clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Steven Pinker’s new book on the Enlightenment is a huge hit. Too bad it gets the Enlightenment wrong.

Pinker’s hyper-optimism and faith in progress have little to do with the actual views of Enlightenment thinkers. Scholars who point that out aren’t enemies of Western civilization.

steven pinker
Steven Pinker.
David Levenson/Getty Images

Between “fake news,” entrenched partisanship, and the rejection of scientific findings on issues ranging from climate change to gun violence, it appears we’re in the midst of a specific kind of intellectual crisis: There’s a lot of uncertainty now about how we can confidently “know” what we take to be true.

Academics would call this an “epistemic crisis.” And because of this crisis, questions about the Enlightenment and its legacies have moved from academia to mainstream.

At a time when facts seem harder and harder to agree on across ideological divides, our nostalgia for Enlightenment reason and optimism makes perfect sense. After all, the Enlightenment provides a compelling set of answers to how to resolve such a crisis — namely, through the application of reason and the scientific method.

Nevertheless, a rift has emerged among scholars and pundits about how to tell the story of the Enlightenment, and what the Enlightenment means for us today. A key flashpoint is the surprisingly intense conflict between Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive psychologist and author of the widely discussed Enlightenment Now, and scholars in history, English, and philosophy departments — like me — who study the period professionally.

Enlightenment Now uses an impressive array of historical data on life expectancy and other indicators of well-being to argue that, contrary to the popular perception that the world is in bad shape, we’ve actually witnessed remarkable progress since, and because of, the Enlightenment. As a follow-up on his earlier book The Better Angels of Our Nature — which argues that violence has declined dramatically over the long term — Enlightenment Now makes the argument for human progress once again, if anything more assertively.

Enlightenment Now has prompted a lot of criticism, some of it incisive and some merely vitriolic. These critiques have come from generalist critics as well as people who study the Enlightenment for a living. But when asked about the antipathy his book elicits, Pinker lumps all critics together, whether they’re “highbrow pundits” or “cultural critics” or academics who study the Enlightenment in humanities departments. He sees us all as manifestations of C.P. Snow’s “Second Culture” — agenda-driven humanities types opposed to “analytic reasoning.” In Pinker’s words:

Some [of the vitriol] is turf-protective: some highbrow pundits, cultural critics, literary intellectuals, humanities professors, and other members of C.P. Snow’s “Second Culture” resent the incursion of science, data, and quantification into territories traditionally fenced off and claimed by them. And a surprising number are cultural pessimists who despise the Enlightenment ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress. They prefer hermeneutic [textual interpretation] to analytic reasoning (one of the reasons they are sympathetic to religion even if they are atheists), valorize the consumption of elite art (as opposed to the well-being of the mass of humanity) as the highest moral good, and believe that Western civilization is on the verge of collapse and is so decadent and degenerate that anything that rises out of the rubble is bound to be an improvement.

Pinker portrays Enlightenment scholars who criticize Enlightenment Now as “cultural pessimists” averse to “Western civilization,” but this is hyperbolic and mostly wrong.

It turns out that Enlightenment thinkers themselves, never mind Pinker’s contemporary critics, had very different ideas from Pinker himself about progress. David A. Bell, a Princeton historian of Enlightenment France, has observed that “since [Pinker] does not engage in any serious analysis of Enlightenment authors, he avoids having to contend seriously with the awkward fact that by far the most popular of them, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was a fierce critic of most forms of progress.”

Rousseau worried that as civilization progressed according to reason, the cost was moral degradation. Bell notes further that “most Enlightenment thinkers did not oppose reason to religious faith.” Isaac Newton, for example, wrote numerous expositions on Bible passages, and held a monotheistic belief in a supreme creator of the natural world whose laws Newton famously conceptualized.

Whereas Bell questions Pinker’s lack of engagement with both prominent, individual ideas of the Enlightenment and larger trends in Enlightenment thought, another historian of the Enlightenment, David Wootton, points out that it’s not just ideas that characterize the Enlightenment, but also “the social and cultural conditions in which they thrive.” For example, “the Enlightenment … required an international republic of letters that could bypass censorship by smuggling books.”

