I used to be a fan of Steven Pinker’s work. He speaks fluent academese, he just sounds so reasonable, and his message of optimism is something I want to be true. I’d love to be able to go to my grave thinking the world was going to be a better place for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren and all the children of the world. I wanted to believe.
O sweet irony, that an atheist could be tempted by hope and faith.
But as I read more, I became disenchanted. Hope is great, but it has to be backed by reason and evidence, and as I read more, it became obvious that Pinker is kind of the Norman Vincent Peale of atheism, and that there wasn’t any substance to him — he starts with a happy belief and works to fill in the gaps in the evidence with cherry-picked data and his own indefensible interpretations.
So now he’s written a book about the Enlightenment, reviewed by Peter Harrison. It is not a good review.
The Enlightenment may seem an ambitious topic for a cognitive psychologist to take up from scratch. Numerous historians have dedicated entire careers to it, and there remains a considerable diversity of opinion about what it was and what its impact has been. But from this and previous work we get intimations of why Pinker thinks he is the person for the job. Historians have laboured under the misapprehension that the key figures of the Enlightenment were mostly philosophers of one stripe or another. Pinker has made the anachronistic determination that, in fact, they were all really scientists – indeed, “cognitive neuroscientists” and “evolutionary psychologists.”
In short, he thinks that they are people like him and that he is thus possessed of privileged insights into their thought denied to mere historians. The latter must resort to careful reading and fraught interpretation in lieu of being able directly to channel what Enlightenment thinkers really thought.
Uh-oh. This reminds me of that ghastly essay Pinker wrote that made me recoil in horror, it was so bad, so egocentric, so ignorant of the humanities and social sciences, I bet it was the foundation of his new book. The book that gets this summary:
For the sceptical reader the whole strategy of the book looks like this. Take a highly selective, historically contentious and anachronistic view of the Enlightenment. Don’t be too scrupulous in surveying the range of positions held by Enlightenment thinkers – just attribute your own views to them all. Find a great many things that happened after the Enlightenment that you really like. Illustrate these with graphs. Repeat. Attribute all these good things your version of the Enlightenment. Conclude that we should emulate this Enlightenment if we want the trend lines to keep heading in the right direction. If challenged at any point, do not mount a counter-argument that appeals to actual history, but choose one of the following labels for your critic: religious reactionary, delusional romantic, relativist, postmodernist, paid up member of the Foucault fan club.
For their part, historians have found the task of tracing the legacy of the Enlightenment more difficult, not least because even characterising what the Enlightenment was has proven challenging. It is now commonplace to speak of multiple Enlightenments and hence multiple and sometime conflicting legacies. Obviously, moreover, not everything that came after the Enlightenment has been sweetness and, well, light. Edmund Burke and G.W.F. Hegel, for example, drew direct connexions between the French Enlightenment and the reign of terror. In the twentieth century the German-Jewish philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer described what they called “the dialectic of the Enlightenment” – a mixed inheritance that included the technical mastery of nature along with a conspicuous absence of the moral insights that would prevent that mastery being turned to barbarous ends. In their view, this led ultimately to the horrors of Nazism.
That bit about picking things you like and stuffing them into graphs reminds me of someone else: maybe Pinker is actually the hybridized clone of Norman Vincent Peale and Ray Kurzweil.
I think, to be a good honest atheist and scientist, I have to respect the work of philosophers and historians and all those people who have deep domains of expertise that I lack, and recognize that when people who say things I wish were true, yet disrespect and don’t even acknowledge the historical breadth of humanity’s thought, they are probably full of shit. Or at least the living personification of the Alexander Pope poem:
A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
A little humility would help, and you don’t approach the Pierian spring with a sippy straw.