The False Consolation of Pinker’s Enlightenment Now

Australian Bushfire, 2019

Nathan J. Robinson’s essay “The World’s Most Annoying Man” ought to be the last word on Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. It comes after many other articles have thoroughly discredited key aspects of Pinker’s book, on topics such as poverty, neoliberalism, environmental issues, war and existential threats. What Robinson does is show how Pinker’s politics, often presented as moderate, centrist and liberal, amounts to so much reactionary nonsense. In drawing attention to the contrast between image and reality, Robinson writes:

Pinker is supposedly “such a nice guy,” a person who is restrained and moderate and reasonable, who laments that politics has gotten so vicious and tribal. And yet in his books, you find him comparing environmentalists to Nazis and campus anti-bigotry initiatives to Stalin’s purges. Those he disagrees with are “quasi-religious,” “authoritarian,” they push “emotionally charged but morally irrelevant red herrings.”…

The fact that Pinker can engage in hysterical denunciations of anyone he disagrees with, and still be championed by the press as a paragon of reason, raises the question of the ideological function of “reason”. Robinson touches on this, pointing out how invoking the notions of “reason” and “logic” can make one seem reasonable and logical. Pinker’s book goes well beyond that particular carnival trick though. He presents himself as a modern-day representative of the Enlightenment, and by doing so he is able to tap into a deep-seated narcissism at the heart of the Western intellectual tradition. This narcissism, I will argue, is fundamental to the success of Pinker’s book as an ideological defence of modernity. More so than his dubious empirical claims, it is his argument that our salvation lies in the exercise of our subjective traits, such as reason, that helps to assuage our anxiety in the face of overwhelming challenges.

Consolation and the Rational Subject

Positive reviews of Enlighenment Now often carry titles like “Why life is getting better” and “The case for optimism”. These kinds of sentiments point to the consoling role that the book plays for its readers. Pinker himself draws attention to this role by recounting how the book’s thesis came to him while responding to the question: “why should I live?” (p. 3) This is the kind of question which invites consolation; Pinker speculates that it may have been prompted by a loss of religious faith. One can imagine many other types of loss, besides personal ones, which may have prompted the question. Even for those of us who live in affluent societies not beset by wars or civil strife, we live in a time of profound loss. Loss of our natural environment to over-development and climate destabilisation. Loss of the middle class as inequality becomes more extreme. Loss of public services and public spaces which served previous generations so well. Loss of civic organisations that provided a sense of community, including religious groups and labour unions. Pinker acknowledges much of this in his book, even as he strives to downplay the urgency and magnitude of the losses involved. It forms the historical background against which he offers us his consoling vision of modernity.

Pinker’s response to the question “why should I live?” seeks to calm our anxiety in the face of loss by drawing on the legacy of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment as an idea has a great deal of cultural cachet in the imagination of the reading public, and Pinker takes advantage of this to dress up what are rather simplistic and ahistorical ideas regarding what it means to be human. First, Pinker tells us, we are capable of reason. Second, we have a sense of sympathy. Taken together, they constitute the foundations for human progress in science, technology and ethics (pp. 3–4).

The power of this consoling vision, as simplistic as it is, lies in the belief that the solution to any existing or future crisis is to be found within the rational subject itself, through the exercise of its faculties of reason and sympathy. This is the narcissism I referred to above. It is so deeply embedded in our intellectual culture that even those who criticise other aspects of Pinker’s book tend to agree with this premise. So when Pinker says he believes his account of the rational subject is obvious (p. 4), he is right insofar as it forms the dominant ideology of our age. When he then tells us that he came to realise it was not obvious to many people (he has in mind Marxists, feminists and the like), I take him to be conceding its ideological character. Both Pinker and his readers tacitly understand that he is pushing an ideological position. That is why he can get away with absurd caricatures of his opponents’ views and pass off petty insults as arguments. It’s all part of the emotionally and rhetorically charged nature of ideological contests.

