The Trump era—which has been characterized by a rise of anti-intellectualism, the ideological muddling of the right, and a swerve toward illiberalism on both sides of the political debate—has, by way of compensation, also produced a mini-revival of interest and debate about the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment. One of the most prominent entries in that debate is Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, which sounds like a woozy New Age self-help book but is actually a long defense of the Enlightenment’s legacy, charting the vast improvement in the human condition since the luminaries of the 18th Century first proclaimed that reason, science, and liberty could transform our lives.
“Charting” is the right word, because the book is packed with facts, figures, and yes, dozens of charts and graphs, showing massive and sustained improvements in just about every area of life that you can think of. Pinker looks at (deep breath): life expectancy, child mortality, infectious disease, famine and malnutrition, global poverty, pollution, deaths from war, genocide, accidents, natural disasters, and murder, political liberty, human rights, racism, literacy, education. All of these measures of human wellbeing are on a trajectory that points upward, often steeply upward, and have been since the Enlightenment. He sums this up by paraphrasing economist Max Roser, who points out that newspapers, “could have run the headline NUMBER OF PEOPLE IN EXTREME POVERTY FELL BY 137,000 SINCE YESTERDAY every day for the last twenty-five years.”
Here is how he explains his approach.
The bulk of the book is devoted to defending [Enlightenment] ideals in a distinctively 21st-Century way: with data. This evidence-based take on the Enlightenment project reveals that it was not a naïve hope. The Enlightenment has worked—perhaps the greatest story seldom told. And because this triumph is so unsung, the underlying ideals of reason, science, and humanism are unappreciated as well.
What Pinker chronicles is not a mere physical improvement. With greater wealth has come more widespread education, greater access to knowledge, more leisure time, more access to art—more of the things that enrich and broaden the mind. In one intriguing section, he points to evidence that rising health and wealth have led, in every area of the world, to significant gains in average IQ and particularly on tests of abstract “analytic reasoning,” implying that better-fed and better-educated people are actually smarter and more mentally capable than their ancestors. The Enlightenment, it seems, has expanded our brains.
Can all of this really be ascribed to the Enlightenment? Certainly it can be ascribed to beliefs and ideological goals that were central to the Enlightenment, such as science, markets, commerce, individual rights, and humanistic values. At a number of spots, Pinker also does a good job of showing how the worst relapses in human progress, particularly the catastrophic wars of the 20th Century, were the result of anti-Enlightenment ideas. This is one of the more glaring errors made by critics of the Enlightenment, who blame John Locke and Voltaire for movements spawned by German Romanticism and other variations of the 19th-Century “Counter-Enlightenment” backlash.
When it comes to what the Enlightenment was and what it stood for, however, Pinker is at his weakest. He is adamant, and correctly so, that the ideas of the Enlightenment have consequences, and that those consequences have been overwhelmingly good. But if those ideas are so important, you would think he would spend more time fleshing them out. Instead, his summaries of Enlightenment ideas tend to be brief, vague, and superficial, and philosophers with very different ideas—say, John Locke and David Hume, or Baruch Spinoza and Immanuel Kant—are casually lumped together, their profound and fundamental differences glossed over. When Thomas Jefferson said that “the legitimate powers of government extend only to such acts as are injurious to others,” he was stating a Lockean view of individual rights and not, as Pinker implies, offering an early endorsement of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism. Or he lumps together, under the heading of “impartiality,” a grab-bag of ideas from moral philosophers: “Spinoza’s viewpoint of eternity, Hobbes’s social contract, Kant’s categorical imperative, Rawls’s veil of ignorance, Nagel’s view from nowhere, Locke and Jefferson’s self-evident truth that all people are created equal, and of course the Golden Rule.” These are not all the same idea and have very different implications, but to Pinker, they can all be thrown together.
