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Does the Enlightenment Need Defending?

Steven Pinker and Homi Bhabha discuss the good, the bad and the ugly of the Enlightenment

Steven Pinker & Homi Bhabha

Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker and postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha, both professors at Harvard University, participated at our festival HowTheLightGetsIn London on 22-23 September at Kenwood House. While Pinker focuses on the merits of the Enlightenment, Bhabha outlines its complicated and dual reverberations. We asked the two luminaries to engage in a written dialogue about the good, the bad and the ugly of the Enlightenment in the twenty-first century, starting from an extract from Pinker's book Enlightenment Now.

Steven Pinker: ''The Enlightenment principle that we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing may seem obvious, trite, old-fashioned. I wrote this book because I have come to realise that it is not. More than ever, the ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress need a wholehearted defense. We take its gifts for granted: newborns who will live more than eight decades, markets overflowing with food, clean water that appears at the flick of a finger and waste that disappears with another, pills that erase a painful infection, sons who are not sent off to war, daughters who can walk the streets in safety, critics of the powerful who are not jailed or shot, the world’s knowledge and culture available in a shirt pocket.

But these are human accomplishments, not cosmic birthrights. In the memories of many readers of this book—and in the experience of those in less fortunate parts of the world—war, scarcity, disease, ignorance, and lethal menace are a natural part of existence. We know that countries can slide back into these primitive conditions, and so we ignore the achievements of the Enlightenment at our peril. […]

The ideals of the Enlightenment are products of human reason, but they always struggle with other strands of human nature: loyalty to tribe, deference to authority, magical thinking, the blaming of misfortune on evildoers. […]

If you are still unsure whether the ideals of the Enlightenment humanism need a vigorous defense, consider the diagnosis of Shiraz Maher, an analyst of radical Islamist movements. “The West is shy of its values – it doesn’t speak up for classical liberalism,” he says. “We are unsure of them. They make us feel uneasy.” Contrast that with the Islamic State, which “knows exactly what it stands for,” a certainty that is “incredibly seductive” – and he should know, having once been a regional director of the jihadist group Hizb ut-Tahrir.”'

(From Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now)

Homi Bhabha: “Every serious writer should be taken at his word, and I want to start with the pith of Steven Pinker’s argument: “More than ever, the ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress need a wholehearted defense”. A worthy cause that prompts the question: Who has put the Enlightenment in the dock? And who should be called to the witness box?  Steven’s wholehearted defense valiantly rounds up the usual suspects —fundamentalism, obscurantism, prejudice, irrationality—but the historical amalgam of Enlightenment ideas, ideals and values doesn’t set his prose racing. He hits his stride when he puts his finger on the pulse of the present—enlightenment, now!  

“Now” is more than a time signature that gives Steven’s title a sense of urgency; it is an important measure of our progress. Too often, those who take the long view, what historians call the longue durée, blow away the repetitive and rebarbative perils that have shadowed the modern age—slavery, imperialism, world wars, genocide, the holocaust, tyranny, inequality, poverty—which appear as mere glitches in the ascending graph of modern civility: aberrations in the forward march of enlightenment progress.

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"Steven believes that we take the enlightenment’s gifts for granted; I believe that in embracing these gifts, we must look the gift-horse in the mouth. We must calculate the cost at which they come—a price paid largely by those who do not belong to 'our crowd'."

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Steven robustly defends the record of social and political progress that he sees as the evidence of ‘enlightenment now. It is here that we diverge. Steven believes that we take the enlightenment’s gifts for granted; I believe that in embracing these gifts, we must look the gift-horse in the mouth. We must calculate the cost at which they come—a price paid largely by those who do not belong to “our crowd”.  One of the great gifts of enlightenment thinking is intellectual self-critique and ethical self-questioning. Enlightenment progress must also have its day in the witness box. Now. 

1. Newborns may become octogenerians one day, but now: “U.S. infant mortality rates (deaths under one year of age per 1,000 live births) are about 71 percent higher than the comparable country average”. [Bradley Sawyer and Selena Gonzales, How does Infant Mortality in the U.S. Compare to other Countries?  Kaiser Family Foundation, July 7, 2017]

According to a June 2018 report from the Economic Policy Institute, the black child poverty rate as of 2016 was 30.8%, as compared to 10.8% of whites and 26.6% of Hispanics. The overall rate (for all groups) was 18%. The comparison year the Economic Policy Institute gives is 1976, when it was at 40.6%. 