In other words, crediting ideas, as Pinker does, without attention to historical context of how those ideas were generated risks downplaying the importance of other factors — laws, norms, economic conditions, social movements — that helped bring about the Enlightenment as we know it.

These criticisms of Enlightenment Now are far from hand-waving, counter-Enlightenment lunacy; they’re reasonable points made by knowledgeable professionals about what one needs to prove to give a convincing account of the impact of the Enlightenment.

The mysterious feud between Pinker and people who study the intellectual period he reveres

This fight between Pinker and Enlightenment scholars is puzzling on some levels. After all, why wouldn’t someone like Pinker, who champions the era, get along with a bunch of scholars of the Enlightenment? And why wouldn’t scholars of the Enlightenment be thrilled to have our subject brought so prominently into public view by Pinker’s successful book?

This dispute has many components, but one turns on just how optimistic we should be about the fruits of the Enlightenment. Pinker is right to push back against tendencies to view the Enlightenment purely through a dark prism: as the prime driver and fundamental cause of racism, European barbarity, and colonialism.

The main text of the “dark prism” view of the Enlightenment is Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, first published in 1944 as both men — Germans with Jewish heritage — were forced to reckon with Nazism. It’s not unreasonable that intellectuals in their position would at least grapple with the idea that the Enlightenment project had failed.

Contemporary scholars of the Enlightenment have pulled out strands of this “dark prism” argument, though not necessarily to cast the whole Enlightenment as a failed project. One strand of thought holds that Enlightenment scientific developments — connected as they often were to mastering nature and bolstering imperial power — have enabled the large-scale devastation of the environment with which we’re presently grappling in the Anthropocene age. (Many scholars date the beginning of the Anthropocene to the Enlightenment.)

Another strand holds that the particular path modern racism followed — “scientific” racism and other developments — was made possible by the Enlightenment focus on rationalism and empiricism, as David Theo Goldberg argues in Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning (1993).

It’s true that these arguments throw a wrench in Pinker’s hyper-optimism, but this is not tantamount to a sweeping conclusion that “the Enlightenment is bad” or “the Enlightenment is racist.” That degree of negativity is not the predominant view in the academy. And in any case, it’s not the job of scholars to issue a big thumbs-up or thumbs-down to historical eras.

As a champion of Enlightenment values who sees progress everywhere, Pinker diverges from scholars who take greater interest in an Enlightenment history that explores negative things like racism or environmental decay. That’s obvious. More interesting is his tendency to group people like me, a specialist in the relationship between literature and science during the Enlightenment, together with what he imagines is a sweeping “Second Culture” of anti-Enlightenment, anti-reason, anti-science pessimists.

The real dispute at hand is between Pinker’s hyper-optimism and a more guarded optimism grounded in historical fact, not between Enlightenment rationalists and pessimist intellectuals.

It’s possible to argue that Pinker radically oversimplifies the thinkers he reveres while not being “anti-Enlightenment”

A portrait of Rousseau, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour.
A portrait of Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de La Tour. Rousseau feared the progress of reason might be accompanied by the decline of morals.
Wikimedia Commons

Like Pinker, I’m an epistemological optimist. I believe that increasing our knowledge is a good thing, that knowledge generally leads to progress, and that Enlightenment knowledge has especially led to progress. In fact, as a scholar of the Enlightenment, I’m not sure I’d be able to go about my daily work with a straight face if these weren’t my views. What would be the point of teaching and scholarship if I didn’t believe that producing and disseminating knowledge would make our lives better?

I understand that in some cases, people have turned Enlightenment knowledge into destructive things, including crude scientism and scientific racism, but I reject the notion that the historical Enlightenment and the advancement of knowledge are particularly to blame for slavery, anthropogenic climate change, or disaster capitalism. Indeed, it’s possible to imagine terrible things like chattel slavery and large-scale pollution as products of capitalism, and in turn to understand capitalism as a development that both preceded the Enlightenment and can be viewed as separate from it.

