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Steven Pinker’s Counter-Counter-Enlightenment

A review of Enlightenment Nowby Steven Pinker. Viking (February 2018) 576 pages. 

Every so often, something will unite individuals in outrage who disagree furiously about virtually everything else. For the moment, that something is Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker’s latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. At the New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat decried what he called Pinker’s “smug secular certainties,” and in the London Evening Standard, Melanie McDonagh declared that his “Whiggish case” ignored the “fruits of belief in [God]” and the “old problem of existential angst.” Meanwhile, in the left-leaning New Statesman, surly pessimist John Gray showered extravagant contempt over Pinker’s “evangelism of science” and “ideology of scientism,” and at ABC, Peter Harrison took exception to his “teleological view of history” and “misplaced faith in data, metrics and statistical analysis.”

It is worth noticing that Pinker’s most trenchant critics are eager to flaunt their aversion to the very values Pinker sets out to defend – reason, science, humanism, and progress – and that their critiques display the traits and tics of exactly the kind of counter-Enlightenment thinking he attacks. These counter-Enlightenment trends include Catholic, Romantic, and Postmodern modes of thought which stand – and have always stood – in opposition to the values that Pinker’s book credits with the vast advances humankind has made since the 18th Century.

Douthat’s review, entitled “The Edges of Reason,” claims that Pinker’s attempts to “defend Reason against its enemies . . . absolves his idealized version of the modern project of all imperial and eugenic and centralizing cruelties, and all the genocides and persecutions justified in Reason’s name.” He then offers a somewhat eccentric defence of prayer, ritual, and even alternative medicine, as “individual experimentation”:

Such individual experimentation is not the same thing as the scientific method; it lacks the proving tests of replication and consensus. But the two approaches are more closely related than today’s apostles of scientism often suggest. They proceed from the same intense curiosity, the same desire for understanding through experience — and personalized experimentation can be the only way to be empirical when your subject is the strange nexus of the self.

It’s hard to tell from such a short review if Douthat is just idly spitballing here, or if space constrains him from developing a genuinely thought-provoking line of discussion. In any event, Douthat mischaracterises Pinker’s point, which is simply that reason offers a demonstrably more effective means of understanding the world than revealed wisdom, superstition, or faith-based belief. This does not, of course, preclude the possibility that some may find prayer or wish-thinking therapeutic, and Pinker readily acknowledges the “sense of communal solidarity and mutual support” that religious organisations and secular communities are able to provide.

Criticisms of reason as a value fundamental to human progress are hardly new. In his 2005 book, Counter-Enlightenments, the Canadian political theorist Graeme Garrard argued that scepticism about ‘instrumental’ reason (the rational adoption of means to pursue ends), in particular, united a range of counter-Enlightenment philosophies. These thinkers held that the Enlightenment provided individuals with a conception of instrumental reason that, when misapplied, would result in either anarchic chaos or totalitarianism. Whilst few denounced reason outright (their own theories were the product of this faculty, after all), several influential counter-Enlightenment thinkers saw instrumental and individual reason as threats to the prevailing social order. The 18th Century German philosopher, J. G. Hamann, for example, believed that reason and other such “airy” notions distracted humans from earthly virtues. He urged philosophers to find meaning in what was natural and familiar, admiring ignorance and genius as fundamentally Christian values that were crucial to his notion of “Socratic greatness.”

Some of Hamann’s contemporaries, such as the Irish conservative Edmund Burke and French monarchist Joseph de Maistre, were wary of individual reason, and believed that only the collective wisdom generated over centuries provided a reliable form of trial-and-error. Tradition, they argued, was necessary to prevent individual and radical uses of instrumental reason delivering totalitarianism. French Jesuit priest Augustin Barruel warned against the excessive application of reasoning and philosophy in areas where they did not belong. This he called “philosophism,” which he described as:

…the error of every man who denies the possibility of any mystery beyond the limits of reason, of everyone who, discarding revelation in defence of the pretended rights of reason, Equality and Liberty, seeks to subvert the whole fabric of the Christian religion.

Criticisms like these suggest that several counter-Enlightenment thinkers were indeed opposed to reason itself rather than merely its misapplication, and were afraid of what it might inflame in a general populace better suited to the comforts of superstition and whimsy.

Steven Pinker

It should be no surprise, then, that many of Pinker’s critics betray a concomitant distrust of science, which manifests as stern objections to what they invariably call “scientism.” Douthat complains about “today’s apostles of scientism” and Gray declares Pinker to be “an evangelist for science – or, to be more exact, an ideology of scientism.” Here, “scientism” is a pejorative used to describe the ideological belief that science can settle all questions of import. This belief, it is feared, will be used to invade, sterilise, and finally displace the humanities and the arts, robbing us of the unique beauty and insight they provide. Peter Harrison, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland, suggests that the field of history will one day regard “misplaced faith in data, metrics and statistical analysis as a curse of the twenty-first century.”

This rather paranoid objection is not especially new either. Back in 1959, Pinker reminds us, the scientist and novelist C. P. Snow gave a series of important lectures, subsequently published as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Snow postulated that the rise of a culture of science prizing objectivity was causing alarm among a ‘Second Culture’ that prizes subjectivity – literary intellectuals, cultural critics, and essayists. Snow found this alarm unnecessary and counter-productive, and he urged the Second Culture to embrace scientific understanding. In 1962, the literary critic F. R. Leavis wrote a furious response, during the course of which he emptied the same kind of scornful invective over Snow that Gray now empties over Pinker:

After noting Snow’s “utter lack of intellectual distinction and . . . embarrassing vulgarity of style,” Leavis scoffed at a value system in which “‘standard of living’ is the ultimate criterion, its raising an ultimate aim.” As an alternative, he suggested that “in coming to terms with great literature we discover what at bottom we really believe. What for—what ultimately for? What do men live by?—the questions work and tell at what I can only call a religious depth of thought and feeling.”

But Leavis misunderstood, misread, or misrepresented Snow then just as Gray and Harrison misunderstand, misread, or misrepresent Pinker now. Snow’s critics, like those who fret about scientism today, were unable or unwilling to think in anything other than zero-sum terms. Snow, on the other hand, recommended a positive-sum synthesis of science and the humanities that would be mutually enriching:

Snow, of course, never held the lunatic position that power should be transferred to the culture of scientists. On the contrary, he called for a Third Culture, which would combine ideas from science, culture, and history and apply them to enhancing human welfare across the globe. The term was revived in 1991 by the author and literary agent John Brockman, and it is related to the biologist E. O. Wilson’s concept of consilience, the unity of knowledge, which Wilson in turn attributed to (who else?) the thinkers of the Enlightenment.

In the same way, Pinker argues that evidence from a variety of methods can converge to produce fresh understanding in non-scientific fields. Linguistics, he points out, use both philosophy of mind and cognitive science to test new hypotheses and build knowledge. Undeterred, Gray protests that “science cannot underwrite any political project, classical liberal or otherwise, because science cannot dictate human values.” Gray’s apparent belief that this is a decisive refutation of some kind is particularly amusing, because Pinker – repeatedly! – says the same. “Science,” he writes, “is not enough to bring about progress,” and “scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values.”

Nor does Pinker absolve those who use the scientific method in the service of oppression and cruelty. “An endorsement of scientific thinking,” he writes, “must first of all be distinguished from any belief that members of the occupational guild called ‘science’ are particularly wise or noble.” It is humanism, he argues, which “provides the ought that supplements the is.”

Predictably, Pinker’s counter-Enlightenment critics are as unimpressed by the demonstrable merits of secular humanism as they are by those of reason and science. Pinker defines contemporary humanism as a movement with a non-supernatural basis for meaning and ethics, the goal of which is to maximise human flourishing and the wellbeing of other sentient organisms. At NYMag, the conservative Christian Andrew Sullivan chastised Pinker’s “contempt for religion,” and in The Nation, the historian David Bell griped about his “rigid, Richard Dawkins-style atheism.” But Pinker describes humanism as “by no means incompatible with religious institutions” and states “that religions should not be condemned or praised across the board.”