2. Somewhere over the rainbow markets may well be overflowing with food, but now in the U.S. (to say nothing of Syria, Iraq, Libya, Venezuela, India, Uganda, Puerto Rico, Cuba, etc.): “In 2016, an estimated 1 in 8 Americans were food insecure, equating to 42 million Americans including 13 million children. [Alisha Coleman-Jensen, Matthew P. Rabbitt, Christian A. Gregory, and Anita Singh, Household Food Security in the United States in 2016, ERR-237, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, 2017]

3. Clean water at the flick of a switch, sanitation at the pull of a flush, but now:

“Globally, 663 million people live without easy access to clean water and 2.4 billion people lack access to improved sanitation facilities.” [UNICEF]

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"Humanist progress is fraught with the inequities of power and privilege; it is, at times, forgetful of justice and mercy while piously uttering never again."

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4. The world’s knowledge is in your palm, and the globe may be in your shirt-pocket, but now: “There is a clear and highly uneven geography of information in Wikipedia. Europe and North America are home to 84% of all articles… There are remarkably more articles (7,800) written about Antarctica than any country in Africa or South America.” [Geographies of the World’s Knowledge, Convoco Foundation and Oxford’s Internet Institute, 2011]

5. After the diasporas and statelessness of World War II, we said never again, but now: “If the world’s forcibly displaced [65 million] were a country, it would be the 21st largest in the world—about the size of the United Kingdom.” [Save the Children]

My purpose is not to play the “numbers game”.  I am well aware that we owe to Enlightenment reason our sense of a historical archive through which we measure our progress and support our claims with facts and figures. In pointing out these ongoing failures or deficits of enlightenment now, I believe that humanist reason and liberal progress have always been contradictory and conflicted processes of advancement. And this is not only because they have been waylaid by “other” ideologies of  “loyalty to tribe, deference to authority, magical thinking”, or have somehow passed their sell-by date. 

Enlightenment reason works with the necessary paradoxes of progress, and thinks through the conundrums of reason. Humanist progress is fraught with the inequities of power and privilege; it is, at times, forgetful of justice and mercy while piously uttering never again. Kant’s foundational essay What is Enlightenment? suggests that “public reason” can only free us from the “immaturity” of dogmatism and prescriptivism because enlightenment “reveals to us a strange and unexpected pattern in human affairs (such as we shall always find if we consider them in the widest sense, in which nearly everything is paradoxical)”. Paradox, in the Kantian sense, is not merely an inevitable fact of life; it is a carefully constructed principle of ethical judgment and political decision-making. John Stuart Mill was well aware of the moral paradoxes of progress and classical liberalism’s complicity with imperialism when he profoundly questioned his own identity as a democrat in his country and a despot in someone else’s. “Global doubt” on the part of the empowered in the North and the South, Amartya Sen suggests, is the only way to ensure that equity and justice prevail in making any claim to global progress.

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"Now is the time to build arguments; not necessarily to win them."

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Confronting liberalism’s confidence with its complicities, putting the enlightenment’s “gifts” in the witness box, as I have done above—these principles of critical self-questioning and the paradoxes of progress are the enduring values and political virtues of Enlightenment thought from its very earliest contested and cosmopolitan origins. (Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment, 2001; Enlightenment Contested, 2008). What Shiraz Maher sadly fails to understand is that the best of the legacy of enlightenment liberalism now is that it does not belong to the “West”; it belongs as much to the non-violent independence movement in India as it does to the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.; as much to the pioneers of Islamic internationalism as to the liberation theologists of Latin America; as much to the feminist and LGBTI movements the world over as to climate change activists across the globe. You cannot bomb out of existence the most transformative aspects of democratic humanism because of their dissemination across the world; nor should you ever condemn a great tradition of moral life and civic community --- Islamic or otherwise --- on the evidence of its sectarian movements or its dangerous demagogues. 

Now is the time to build arguments; not necessarily to win them. That is the humane lesson we learn from the world’s diverse and plural enlightenments.”

