Steven Pinker defends The Enlightenment (I)

Steven Pinker defends The Enlightenment (I)

Written by Alfonso Elizondo


In an essay written in 1784, Immanuel Kant said that the Enlightenment marked the emergence of humankind from its self-blaming immaturity and its lazy, cowardly submission to the dogmas and formulas of religious or political authority. Kant said that the motto of the Enlightenment was ‘dare to know’ and its fundamental demand was freedom of thought and expression. In that essay, Kant said that ‘an epoch could not make a pact to avoid the extension of its ideas to subsequent periods or additions to its ideas and a purging of its errors because that would be a crime against human nature whose true destiny lies in progress.


For his part and currently, Pinker says that his optimism is based on the theory that all failures are due to insufficient knowledge. Problems are inevitable because our knowledge will always be very far from the true reality. There are certain difficult problems for which a solution is unlikely, but all problems can be solved and each particular evil is a problem that can be solved. An optimistic civilization is open to innovation and does is not afraid of it, because of the history of criticism. Its institutions continue to improve and the most important knowledge is how to detect and eliminate errors.


Pinker says that there is no official answer to the question of “What is the Enlightenment?” because this cultural phenomenon has never been precisely located in history. It is usually placed in the last two thirds of the 18th century, but developed until the heyday of classical liberalism in the first half of the nineteenth century. Provoked by challenges to the conventional wisdom of science and exploration, being aware of the massacres of recent wars, and abetted by the easy circulation of ideas and people, this was a period of big ideas, some of them contradictory, which were connected to four major themes: reason, science, humanism and progress.


Of all these themes, the most important is reason. For Enlightenment thinkers, the flight from ignorance and superstition was a very clear indication of the error of conventional wisdom and of the extent to which scientific methods, such as skepticism, open debate and empirical evidence are a paradigm of how to achieve reliable knowledge.


This knowledge includes a certain understanding of ourselves, and the need for a science of man was a theme that united Enlightenment thinkers who disagreed about many other issues. It was believed that there was something like a ‘universal human nature’ that could be studied scientifically, and that made them great practitioners of sciences that would come into being only centuries later.

Enlightenment thinkers laid the foundation what is now called ‘humanism,’ which privileges the well-being of human beings over the glory of the tribe, race, nation or religion. It is the individual personally, and not the group, that feels pleasure and pain, fulfilment and anguish. Whether it is expressed as the goal of providing maximum happiness to as many people as possible or as a categorical imperative to treat people as ends and not as means, it was the universal ability of a person to suffer and prosper that appealed to our moral conscience.


Fortunately, human nature prepares the human being to respond to that call because we are endowed with the feeling of compassion, which they also called benevolence, mercy and sympathy. No one can prevent the circle of compassion from extending beyond the family and the tribe to the totality of the human species, as reason helps us to realize that there is nothing worthy in ourselves or in the groups to which we belong.


If the abolition of slavery and cruel punishment is not progress, then nothing is, says Pinker. With the understanding of the world fostered by science, and our circle of compassion driven by reason and cosmopolitanism, humanity can progress morally and intellectually. It does not have to accept the miseries and irrationalities of the present nor look to the past for ‘the lost golden age’.


Addendum: In a second instalment I will add Pinker’s reflections on the Enlightenment.