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Steven Pinker on The Enlightenment

I have made no secret here of my admiration for Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

I was especially struck by the pages where he describes The Enlightenment, and I have taken the liberty of scanning these pages into my personal blog. If anyone connected with the book objects, my posting will be removed, so if a brief exposition of what The Enlightenment was and how the ideas behind it all fitted together appeals, go there, soon, and read on.

Two questions naturally arise from Pinker’s summary. First, is it an accurate description? Or does Pinker impose a coherence upon Enlightenment thinking that it never quite possessed for real? (My guesses: yes, and no.) Second, if I am right that Pinker does describe the unified scientific and moral agenda of The Enlightenment accurately, then how true are these ideas? Were errors made, as well as truths declared? Did these errors do harm? (Did any of the truths do harm?)

I could go on, but prefer not to. Suffice it to say here that it’s there if you want it, for the time being anyway.

15 comments to Steven Pinker on The Enlightenment

  • Bruce Hoult

    A shorter and more readable version of “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology” 😛

    You don’t hear the name much these days, but “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” covers the same ground of epistemology and metaphysics, leading to morality, in a very readable way. However it doesn’t then follow on into politics as Rand does.

  • veryretired

    I will be obtaining this book to read the entire discussion.

    However, let me again point out, if the author cited here does not, that these ideas are revolutionary in a way no other so-called revolutionary credos can be—they find the alpha and the omega in the dignity and humanity of the individual,and reject the age old repositories of value and justification, such as tribe, class, religious faith, etc.

    We are now engaged in another phase of the conflict that has continued, unrelenting, since the collectivist mentality realized the utterly deadly nature of such a formulation to all it held dear.

    A major motivation for the demonization of western culture, and the deliberate failure to teach any of its intellectual/cultural history or principles, is the desperate need to undercut the individual, and exhalt the alleged superiority of tribal identities.

    Acting as an independent, responsible, autonomous rational entity is a tremendously challenging and difficult task, demanding all of the best qualities that any person can muster, and the maturity to control those faults that might subvert such an undertaking.

    The expectation that people will suddenly embrace such a complex and arduous task, and reject the more comfortable path in which so many of these trying decisions are made by others, and most beliefs can be accepted on faith, is naive at best.

    When one is given a treasure, there are always thieves willing to break in and steal…

  • RRS

    Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games.”


    Is very close to the following:

    “Morals are formed by the commonalities of obligations recognized, accepted and performed in the interactions of humans with one another and their surroundings within any social grouping. Ethics are defined by the means selected for the performance or avoidance of those obligations.”

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Q. How many atheists does it take to change a light bulb?

    A. None! They don’t believe in enlightenment!

  • JohnB

    Christianity, as in that which Jesus came for in the first place, is actually about the individual, not the collective.

    Individual freedom and responsibility before God.

    Morally, you are on your own.

    I know it all got politicised very quickly. And so it always does, it seems.

    Our ability to see beyond that which we perceive as our limitations is always at risk.

    And when we do the temptation not to see the spiritual, as different from that which is simply there but more or less unseen, also seems to lead away from the truth.

  • Tedd


    You’re probably aware of this, but those ideas were expanded into a more general moral philosophy in Pirsig’s follow-on book, “Lila.” Much of “Lila” is a discussion of Pirsig’s view that we’re living in an era when “intellectual patterns of value” are superseding “social patterns of value.” (I.e., it becomes viewed as better for an idea to destroy society than for society to destroy an idea.) This era began with the enlightenment and, for me, maps very closely to the conflict between individualists and collectivists.

    To survive the onslaught of individuality and intellectualism, advocates of society-over-intellect (collectivists) have invaded the social manifestations of intellect: universities and institutions dedicated to communication. In the short term, this has been a very successful strategy. But, if Pirsig is right, intellect must eventually supersede society, just as society supersedes biology and biology supersedes mere matter and energy.

  • Russ in Texas

    Serious question here:

    Which enlightenment is he covering? The US and European Enlightenments are TOTALLY different creatures.

  • A critique by Nassim Taleb:
    It doesn’t really address the warm fuzzy feelings you get out of Pinker, but rather that he is not actually describing reality correctly, from a statistical standpoint. The warm fuzzy feelings will likely go away once you realize Pinker is fundamentally pro-government.

  • Re Taleb, I still haven’t even got half way through Pinker, but I get the impression that is very much a pre-“2008” book. I expect to read some afterthoughts about “2008”, though.

    If the level of violence does not go up very significantly in the next few years, i.e. if the financial turbulence doesn’t trump the trend Pinker sees, then Pinker would be strongly vindicated, I think.