Steven Pinker: ''I share Homi Bhabha’s concern that the world has too much preventable suffering. But in enumerating examples as the “costs at which [the gifts of Enlightenment] have come,” he has, I believe gotten the history and causality backwards. 

The suggestion that today’s ills are “perils that shadowed the modern age” assumes that before the modern age, people enjoyed abundant and evenly distributed longevity, food, sanitation, peace, and knowledge. Then the Enlightenment happened, and rational liberal humanists plundered the toilets, Wikipedia articles, and other resources from “those who do not belong to ‘our crowd.’” 

This is not how history unfolded. The natural state of humanity, at least since the dawn of civilisation, is poverty, disease, ignorance, exploitation, and violence (including slavery and imperial conquest). It is knowledge, mobilised to improve human welfare, that allows anyone to rise above this state. As I show in Enlightenment Now (and its prequel, The Better Angels of Our Nature), this progression is not just a theoretical expectation from the laws of thermodynamics and evolutionary biology. It’s visible in scores of graphs that plot global well-being over time. 

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"The natural state of humanity, at least since the dawn of civilisation, is poverty, disease, ignorance, exploitation, and violence. It is knowledge, mobilised to improve human welfare, that allows anyone to rise above this state."

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The Great Escape (as Angus Deaton calls it) is necessarily uneven, with some regions and cultures benefiting before others catch up. That is not a “paradox of progress” but an absence of miracles. Good ideas and their fruits cannot blanket the planet instantaneously. 

Thus Homi’s ahistorical list of contemporary inequities means the opposite of what he implies. In every case, the numbers were far worse in the past, and are continuing to improve, often vertiginously. Two hundred and fifty years ago, no one had access to improved sanitation. In 1990, 2.8 billion did; today, the number is 5 billion and growing. 

Getting the history and causality right matters, both morally and practically. Homi’s commentary falls into a way of thinking in which the ultimate moral good is sameness, rather than well-being, and in which progress is propelled by political struggle, rather than the expansion of reason and sympathy. My view is different. Morally speaking, a world in which 33% of the children die in all countries is inferior to a world in which 0.3% of children die in more fortunate countries and 7% die in less fortunate ones (particularly when even that percentage is falling). And identifying the forces that raised human welfare in the past shows us the ways in which we can reduce suffering and danger in the present. These include advances in know-how such as carbon-free energy and waterless toilets, and reassertion of the ideal of universal human rights over the pre-eminence of a nation, faith, tribe, or class. I suspect that “liberation theology” will play little role. 

I agree with Homi that it’s a mistake to equate Enlightenment ideals with The West (and to be fair to Shiraz Maher, who knows a thing or two about non-Western, non-Enlightenment ideals, it’s clear in context that he was not doing this). Not only have ideals such as science, secularism, and tolerance periodically emerged in non-Western civilisations, but the West itself never went all in for Enlightenment humanism and has always indulged counter-Enlightenment movements such as romanticism, nationalism, Fascism, religious fundamentalism, and reactionary ideology. If these sound familiar, it reminds us why we ignore the achievements of the Enlightenment at our peril.''

Homi Bhabha: "I was hoping for a productive conversation with Steven Pinker --- after all we both adhere to the values of enlightenment --- but he is intent, for reasons that elude me, on polarising the exchange. To do so, he has to accuse me of  “assumptions” that simply do not exist in my argument. To attribute to me (or anyone else) the ignorant, ahistorical view “that before the modern age, people enjoyed abundant and evenly distributed longevity, food, sanitation, peace, and knowledge” is preposterous; to assert, as Steven frequently does, that “The natural state of humanity, at least since the dawn of civilization, is poverty, disease, ignorance, exploitation, and violence” is equally reductive and historically naïve.

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"To suggest as a principle of progress, as Steven does, that “some regions and cultures benefit before others catch up” doesn’t at all explain why some regions, cultures and communities never seem to catch up fast enough"

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I assumed nothing at all about the pre-modern past, either gory or glorious, because I was addressing Steven’s vaunted global claims for enlightenment now: for instance, his prediction that children have a life expectancy of eighty when, in America alone, infant mortality rates are now 71% higher than all comparable countries in the West. Etc. Etc. What on earth is “ahistorical” (Steven’s accusation) about my engaging with the here and now in America, certainly one of the world’s relatively enlightened places? Unlike Steven’s implacable polarisations, I believe that any mature argument has to deal with praise and blame. As I said, I take my stand with Kant’s view in What is Enlightenment that any purposeful exploration of progress must import paradoxes and contradiction into the act of judgment and self-reflection. Otherwise all you do is to take potshots at straw men and women.

