Steven Pinker: Friend or foe of the Enlightenment?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

It pains me to write this. This morning my Google news feed included a  review of Enlightenment Now from the Jacobin magazine denouncing Steven Pinker as a “false friend of the Enlightenment”; and this, just when I thought I could sit back and watch the march of progress from the comfort of my own home. 

Dr Frim, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at St Joseph’s College in New York, not only paints Pinker as a false friend, but goes on to say that the book actually upholds the ancien regime, with its hierarchy, conservatism, and authoritarianism, the historical ENEMY of the Enlightenment! Further, Dr. Pinker, according to Frim, presents a version of the Enlightenment “shorn of its egalitarian and democratic elements.” 

The heart of the review is an attack on Dr. Pinker’s world view. Dr. Frim is eager to pull the rug from under the foot of the “guiding principle” of Enlightenment Now, which is the 2nd law of thermodynamics, or entropy. In this Dr. Frim, willfully or ignorantly, misrepresents Pinker’s thesis. He claims that Pinker has inverted the position of mankind. That instead of humans killing Mother Earth, Pinker is stating that we, as a species, are battling an earth that is trying to kill us.   And this, according to Frim, becomes, “bizarrely”, the cornerstone of Pinker’s politics.

This is so wrong I wonder if the good professor even bothered to read the book. Pinker clearly states that knowledge is anti-entropic by its very nature: “Energy channeled by knowledge is the elixir with which we stave off entropy, and advances in energy capture are advances in human destiny.” (Enlightenment Now, p. 23)  In other words, Pinker is not conflating the Enlightenment with the French Revolution, he is equating it with the application of science and reason to the problems of society. Real knowledge results in increased mastery over the physical principles inherent in the universe. As a result, we humans inhabiting the Earth have benefited.

Frim thinks he has dealt Pinker a fatal blow when it comes to equality. He claims that it is Pinker’s view that inequality is not harmful in itself. Further, he condemns Pinker for suggesting that an ideological push for absolute equality would result in a kind of social “heat death”. Here Frim reveals his Marxist ideology. Inequality is the result of exploitation. There are those who extract the labor of others for profit, and those who own no capital themselves. What, exploitation is the only reason for inequality?Pinker doesn’t agree. I don’t either. Nor do most thinking people.

The labor theory of value is the oldest canard in the Marxist lexicon. The wealth of society is not a static lump divided unequally between the exploiters and the exploited, who are said to have created that wealth. Wealth is a function of ideas that transform our methods and practices of transforming nature to benefit human beings. That is progress, and that is enlightenment. Steven Pinker is right. Landon Frim is wrong.

This is not to say that we have a problem with the disappearing middle class. Nor am I claiming that our environment is not in danger. Nor am I saying that we don’t have a host of other problems including health care. But none of our current problems contradict the fundamental outlook in Enlightenment Now that reason, science, and humanism are our best hope for progress.


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