As the historian Darrin McMahon observed in his 2002 book, Enemies of the Enlightenment, a theme common to counter-Enlightenment thinkers (especially those who were Catholic) was the fear that the materialism and secularism of Enlightenment philosophy would diminish the necessity of faith, and that these philosophers were militant atheists determined to dismantle the church and monarchy. Interestingly, McMahon also demonstrates that this pervasive perception of the Enlightenment has been shaped retrospectively by various counter-Enlightenment writers, and suggests it is now “largely ignored” by academic scholars in the field due to its biases. In any case, many of the Enlightenment’s most important thinkers were not atheists, but deists and believers of one sort or another, who nevertheless held that quarrelling religions and their mutually exclusive doctrines and edicts should play no part in determining human ethics or governance.

In a bad-tempered review for the New York Times under the risible title, “Steven Pinker Wants You to Know Humanity Is Doing Fine. Just Don’t Ask About Individual Humans,” Jennifer Szalai denounces Pinker’s “crude utilitarian sentiments” and accuses him of being “sympathetic to humanity in the abstract but impervious to the suffering of actual human beings.” It would surely be impossible to assess human progress by examining the life of every human being, but what does humanity consist of, if not an aggregate network of actual individual human beings? Pinker justifies his use of aggregate data by pointing out that “a quantitative mindset, despite its nerdy aura, is in fact the morally enlightened one, because it treats every human life as having equal value rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic.” Szalai’s response is to complain that:

Even if manufacturing jobs have gone to China, “and the world’s poor have gotten richer in part at the expense of the American lower middle class,” he still sees this as cause for celebration: “As citizens of the world considering humanity as a whole, we have to say that the trade-off is worth it.”

Szalai finds Pinker’s arguments, attitude, and even his marshalling of copious data, “disdainful and condescending.” But the painstaking care with which he makes his case for human progress is simply aimed at reducing what is known as the “Optimism Gap,” which occurs when people assume that their own living standards and quality of life are improving but that the standards of society in general are worsening. A ‘Negativity bias’ (“people dread losses more than they look forward to gains…dwell on setbacks more than they savor good fortune…are more stung by criticism than they are heartened by praise”) and the ‘Availability heuristic’ (“people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind”) combine to produce a media culture that emphasises bad news at the expense of good (“if it bleeds it leads”) and disfigures our understanding of the world as it is.

“Intellectual culture,” Pinker observes, “should strive to counteract our cognitive biases, but all too often it reinforces them.” This, in turn, can have negative consequences on voting behaviour and public trust in institutions. At a time when populist demagogues are riding to power on narratives of despair and decline, it is particularly important that people remain alive to the benefits and the fragility of incremental progress. In a book filled with amazing statistics and factoids, this passage is among the most remarkable:

Thrillingly, the gift of longevity is spreading to all of humankind, including the world’s poorest countries, and at a much faster pace than it did in the rich ones. “Life expectancy in Kenya increased by almost ten years between 2003 and 2013,” Norberg writes. “After having lived, loved and struggled for a whole decade, the average person in Kenya had not lost a single year of their remaining lifetime. Everyone got ten years older, yet death had not come a step closer.” As a result, inequality in life expectancy, which opened up during the Great Escape when a few fortunate countries broke away from the pack, is shrinking as the rest catch up. In 1800, no country in the world had a life expectancy above 40. By 1950, it had grown to around 60 in Europe and the Americas, leaving Africa and Asia far behind. But since then Asia has shot up at twice the European rate, and Africa at one and a half times the rate. An African born today can expect to live as long as a person born in the Americas in 1950 or in Europe in the 1930s. The average would have been longer still were it not for the calamity of AIDS, which caused the terrible trough in the 1990s before antiretroviral drugs started to bring it under control.

As the bearer of these glad tidings, Pinker has received no thanks from his opponents. On the contrary, they appear to resent being asked to acknowledge this news. Harrison accuses Pinker of offering a faith-based “teleological view of history – the idea that historical events are destined to unfold inexorably in a single direction.” Szalai derides his “messianic anticipation” and even David Wootton, in an otherwise positive review for the TLS, raises a sceptical eyebrow at “Pinker’s assumption that progress can be projected indefinitely into the future.”

Unsurprisingly, similar charges of ‘facile optimism’ were also made against the Enlightenment’s philosophers, despite their circumspection about what lay ahead. As Garrard writes, “none believed that progress was inevitable, although most thought that it was likely, even though it would not be easy and could not be taken for granted.” Predictable though such charges may be, they must be irritating for the author of a book, the explicit purpose of which is to make a case against naive complacency in favour of conditional optimism.

The central theme of Enlightenment Now, to which Pinker returns over and over again, is that progress has been – and will continue to be – possible, provided that we combine reason, science, and humanism with our capacity for ingenuity and sympathy and a defence of benign institutions. “The Enlightenment belief in progress,” Pinker cautions at one point, “should not be confused with the 19th Century belief in mystical forces, laws, dialectics, struggles, unfoldings, destinies, ages of man, and evolutionary forces that propel mankind ever upward toward utopia.”

But many of Pinker’s critics are not simply objecting to the details of progress, they are hostile to the idea that progress has occurred at all. While this may be partly due to the Optimism Gap, the Negativity bias, and the Availability heuristic, there are hints that it may reflect a deeper anxiety – that progress, especially recent progress, directly undermines a belief on the radical Left and Right that worsening human conditions and societal decline demand institutional overhaul, insurrection, and revolutionary change.

Not only is the idea of progress repulsive to eco-pessimists who believe humans are despoiling the planet and plunging the world into irredeemable chaos, it is also anathema to anarchists and populists who would rather see the state burn to the ground than support incremental reform, and to ethnonationalists who believe liberal cosmopolitanism has brought Western civilisation to the verge of collapse. There are those who claim that the threats posed by radicalism and populism from the Left and the Right are exaggerated. But the middle ground between catastrophising and complacency feels particularly narrow at the moment, and it is necessary to identify threats early, if they are to be effectively resisted.

On this count, Pinker has come prepared. The reason he is always one step ahead of his critics is that the counter-Enlightenment arguments they rehearse are as old as the Enlightenment itself. The difference is that now the evidence is in. There are those who have grumbled that Enlightenment Now isn’t really about the Enlightenment at all, and in a sense they are right. This is not a work of philosophy but a work of social science. Those expending time and keystrokes angrily complaining that Pinker’s version of the Enlightenment does not accord with their preferred definition are missing the point. Pinker’s book is not a case for the Enlightenment that invites refutation, but a refutation of the arguments of the counter-Enlightenment which, it turns out, have been wrong all along.


Saloni Dattani is an MSc student in behaviour genetics at the University of London. You can follow her on Twitter @salonium

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    • Agreed. I wanted to add that in addition to Pinker’s critics being mostly anti-semites, a lot of them lean too right and seemed to be wrapped up in classic cognitive biases.

      • Vivian Mbale says

        Do you really believe that? It sounds like you take yourself seriously and you believe that you have a basis for what you are saying. I must have missed the sarcasm or something.

        Would you say that most people who don’t agree with you are anti-Semites? How would you have data on that? Why would pointing out Pinkerton’s weak arguments be more appealing to anti-Semites than your average well-read intelligent person?

        One last question: Are the Jewish readers who are perceptive enough to see the problems innate in Pinkerton’s assertions also anti-Semites?

        You should really explain yourself. Making a habit of dismissing arguments with the anti-Semite label in order to feel better about your own conclusions is likely symptomatic of re-enforcing your biases to cover up for some sort of insecurity. It also has the side effect of making you come off like an insufferable ideologue and an over bearing bore.

        That’s a terrible combination in a personality. Of course I can reasonably deduce all of this about you from your short comment with the same magical power with which you identify anti-Semites.

  1. Afraid I don’t find this a convincing reply to Pinker’s critics. To be sure, I think Pinker is entirely right that things have gotten much better in the last couple centuries – the book can be positively uplifting to read – and I’m all for reason and science. My problem is that I think his critics (and many counter-enlightenment thinkers) are also right, and I don’t think Pinker (or this review) have grasped the truth in what the other side is saying (not all critics of the Enlightenment are simply against reason or science). The result is a one-sided picture of the Enlightenment, as well as a failure to appreciate the merits of what came before it, and its roots in that earlier history. But this leads into ground already covered by Pinker’s critics (I particularly agreed with Sullivan, who’s not answered here).

    • I agree completely, Sullivan’s criticisms are not addressed by this review, nor is there any acknowledgement that Pinker’s book is a baggy, contradictory catch-all which does not make any consistent or coherent argument (let alone offer a robust critique of anything).

      Pinker’s critics are not ‘averse’ to ‘reason, science, humanism and progress’, they just think that propagandising these terms as ‘values’ does not tell us much that’s useful about where we are and how we got here (let alone where we are going).