Part of this, I suspect, has its roots in Pinker’s tendency toward “scientism.” It is a label he rejects, and he argues that it is a smear used to fend off scientific interlopers who trespass into the intellectual fiefdoms claimed by humanities professors. I would very much agree—if Pinker didn’t furnish such an excellent example of what the opponents of “scientism” are warning about. He has a tendency to take scientific arguments seriously and examine them in detail, while glossing superficially over philosophical ideas. He has an annoying habit of describing normal aspects of life, such as love and marriage, not on their own terms, but by reducing them to abstruse concepts drawn from evolutionary theory or thermodynamics. He says that he merely wants to be able to reconcile concepts from the sciences with those from the humanities, but it is clear that it is only concepts and language drawn from the sciences that he can regard as truly valid, important, and explanatory. This doesn’t do him any favors as a writer, either, since it means that he always prefers to describe things in their most complex and technical form when plain English will do.
It also turns out that the woozy vagueness of Pinker’s description of Enlightenment philosophy is deliberate. He talks a lot about the importance of ideas, but he concludes toward the end of the book that specific ideas just get in the way. “Even when humanistic movements fortify their goals with the language of rights, the philosophical system justifying those rights must be ‘thin.’ A viable moral philosophy for a cosmopolitan world cannot be constructed from layers of intricate argumentation or rest on deep metaphysical or religious convictions. It must draw on simple, transparent principles that everyone can understand and agree upon.” This is pretty rich from a guy who spends a lot of the book regaling us about how the Second Law of Thermodynamics explains all of life. But that is the style of Pinker’s scientism: lavish on the details when it comes to scientific principles which he regards as explanatory, but deliberately thin when it comes to philosophical principles.
In case you weren’t sure he really means this, he explains this ideological thinness in a section praising the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a mish-mash of vague and contradictory ideas that has proved to be notoriously ineffectual in practice. But Pinker approves of it because, in words he quotes from one of its drafters, the UN’s Declaration is based on “no philosophy whatsoever.” So much for the power of ideas.
His disregard for philosophical reasoning and for the expertise of those outside of his preferred scientific circles makes him vulnerable to a certain amount of flimflam. He will spend pages engaging in wild speculation about “multiverses” in order to answer a basic philosophical conundrum along the lines of “why is there something and not nothing”—which a halfway decent philosopher could immediately identify as a fruitless and invalid question that requires no complex answer. He gets into this diversion because he fails to understand the real meaning of the God of the Gaps argument, which is really just a variation of the philosophers’ fallacy of the Argument from Ignorance, and so feels a need to feverishly fill in gaps that don’t exist.
It gets worse the more he ventures—as he unwisely does from time to time—into commentary on politics and, worse, the partisan politics of the moment. As someone who follows how this particular sausage gets made, I often noticed Pinker repeating a lazy trope from the conventional left, like describing Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush as “know-nothings,” while knowing nothing about who the Know Nothings actually were.
Like most evangelists of “cognitive bias,” he is reliably blind to his own. In discussing progress towards clean air and clean water and the failure of the environmentalist doomsday to arrive, he is careful to insist that this does not mean that a single environmental regulation should be relaxed, that it is only because of strict regulations that doomsday has been averted. Yet in looking at the number of deaths from terrorist attacks, which reverted to a relatively low level after a sharp uptick in 2001, he dismisses international efforts against terrorism as a hysterical overreaction and does not even consider the possibility that it is only those efforts that prevented September 11, 2001, from becoming the new normal. In each case, he adjusts his interpretation to suit the political preferences of his peer group, while telling himself that he is merely following the data.
As a result, Pinker’s defense of the Enlightenment ends up coming off more as a defense of the current center-left status quo. On one issue after another, from capital punishment to global warming to the welfare state to terrorism, rational counterarguments are either glibly dismissed or treated as if they do not exist. Pinker’s Enlightenment may be very vague and general in philosophical terms, but it is curiously specific in terms of public policy. It certainly seems an amazing coincidence that the ideas of a very diverse group of philosophers writing two to three centuries ago would all culminate, point for point, with the platform of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Pinker’s views are at least center-left, and he is occasionally refreshing in his departures from the growing far-left consensus. He points to the dangers of Political Correctness and identity politics, champions nuclear power against the radical environmentalists, and takes the Marxists to task for the dogmatic obstinacy of their hatred of markets. (One of his best lines is, “Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress.”) He even occasionally footnotes a right-of-center economist like Thomas Sowell or Friedrich Hayek—though these apostasies are rare enough that you notice them when they happen.
