Between Enlightenment and Disaster: Dimensions of the Political Use of Knowledge

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More recently, postmodernists have looked upon the Enlightenment as yet another false grand narrative, in which humanism, science and reason are just more belief systems, no more nor less valid than any others. Pinker rejects all three positions. Far from sanctioning racism or nazism, he says, the Enlightenment laid the philosophical groundwork for universalism, the belief in equal rights for all, which ultimately triumphed over fascism and imperialism. And Marxism, he maintains, was not a legacy of the Enlightenment, but instead a pseudoscience that has more to do with German Romanticism.

We can also expect Marxists to revolt. If moral values are nothing but cultural customs, would you agree that our disapproval of slavery or racial discrimination or the oppression of women is just a western fancy? No doubt Pinker will be admonished for mischaracterising the views of his opponents.

But while there are certainly some polemical flourishes, Enlightenment Now is a careful and deeply researched piece of work. That is more than can be said of the accusations directed at him by some of his critics. In fact, as the New York Times was quick to note , the unedited video showed Pinker was denouncing far-right ideas, and arguing that the left needs to make better arguments against them. It was a vivid example of how easy it can be, in the age of fake news and social media, to tarnish reputations with doctored evidence.

There have been several examples in recent years in which careers, including those of academics, have been brought to an ignominious end after social media campaigns based on disputed testimonies. Does this overheated climate of denunciation make Pinker more inhibited with his opinions? I think I have the reputation and the social capital to withstand distortions like that, but for younger and less established people, they might think twice about saying something that could be taken out of context, doctored, and go viral.

So I do think it has a pernicious effect on the quality of intellectual discourse. Canadian-born, Pinker has done the faculty rounds of MIT, Stanford and Harvard, where he has built a formidable reputation as a multidisciplined thinker. But it is his books that have elevated him to the coveted position of public intellectual. He wrote a series of well-received books about linguistics and psychology before publishing The Blank Slate in , which argued that human behaviour was not simply or even largely a matter of environmental influence but instead shaped mostly by evolutionary adaptations.

The book had its critics, but it became a bestseller. His targets are many and he pulls few punches. Underpinning the belief that humans are destroying the Earth is the assumption that progress is not sustainable. Pinker disagrees, or at least argues that such doomsday conclusions have a long and fallible history. A fundamental tenet of the Enlightenment was that all problems, if studied long and hard enough, could be understood, and therefore at some point solved.

And environmental problems, writes Pinker, are no exception.

He argues that progress is not only sustainable, but essential for attaining the knowledge that will enable us to find the cleanest and most efficient use of energy. In other words, scientific progress is what will make economic progress work. Literature and Nation: Britain and India, Batchelor, Stephen. Berkeley: Parallax, Blake, William.

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Are We Doomed by the Legacy of the Enlightenment?

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