    To put it colloquially, we are overdue a world war, and the financial stuff only underlines that.

    Re Taleb’s observation on atom bombs being unsafe, despite there having been so few atomic explosions in anger, I recall how Concorde went from being the safest airplane to the unsafest airplane, with one crash.

    Pinker does talk, early on, about clustering effects, re the two world wars and how that is an effect of randomness.

    My one big disagreement with Pinker so far is his answer to the question: Is this (i.e. now) a nuclear peace? He just says no, but then goes on to explain that indeed it is, partly. I think his error is in him temporarily (he doesn’t usually do this) expecting a single cause. Causes don’t work like that, as the rest of his book illustrates.

    The basic defence of Pinker against Taleb is that Pinker says again and again that trends don’t automatically continue. His book is basically a work of history, not of prophecy. Comments, such as have already appeared here, to the effect that “I hope Pinker is right” somewhat miss the mark, for this reason. Whether Pinker is right or wrong is not a time-will-tell thing. Time already has told, and he either gets it right or wrong. And as he keeps on saying, the next lot of time may indeed tell differently.

    I agree that he is “pro-government”. My response to that will involve disentangling different meanings of the word. I am pro-government, but against it being compulsorily financed, is the short version.

  • Incidentally, I think Taleb is wrong to say that “if Pinker had anything to say back to this he would have said it”. This sort of claim deserves a special place in the list of Famous Fallacies. I have not read Pinker’s response to Taleb, but there are any number of reasons not to bother to explain to every passing critic why you think their criticisms are wrong. Can’t be bothered being just one of many.

    Which is why cranking up criticism to the point where the criticised person or people feel that they have to respond, or risk public ridicule or opprobrium, is such an art, and often such a labour.

    I recall being told by Holocaust deniers that because their arguments were never answered by regular Holocaust historians, there were no good answers. It just does not follow.

  • I read somewhere (Richard Dawkins?) that later editions of Darwin’s Origin of Species are a much poorer read to modern readers than the first edition, because in them Darwin replies at tedious length to all sorts of now-forgotten critics.

    Which is no to claim that Taleb’s criticisms have no weight – I confess I have read neither him nor Pinker, and in true 21st century style, only know what they say at second hand.

  • But I do know quite a lot second hand. including what the excerpt you quoted says.

    Pinker’s argument about the evolution of systems of morality,

    It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games.

    reminded me in a paradoxical way of David Friedman’s work, A Positive Account of Property Rights (My thanks to whichever recent Samizdata commenter, possibly Snorri Godhi, who alerted me to the existence of this essay recently.) The paradox arises because Friedman explicitly set out to describe how the evolution of a system of agreed property rights (and by extension a peaceful human society) could arise without considering morality at all. Not, as I need not tell this audience, that Friedman is indifferent to morality, far from it, but, unlike Pinker, he’s saying you could have got a lot of the niceness and the peacefulness arising even between very un-nice and un-peaceful people.

    Yet Friedman’s essay has a similar flavour to the excerpt from Pinker you quote, despite the difference. Both are deeply concerned with the “interchangeability of perspectives.”

  • RRS


    it is always fascinating to follow your stream of thought. Your comment about the Concorde, is something of an encapsulation of a viewpoint of life.

    While the Concorde was vulnerable, it was not unsafe, the runway was unsafe.

    So much of the disasters we encounter in life are not from what we do or fail to do, but the damn stuff we run into.

  • Alisa

    Indeed, RRS…

  • Okes

    I belive that you and Pinker both cut away the strands of post-enlightenment thought that would be currently seen as… problematic.


    – What followed the first grand triumph of enlightenment was… the Terror. Was this a coincidence?

    – The pinnacle of rationalist humanism enthusiastically embraced by the vanguard of enlightenment was… Communism. No comment necessary.

    – The enlightenment paved the way for the post-enlightenment, I.e. Hitler et al.

    The core issue is that the actual moral foundation offered up by enlightenment thought is weak stuff.

    You write regarding the foundation for enlightenment morality:

    “You and I ought to reach this moral understanding not just so we can have a logically consistent conversation but because mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests.

    You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children when they get into trouble, and refrain from knifing each other than we would be if we hoarded our surpluses while they rotted, let each other’s children drown, and feuded incessantly.

    Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. ”

    In short, the moral foundation of enlightenment is an appeal to self interest.

    That´s not exactly strong stuff to build a moral system on, especially if you compare it to the moral system from which enlightenment thought has copied its core ‘values’.