The larger problem is that Pinker tends to suffer from the occupational hazard of speakers on the “ideas festival” circuit: his knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep. Enlightenment Now is chock-a-block full of footnotes and references that make it seem obsessively researched. But if you happen to know in-depth and firsthand one of the areas he touches on, particularly those outside the domain of science, you find that a little too much of his knowledge is a result of second-hand reports and hasty skimming.
Take just one example, from an area of philosophy I happen to know very well. Pinker ends a critique of Friedrich Nietzsche’s irrationalist anti-Enlightenment philosophy with this potshot at Ayn Rand: “Though she later tried to conceal it, Ayn Rand’s celebration of selfishness, her deification of the heroic capitalist, and her disdain for the general welfare had Nietzche written all over them.” This demonstrates his superficial grasp of Nietzsche, his utter ignorance of Ayn Rand, and even his patchy knowledge of the Enlightenment (in which advocacy of “self-interest properly understood” was common, and not too far from Ayn Rand’s version of “rational self-interest”). Anyone actually interested in the topic can easily find more direct and reliable sources; Ayn Rand was so eager to “conceal” her views on Nietzsche that she openly discussed the differences between his philosophy and hers multiple times. Searching for something I could link to for the benefit of readers, I was delighted to find that Google will quickly direct you to a half-hour discussion on the topic that she did on a Columbia University radio show in 1967 with a very young Allan Gotthelf (who would later go on to a distinguished career as an Aristotle scholar, a philosopher of science, and a founding member of the American Philosophical Association’s Ayn Rand Society). Pinker, of course, doesn’t know any of this and instead footnotes his comment on Rand to a third-rate hitpiece. This is consistent with his equation of the Enlightenment with the center-left status quo, which dismisses Ayn Rand with hasty smears about Nietzsche, simply because she was a staunch advocate of capitalism.
Pinker wants to defend the Enlightenment, but he wants to do it without trying all that hard to understand what it was, what exactly it advocated, what philosophical dilemmas and problems it grappled with—or to take sides among the very different and sometimes irreconcilable answers that Enlightenment-era philosophers gave to those questions.
And yet. And yet, the main thrust of his book actually does provide a defense of the Enlightenment. The real heart of Enlightenment Now is its long central section recounting the two-century-long march of progress that followed the breakthroughs of the Enlightenment. This catalogue of human flourishing is exhaustive to the point of being exhausting, but anyone who follows the news—and everyone who writes the news or debates about it—should know why such an extensive rehearsal is necessary.
The reason most people don’t recognize the enormous improvement in human life over the past decades and centuries is because the daily news, and particularly the daily political debate, is always a litany of threats, crises, emergencies, and warnings of national decline and global chaos. This center section of Pinker’s book is an absolutely necessary corrective.
Anyone who wants to claim that capitalism is a system of exploitation that crushes the poor for the benefit of the rich needs to grapple with his recounting of the enormous increase of wealth for everyone during the Industrial Revolution and the rise of global capitalism. Anyone who wants to point to the Doomsday Clock or radical Islam or grumble about a US foreign policy of “endless war” needs to grapple with his presentation of the Long Peace, the astonishing decline of war following World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Anyone who wants to claim that modernism has made us into spiritually impoverished materialists needs to grapple with his evidence about the increasing spread of education, leisure time, art, and knowledge, as the mass of mankind are being raised above the brute materialism of a daily struggle with hunger and disease. For myself, even though I know Pinker glosses over questions about the sustainability of the contemporary welfare state, his “optimistic realism” prompts me to temper my own sense of alarm. I think a fiscal reckoning is coming, but increasing wealth will at least make the crisis easier to recover from, in the same way that the Great Recession looks less fearsome now that we have emerged into a 3.9% unemployment rate on the other side. Two hundred years of progress do make a difference, after all.
Enlightenment Now makes a broad and effective case that something has been going fundamentally right in the modern world. It’s just that you will have to do your own work if you want to define in clear philosophical terms, in a way that rises above our current partisan obsessions, exactly what that something is.
Note: This is what I will doing in the coming months, reviewing books that look at the same topic from the perspective of the pro-Enlightenment political right, and from that of a historian who traces a key transmission belt that brought Enlightenment philosophy to America’s founders.