Public intellectual, Harvard professor and prolific bestseller Steven Pinker makes a thorough, data-backed, optimistic case for the gifts the Enlightenment brought humanity.
In this best-selling New York Times and Economist Book of the Year, Steven Pinker, PhD, argues that for more than 200 years, the Age of Enlightenment drove progress in health, human rights, and efforts to prevent poverty, crime and war. Pinker presents his thesis with vast data, startling graphs and infectious enthusiasm for human progress.
A true public intellectual, Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, and one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World Today and Foreign Policy’s 100 Global Thinkers.
Bill Gates exemplified the praise for Enlightenment Now: “The world is getting better, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. I’m glad we have brilliant thinkers like Steven Pinker to help us see the big picture. [This] is not only the best book Pinker’s ever written. It’s my new favorite book of all time.” Publisher’s Weekly hit the high points when it wrote, “Pinker defends progressive ideals against contemporary critics, pundits, cantankerous philosophers and populist politicians to demonstrate how far humanity has come since the Enlightenment…In an era of increasingly ‘dystopian rhetoric,’ Pinker’s sober, lucid and meticulously researched vision of human progress is heartening and important.”
However, some analysts, such as Aaron R. Hanlon, writing for Vox, assert that Pinker has the Enlightenment wrong. Hanlon wrote, “Enlightenment thinkers themselves, never mind Pinker’s contemporary critics, had very different ideas from Pinker himself about progress.” For example, he quotes Princeton historian David A. Bell, who noted that Jean-Jacques Rousseau – unlike Pinker – “was a fierce critic of most forms of progress.”
Science is not a game of arbitrary rules; it is the application of reason to explain the universe and to check whether its explanations are correct. Steven Pinker
Pinker credits the Enlightenment for moving progress forward, but he presents the foremost Enlightenment principle not as progress, but as the primacy of using reason as an avenue for understanding the world and human life and for rejecting religious dogma and faith. Science, he notes, sprang from the Enlightenment’s devotion to reason as a route to understanding the natural world and human nature. The Enlightenment, Pinker explains, follows a set of primary principles and ideals from which “reason, science, humanism and progress” flowed.
Reason and Science
Humanism depends on reason and science; it concerns ethical life and how people organize into societies. Pinker makes an illuminating point when he writes that humanism grounded its view of ethics in reason, rather than in religion, and that it prioritizes individuals over their community, nation or race. The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution exemplify this concept.
Pinker holds that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution seemed to negate the necessity of divine creation. Evolution explains how improbable creatures such as people came into existence and persist. He details – and when Pinker details, he really details – how religious thinkers assert that only God could design such a complex being. To the extent that Enlightenment thinkers were religious, the author clarifies, some were deists, theists or pantheists. Others were irreligious or even atheists. But, because the Enlightenment devalues religious faith, Pinker clarifies, anyone who insists that faith matters more than reason is resisting Enlightenment thinking.
The thinkers of the Enlightenment were men and women of their era, the 18th century. Some of them were racists, sexists, anti-Semites, slave owners or duelists.Steven Pinker
Evolving, highly complex brains, Pinker posits, changed human destiny. People learned to raise animals and cultivate plants, invented writing, articulated ideas, and transmitted them across space and time. They moved away from archaic, magical belief systems and created religions, philosophies, art and works of literature.
Pinker explains how opposition to the Enlightenment, the counter-Enlightenment movement, appeared in the generation following the Enlightenment. Leading this opposition were Romantics – such as Rousseau, Johann Herder and Friedrich Schelling – who believed rationality and feelings were inseparable.
The Enlightenment focuses on the integrity of individuals. Those who value nations or races more highly than individuals object to the Enlightenment, which embraces science and the pursuit of knowledge. Thinkers who are uneasy with scientific methods of investigation, Pinker reveals, take issue with the Enlightenment.
Pinker dismisses counter-Enlightenment views – whether from the 19th, 20th or even 21st century – as expressions of ignorance. He says rejecting reason is irrational, that science is humanity’s greatest achievement, and that humanism spawned democracy and defeated fascism.
Here Pinker seems dismissive, if not glib. He writes with authority about psychology and science, but he proves less authoritative concerning philosophy, religion and literature. Pinker created a thesis that talk show hosts and book advertisements can condense to a sentence, not unlike Malcolm Gladwell’s renowned hypothesis that developing mastery requires 10,000 hours of practice.
Having staked the entire book on the concept of the Enlightenment as a historical force for positive change, Pinker defends it. Sometimes credibly, sometimes, as here, less so.
Pinker urges you to refute pessimism and to adopt a quantitative mind-set. Don’t just read the front page of the newspaper, he urges; look at the numbers. Examine carefully any accurate information that can restore your faith in progress and help solve humanity’s problems. Pinker may overestimate the capacity of most people to adopt a quantitative mind-set and survey vast amounts of data. But in a global culture, his approach has merit. To back up his point, Pinker provides chapters and chapters – and chapters – of positive trending data on health, wealth, inequality, terrorism, and much else. How much of that data readers will absorb as they soak up his thesis is another question.
Concrete historic information proves the accomplishments of the Enlightenment, as Pinker insists, but with a little too much urgency. The world is more affluent than it was 200 years ago; fewer people live in poverty or constantly encounter murder or even war. People are healthier. But anti-Enlightenment forces are powerful, as represented by the rise of authoritarian populism and former President Donald Trump.
Everyone can see what a gift a cosmopolitan, secular democracy is. Steven Pinker
These forces threaten the Enlightenment’s achievements in medicine, economics, politics, ethics and the pursuit of knowledge. Pinker insists that stable political institutions must constrain these toxic forces.
The principal weakness of Pinker’s opus, other than its density, is his palpable impatience with – and quick dismissal of – many balanced, reasoned critiques of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment spread crucial ideals, but it also produced some of the worst depredations of capitalism and mechanized warfare. Whether Pinker sincerely believes his unambiguous claims, he argues his thesis with vast data and startling graphs. This massive but readable tribute to human progress should inspire anyone who is hopeful about the future.
Steven Pinker’s books include The Better Angels of Our Natures; Rationality; The Sense of Style; The Language Instinct; The Blank State; The Stuff of Thought; and Language, Cognition and Human Nature.