      Your line about his critics here is the giveaway: ‘[they are] opposed to reason itself rather than merely its misapplication’. No, they believe that reason cannot be used to ‘understand’ (and by implication re-engineer) everything and it is a dangerous vanity to pretend otherwise, which is what Pinker does. Try ‘explaining’ any skill you have, why one football team is better than another. Human society and culture is like that, not like a set of engineering equations. They are not impervious to applying reason to them (like making a substitution in football), it’s just that reason’s scope is quite limited.

      I made much the same points as Sullivan here, albeit in somewhat less temperate language:

      • sighthoundman says

        There must be a place for reasoning about why one sports team is better than another. Otherwise the owners wouldn’t waste the money on not only the general manager but the whole scouting staff.

      • Intersectional Playboi says

        Reason and science are the best approaches that we have for trying to improve the aggregate level of human flourishing – they admit of no epistemic rivals. The critics might claim that reason and science have their limits, but there are no alternatives – at least no alternatives that have anything like the epistemic warrant of reason and science.

    • Kevin says

      Agreed. I like how Pinker can take all the fruits of ‘progress’ and eliminate the faith-based motivations that led to so many of the scientific achievements that account for gains in living standards, life expectancies, etc. When (for example) Christians created a hospital system– 15% in the US are catholic, which doesn’t include the numerous other denomination-based hospitals, or opened/created universities for non-royalty, or began to require the defendant being provided his/her own counsel (see the inquisition, where that started), Pinker would merely credit REASON. But I like Robert Barron’s response- he defines ‘scientism’ as “the philosophical assumption that the real is reducible to what the empirical sciences can verify or describe.” Of course that would then blind us to literature, philosophy, metaphysics, religion etc, and obscures the fact that (as Barron points out) major founding figures in ‘modern science’ were devoutly religious: Copernicus, Newton, Kepler, Descartes, Pascal, etc… Don’t forget Faraday and Maxwell, nor the fact that the formulator of the Big Bang theory was a priest (ode to Barron again).

      What motivated George Bush to provide the largest infusion of cash to fund efforts against AIDS in Africa? Simple reason? Ha. Since I’ve been on a Barron kick, I’ll use his definition of faith: “The decision to accept in trust what God has spoken about himself is what the Church means by ‘faith’.” [Vibrant Paradoxes, p64] There is no war between reason and religion. But failure to have ‘faith’ leaves Pinker or anyone else unable to get to truly know another individual– because there is no empirical science to back the trust we must have to really get to know someone else. Fortunately most people employ this ‘faith’, and so still have meaningful relationships, even though they don’t acknowledge that leap of faith required to build the human bonds that drive innovation, care for the other, and strong human communities.

      • So well stated, sir. People so often fail to credit our religious underpinnings with anything good in our culture, but are ready to overlook the most awful things advanced science has introduced – namely nuclear weapons and other horrific weapons of mass destruction. They’d praise science for things like plastic which, yes, has produced marvelous things, but it also produces massive pollution in its many forms while condemning religious hypocrisy as if all adherents are hypocrites – not just the few.

    • Vivian Mbale says

      Babbington said it well. Unbiased students of history know that the origin of the progress of reason and science are in the Bible, Judaism, and the Greek philosophers. Isaac Newton, Gregor Mendell etc… This is a historical cause and effect relationship that is observable. Study of an ordered universe would not have been born of the post-enlightenment world views. If Pinkerton is just the next in line to double down on the narrative that religion and science are historically opposed then you can see why the older and well versed readers would quickly tune out.

      This review reads like the millennial appetite for a church bashing re-write of history that glosses over the contradictions and leaps of faith needed for Naturalism and Materialism. Sapiens by Yuval Harari is a great example of how this next generation is blind to the logical contradictions there in (of Naturalism), eager to live with them, and to try and build on them. To clarify, and am only speaking to the review and make no judgements until I’ve read the book. Babbington seems also to be fair to Pinkerton but the review seems written by a cheerleader.

      • Intersectional Playboi says

        “Study of an ordered universe would not have been born of the post-enlightenment world views.”

        This is a quite conjectural counterfactual hypothesis, and you’ve provided no reason or evidence whatsoever to suggest that it might be true.

        “This review reads like the millennial appetite for a church bashing re-write of history that glosses over the contradictions and leaps of faith needed for Naturalism and Materialism. Sapiens by Yuval Harari is a great example of how this next generation is blind to the logical contradictions there in (of Naturalism), eager to live with them, and to try and build on them.”

        You don’t specify what these supposed contradictions or leaps of faith are that allegedly afflict “Naturalism and Materialism”. Bald assertion is not tantamount to mounting an actual argument.

    • I agree with you and others in this comment section who feel that Saloni Dattani has performed a crude hatchet job on Pinker’s critics. I found her (I’m assuming the author is a woman) energetic advocacy of what she regards as one of Pinker’s most “remarkable” arguments:

      “Thrillingly, the gift of longevity is spreading to all of humankind, including the world’s poorest countries…”

      to be particularly galling. (Please read the full quote in the review.) It’s a reflection of how little she understands those who find fault with Pinker. Dattani actually thinks this crass utilitarian calculation of costs and benefits–she even uses the world “tradeoffs”–to be so compelling as to settle the case in favor of Pinker.

      I must paraphrase here the great Richard Ingrams of Private Eye fame: when I see a scientist reviewing a book on the wonders of science I turn the page

    • Paolo says

      You stay quite vague: in what we’re pinker’s critics or anti-enlightenment thinkers right, as opposed to pinker or the enlightenment thinkers?

  2. DiscoveredJoys says

    I’m broadly in agreement with the thrust of Pinker’s arguments when he says the Enlightenment belief in progress “should not be confused with the 19th Century belief in mystical forces, laws, dialectics, struggles, unfoldings, destinies, ages of man, and evolutionary forces that propel mankind ever upward toward utopia.”

    But… Most people seem to operate with certain “beliefs”, not necessarily religious or consciously held. Indeed Jordan Peterson would argue that individuals can improve themselves, and their communities, by using the examples of myths, archetypes, and prototypes underpinning their societies whether those myths are ‘true’ or not.

    So perhaps Pinker is mostly right to say that human society is slowly improving, but his critics are also correct in so far as humans are inclined to need more than ‘just’ reason, science, and humanism with our capacity for ingenuity and sympathy and a defence of benign institutions.

    • Andrew Smedley says

      Hasn’t Pinker himself acknowledged this? His critics are correct in so far as they agree that Humans require an ‘ought’ as well as an ‘is’ and incorrect in so far as they think Pinker disagrees with this. I’m sure there are decent criticisms to be made against the book (I’m yet to read it, admittedly) but those covered here seem to miss the point, or emerge from values I find alien.

      I think the mistake (to repeat the article) is to think of these things as zero-sum. I want more science, more love, more introspection, more truth, more (bullshit free) spirituality, more beauty, more mystery*. Maybe I’m naive but none of these seem incompatible in and of themselves and I think most scientists and modern enlightenment types would broadly agree with that.

      *If this strikes you as incompatible with more science and truth, please look up the ‘clearing in the forest’ analogy to see what I mean.

  3. Alex says

    “Pinker’s book is not a case for the Enlightenment that invites refutation, but a refutation of the arguments of the counter-Enlightenment which, it turns out, have been wrong all along”

    Which is exactly why right-wing think-tanks are head-hunting this new generation of *Classical Liberal Free thinkers* like crazy.

    Peterson at PargerU. This one is seriously wrong, but that’s life.
    Rubin on the Blaze with Glenn Beck.
    Yasmine Mohammed sponsored by Turning Point USA.

    I’m not blaming them, rather, what the hell liberals have been doing? When Ayaan Hirsi Ali only home turned out to be the Hoover Institution (after a plot organised to oust her from the NL parliament), or Taslima Nasreen got literally vilified by left wingers, I’m not sure what I would have done to pay the bills.

    The thing is, there’s little chance to organise society along the line of the Enlightenment if those new free thinkers don’t unite a bit. Patreon is a zoo of well meaning opinions with little palpable impact. None of their bearers want to partner with anyone, everyone wants the microphone.

    (Unrelated, Jonathan Haidt does really great stuff with The Heterodox Academy, but that’s seriously boring….)