The problem with the picture of the human subject Pinker offers us is that it’s not objective, in the sense that it ignores the objective reality and limitations of what it is to be a subject. This leads to an interesting tension in Enlightenment Now. One of the issues Pinker has to resolve is that the Enlightenment principles he wishes to champion were formulated before many scientific advances in areas such as evolution, biology and psychology. An abstract notion of reason, therefore, has to be reconciled with what we now know about the brain and human cognition. Pinker misleadingly frames the issue in terms of whether the Enlightenment philosophers believed that humans are “perfectly rational agents” (pp. 8, 353). Since, of course, they didn’t, Pinker sees no problem in reconciling their idealism with the more complicated account of cognition offered by modern science. But the real question is whether a notion of reason which is compatible with the thoroughgoing materialism of modern science is sufficient to cash out the claims that Pinker makes for it.

In the end, the account of reason Pinker develops in part three is simply not consistent with his claim that the “deliberate application of reason” is sufficient to overcome the “common habits of thought [which] are not particularly reasonable.’’ (p. 9) Confronted with the fact that the evolution of the human brain has saddled it with a host of “cognitive impairments” and biases, Pinker is forced to appeal to a social or communicative notion of reason, one which depends on “rules”, “norms” and “institutions” to regulate a pattern of cognition and discourse that might plausibly pass as rational (p. 353). The conclusion one ought to draw from this is that it makes no sense to talk about the “deliberate application of reason” as if it were simply a matter of willing oneself to adopt a certain way of thinking. Given Pinker’s own account, reason is defined by existing social structures, which in turn are objectively conditioned by material, cultural and historical circumstances. Reason cannot be the product of a subjective will alone (whether that subject is conceived of as an individual or a collective).

A similar point holds for sympathy. There is a great deal of research to indicate that our capacity for forming attachments is heavily contingent on our personal and social histories, such as the relationships we have with our primary caregivers and other factors during our developmental years (see Winnicott, Bowlby, Ainsworth). It is simply wrong to think, as Pinker does, that one’s “circle of sympathy” can be expanded through reason alone to include ever more people (p. 11).

Against Pinker, we have to recognise that reason and sympathy are particularly vulnerable to the effects of trauma and social suffering. Pinker’s recasting of our current crises in idealistic terms, as problems to be solved by applying reason more deliberately and sympathising more with others, fails to address the traumatic reality of a crisis which exceeds our capacity to do so. One way to conceive of the cultural narcissism that lies at the heart of Pinker’s ideological position is that it results from an inability to address the traumatic aspects of our history, to acknowledge our vulnerability as subjects to be shaped by suffering and loss. This is not an intellectual “mistake” that can be rectified merely by adopting a different philosophical understanding of the subject; again, that would be to narcissistically overestimate the power of rational thought. There is a sense in which we need the consolation that this self-understanding provides, because the social and cultural conditions of the present make dealing with traumatic loss unbearable.

Another Enlightenment

Pinker’s reading of the Enlightenment is dictated by his ideological commitment to the status quo. Another interpretation, one which inspired my critique of Pinker, can be found in Jeffrey M. Jackson’s book Philosophy and Working-through the Past. Building on Freud’s cultural theory and critique of philosophy, Jackson reads modern philosophy as for the most part engaged in a kind of “animism”, i.e. “an overemphasis of the power of thoughts, wishes and words… an overestimation of the power of reflection in relation to concretely suffered, material life in its illusion that some form of subjective activity is sufficient to attain the amelioration of troubled culture” (pp. 107–8).

According to Jackson, the animism of modern philosophy is part of a wider phenomenon in modernity which he calls “manic-depressive culture”: a culturally enforced inability to mourn the past and work-through the socially imposed traumas that come from living in mass societies; a state of mass-produced psychological dissociation, punctuated by socially sanctioned forms of manic release through empty consumer fetishes, choreographed political outrage and episodes of moral panic (pp. 39–43, 159–168). In this context, contemporary philosophy functions as a kind of melancholic defence against the trauma of social life, displacing the concrete nature of the suffering involved onto an idealised realm (pp. 109–10). Pinker’s book can be thought of as a special case of this: graphs and statistics are used to abstract from the traumatic suffering being discussed (environmental destruction, wars, racism, etc.) and to sell us on solutions based on idealised philosophical assumptions that leave the status quo intact.