My desire for a measure of equality, fairness, and justice in assessing how enlightened we are now is again misinterpreted by Steven as claiming that the “ultimate moral good is sameness.” Of course, Steven, progress is uneven, which is why paradoxes and historical ironies must be carefully considered and which is why Amartya Sen argues that without norms of equity, opportunity, and choice it is difficult for people to develop their diverse and different capabilities. But to suggest as a principle of progress, as Steven does, that “some regions and cultures benefit before others catch up” doesn’t at all explain why some regions, cultures and communities never seem to catch up fast enough. Go play catch-up with black children in the US whose poverty rate has improved by 10 percentage points in 42 years, as my colleague Henry Louis Gates pointed out to me. Go play catch-up with Indian Untouchables (Dalits) whose economic and political fate is largely untouched by India’s progress 70 years after Independence. This is not to attack enlightenment, as Steven would insist; it is only to usefully and properly trouble our collective conscience and consciousness.

Most art historians admire the great architectural and aesthetic progress displayed in the Taj Mahal while deploring, at the same time, the barbarisms inflicted on the workers who constructed the building. Most historians I know admire the remarkable modern system of railways that the British bequeathed to India while, at the same time, deploring the barbarisms of Empire as a modern form of expropriation and oppression that, in many instances, violated the freedom and dignity of the Indian people. This plurality of perspectives, in argument and evaluation, eludes Steven’s frame of mind. Progress isn’t necessarily linear, nor is it inevitably evolutionary. Human agency, scientific rationality, and historical contingency chart the course of progress, which is why the only way to properly appreciate the great contributions of enlightenments across the world now is to set up mirrors that reflect their achievements and failings. Enlightenment thinking is, quite properly, a work in progress. The best way to defend the Enlightenment is to stop being reductionist about it."

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"I am accustomed to seeing the epithet reductionist used to dismiss any attempt to bring clarity and evidence to bear on 'paradoxes', 'ironies', and 'contradictions'."

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Steven Pinker: "I am accustomed to seeing the epithet reductionist used to dismiss any attempt to bring clarity and evidence to bear on 'paradoxes', 'ironies', and 'contradictions'. It was just such an attempt at theoretical clarification (and not the setting up of a straw man) that led me to place Homi’s list of contemporary problems in the context of two hypothetical (and deliberately extreme) histories.

Enlightenment Now makes the case for reason, science, and humanism against alternatives from left-wing, right-wing, and religious ideologies. Much of the defense consists of documenting the underappreciated progress the world has made since the Enlightenment. In what way is Homi’s list of current ills relevant to this argument? Much depends on the historical trajectory: whether Enlightenment ideas and institutions have, overall, made people better or worse off compared to what prevailed before. As soon as you acknowledge the facts of progress (with a statistical appreciation of shades of gray), it’s no 'paradox' or 'contradiction' that these advances did not penetrate 100% of the human population instantaneously, or that poverty and oppression continue to exist.  Only if these maladies had been caused or worsened by Enlightenment ideas, introducing suffering that never existed before, would they be relevant to the case at hand.

Statistical thinking also resolves pseudo-paradoxes such as that “children have a life expectancy of eighty when, in America alone, infant mortality rates are now 71% higher than all comparable countries in the West.” An expectancy is an average, and yes, some countries fall below the average.

It’s true that acknowledging the variation among cultures does not, by itself, explain why some don’t catch up as quickly as others. But neither does “troubling our collective conscience and consciousness.” Only good social science can do that, and Enlightenment Now reviews some of the major findings.

The case of the United States is instructive. America’s underperformance can be attributed in part to its resistance to Enlightenment humanism and its secular institutions. The US is the most religious of Western democracies, and across countries and states, religious belief is inversely correlated with measures of health and well-being.