    When the chips are down and all the above folks are associated with organisations that have actively fought against climate change policies, affordable health care, gun control, progressive taxation, abortion rights, or even promoted downright aggression in the Middle East, what do they think the bottom 80% of the population is going to do? Vote for entitled intellectuals? In the US alone, 20% of the population owns 80% of the country’s net wealth. The bottom half has less than 5% of it.

    So yes, I agree with the article, it’s well written, and everything is accurate. But the author misses the point, Pinker’s romance with the Enlightenment does little to create a more perfect union. Actually, it does nothing.

    Either those new free thinkers understand they have to unite, build a home of their own, deal with the nasty bits and pieces of human egoism, or they will have to deal with the unhappy bottom 80% of the country.

    What will it take to Quillette to join another *neither left wing, nor right wing* content creator? We just can’t continue spread support around like this.

    • Andrew Smedley says

      As a left winger at heart, its very worrying, the dissolution of the left. I find myself, like you, dismayed that the likes of Jordan Peterson are more associated more with people like PragerU than somewhere like Vox or ProPublica.

      There seems to be almost no organisations or publications committed to both the mitigation of inequality and such and the protection of rational, free thought.

      • Alex says

        I don’t know man. All liberal journos have become caricatures, citizens are commodities. No wonder Brexit happened.

        I see deeply backward ideologies on the upside – Islam, but also the absolute abomination aka the Catholic Church allied with the state in Eastern Europe, sick authoritarian trends in Asia, Europe returning to quarreling kingdoms, people arrested for wrong think in the UK, prosecuted in France, in Germany –

        That’s not good.

        In the midst of this, women not too sure how they should use their new powers, are shepherded by neurotic matriarchs and behaving like mobs.

        Thing is, Democracy and nation states are very young structures, so weak men missing no opportunity to whine about their flaws, with no solution other than downright dictatorship is very worrisome. At some point, there will be nothing left to fight for, simply because there will be nothing left to look for.

        If this is what it comes down to, free thinkers looking for a comfy spot, I’ll go back to paying my bills, and get ready for when civil war breaks out.

        • Colin says

          I really hope there’s some alternative to war. The world has become so damn small that it isn’t even something you can opt out of anymore.

      • Dan Vesty says

        Maybe that’s because many of those capable of rational, free thought have rationally and freely come to the conclusion that the elevation of ‘inequality’ to a position of central importance in human affairs by many on the left, has more of the religious and mystical about it than the rational.

        • Alex says

          That’s such a misguided statement. Hierarchy of competences is absolutely essential to society, and paying competent people accordingly is also paramount. Nobody is taking about blind inequality as an all purpose, generic rule.

          It’s actually the left, along the lines of your comment, that’s started to equate competence as proof of social injustice. They are 100% responsible of this mess.

      • Fiend's Brave Victim says

        One could almost conclude that ‘inequality’ and ‘rational free thought’ were incompatible…

  4. LukeReeshus says

    Pinker’s book is not a case for the Enlightenment that invites refutation, but a refutation of the arguments of the counter-Enlightenment which, it turns out, have been wrong all along.

    Good concluding sentence to a good essay about Pinker’s newest book. Like his last, The Better Angels of Our Nature, it makes those who disagree with it look foolish in their regurgitated arguments for traditional pessimism, whether they be Romantic, Marxist, or Catholic.

    After reading TBAoON and the various critiques of it, I am not all surprised to find the same same cast of characters besmirching the positive influences of humanism around the world in response to the publication of Enlightenment Now. Really, it’s kind of morally disgusting. These people have axes to grind, and they’ll be damned before they allow Steven Pinker to dull them.

    Dulled them has has though: science, reason, and a regard for the well being of individual humans work, as he amply documents. It’s a testament to the un-reason of Pinker’s critics and their like that the valuing of such principles are not more widespread, even now in the unprecedentedly peaceful and prosperous 21st century. The book delivers a huge thrust for rational optimism.

    P.S. If only to avoid charges of fanboyism, I must point out one flaw with the book. Pinker devotes virtually no attention to the modern phenomenon which might very well erode the institutions of modern civilization which he so roundly praises: mass (e/im)migration.

    • Alex says

      Mass immigration isn’t the issue, although a contributing factor. The nature of immigration is. It’s the reason the US isn’t Mexico (yet), or Brazil, although the religion ‘du jour’ is different.

      Had mass emigration been from South Korea, we wouldn’t be here talking about it.

      • Savage says

        South Korean’s would need less help/handouts than say north Korean’s. Although maybe with a little adversity they would no doubt overcome and thrive. Mass immigration is an issue when it is used to sway election outcomes and is an overburden to the citizens of the receiving country. There are no real long term benefits to one way forced migration. It is also foolish to think no one would notice or talk about it, or oppose it.

  5. defmn says

    //As the historian Darrin McMahon observed in his 2002 book, Enemies of the Enlightenment, a theme common to counter-Enlightenment thinkers (especially those who were Catholic) was the fear that the materialism and secularism of Enlightenment philosophy would diminish the necessity of faith, and that these philosophers were militant atheists determined to dismantle the church and monarchy.//

    And they were for the most part correct to think so.

    Bacon and Hobbes, who together created the template for the modern scientific method and the modern liberal democracy fit this description perfectly and it is only historical revisionism that denies it. Those closer to the times recognized it for what it was.

    That said it was not done for the benefit of humanity since they explicitly acknowledge that the vast majority of humanity requires belief in a supernatural being. A contention that remains valid to this day. It’s purpose was a little more self serving than that imo.

    Political philosophers starting with Plato have never denied the utility and necessity of myth in advancing humanity towards a reasoning being. Their objection was that the poets we call men of religion weren’t very good at making them up.

    • Aren’t you vastly overstating the importance of Bacon and Hobbes? All they have in common was a willingness to pander to the Stuarts, contempt for the masses and an attraction towards an elitist internationalism and some form of a universal established church.

      Those of us with low church, democratic-republicand proclivities would substitute Edward Coke and Isaac Newton for Bacon an Hobbes.

      Bacon was, above all, an ultimately unsuccessful striver and dilettante who consistently pandered to the Stuart claims of the divine right of kings. Was it not Bacon who agreed with James I that the law is the king speaking? Wasn’t Hobbes Charles II’s tutor in Paris between 1648-60?

      Newton’s chief inspiration was Descartes’ “La Géométre” (he said so himself) and I’m not aware that either Descartes or Newton mentioned Bacon at all.

      • defmn says

        Nope. It is not possible to overestimate the importance of Bacon and Hobbes. Bacon pre-dates Descartes by some 40-50 years and re-defines Aristotles’ understanding of the purpose of science along with establishing the methodology for doing so.

        Descartes owes much to Bacon including his clue that geometry held the key to understanding much of how the physical world operates. Descartes and Newton came later. Bacon cleared the path. Both Descartes and Newton accomplished great things in their lives but it was Bacon who provided the epistemological foundations for their discoveries.

        It is the same with Hobbes. It seems common these days to credit Locke and John Stuart Mills with establishing the principles that serve as a foundation for the modern liberal democracy but that is just because Locke and JSM understood Hobbes well enough to restate him – more or less with an innovation here and there – in a more accessible form. Hobbes was, of course, Bacon’s star employee/friend,student.

        Bacon established the epistemology and metaphysics necessary to wrest enough authority from the church to allow future great minds to investigate knowledge in a less dangerous atmosphere. Hobbes Leviathan answers the Platonic challenge of establishing a philosopher king capable of governing man’s affairs.

        Political philosophy is the discipline that defines western culture more than anything else.

        It gave birth to a modern science that would allow ordinary men to establish regimes based upon the idea that safety and comfort could be accomplished through industry. It is an idea that is commonplace today but never existed until these two combined to provide the means to accomplish it.

        It is not possible to overestimate the importance of Bacon & Hobbes imo.

        • I guess that the difference between political philosophers and political historians. Historians prefer deeds over words.

          • defmn says

            Political philosophers prefer metaphysical structures and epistemological constructs wrapped within rhetorical imprecations which provide the intellectual foundations capable of translating thoughts into actions by those less gifted at thinking. 😉

            Historians record who did what and when they did it.

            I’m not sure there is a lot of overlap.

  6. ga gamba says

    Had mass emigration been from South Korea, we wouldn’t be here talking about it.

    Is this true? Earlier periods of mass emigration from places like Ireland and Italy had a lot of citizens talking about it.

    [W]hy should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.

    Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.

