Steven Pinker’s Book on the Enlightenment

This is one of those rare occasions when we totally agree with something and want to bring it to your attention. We found this in the U.S. edition of London’s Guardian. Their headline is ‘Reason is non-negotiable’: Steven Pinker on the Enlightenment.

It appears to be from a book by Steven Pinker, described by Wikipedia as: “a Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author. He is Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind.” Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us for emphasis:

What is enlightenment? In a 1784 essay with that question as its title, Immanuel Kant answered that it consists of “humankind’s emergence from its self-incurred immaturity”, its “lazy and cowardly” submission to the “dogmas and formulas” of religious or political authority. Enlightenment’s motto, he proclaimed, is: “Dare to understand!” and its foundational demand is freedom of thought and speech.

This is good, but it’s long, so we have to skip a lot. Pinker says:

Provoked by challenges to conventional wisdom from science and exploration, mindful of the bloodshed of recent wars of religion, and abetted by the easy movement of ideas and people, the thinkers of the Enlightenment sought a new understanding of the human condition. The era was a cornucopia of ideas, some of them contradictory, but four themes tie them together: reason, science, humanism and progress.

Sounds like the theme of your Curmudgeon’s blog. We’ll quote what he says about reason and science, leaving you to read the rest for yourself. He tells us:

If there’s anything the Enlightenment thinkers had in common, it was an insistence that we energetically apply the standard of reason to understanding our world, and not fall back on generators of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts.

Great, huh? He continues:

That leads to the second ideal, science, the refining of reason to understand the world. That includes an understanding of ourselves. The Scientific Revolution was revolutionary in a way that is hard to appreciate today, now that its discoveries have become second nature to most of us.

He also talks about free enterprise:

The Enlightenment also saw the first rational analysis of prosperity. Its starting point was not how wealth is distributed but the prior question of how wealth comes to exist in the first place. Specialisation works only in a market that allows the specialists to exchange their goods and services and [Adam] Smith explained that economic activity was a form of mutually beneficial cooperation (a positive-sum game, in today’s lingo): each gets back something that is more valuable to him than what he gives up. Through voluntary exchange, people benefit others by benefiting themselves; as he wrote: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love.” Smith was not saying that people are ruthlessly selfish, or that they ought to be; he was one of history’s keenest commentators on human sympathy. He only said that in a market, whatever tendency people have to care for their families and themselves can work to the good of all.

That’s enough. Now go ahead and read it all for yourself. Oh, here’s Pinker’s book at Amazon: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. There are no reviews yet, but Amazon does give us this: “My new favorite book of all time.” –Bill Gates.

You gotta admit, dear reader, this is a welcome change from posting about ol’ Hambo and the Discoveroids.

Copyright © 2018. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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6 responses to “Steven Pinker’s Book on the Enlightenment

  1. “Its starting point was not how wealth is distributed”
    This analysis started long before the Enlightenment. So either the Enlightenment didn’t see the first rational analysis of prosperity or Pinker thinks distribution of wealth is irrational.

    Worse, it isn’t rational either to assume there was only one Scientific Revolution. In the western world (and why exclude China and India?) in the broadest meaning of the term, so that it includes the Middle East as well, there have been four.

    1. The Greeks systematically developed deduction.
    2. The Babylonians systematically developed induction.
    3. Tycho Brahe and after him Simon Stevin and Galileo Galilei applied the idea that induction, ie the systematical collecting of empirical data, can decide between two conflicting hypotheses.

    All this was done well before Kant was born.

    4. The scientific revolution of the Enlightenment was actually the least spectacular and can be summarized with Laplace’ probably apocryphal “Je n’ai besoin de cette hypothese”. Of course it’s still important, because it resulted in methodological naturalism. It’s especially important for this blog, because creacrappers typically gag from this idea.

  2. “in a market, whatever tendency people have to care for their families and themselves can work to the good of all.”
    Can. And quite often doesn’t. Both in Stockholm and Amsterdam creating a cab market worked against the good of all – worse service for higher prices.
    It’s quite irrational to neglect such empirical data.
    Of course it’s even more funny that our dear SC, who pretends to be a free market advocate, last few decades systemetically has voted for presidency candidates who obstruct free markets by creating tax and labour walls at the national borders. Also of course the European Union does exactly the same.

  3. More like this SC. More like this.

  4. Ceteris Paribus

    There is room to be wary of Steven Pinker’s “New Enlightenment”. Consider that when Isaac Newton was not busy doing other things, he spent quite a bit of time seeking out and hanging counterfeiters who were debasing the value of the genuine “coin of the realm”. Without Newton’s intervention, the wheels of commerce would have eventually come off.

    It happens that in our own time the US Treasury now relies on printing fake money to keep pushing “the economy” into the chain of commerce. It can’t go on forever, and the end point is out there somewhere.

    I don’t pretend to understand just how it is that a “New Enlightenment” is the cure for what ails the economy. All I know for sure is that now we don’t even bother to print paper money, when all that matters to Wall Street is that they have electricity for pixels on computer screens.

  5. Ceteris Paribus, in a sense all money is fake: not actual value, but symbols of value.

    All that’s required is some sort of easily-transferred marker to stand for the value of goods and services so that people can exchange markers instead of the actual things or actions, which are often bulky, heavy, perishable, ephemeral, or prohibitively inconvenient, such as trading snowplowing in winter for soybean harvesting in fall. Whatever their physical or digital nature, such markers are “real” as long as everyone accepts the conventions of their use. Pixel or paper is as good as wampum, laminated nickel and copper, or gold. Any of them work as long as nobody cheats by trying to pass counterfeit currency, forged checks, or hacked zeroes and ones in an electronic account. Those things really do deserve the name “fake money.”

  6. Any medium of exchange works fine as long as nobody SUCCEEDS at passing counterfeits. Gold is a popular currency because it’s hard to completely fake, but even it can be adulterated or simply used as a coating over, say, lead.