The Enlightenment of Steven Pinker

Peter Harrison:

(As an aside, my own prediction is that future historians, if they haven’t all been replaced by cognitive psychologists, will regard misplaced faith in data, metrics and statistical analysis as the curse of the twenty-first century. Consider, for a start, the “replicability crisis” sweeping the social and medical sciences. And for those in academe, think also of the incessant and increasing demand that we measure and metricize every aspect of intellectual life. It is one of the saving graces of the humanities that it hasn’t fallen for this line, notwithstanding the undoubted insights yielded by some aspects of the digital humanities.)

With these unpromising starting points in mind, we turn to some of the themes of the new book. I say some because this is not intended as a comprehensive book review; not least because the bulk of the book is not really about the historical Enlightenment at all. That said, there is enough material on the Enlightenment to talk about, and it is certainly worth reflecting on one of two of the book’s more contentious characterisations of the period.

An Age of Reason?

We can start with “reason.” Pinker is an advocate of reason. As the subtitle announces, the book presents “the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress.” Pinker frequently refers to the Enlightenment as the “Age of Reason” (a rather old-fashioned label that seems to have been drawn from Will and Ariel Durant’s 1961 Story of Civilization).

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

The most cursory sampling of just some of the key figures of the period helps establish the point. If we go back to the beginning of the scientific revolution – which Pinker routinely conflates with the Enlightenment – we find the seminal figure Francis Bacon observing that “the human intellect left to its own course is not to be trusted.” Following in his wake, leading experimentalists of the seventeenth century explicitly distinguished what they were doing from rational speculation, which they regarded as the primary source of error in the natural sciences.