    Well, a hearty Sieg Heil to you, Benjamin Franklin of 1751. Poor German untermenschen… rekt.

    Suffice it to say, immigration is usually, and perhaps always, contentious. Yes, America is a “land of immigrants”, but throughout its history there’s been mixed feelings and anxiety, so, more accurately, it’s a “land of little-welcomed immigrants who over time come to be accepted after some other group arrives en masse.” I’ve often heard Europeans ridicule Americans who proclaim their heritage with “I’m 25% Norwegian, 25% English, 25% Italian, and 25% Czech,” but such a statement of one’s identity is also a declaration of successful intermingling and assimilation, both of people by the country and of the country by the people. One tends not to wed one’s enemy.

    Viewed through today’s lens, it’s remarkable who Franklin ‘othered’: fellow ethnic Europeans the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians, and Swedes (presumably other Scandinavians were also ‘Swedes’ since Sweden of Franklin’s youth had been an important power ruling parts of Norway, all of Finland, and much of the Baltic states). Change that lens to 1751 and the Spanish and the French of his day were great rivals to Great Britain, and they were also still colonisers of North America, contesting for land and resources, so this may have influenced his opinion. Further, Europe and North America were on the precipice of the Seven Years’ War – surely a genuine world war since it was fought on five continents.

    More remarkable is the omission of Scots from the Franklin’s Anglo-Saxon tier; the Acts of Union bound England and Scotland in 1707, and surely many Scots lived in colonial America. Why the Saxons but not the Franco-Scandinavian Normans who took over in 1066? Identities are a complex concatenation of events plus myths, so I suppose there’s a reason why Franklin included the former but the not the latter. It may indicate a dislike of the Norman dominance of the British upper class and aristocracy (PDF); Franklin’s paternal grandfather was a blacksmith and his father a fabric dyer in England and after emigrating a candle and soap maker. It could be simply due to the House of Hanover was a Saxon kingdom (at least geographically) which reigned over the UK since 1714, so King George II, Franklin’s own sovereign, was arguably one. Can’t call one’s own king a swarthy Hun and expect to get away scot-free, can you? Or it could be due to the Germans were still divided in numerous kingdoms whereas Normandy was part of a unified French kingdom.

    Was Franklin alone? Alexander Hamilton joined him.

    The influx of foreigners must, therefore, tend to produce a heterogeneous compound; to change and corrupt the national spirit; to complicate and confound public opinion; to introduce foreign propensities. In the composition of society, the harmony of the ingredients is all-important, and whatever tends to a discordant intermixture must have an injurious tendency.

    And of the Indians “allowing” immigration:

    …ask what has become of the nations of savages who exercised this policy, and who now occupies the territory which they then inhabited? Perhaps a lesson is here taught which ought not to be despised.

    Somebody tell Lin-Manuel, please.

    To be fair to Franklin, Hamilton, and the Americans, just about everyone else in the world has been guilty of such sentiments and behavior – I’ll exclude the Sentinelese of North Sentinel Island because they haven’t been asked. The English were complaining about all the Scots moving into its northern counties of Northumberland, Co. Durham, Westmoreland, Cumberland, and Yorkshire in 1603 upon the Union of the Crowns. Migrants drew suspicion because of their “dubious” political and religious leanings and because of the damage they could wreak on the local economy by striking or rioting. “How many Scottishmen are planted in the cities, boroughs, and towns of this kingdom? Too many. You Scotchmen have overspread us of late as the locusts did Egypt,” says an anti-Unionist Englishman in the novel Roderick Random by Scottish writer Tobias Smollett in 1748.

    If I read between the lines of your comment correctly, perhaps Koreans aren’t objectionable because these immigrants today are educated, well-to-do, etc. But this wasn’t always the case. The first who landed in Hawaii more than a century ago were common field labourers. The second wave began in the 1960s, and Korea then was still desperately poor and its people poorly educated – in 1966 only 6.7 percent of secondary school graduates enrolled in university. To aid economic development, in 1962 Korea enacted its Overseas Emigration Law as a way control population, reduce unemployment, and garner foreign exchange via remittances. In a sense, low-skilled Koreans were an export. Emigration wasn’t just to North America; receiving countries like Argentina, Brazil, and even Alfredo Stroessner’s Paraguay tell us Koreans were willing to migrate to repressive dictatorships to escape poverty. Also, many Koreans learnt it was easier to emigrate to North America from these countries rather than directly from their homeland due to the high number of applicants. For example, almost 120,000 Koreans emigrated to Paraguay from 1975 to 1990; today fewer than 6,000 remain.

    • Alex says

      I have no idea what you are getting at. Individuals are equal before the law, culture are not, and therefore open to scrutiny and criticism.

      You’re an insufferable empty brain, with thoughts that are not even yours, trying to fit people into check boxes, like counting live stock.

      Good day.

      • What he is getting at is that people have been “talking about” immigration regardless of the origin of the immigrants, and that your comment seemed to indicate a lack of understanding of that reality.

        Unfortunately, his reply was polite, expecting you to arrive at the conclusion at your own pace.

  7. The article is refreshing and scholarly, fairly touching the points of the putative opposition. It stands in contrast to the perfunctory sneers on Twitter.

    Pinker does interweave the notion of humanism throughout his works, which his critics take little account of, despite their demands for more subjective criteria in assessing ‘progress’. The theme of responsibility has never characterized Western civilization, as its has in the Far East since Confucius introduced it in his Analects. Instead we have appropriated its optional, religious version (morality) which can be called upon to bless our weapons-based expansions, as intermittently convenient and non-intrusive.

    Humanism and this filial responsibility to the Self, the community, the planet and our governance are a coherent perspective for the West to finally contemplate, as we emerge from centuries based on militarism. Pinker is our most influential humanist, and he goes far beyond the commercial, schoolboy atheism of his supposed debating peers for this deeper subject matter.

    He deserves to be considered for his comprehensive message of humanism, as our legacy species credo.

  8. defmn says

    Fascinating historical narrative. Thank you.

    Love of one’s own – which is the nice way of talking about ‘others’ – is as much a part of human nature as curiosity or modesty. Which is why I have long found the idea of hyphenated citizens to be dangerous and divisive. One of Canada’s less promising exports is the idea of multiculturalism that arose out of our constitutional repatriation difficulties.

    Instead of us pursuing the worthy idea of being cosmopolitan – allowing the best ideas of cultures to emerge through marketplace competition – we fell for the odious and false premise of sociologists that all cultures are equal.

    Unfortunately no vaccine has yet been discovered and the idea seems to have spread across all the lands where sociology is allowed to flourish.

  9. defmn says

    My apologies. The above comment is directed at ga gamba should that not be clear.

  10. Louis Walsh says

    I do not see the point in any of this discussion. The new fascism is taking over and talking will not stop it. All this has a great deal to do with class……In fact it has everything to do with class.

  11. Pinker’s humanism isn’t incompatible with a recognition of the value of “myths, archetypes, and prototypes underpinning their societies.” And maybe you don’t mean to imply that, but I infer it.

    “Pinker defines contemporary humanism as a movement with a non-supernatural basis for meaning and ethics, the goal of which is to maximise human flourishing and the wellbeing of other sentient organisms.” Does this preclude archetypes, even from religious stories? It seems to me the scientist Jordan Peterson would not object unless Pinker explicitly excluded archetypes (which I think includes myths, at least). Peterson explicitly shows us the non-supernatural basis for meaning and ethics in these stories.

    “Science is not enough to bring about progress, scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values.

    An endorsement of scientific thinking must first of all be distinguished from any belief that members of the occupational guild called ‘science’ are particularly wise or noble.”

    Can that not include “myths, archetypes, and prototypes?” In fact, isn’t it likely to include them?

