In one of the most powerful moments in literary history, Fyodor Dostoevsky in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, sets up his hero Alyosha with a challenge from his older brother Ivan thus: “Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?”
If you find yourself nodding in agreement, I imagine that Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress would congratulate you as you would have ticked off at least two objectives — reason and progress — out of the four that make up the subtitle of the book. If, however, you — like Alyosha — disagree, then you will have been a poor rationalist. Of course, hardly anyone would like to own up to the question and apply that mode of reason which is concerned with the ends rather than the means, at least unless they were sure that they would not incur any kind of loss themselves. But to understand those ends, we shall start from the beginning.
As someone whose formal education was shaped largely by the ideals of 19th century Romanticism — which was a counterculture to the period of the Enlightenment (17th century onwards till the 19th) that the author uses as the ideological bedrock of his book — I admit that I found Enlightenment Now to be an interesting piece of work: a cognitive psychologist and linguist dealing with issues of economics, politics and philosophy is a feat worth noting.
Reading Steven Pinker’s new tome is best done with a handful of salt
In response to the author’s preemptive questions about whether the world is getting better (in terms of how long we as a collective live, how much we earn, how safe our communities are and how educated we are), the answer, demonstrated through empirical evidence, is indeed yes. Pinker notes how it is because of the ideals and fruits of that 17th century European movement that humanity was allowed to move away from superstition and ignorance and work towards the betterment of our condition through science, reason and humanism. Pinker further adds that these ideals do not come easy to us — owing to us humans often being irrational — and thus need to be defended. I readily second that thought and without hesitation testify to that battle-cry of the Enlightenment — sapere aude — which means to have the courage to use your own reason or dare to be wise. And it is precisely in that appeal to reason that I encourage you to see the flaws in Pinker’s thesis.
The principal proposition of Pinker’s book is that the ideals of the Enlightenment translate to what he calls “human flourishing” — reason, science and humanism mean progress for all. However, since we live in a world of insidious inequality, this flourishing is, by default, uneven. In his chapter on inequality, Pinker makes it plain that for him, inequality is “not a fundamental dimension of human flourishing” and not inherently bad. Furthermore, in citing a study on the subject, he reports that “in developing countries, inequality is not dispiriting but heartening: people in the more unequal societies are happier.” Anybody who has lived in Karachi — the city most divided by inequality in my experience of having lived on five continents — can testify to the brazen naiveté of that statement. In the marketplace, where inequality features so prominently, there is little to no trust between seller and buyer and both can remain locked in a bargaining game to the death, or profit — whichever comes first. This is because while capitalism invites all to the table, the inequality of opportunity makes sure that a select few are fed much better than others. Thus solidarity between people erodes and in its stead remain envy and prejudice.
On a similar note, in suggesting that science is an independent entity that belongs to no one and is for the service of all, Pinker quotes Thomas Paine who wrote in 1778: “Science, the partisan of no country, but the beneficent patroness of all, has liberally opened a temple where all may meet ...
The philosopher in one country sees not an enemy in the philosopher of another: he takes his seat in the temple of science, and asks not who sits beside him.”
At least insofar as Pinker’s endorsement of this little passage is concerned, in proving the noble transcendence of science that allows it to be free of partisanship, it is balderdash. This Iqbalian-like image of master and slave sitting side by side in the service of this higher ideal is crassly erroneous. While colonisation of the Americas had been underway for more than two centuries by the time Paine wrote this in his ‘Letter to the Abbe Raynal’, large parts of the Indian subcontinent, too, had come under the dominion of the British East India Company. Knowledge, that Pinker says has been used for the benefit of humanity, was deliberately applied for the subjugation of the vast majority of the world, through which the coffers of the ‘white man’ were filled, allowing him to maintain his status as hegemon.
Then there is the benevolent paternalism of the developed Western hemisphere that coaxes the developing world to ‘catch up’. This is either misguided at best — since The Economist in a Sept 2014 article titled ‘Hold the Catch-up’ has stated that emerging economies will take as many as 300 years to catch up with the United States — or a thinly veiled cover for neo-imperialist agendas at its most plausible worst. Now that gunboat diplomacy (whereby the British empire forced nations such as China to open their borders to their market, paving the way for globalisation) is no longer fashionable for the ‘civilised’ world, developed economies use this softer approach — along with other measures such as debt — in marketing modernity to the long-disenfranchised (even though a fair share of them belong to the developed world, giving the lie to such simplistic dichotomies as the West versus the rest). And the market must indeed spread, as Karl Marx pointed out, in search of cheap labour and natural resources to fuel growth and progress.
This is why the question posed by Dostoevsky, about how far you are willing to go to achieve your objective (that golden American dream rerun and rehashed over countless asinine Hollywood productions that glamourise gun violence and sex), is so important. The developed world is interested in pursuing instrumental reason, the kind of ‘reason’ that allows it to achieve, regardless of the means, the ultimate goal in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: self-actualisation. It has long used the banner of free market economics to propagate its own self, to recreate the world in its own image, so that wherever it may look, it may see itself. It is precisely this narcissism that Pinker, perhaps without even knowing, is furthering under the guise of advancing liberal, enlightenment ideals. And therein lies the answer to his question about why ‘the world’ continues to be suspicious of ‘progress’ — that ever so vague and contentious concept — especially scholars in the social sciences, many of whom Pinker dismisses for being “morose cultural pessimists.”
After systematically destabilising entire continents, ousting democratically elected leaders and using funds to prop up puppet power, using countries as battlegrounds for its own proxy wars and colonising more than half the world — among other crimes against life for its own profit — what moral qualifications does the developed world have to sell humanism and enlightenment, unless by that they secretly mean ‘How to win friends and enslave others’? But regardless of what is being sold, not without a critical understanding of modernity can we develop a sense of the battle of ideologies being played out around us constantly on all fronts.
In summary, Pinker’s seemingly heavy Enlightenment Now is, in fact, a shallow reading of history that peddles a pseudo-intellectual white man’s burden to bring civilisation to the depraved multitudes that it believes are still locked in the tyranny of tradition and superstition. If the author is indeed an advocate for the specialisation of labour as he suggests, then perhaps he should stick to his own field of psychology and linguistics and leave social sciences to scholars and commentators such as Pankaj Mishra, who in his book, The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, offers a much more nuanced understanding of that same history and its consequences that we continue to see today. That said, however, we can give Pinker the benefit of our doubt and hope that, should he choose to write again on matters of economics, politics and philosophy, his next book will be less biased and more substantial in its assessment.
The reviewer is a lifelong learner and part-time teacher of the humanities
Enlightenment Now: The
Case for Reason, Science,
Humanism and Progress
By Steven Pinker
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 8th, 2018