What is Enlightenment? What exactly are we talking about when we use a term that dates back three centuries? Historically, the word “Enlightenment” describes an intellectual movement that took shape in Europe during the 18th century and is broadly associated with the development of human sciences, the critique of authority and the emergence of public opinion. As a historical phenomenon, it was complex and contradictory, combining scientific rationality and mystical beliefs, religious toleration and antisemitism, the celebration of market society and its critique, enlightened despotism and republican ideals. Indeed, the more we know about it in detail, the more difficult it is to agree on a clear-cut definition.
As a cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker is not concerned with the historical intricacies of this intellectual movement (although he is obviously aware of them). His book focuses on the Enlightenment as a philosophical perspective, as a distinctive way of looking at the position of individuals within modern society. Enlightenment Now is a spirited defence of the enduring ideals of this tradition, ideals that the author identifies as reason, humanism and progress. As the compound of these elements, the Enlightenment has been in the past, and continues to be, a highly controversial object. Historians may disagree over the interpretation of some particular author or work; but the battle over the Enlightenment is really a battle over the values of modernity and progress.
In 1784, Immanuel Kant famously answered the question “What is Enlightenment?” by claiming that it was the emergence of mankind from a condition of self-induced immaturity. This definition pointed to a process of collective emancipation to overcome ignorance and subjection, although the exact dynamics of the exercise remained unclear: would all people become enlightened at the same time or only a leading minority? And should the state promote this process or leave it to civil society?
Obviously not everybody agreed with the Enlightenment manifesto: many continued to subscribe to the conservative view that human beings were, by their sinful nature, unable to improve themselves and, therefore, collectively doomed to enslavement, corruption and decline. The violence and disruption that accompanied the French Revolution gave credence to the apocalyptic prophecies of those fearful of progress.
Yet it is especially after the Second World War that the Enlightenment came under attack, as if the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps and nuclear destruction were a direct consequence of the theories of the philosophes. The Enlightenment came to symbolise all that was wrong with the modern condition: in its name, calculating rationality replaced sentiment and emotion; science violated and perverted nature; technology became the instrument of domination and control. As for economic development, rather than providing prosperity and freedom, it turned human beings into slaves of alienated labour and victims of mindless consumerism. Moreover, those values of freedom and equality that were put forward as universal were in fact the expression of a minority culture. They belonged to secularised Western nations, the same nations that had built their prosperity on the exploitation of the rest of the world.
This dispute, initiated in the 1960s by the writers of the Frankfurt School, has never really gone away. In recent years, a variety of factors such as growing concerns about the environment, the impact of the global financial crisis and the resurgence of religious conflict and terrorism have given further ammunition to those who consider the Enlightenment project fatally flawed, and modern civilisation doomed to self-destruction.
Enlightenment Now is written as a reply to the increasingly vocal partisans of what Pinker calls “progressophobia”. Starting from the assumption that “the Enlightenment worked”, the book examines the achievements of modernity over the past three centuries in every area: health, life expectancy, quality of life, education, wealth and access to resources; but also human rights, democracy, equality, peace and safety. The outcome of this 450-page tour de force is that the living conditions and prospects of modern populations, even in the poorer countries, are clearly superior to those of the past: on average, people live longer, are better fed, better educated and more secure than previous generations. Obviously, Pinker does not claim that ours is the best of all possible worlds: his argument is rather that where modernity seems to fail (because of famines, civil wars, epidemics and so on), we are not necessarily in the presence of a declining trend, but of marginal difficulties that can be corrected and improved.
Some countries leave still much to be desired in the field of human rights, but the principles of democracy, humanity and individual freedom have taken solid root in most of the world, putting increasing pressure on the contexts where they are still not respected. The environment is threatened by pollution and demographic growth, but science can offer viable answers to these problems, so that we are not necessarily on the way to ecological suicide. Resources are unequally distributed, and in some contexts inequalities may be increasing; but it is only through the development and redistribution of wealth that poverty can be reduced. Much as we may fear terrorist attacks, our lives are far less exposed to the risks of war and civil violence than those of past generations.
Although Pinker tries very hard to support his claims with scientific evidence, providing a profusion of quantitative data and illustrating his chapters with diagrams and graphs, the subject remains deeply ideological, and his conclusions are bound to be met with denials and scepticism.
In Michael Crichton’s novel Timeline (1999), a deranged entrepreneur plans to create a medieval theme park, transporting tourists to the region of the Dordogne during the Hundred Years War by means of a time machine. It is easy to imagine the outcome of the experiment: those sent to test the tour have just begun to admire the ancient castles and forests when they are attacked by armoured thugs, imprisoned as sorcerers or exposed to the plague; the survivors run for safety back to the present.
At some basic level, modernity is bound to win: few supporters of tradition would be prepared to live without anaesthetics, running water or the internet. The problem, as Pinker readily admits, is that the perceptions we have of our own condition are necessarily partial and distorted. The victims of financial default are not going to welcome the news that, even without their savings, they are still better off than pre-war peasants; students dissatisfied with their career prospects will not respond favourably to the observation that a hundred years ago they might have already died of some minor ailment.
Rather than focusing on the irreducible opposition between pessimism and optimism, it is more instructive to reflect on the complexity and uncertainty of historical prediction. The most persuasive aspect of Enlightenment Now is the author’s insistence on the open character of any historical process. Much as we think we can identify some general trend in current events, neither progress nor decline is ever guaranteed. At any point in time, our choices and actions can modify the outcome. Of all the controversial legacies of the Enlightenment, the belief in the power of individuals to shape their future is undoubtedly the one it is most difficult for its enemies to write off.
Biancamaria Fontana is professor of the history of political thought at the University of Lausanne.
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress
By Steven Pinker
Allen Lane, 576pp, £25.00
Published 27 February 2018
Steven Pinker, Johnstone family professor in the department of psychology at Harvard University, was born in Montreal, studied psychology at McGill University and went on to graduate studies at Harvard. He spent more than two decades at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before returning to Harvard in 2003.
Now one of the world’s leading public intellectuals, Pinker published a number of more specialist books before gaining widespread international attention with The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (1994), How the Mind Works (1997) and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002).
Returning to some of his original interests in The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (2007), Pinker explored everything from euphemisms, irregular verbs and competitive insults to the naming of children in order to illuminate how linguistic quirks reveal our cognitive biases and blind spots. His analysis, he once told Times Higher Education, shed light on “the place of education in a scientifically literate democracy”, namely “to make up for the shortcomings in our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world”.
Even more controversial was the argument of The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes (2011), in which Pinker claims that we have witnessed “what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history” and that, contrary to the impression of those who obsessively follow the news, “we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence”.
Enlightenment Now builds on his understanding of what we have achieved so far to suggest how we can best address the urgent problems of today.