  12. Dan Browne says

    I don’t understand how debates around Pinker and his ideas so rarely discuss the environmental issues at hand currently. We are living through the sixth mass extinction recorded in the history of the planet currently. That’s no longer speculation, it is pretty well researched fact by now. And, unlike the other five mass extinctions, this one is caused by a terrestrial species. In fact, it’s been as a result of the successes Pinker champions that this has happened. I would never deny the greatness of these successes on a human level, but the fact remains that they are causing major problems for long-term stability. We have fallen victim to what Whitehead called the fallacy of simple location, by believing we can separate human thriving from the thriving of the rest of the biosphere. We can’t. I find it really perplexing that you dismiss ecological critique as “eco pessimism” in this review—am I being unnecessarily pessimistic to be concerned that the Arctic will soon be ice-free? Because that is a real thing that is happening now, and has not happened in the past two million years. You think that won’t affect other systems? I’m sorry but I see Pinker as a courtier philosopher whose job is to make Bill Gates feel better about his philanthropy while the world burns. These are great times for many reasons, but they are also extremely dark and profane times. The fact that neither Pinker nor this reviewer adequately touches on these issues seemingly demonstrates that they have not given them sufficient pause, which is not uncommon today, but is also a part of the problem we are in that must be addressed by anyone who claims to be a serious thinker today. As Hans Jonas argued, we have an ethical imperative to the future, and we are neglecting it currently at our unimaginable peril.

  13. Michael says

    Is this a review of the book, or a review of the reviewers of the book? I really cant tell.

    • Angus Black says

      I am a new reader/contributor to Quillette so I’m hesitant to be too critical of the way things are done here, but I was going to say exactly that.

      I really don’t have the slightest idea, having read this critique, whether this book might be worth my while or not…or even, to be blunt, what the book is trying to say. While a précis is not, in itself, a critique, a critique without a précis is very unsatisfactory.

  14. Pingback: What We’re Reading #5 — March 12th, 2018 - Areo

  15. If a third reference to Jordan Peterson is allowed in a single comments section, it’s the longevity of a civilisation (I think he thinks) that’s the ultimate measure of its success. It’s not for us to say if this civilisation is a winner. Medicine and technology are blowing up the population, not of the Europeans whose ancestors created technological civilisation, but of Africa, and it’s starting to walk north. We’re a little concerned that, weak and wishful as our ancestor’s value systems have got in the current generation, the immigrants aren’t coming with a better one. (but ga gamba’s comment is good)

    “At a time when populist demagogues are riding to power on narratives of despair and decline..”
    I disagree. In the Cold War we were faced with obliteration, which is a threat breeding despair, and hedonism, weakness and carelessness. Now we have the threat of invasion, which is a normal threat, which promotes caution, seriousness, and narratives to give support. It’s completely rational to take an interest in myths if they sweep away despair and clear the mind for practical, rational action.

  16. Sorry, but I’m afraid that Pinker requires one to swallow down materialism with his slosh of scientism, which is just another religion. I’m not religious but I know enough to reason that reason need not be served with materialism. That’s just baloney. I don’t care how smart he thinks he is, science still doesn’t know squat about consciousness itself. We find the same sort of materialist religion in Sam Harris. Don’t they know that their scientific morality rests on a firm bed of Western mythology? I’m paraphrasing Jordan Peterson here. When are we going to get off this jag of thinking that because science has helped our material well being so much, we owe a debt of worship to the deity of materialist philosophy. Don’t they care about the utter foolishness of their ontology? It makes me want to throw up.

    • But when we grow up and find western mythology is just that and you perhaps want to know exactly, with conditional truths, why and how life (and not just human existence) proliferates and base any internalising on facts, which includes morality, ethics, rather than fairy tales then, maybe, we can move on.

  17. Ron says

    Well stated – as are the comments. I appreciate the thoughtful tone across the board.

  18. I wish the world would stop pontificating and just live as their souls and hearts directs them to do and be.There is room for everyone. What will matter to my self (consciousness) in the long run, is, what I choose to impress upon it for eternity and it certainly isn’t anyone’s moral opinion of me or for my lifestyle preferences. Scientific or religious? Whatever gets you through the day.
    Its simple; be nice, respect others, if you disagree then by all means move on and away.
    It freaks me out to see so many souls looking to “buy” into something then be disappointed and angry when it isn’t real. Always some kind of bandwagon.
    What has happened to individualism?
    I rather be a lone wolf than a sheep of this world order.
    Just a simple french girl who had to say something here today because I find this media world outrageous…. as all one has to do is vent and walk away with no consequences.
    I don’t even have a Facebook account because I for one do not need approval or an audience.
    There I said my peace or piece?
    I don’t even care if it applies here or not. In YOUR opinion whoever you may be???
    It seems fitting here because everyone just blah blah blah. Hear me! Hear Me!

  19. Peter Moss says

    “Not only is the idea of progress repulsive to eco-pessimists who believe humans are despoiling the planet and plunging the world into irredeemable chaos, it is also anathema to anarchists and populists who would rather see the state burn to the ground than support incremental reform”

    It is the same enlightenment values of science and reason that are now telling us that humans ARE despoiling the planet. Real scientists themselves are saying this. I guess they are the “eco-pessmists”. Pinker is wrong on so many levels about so many things it’s difficult to know where to begin. And yes, the state needs to be burned to the ground. The state is a magnificent failed experiment that has now enveloped civilization into a corrupt totalitarian police state.

    • Stephen Mason says

      Philosophies that do not take into account all evolutionary tendencies of the species are incomplete since they encapsulate a form of denial. I will attempt to support this hypothesis with the example below.

      The concept of “taking one’s comfort” as espoused in 12-step groups may provide an explanation writ large that links the motivation behind environmental spoilage and the rise of the police state. The latter two conditions arise from an externalization of costs; I can clean up my immediate environment by dumping my refuse next door; I can enhance my own security by restricting the freedom of others. Both conditions arise from the evolutionary impulse to take one’s comfort whatever the cost in every environment we are in; however, we need to ask ourselves whether this impulse continues to serve humanity in an increasingly crowded world. The philosophical underpinnings of the Western world have resulted in this crisis of perception and provide us with no route out of our predicament.

      I suggest that the fine compartmentalization of philosophies by academia is the root of the problem. Reductive reasoning has unmoored schools of thought from each other and reality. Reductive reasoning thereby provides for the unconscious continuity of tribalism and externalization of costs. We are fast approaching the point of total war where we will have to, as a species, examine all evolutionary tendencies in order to determine what will serve us going forward and what we will need to leave as part of our unenlightened past. This cannot happen within a framework that does not recognize connection between the seemingly disparate as paramount. I believe the philosophical landscape is too disjointed to contain this larger discussion; and “taking our comfort” in order to remain in our respective tribes will only result in taking further steps down the wrong path.

  20. Enlightenment = Good

    Counter-Enlightenment = Bad

    Steven Pinker = Enlightenment

    Critics of Steven Pinker = Counter-Enlightenment.

    I think I distilled this essay into no more than 12 words. A.J. Ayers “boo-hurrah!” theory of ethics doesn’t command sufficient respect.

  21. Bernard Wasow says

    As an old “modernist,” who was cooked in the broth of enlightenment faith in reason, it is nice to read such a well written, old fashioned defense of the “modern” world view. Good work.

  22. Can’t we just make an Enlightenment flag that we can wave and everyone can stand and clap? Go Reason! Maybe a football club? Then you don’t have to make your way through a 576 page book with graphs.

  23. kn83 says

    1. Hasn’t biology (especially neurosciences and HBD) demonstrated that all living things (even the smartest humans) are inherently irrational? That humans are not rational but merely rationalizing, and that reason itself is a product of and can’t exist without unconscious instinct and emotion?
    Science itself suggest that the irrationalist themselves were right all along about how the mind works.

    2. Haven’t numerous intellectuals pointed out that postmodern thought itself is not the rejection but the inevitable conclusion of Enlightenment values? Even Pinker himself in his book The Blank Slate made the connection between the ideas of the Enlightenment (ex.Tabula Rasa) and nearly every (post)modern assumption about the world.

    3. Hasn’t science (especially Evolutionary Biology, Coginitve Science and HBD) revealed that there is no such thing as objective morality/values, that morals and values are instinct-driven rationalizations of bias and self-interest and that Nietzsche was right all along about it?

    4. The myth that Romanticism was anti-science has no historical evidence. In fact, far more relevant scientific achievements (especially in biology, which Darwin utilized) were made during the Romantic era, while the Enlightenment is responsible for all blank-slatist pseudosciences reinforced by the Left today.

    5. Doesn’t the failure of the French Revolution (based entirely on Enlightenment ideals) discredit the very idea of a reason-based society?

  24. Erik Friesen says

    Pinkers critics, and perhaps Pinker himself, tend to think that there is one true way of understanding all that exists including human beings and it happens to be the one they advocate for most fiercely. Others subscribe to the idea that there can be no absolute truths. The reality is that we just don’t know enough about ourselves or the reality around us to come to any certain conclusions. We are sorting these things out in the belief that thought will some day yield answers.