So why are Pinker and Enlightenment scholars like me talking past each other?

Pinker is right about part of it: There are indeed people in my field whose first instinct is to protect our turf from the incursion of quantitative representations of literature, history, and philosophy. But I also think much of this disconnect has to do with Pinker’s particular way of understanding the Enlightenment. As Pinker says in a recent Quillette interview:

I use “the Enlightenment” as a handy rubric for that set of ideals [reason, science, and humanism] (since their most vehement and enduring expression can be found in that era). For all I know, if Voltaire or Leibniz or Kant stepped out of a time machine and commented on today’s political controversies, we’d think they were out to lunch.

This statement tidily exemplifies the disconnect, because this “handy rubric” view of the Enlightenment comes at a cost Pinker doesn’t acknowledge but ought to. On one hand, Pinker’s Enlightenment “rubric” is valuable, both because it renews public discussion of the Enlightenment and because it reaffirms the value of knowledge. On the other, it’s simply not “against Enlightenment values” — nor is it a critique of the Enlightenment itself — to question what is lost when we think of something as variegated and influential as the historical Enlightenment as a “handy rubric” for a generalized set of ideas.

To state offhandedly, as Pinker does, that major Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Leibniz, or Kant might appear “out to lunch” to us today, while at the same time claiming that we’re still basking in the sun of Enlightenment reason, raises serious questions about what Pinker is speaking of when he refers to the Enlightenment. What does it mean to abstract away the inconvenient views of specific historical thinkers for the purpose of tidily packaging “Enlightenment values”?

One thing it means is that we lose sight of one of the richest aspects of the Enlightenment: the vigorous contestation of ideas, which in turn illuminated the very challenges and contradictions that Enlightenment thinkers were so passionate about solving. For example, in the wake of the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755 — which prompted Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau to debate the most sensible response to seemingly senseless natural destruction — the Berlin Academy of Sciences prize essay topic was on the Pinkeresque dictum “everything is good.” Then as now, the question provoked furious disagreement.

On many if not most important issues, there was no unified “Enlightenment view”

Weimar’s Courtyard of the Muses, a tribute to the Enlightenment, depicting German poets Schiller, Wieland, Herder, and Goethe.  The artist is Theobald von Oer.
Weimar’s Courtyard of the Muses, a tribute to the Enlightenment, depicting German poets Schiller, Wieland, Herder, and Goethe. The artist is Theobald von Oer.
Wikimedia Commons

The Enlightenment is rife with such challenges and contradictions. Edmund Burke and Joseph Priestley held very different views on the freedom of religious dissenters. Locke was a great champion of liberty, though he wasn’t interested in extending property rights to Catholics or Native Americans. Jefferson and Rousseau held similarly fraught views on liberty, given that the former was a slave owner who also criticized George III for participation in the slave trade, while the latter wrote much about the concept of slavery to describe the illusory nature of freedom but had little to say about the actual institution of race-based slavery.

To point out these contradictions is hardly to nitpick. In fact, I’d argue it’s further evidence of Enlightenment progress that people have been capable of understanding that while progress is real, it’s not without cost. Such costs include the desperate lives of enslaved people who never had rights, or the wedding of technological advancement and colonialism. But when scholars of the Enlightenment point out such uncomfortable truths, we get branded as anti-Enlightenment “intellectuals” engaged in a “war on science.”

In Pinker’s all-too-abstract Enlightenment, slavery is obviously evil, religion is nonsense, and religious liberty a self-evident good. In the historical Enlightenment, progress was only possible because people were still figuring these things out.

I’m what Pinker would dismissively call an “intellectual,” a knowledge worker employed in an English department, trained in the literature, history, and philosophy of the Enlightenment, and prone to pointing out the occasional error in Pinker’s understanding of the historical Enlightenment. Pinker and his supporters have mischaracterized Enlightenment scholars who critique Enlightenment Now as enemies of “Enlightenment values.”

