Don’t be too scrupulous in surveying the range of positions held by Enlightenment thinkers – just attribute your own views to them all. Find a great many things that happened after the Enlightenment that you really like. Illustrate these with graphs. Repeat. Attribute all these good things your version of the Enlightenment. Conclude that we should emulate this Enlightenment if we want the trend lines to keep heading in the right direction.

This is exactly the sort of thinking that historians take great pains to avoid, says Harrison. Pinker deals himself a series of winning hands by defining things like reason and The Enlightenment, the relations between them, and even the subsequent legacy of how they operated in a certain historical context, so tendentiously that his predetermined conclusions naturally result. These are all matters that have been debated in the historical and philosophical communities for centuries. Pinker should know he has to deal with the complexity of the subject, but he handwaves it away and focuses on scientific-looking graphs.

Warning: Agenda-Pushing Ahead

What most annoys historians is Whig History, an approach to historical inquiry in which the past is defined in contemporary terms and history is conceptualized as an inexorable progression toward present day conditions. If Pinker allows himself to define the past in whatever way he finds convenient, he makes the future seem like a lay-up too. His copious graphs strike Harrison as amateur overkill, attempts at scientific precision that creak under the weight of their assumptions:

Pinker seems to operate on the principle, for example, that future catastrophic events are impossible. The ultimate import of his graphs is to demonstrate some kind of inexorable and progressive historical law (although he doesn’t admit as much). In Pinker’s history, it seems as though there are no real contingencies – no prospect that the battle of Britain might had been lost, no prospect that the cold war might have turned into nuclear catastrophe, and for the future, no real sense of a potential calamity produced by climate change or a trigger-happy Kim Jong-Un (or his U.S. counterpart, for that matter). This is an almost providential view of history.

Ironically, this belief in a teleological view of history, one that unfolds in a single direction, is the one instance in which Pinker succeeds in channeling the mindset of the Enlightenment thinkers. But that’s the last thing someone should be proud of, especially someone like Pinker who prides himself on being rational and objective.


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  • Chuck Johnson

    Maybe Pinker is just exaggerating the trends that he sees and ignoring the counter-trends.

    However, genetic adaptive evolution and cultural adaptive evolution have produced (in a progressive way) human beings and human societies which have increasing abilities to survive, thrive and continue to evolve.

    So I see billions of years of biological history as having a straight line included (the direction of increased ability to survive) along with many circles (setbacks in the ability to survive).

    The best explanation of living things and evolution here on Earth includes the teleological view that living things tend to evolve towards improved survivability.

  • The best explanation of living things and evolution here on Earth includes the teleological view that living things tend to evolve towards improved survivability.

    I’m not necessarily sure I agree. Certainly in most cases, the survival of species is a pretty contingent matter, and not one I would ascribe purpose to.

    As far as humans go, it’s undeniable that we’ve developed a better understanding of what makes populations and communities sustainable. However, we’ve also developed technology and practices that directly endanger our continued survival here on Earth.

  • Chuck Johnson

    “Certainly in most cases, the survival of species is a pretty contingent matter, and not one I would ascribe purpose to.”

    The word “purpose” can be used in many ways. Defining this word narrowly can lead to ignorance and confusion.

    What is the purpose of a kitchen sponge ?
    To clean the sink.
    To clean dishes.
    To moisten envelopes to seal them.
    To provide profits for those people who invested in the sponge factory.
    The list can be enormous if a detailed list is desired.

    A purpose of the survival of a species is to allow that species to survive.
    A purpose of survival is to allow evolution to proceed.
    A purpose of the survival of our human ancestors is to allow Shem the Penman to ask survival-related questions on the internet.

    There are many needs and purposes proposed by the human imagination.
    Proposing a God-ordained purpose tends to be a losing proposition.
    Gods are just products of the human imagination.

    Whenever a human (seriously) proposes that a need exists or a purpose exists, that proposition should be taken seriously.
    Anything less would be disrespectful.

    That’s the source of needs and purposes – – – the human imagination.
    Acting on such needs and purposes has a long history of promoting human survival and evolution.

  • Chuck Johnson

    “However, we’ve also developed technology and practices that directly endanger our continued survival here on Earth.”

    I do not see any of these technologies and practices directly endangering our continued survival.

    I see the unwanted side-effects of technology endangering our quality of life. Then those unwanted side-effects become the targets of further controversy, politics, legislation and technology.

    Burning fossil fuels is not so much “wrong” as it is a “less than perfect source of energy”.

  • tophilacticus

    What is odd to me is heralding an 18th Century intellectual movement as Progress (with a capital P) 200 years later, as if we are incapable of building on the shortcomings of it, and the movements since. (MIGA- Make Intellect Great Again?) What’s worse, they pull the classic Pinker of claiming objectivity (if not directly) while brushing aside all disagreement as political or emotional. If Enlightenment is the way forward, I am looking forward to the New Romanticism that is inevitably following it.

  • Princeton history prof David A. Bell reviews Pinker’s book in The Nation:

    The great writers of the Enlightenment, contrary to the way they are often caricatured, were mostly skeptics at heart. They had a taste for irony, an appreciation of paradox, and took delight in wit. They appreciated complexity, rarely shied away from difficulty, and generally had a deep respect for the learning of those who had preceded them.

    Enlightenment Now has few of these qualities. It is a dogmatic book that offers an oversimplified, excessively optimistic vision of human history and a starkly technocratic prescription for the human future. It also gives readers the spectacle of a professor at one of the world’s great universities treating serious thinkers with populist contempt. The genre it most closely resembles, with its breezy style, bite-size chapters, and impressive visuals, is not 18th-century philosophie so much as a genre in which Pinker has had copious experience: the TED Talk (although in this case, judging by the book’s audio version, a TED Talk that lasts 20 hours).

  • An environmentalist reads Pinker and weeps:

    I began reading his new book, Enlightenment Now, with excitement.

    I expected something bracing, original, well sourced and well reasoned. Instead, in the area I know best – environmental issues – the alarm began to sound for me when he characterised “the mainstream environmental movement” as “laced with misanthropy, including an indifference to starvation, an indulgence in ghoulish fantasies of a depopulated planet, and Nazi-like comparisons of human beings to vermin, pathogens and cancer”.