Speaking of straw men, it’s ironic that Homi thinks I need to be told that “progress isn’t necessarily linear, nor is it inevitably evolutionary,” or that “human agency, scientific rationality, and historical contingency chart the course of progress.” Enlightenment Now documents exactly those ideas in unprecedented depth."

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Rolo Harbiff on 19/10/2018 11:13pm

Disappointingly Homi Bhabha appears only interested in pointing out the deficiencies of the modern moment but not in addressing the argument at hand. Surely there must be at least some reasonable arguments against Pinker's position?

Pete Harrison on 19/10/2018 1:26am

The Western ‘Enlightenment’ is the conceptual superstructure that grew upon the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution (when merchants - in weaving particularly - discovered the endless possibilities of extracting 'relative surplus value', instead of just 'absolute surplus value', from the labour of others - this was a technological and organisational change in labour relations that made technological advance a societal motor and imperative). This early superstructure was expressed in movements such as Calvinism, for example. The material base for these changes in 'ideology' was the Industrial Revolution. It is no coincidence that Portuguese-born Spinoza is the first of the 'modern' philosophers... and that he happened to live in Holland.

The Industrial Revolution was not and is not nice. And the same goes for the Enlightenment. Nor was the emergence of the State and its spread across the globe. We mustn’t confuse ‘The Enlightenment’ with the term ‘enlightenment’. Owning a fridge, or appreciating Bach, might make one feel better than ‘prehistoric savages’ but it doesn’t make one any more intelligent.

The defenders of the ‘Enlightenment’ are defending what they perceive as progress, despite the horrors they might admit that lie in its wake. The critics of Enlightenment are saying that the Enlightenment hasn’t gone far enough. They are all on the same pedagogically driven team, but sometimes they forget. Defending or criticising the Enlightenment is to (sometimes blindly) enter the common discourse on ‘progress’, consciousness, and how to get people to think better, and this discourse is shaped by the practical realities of ‘modern’, global, mass, State, society.

The problem for those who wrestle with ‘what is to be done?’ is that there is no going back to before the Industrial Revolution, or to before the State, so criticisms that derive from the perspective of ‘going back’ have no validity or traction. Therefore, the practical options are either to strive mightily for a future Eden (communism, or some other millenarian nightmare) or, to follow Rousseau: make the best of a bad job and try to keep the bastards in charge as honest as possible.

We are stuck where we are. Progress is not movement but only busy work. The same goes for the Enlightenment or however we define the ideological superstructure that is our ‘modern’ mindset. It is noisy, calamitous, and sometimes briefly awe-inspiring. But humanity is by no means headed toward salvation through this process of progress and supposed consciousness-raising. Hegel and Marx were mystics of the materialism/idealism dichotomy and they were wrong.

Miklos Legrady on 16/10/2018 2:08am

excuse typos below, here should be an edit buton.

Miklos Legrady on 16/10/2018 2:07am

To answer Homi Bhabha: “Who has put the Enlightenment in the dock?" I read a consistent message in posts against Western colonialism, that ignores Chinese colonialism or any other nation. Then there's post that accuse the West of historical atrocities, while ignoring the historical atrocities of other nations. Then I read the Mueller report that says the Russians have been conducting a campaign of demoralization in the West, the ame way the U.S. did with Radio Free Europe, that helped bring down the Soviet empire. The Enlightenment is challenged by youtube videos such as #Western Science Must Fail (google it). At a conference a presenter said Western Science is a flawd assumption imposed on everyone. For example, if I call on lighting to hit someone a thousand miles away, and lighting does hit that person, Western Science cannot explain that!" A professor stood up to object but everyone shouted him down and shamed him for being disrespectful to non-Western ideas. Facebook posts are often anti-Western, and I'm wondering why? “ Who has put the Enlightenment in the dock?" Could be the Russians, working the idea that everyone here is to be historically illiterate.

J Moountfort on 16/10/2018 1:47am

It is so tiresome to view a debate in which both sides seek to "reduce" the other. In this instance, since there is so much empty-headed fashionable thinking devoted to reducing the Enlightenment to the sum of its presumed exemplars' errors, or giving it the failed-God treatment, as any self-absorbed sophomore might do, I have to go ahead and side with Pinker.

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