But this accusation rests on the confusion of error correction — explaining the Enlightenment better — with a counter-Enlightenment position. As Clifford Siskin, director of the Re:Enlightenment Project, an Enlightenment-inspired consortium focused on rethinking how knowledge works in the world, noted at a recent meeting of the Re:Enlightenment group at Stanford University last month, error correction has been a fundamental feature of knowledge production since, yes, the historical Enlightenment.

By dismissing “intellectuals” as merely interested in protecting our turf and attacking the Enlightenment, Pinker and his less astute allies avoid engaging with the kind of error correction that builds and refines knowledge. Pinker is unfortunately caught up in a larger culture war in which self-styled “rationalists” hew to an identity politics of “rationalism” to counter what they view as pernicious “postmodernism” in English, history, and philosophy departments.

But this is painting with too wide a brush. I’m certainly not a “postmodernist,” and I’ve never met a colleague who identified as one. Yes, we teach postmodernism as part of intellectual history, but this is far from an agenda.

Painting with a wide brush creates a prejudice against even “intellectuals” inclined to agree with much of what he says. What Pinker seems not to understand is that by dismissing the “intellectual” Enlightenment scholars who point out errors or trade-offs in his conception of the Enlightenment, he’s limiting our collective knowledge of the historical Enlightenment. I can’t imagine anything more anti-Enlightenment than limiting knowledge production based on disciplinary prejudices. (This goes for people on my side of the disciplinary divide as well.)

Pinker is right that we still have “two cultures.” He’s wrong about which one is dominant today.

We can understand this prejudice against “intellectuals” more clearly by examining Pinker’s tendency to invoke the mid-20th-century dispute between physicist and novelist C.P. Snow and literary critic F.R. Leavis, a dispute between “scientific” and “literary” cultures.

As Pinker sees it, today’s “intellectuals” are like Leavis, whose haughty, vitriolic response to Snow all but vindicated Snow’s argument that the separation of scientific and literary cultures was standing the way of furthering knowledge, and that the prejudices of people like Leavis were fueling that separation. As Leavis wrote in an attempt to belittle Snow’s novelistic endeavors, “as a novelist he doesn’t exist; he doesn’t begin to exist. He can’t be said to know what a novel is.”

But the Leavis-Snow dispute has a very particular history, and understanding its context is important if we wish to understand today’s very different dispute. After all, when Snow was lamenting “the two cultures,” it was the scientists who were considered the second-rate minds, or the frivolous tinkerers, at Oxford and Cambridge. The scientists then were the ones treated with indifference and contempt, while the study of literature and classics commanded the most prestige and respect.

Today, the context is flipped. Pinker’s “intellectuals” are hardly the intellectual gatekeepers of the 1950s, while STEM departments hold greater influence not just within the university but in the media as well. For this reason, it doesn’t make sense to champion the value of knowledge while feeding public disdain of knowledge workers in English, history, and philosophy departments, none of which are monolithic blocs of “postmodernist” enemies of the Enlightenment Pinker imagines them to be.

If we’re truly operating in the spirit of C.P. Snow, the objective is to advance knowledge together, regardless of departmental or methodological affiliation. And portraying people who want to get the Enlightenment right as emotion-driven, agenda-driven “intellectuals” does nothing to further knowledge. In the broader universe of knowledge production today, at this moment, it’s scientists like Pinker who hold most of the cards.

It falls now to Pinker and like-minded champions of knowledge to decide, as they currently occupy the Leavis position in the disciplinary hierarchy, whether they want to be Leavises — vitriolic critics punching down — or Snows, arguing for the collaborative pursuit of knowledge across disciplinary divides.

Aaron R. Hanlon is an assistant professor of English at Colby College specializing in the literature and culture of Enlightenment Britain, and a visiting scholar in history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge in 2018 to 2019. His first book, The Logic of Quixotism, is forthcoming from University of Virginia Press. Find him on Twitter @AaronRHanlon.

The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.