books

Review by Nicholas Maxwell on Philpapers

Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment NOW” is in many ways a terrific book, from which I have learnt much. But it is also deeply flawed. Science and reason are at the heart of the book, but the conceptions that Steven Pinker defends are damagingly irrational. And these defective conceptions of science and reason, as a result of being associated with the Enlightenment Programme for the past two or three centuries, have been responsible, in part, for the genesis of the global problems we now suffer from, and our current inability to deal with them properly. There is not a glimmering of an awareness of any of this in Pinker’s book. This flaw in Enlightenment NOW is serious indeed.

Review by William Davies on The Guardian

How do you write a manifesto for something that is already established? This might sound like a problem that confronts conservatives, but over the past 20 years or so it has become more of a riddle for progressives. One response is provided by the movement known as “new atheism”, which successfully assembled a band of science-loving devotees, but too often seemed to end up in a cul-de-sac of stale machismo and Islamophobia.

More pertinently, the failed 2016 campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Remain demonstrated that, in the eyes of many people, “progress” simply meant more of the same. When people feel trapped and patronised by progress, then any alternative – even regress – will feel like freedom. Informing them that the policies of the past 40 years are still the best available starts to sound hopeless.

Steven Pinker’s answer to this problem is to double down on progress: the policies of the past 300 years are still the best available. Enlightenment Now is a bold, wonderfully expansive and occasionally irate defence of scientific rationality and liberal humanism, of the sort that took root in Europe between the mid-17th and late 18th century. With Donald Trump in the Oval Office, populists on the march across Europe and US campuses at the centre of yet another culture skirmish, the timing of the book requires little explanation.

Review by Aaron R. Hanlon on Vox

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.

(…)

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.

(…)

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.”

Review by Alison Gopnik on The Atlantic

When Truth and Reason Are No Longer Enough

In his new book, Steven Pinker is curiously blind to the power and benefits of small-town values. (…) The weakness of the book is that it doesn’t seriously consider the second part of the conversation—the human values that the young woman from the small town talks about. Our local, particular connections to just one specific family, community, place, or tradition can seem irrational. Why stay in one town instead of chasing better opportunities? Why feel compelled to sacrifice your own well-being to care for your profoundly disabled child or fragile, dying grandparent, when you would never do the same for a stranger? And yet, psychologically and philosophically, those attachments are as central to human life as the individualist, rationalist, universalist values of classic Enlightenment utilitarianism. If the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress is really going to be convincing—if it’s going to amount to more than preaching to the choir—it will have to speak to a wider spectrum of listeners, a more inclusive conception of flourishing, a broader palette of values.

Review by Jessica Ruskin on Los Angeles Review of Books

Pinker’s Pollyannish Philosophy and Its Perfidious Politics

“INTELLECTUALS HATE REASON,” “Progressives hate progress,” “War is peace,” “Freedom is slavery.” No, wait, those last two are from a different book, but it’s easy to get mixed up. Steven Pinker begins his latest — a manifesto inspirationally entitled Enlightenment Now — with a contrast between “the West,” which he says is critical of its own traditions and values, and “the Islamic State,” which “knows exactly what it stands for.” Given the book’s title, one expects Pinker to be celebrating a core Enlightenment ideal: critical skepticism, which demands the questioning of established traditions and values (such as easy oppositions between “the West” and “the bad guys”). But no, in a surprise twist, Pinker apparently wants us over here in “the West” to adopt an Islamic State–level commitment to our “values,” which he then equates with “classical liberalism” [1] (about which more presently). You begin to see, reader, why this review — which I promised to write last spring — took me all summer and much of the fall to finish. Just a few sentences into the book, I am tangled in a knot of Orwellian contradictions.

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