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Friday, 9 March 2018

Book review: Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker (2018)

What wants to be a manifesto for reason in an age of burgeoning ignorance turns out to be a deeply flawed book evincing few signs that the author is aware of the forces that have combined to form his own view of the world. Pinker starts his little treatise regretting the rise of Donald Trump without furthermore displaying any evidence that he understands the forces that brought that particular demagogue to power. The book is also tiresome and goes too fast, especially where the author deals with difficult scientific concepts, and from its outset it fails to convince. I read about five percent of the book before giving up.

Merely the word “reason” that Pinker sets such store in is a complicated construct, and there is no evidence that people who used it in the 18th century (the chosen locus for the majority of his heroes in the Enlightenment) had the same set of ideas in mind when using it as we do now. The book, which is optimistically subtitled ‘The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress’, is teleologically problematic for this very reason. It’s a shambles in fact. And positing Deism as a system of belief of all his favourite thinkers is equally suspect. Beginning the book, as he does, with Trump and the Republican Party, he feels obliged to denounce God as a legitimate motivating factor for the thinking of the people whose ideas he values, so he ascribes to them a belief system more in league with his own values. But in fact, thinkers such as Newton were devout Christians and no amount of wishful thinking by Pinker and his ilk will alter the facts.

Pinker’s attempt to rewrite history is not sustainable even given the most cursory view of history. Abolishing the slave trade, for example, which took root in the polity in England in last decades of the 18th century, was initially a policy of the Quakers, devout Christians who believed, as the good book told them, that every man and woman was equal in the eyes of the Lord, rather than people associated with the new sciences or philosophies that were emerging at the time, although such people might for ideological reasons have gotten on the bandwagon later. The policy failed in Parliament in the 1790s due to the war against Napoleon but succeeded in getting passed into law after the peace was settled in the new century. Slavery in the colonies in the Caribbean would not be abolished until some decades later.

In any case, the Enlightenment project started a long time before the 18th century, even before the 17th century, which Pinker sees fit to label the Age of Science. The project started in the Middle Ages with Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374), who rediscovered elements of Roman literature for the benefit of the northern Italian elites, and wrote poetry in Italian, instead of in Latin, paving the way for vernacular literatures to flourish later, when moveable type was invented, which happened around 1440. He is known in English as Petrarch, and he got the idea for writing in Italian when he was living with the breakaway papal court in Avignon, in Vaucluse in the southeast of France, and heard the local troubadours singing their songs of love in the local French dialect.

The first major work that was published using the new technology of printing was the ‘Complutensian Bible’, a project of Isabella I of Castile, that came out in 1520. The book was the first new translation into Spanish of the Bible from the original languages (ancient Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic) and was not sanctioned by the Pope’s bureaucracy. It was however a vanity project for a very ambitious woman. The publication inspired Humanist scholars in northern Europe to seek original translations of the Bible into various vernaculars, sparking a publishing frenzy that, along with the rediscovery of many forgotten classical writers, formed the Renaissance.

This period of time threw up an astonishing range of books, even though, even as late as the late 18th century, the most popular books coming off the presses were religious texts, books of sermons and guides to living a godly life, for example. What is certain however is that everything comes from the arts. In the Renaissance when the primary tool used to combat superstition and ignorance was the book, it was the words that people used on the page that helped to enlighten whole communities, often in ways however that were intimately linked with the person and teachings of Christ. The process of nominalisation, where longer phrases and clauses are refined down to individual words, that could then be qualified and deployed in grammatically-correct sentences, was the mechanism for this forward movement of ideas, through the physicality of the printed page. New communities of like minds emerged in the wake of these inventions and Pinker is a child of this same intergenerational process.

It is worth looking at some of the more notable highlights of the combined processes of nominalisation and publication. In 1580 the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne published his ‘Essais’, in which he turned away from God to look inward, at the individual self, describing his feelings in a way that had never been done before. And in 1620, English statesman Francis Bacon published the ‘Novum Organum’, which was the original scientific manifesto, asking researchers to use deductive logic based on experiments conducted in the natural world to arrive at conclusions. Again turning away from God, this time outward, it launched the renewal of learning in what Pinker calls the Age of Science, which took place despite the bitter religious wars that were motivating people to fight over deeply-held principles in the broader community. Hundreds of thousands of lives, I guess, were lost in these disturbances but Pinker just brushes this information-rich context aside in his blind forward motion.

It wasn’t until the 19th century, in a more refined age, that words such as “Enlightenment” and “Renaissance” were coined in order to describe the progress of knowledge, but even for such men and women as lived at this time it is dangerous to ascribe motivations we are intimate with, because the past is always a foreign country. Just think for example of how different you are in your way of viewing the world from your parents. And then multiply that by a hundred. Only then do you get the barest idea of how absurd Pinker’s equating contemporary values with those of Renaissance or Enlightenment thinkers is.

As for Trump, the hollowing out of the wage system supporting the bottom ranks of the earning profile in countries such as the USA is responsible for the discontent that his supporters felt when they elected him. The rising middle classes in developing countries are quite happy with the effects of globalisation, thank you very much, as are the elites in the developed world. Both are being lifted on the rising tide of trade. Factory workers in Ohio, not so much. It’s not hard to find the answers to such questions, but Pinker is a scientist as well as a dilettante, so if the only tool you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail.

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