    This Talking Heads song from 1978 may explain where we are at today better than anything else;

    “Road To Nowhere”

    Well we know where we’re goin’
    But we don’t know where we’ve been
    And we know what we’re knowin’
    But we can’t say what we’ve seen
    And we’re not little children
    And we know what we want
    And the future is certain
    Give us time to work it out

    We’re on a road to nowhere
    Come on inside
    Takin’ that ride to nowhere
    We’ll take that ride

    I’m feelin’ okay this mornin’
    And you know
    We’re on the road to paradise
    Here we go, here we go

    We live in a time of existential uncertainty. Yet the future will come. I’m in Pinkers corner to the extent that the Enlightment era thinking does provide us with a sound footing from which to move forward. Yes, it has it’s flaws. Let’s see how we can improve on that. We need to secure our survival and our sanity and I’m prepared to support Pinkers quest to do so. His critics need to prove why we should heed them and their criticism. Simply criticizing isn’t enough.

    • Gray’s criticism was that Pinker used a highly historically selective “sample” of the Enlightenment, leaving out, most importantly, Rousseau. The historical reality of the Enlightenment is that it has always coincided with utopian politics, Jacobins and guillotines, whether in 1789 in Paris or 1917 in Moscow. Communism was supposed to be the ultimate culmination of the Enlightenment, which ushered in the “End of History” and brought about a new age of human rights, equality, and solidarity. Further, if you look at our little squads of campus Maoists, its not Nazi’s or Christian Fundamentalist assaulting speakers and committing violence and vandalism, its our secular Leftists with their utopian ideology and their “scientific” Lysenkoism. It would seem that it makes sense to address the “Dark Side of the Enlightenment” if you were writing something other than a hagiography of reason. (It may be that The Philosophy of the Bedroom expresses a clearer understanding of the Enlightenment than Pinker.)

  25. Stephen Mason says

    I think it is possible to rationalize the fear of those attacking Pinker as a generalized angst that progress is at its core a quest for liberation from connection to the past. In that sense, the detractors may have a point if the motivation behind liberalism is to devise ways of distancing from the hard realities of life – the realities we all came from that still remain, albeit at arms-length. Much of our modern civilized society is built on the notion of denial of reality and connection partly by objectification of and a distancing from such mysteries. This may begin to explain the pandemic of alienation that afflicts the Western world. As our economies continue to teeter on the brink we may well look to the philosophical underpinnings and recognize how unmoored we have become. Our lack of ability to arrive at new solutions to our problems stems from a crisis of perception born of denial that has made our reality a closed circle.

  26. Joe says

    The irony in sermonizing the filing of the critics of vacuous positivism under “Enemies of Reason”, when all they’re doing is reminding the “clear eyed” (wide-eyed) adherents of inconvenient epistemological boundaries well established at least since the ancient Greek schools of philosophy.

    In the next Dark Age, “Reason” will be well established, and foolhardy to question.

    • KDM says

      Your comment is kind of a condensed version of what I’m trying to express. In lieu of my own words (I don’t have time to form a coherent explaination) I’m using quotes from one of my favorite thinkers of the twentieth century.
      Hayek’s thought on economics always included evolution, tradition and the limits to reason and rationality. While Hayek is not of the counter enlightenment he was concerned (starting in the early 20th century) about the intellectual fascination with socialism and how they used “rationality and reason” to get rid of stuffy old human traditions to be replaced with the new Rational Man. Pinker reminds me of this type of intellectual (albeit without the socialist part).

      F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit, the Errors of Socialism:

      “Man became intelligent because of tradition, that which lies between instinct and reason.”

      “…morals, including, especially, our institutions of property, freedom and justice, are not a creation of man’s reason but a distinct second endowment conferred on him by cultural evolution – runs counter to the main intellectual outlook of the twentieth century. The influence of rationalism has
      indeed been so profound and pervasive that, in general, the more intelligent an educated person is, the more likely he or she now is not only to be a rationalist, but also to hold socialist views (regardless of whether he or she is sufficiently doctrinal to attach to his or her views any label, including `socialist’).”

      “I object to such rationalists because they declare their experiments, such as they are, to be the results of reason, dress them up in pseudo-scientific methodology, and thus, whilst wooing influential recruits and subjecting invaluable traditional practices (the result of ages of evolutionary trial-and-error experiment) to unfounded attack, shelter their own `experiments’ from scrutiny.”

      “Like other traditions, the tradition of reason is learnt, not innate. It too lies between instinct and reason; and the question of the real reasonableness and truth of this tradition of proclaimed reason and truth must now also
      scrupulously be examined.”

  27. chris says

    pinker shouldn’t be taken seriously as a scholar after his disaster of a book, better angels. edward herman tore it apart here (, and went on to write a short book with David Peterson expanding the critique here (

    other scholarly rebuttals are here (, from an archaeological standpoint here (, here (, here (, and here ( a quotation from the last:

    “Pinker’s (2011) The Better Angels of Our Nature could be added to Sussman’s string of examples that reiterate the same Occidental storyline. Ferguson (chapter 7) grabs this figurative baton from Sussman to run through, case-by-case, how Pinker (2011) is exaggerating war in prehistory. The evidence presented by David Dye, Robert Kelly, and Jonathan Haas and Matthew Piscitelli complements Ferguson’s critique: Pinker’s thesis that chronic war stretches back over the far-reaching millennia before the agricultural revolution is not substantiated by the actual data. ”

    also want to echo a prior commenter’s mention of the bizarre argument against “eco-pessimists” who point to the overwhelming data proving we are in a sixth extinction event *right now* (;, and the anarchists against (for example) the usa state, whose military is the single largest user of fossil fuels in the world, burning as much oil in the 3 week invasion of iraq as all belligerents in ww2 over 4 years combined (

  28. Vainsaints says

    I was going to read the full review, but I found that it had been unconsciously plagiarized from “Our Great Man” a review of the writings of David Koresh from one of his followers.

    • StanCorrected "The man in the orthopaedic shoe" says

      Citation Fucktard?

  29. StanCorrected "The man in the orthopaedic shoe" says

    There is a hilarious (but equally sad) irony playing out here, one Chaucer would have a field day with….. I’m going to dumb down my response because I know you humanities types don’t know the vocabulary of applied scientific reason. That’s right applied science the reason most of us don’t die at birth.

    An army of intellectuals the product of one of the greatest advancements in western culture, mass access to education from child to professor, delivered by institutions founded, developed and protected by the state. Every one of you trying to dismiss the evidence life is better now than e.g. 100 yrs ago, using verbal gymnastics, belligerence, and worst of all intellectual dishonesty. I would bet my right arm not a single person on here is commenting from a war zone, is likely to get shot by a militia if they step outside their home, nor will they have to walk 10miles to get water in the morning.

    The same old tropes trotted out, theist outrage, appeal to European philosophers (who weren’t all right, learn to think for yourselves), a painfully limited evidence base from North American history, references to impossible to verify historical hyperbole on ancient wars, bolstered by an embarrassing knowledge of how small migration from Afghanistan, Iraq and all current Middle Eastern war zones combined pale in comparison to e.g. the 100 million + displaced and slaughtered in the USSR, never mind, by Mao, Pol Pot, Tamils, Indian Partition, Chinese Revolution I could go on and on. But it would be absurd because the entire point of the book is life is better now. Yet all of you detractors keep referring to centuries ago?!?? There was piecemeal pre enlightenment eureka moments of course, but if you don’t know that the Enlightenment was historical convergence point, a type of intellectual social network. Then you don’t understand the enlightenment period.

    For a bunch of so called intellectuals and Pinker deniers, you are oblivious to this irony, while tapping out your abhorrently biased views on your smartphone, MacBook, touchpad, using philosophical exposition and obscure civilisations as muster
    If you don’t like Pinker because he is Not a theist
    Not a philosopher
    Not a postmodernist
    Not meeting the narrow criteria that makes you feel special and smart after all those years at college.
    Well tough fucking shit.
    Doesn’t mean he’s wrong, because only a delusional fool would claim life is not better now than 20, 50, 100, 300 yrs ago. And no amount of linguistic word salad logic and a appeal to special authority will change that. Don’t take Pinker’s or my word for it. Go do some proper research pull OECD, WHO, IMF….. data and look at it. Even easier just use your fucking eyeballs.