Despite his critical treatment of modern philosophy, Jackson finds in it thinkers and philosophical episodes which are nonetheless sensitive to the objective conditions of thought. An important example is Immanuel Kant, whose political and historical writings demonstrate an awareness of the social changes needed for enlightened progress, despite his teleological view of history and his overall idealism. Both Pinker and Jackson quote from Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” But whereas Pinker emphasises the motto “Dare to understand!” as if enlightenment was simply a matter of personal resolution or courage (p. 7), Jackson highlights Kant’s discussion of the social and affective conditions which reproduce political immaturity (“religious guardianship”) and the work needed to overcome it (pp. 53–55). This allows Jackson to draw a link between Kant and Marx, something Pinker would instinctively reject. Marx also sought to understand the relationship between guardianship and modernity, suggesting that a religious aspect persisted under capitalism through the “fetishistic” character of the commodity. As Jackson explains this idea:

In capitalism, sociality is predominantly mediated by commodity exchange, which governs concrete relationships between human beings; like religion for our ancestors, commodity exchange permeates even our most intimate social activities — our relationships, our health, our exposure to stress and trauma, and our abilities to experience as such. On this reading of fetishism, then, religion is not simply a form of mass superstition or delusion… Rather, religious fetishism refers to the obligatory form of sociality which establishes value…. Without that social value, which brings with it approval, cooperation, love, rights, health, opportunity, etcetera, life may be impossible (p. 56).

The coercive nature of this sociality, together with the violence analysed by Marx under the related concepts of “estranged labour” and “primitive accumulation”, are ignored by Pinker as well as the mass media in general. Indeed, the mildest criticism of capitalist social relations is enough to generate mass anxiety, which is then ruthlessly exploited by the press to ensure ideological conformity. (See for example the recent UK general election.) Pinker, for his part, thinks it’s enough to defend capitalism by asking us to imagine the difference between North Korea and South Korea, East Germany and West Germany, etc. as if the only choice were a binary one (p. 90). And indeed, from a certain perspective, it does appear as a binary choice. Just as in the case of a medieval peasant, who could only imagine life within the Church or a life of eternal damnation; so too for a subject whose existence is organised around commodity fetishism, the alternative might seem a life not worth living. But this perspective is the result of a socially reproduced melancholic fixation, in the face of which any contemplation of alternative forms of life is blocked by the anxiety it generates.

Jackson’s point in relating Marx’s critique of capitalism to the Kantian process of enlightenment is to highlight a thread running through Western thought which seeks to account for the objective conditions of what Jackson calls “mournful forms of sociality”, i.e. “forms of sociality that would seek to minimise the anxiety produced by contemporary forms of social life, and facilitate our abilities to bear our more or less traumatic anxiety.” (p. 61) This is to not be achieved primarily through reason, but rather by a process of what Freud called “working-through” loss; e.g. bearing the anxiety of making a break with commodity fetishism in order to differently organise our social relations and so make new modes of contemplation possible.

Pinker’s book, by contrast, frequently lapses into manic defences of the status quo (see Robinson’s essay), and otherwise offers only a melancholic form of consolation: one which relies on our social dissociation from traumatic loss, and the cultural belief in the power of rational thought to transcend our own histories. If we as a species are to overcome our chronic melancholy, heading as we are towards an uncertain future, we need to develop new forms of sociality which protect us from, rather than exploit, our vulnerability to trauma and loss; thereby providing us with the opportunity to work through our suffered social histories both individually and as a community. Pinker’s book is an obstacle rather than an aid in that endeavour.