    You are suffering from collective propaganda induced psychosis because you don’t have the will or ability to analyse the objective world.
    Hard scientists like us bestow upon you the most sophisticated outcomes of centuries of scientific endeavour. We are at a technological apex in human history and you ungrateful bastards take our medicine, manufacturing, infrastructure, all modernity can offer, then spit back in our faces calling us immoral nihilists who should be feared and smeared.
    Social and Theistic movements have played their part in shaping the world, but your refusal to accept the endless cycles of revisionism of your of own beliefs through knowledge leakage out of our realm, which has armed and empowered your peoples to make change, is just another slap in the face. Us who spend decades of of our live’s in labs etc with one goal, to make the world a better place, yet we are called shills and conspirators. Telling so many lies to yourselves and others, defending your dogma, reality escapes you. If you are taught from childhood to lie to get through life, then naturally one must conclude everyone else is lying too. What a sad existence that must be.

    Pinker’s book is by no means perfect, but if you are so stupid that you need to reference a biased historian’s account of centuries old wars as proof Pinker is wrong…… Then good luck to you. Next time you need medical treatment, just read a bit of Derrida and everything will be fine.

    Just for fun, even though I know your ilk just make up your own lexicon in your endless campaign of protectionist obfuscation…….Go read let’s see……

    Vicariance as a causal mechanism for emergent phenotypes and speciation during Phanerozoic tectonic drift

    • Vainsaints says

      This person is under the unfortunate delusion that he has something to say that is worth 6 syllables, let alone six paragraphs.

      • Sorry but you are the delusional one, kid.

        If you want true enlightenment I suggest you take one good long look at my website linked in my username.

    • I think this comment gets at the essence of the problem: the apparent and total lack of nuance in the Pinker cult.

      “The Enlightenment” constitutes a heterogeneous set of ideas and influences, many of which were in contradiction with themselves. As far as the achievements of the West, in terms of producing peace, security, prosperity, secularism, etc., these achievements were accomplished through the establishment of a strong centralized state with a monopoly on killing authority–and this preceded the Enlightenment. The contribution of the Enlightenment was nationalism, leading to conscript armies, democracy/representative government, etc. That is to say, the creation of the modern nation-state. The other great development is nuclear weapons, which has prevented world war from breaking out, and which haven’t yet been used widely. So in many places there are strong nation-states with economic freedom, social insurance, political rights, and they aren’t at each other’s throats like in the early 20th century because of the bomb. However, because of the bomb, or because of new technology perhaps nullifying the defensive value of the bomb, I can’t be sure that the system will continue.

      The problem with someone like Pinker is he claims the mantle of the Enlightenment, yet he is anti-nationalist. Tear down the nation-state, and you tear down the basis of the modern order, and all of Pinker’s “progress”. Further, the rise of the modern nation-state cannot really be disentangled from the use of concentration camps on domestic populations, colonialism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and all the bad stuff some people would like to unload on the “Counter Enlightenment” (all those influential Catholic monarchists who have been making history since the 18th Century). So, one, lack of nuance, and, two, utter blindness in the way that globalism is not the expansion of the Enlightenment beyond the nation-state, it is the destruction of the basis of secular modernity, and the coming ISIS and other fourth generational warfare outfits.

  30. Vainsaints says

    Pinker essentially retrofits the conceits of the modern Cult of Dawkins onto his fantasy of what “the Enlightenment” was. His defenders, which include no one with the slightest background in History, Literature, or Philosophy, are simply fellow travelers in that same Cult.

    The Pinker thesis isn’t really historically intelligible, let alone credible. It only makes sense in a cartoon universe in which History is carved out into an Age of Faith, overturned in the Age of Reason, and then somehow pulled back into a Counter-Enlightenment Reactionism. This cartoon is a ludicrously tendentious reading of history, playing out as if all of the sudden, this gang of freethinkers started “thinking for themselves” and coming to conclusions that were plainly in evidence to those not blinkered by the dark forces of religious dogmatists.

    Pinker’s cultists then uphold their cultic dogmas as synonymous with “Enlightenment Values” and ultimately with “Reason” itself, so of course, everyone else has to be anti-progress and “obscurantist”. It’s a nice gig. Invent your own history and put your clan at its helm.

    A full rebuttal can be read here:

    The writer does not come from any sort of religious “obscurantist” angle. Merely, he is someone who takes history, philosophy, and the humanities seriously, and articulates Pinker’s painful blunders patiently and soundly.

    • StanCorrected says

      Ok Champ, fair dinkum,

      Let’s do this by the numbers, nullius in verba…..

      1. Your comment, didn’t read article, referenced David Koresh, a mentally ill mass murder creating a spurious link to a mild mannered professor . You immediately poisoned the well and exposed yourself as, I doubt lazy, but extremely biased person. You probably had no intention of reading the article anyway, as it seems clear you have a cemented opinion, believing there is a Pinker cult. So I suspect this is a futile exercise. However, in the spirit of my loyalty to open and fair debate, I’m calling you on your BS. There is no parallel to Koresh. So it was a cheap ad hominem attack.

      Act like a troll and you will be treated as one.

      2. After reading what I wrote, you unsurprisingly went straight into ad hominem again and insulted me and didn’t address any of my points. Please address at least one thing in my post, which btw isn’t a defence of Pinker in particular, rather integrity, as he is not top of my list of academics,

      3. Just to frame the response you bothered writing, you send me a link to a Christian academic and immediately divest yourself of any theist motives or leanings……. Nice try, there are a lot of critiques of this book from non theists so……And hey dude, I don’t have a problem with Christians, I have problem with reactionary, intellectually dishonest discourse from senior academics. Here again assume, Pinker is an intolerant atheist, which he isn’t. He is intolerant of intellectual dishonesty. This isn’t a history, philosophy, atheist, or attack dog book. Unsurprisingly though every scathing rambling critique has come from theists who invariably create a chronologically dichotomous counter argument where they chuck in their basket of favourite guys and demand they are right and Pinker is deluded. So given I have read at least 10 reviews from theists on this book, none of which overlap in narrative, except for completely missing the point as well as their childish condescension, they can’t all be right.

      4. As for Harrison’s analysis, and I’m sick of saying this, it’s not a history book, it’s a cross discipline narrative on human progress. His entire rebuttal is based on cherry picking some quotes where the characters challenge the empiricism of their own hypotheses on universal reason and knowledge. Harrison jumps on this to undermine their body of works and the viral impact they had on structured reasoning and devopment of the scientific method. Yet he offers absolutely no counter narrative and basically ends up making no point that disproves that the glut of enlightenment thinkers linked to that era probably had to acquiesce to church and state for self preservation. A common theme throughout history. It doesn’t really matter if he left out Spinoza, Voltaire, Hobbes Bentham etc etc your problem is simple you don’t like the atheist thrust.

      What’s so comical about your reaction is that the Enlightenment is a well established phenomenon. Apart from saying its a bad history book, you make no real counter argument that there was an equal or more dominant influence that explains the codification of the scientific method and it’s revolutionary impact on productivity through it’s application, industrialisation, manufacturing and ongoing modernisation / improvement of the human condition.

      Socioreligious structures did hinder progress whether you like it or not. To say otherwise is an outright lie. That doesn’t mean religion didnt have a role to play in social cultural cohesion and moral direction for state and citizen. But religion didn’t create the periodic table, explain evolution nor influence gravity.

      • Vainsaints says

        Do you think I literally meant that this review was plagiarized from the Branch Davidians? You might be off your meds here. I meant that this writer is speaking as a lesser member of a cult praising a greater member, and the cult is scientism.

        • StanCorrected says

          Dude, if you and your ilk are going to enter the forum of debate and poison the well with crude sneering jibes that add nothing to the conversation, apart from revealing your intransigent ad hominem tactics. Then no of course no one is going to take anything you write seriously. But the integrity of the dialogue should be restored for the wider audience. So even your trivial BS needs inoculated and your cheap trick of Cult Member entrapment indulged. Baiting someone to get a rise does not prove Pinker defenders are ideologues.

  31. arglebargle says

    “Factoids” are not “miniature” facts (or trivia) but pseudo-facts (perhaps in possession of “truthiness”)—a misapprehension which trivially undermines the author’s argument.

  32. DeWitt says

    The author is brimming with the naivite of youth, which time will take swiftly from her, but the damage is done: Pinker has published another idiotic 500+ page diatribe for which he demands universal validation in the name of that elusive thing he neither understands (nor wants to) called “reason”.

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