“Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven…” — Thomas Jefferson
In Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay, “What is Enlightenment,” he wrote that it is man’s “emergence from his self-incurred immaturity” through the “public use of reason at every point.” Only through free inquiry and disputation, according to Kant, could humans flee the darkness of ignorant conformity to the light of true knowledge and wisdom. Recently, several prominent intellectuals have argued that this vision, the vision of the Enlightenment, needs a vigorous defense from increasingly dangerous Counter-Enlightenment forces, including an apathetic public, a hostile academy, and a censorious intelligentsia that is too quick to replace rational dispute with accusations of moral treachery. Steven Pinker’s newly released Enlightenment Now represents perhaps the culmination of this movement: It is an unapologetic embrace of Enlightenment values and a persuasive rebuttal to those who assail them. Unsurprisingly, it has already attracted lavish praise (from Bill Gates!) and provoked furious debate.
Perhaps the most perplexing and possibly most insidious objection to Enlightenment Now is that it promulgates an unnecessary alarmism. The Enlightenment, according to this objection, is not under attack and most of Pinker’s supposed Counter-Enlightenment forces are bogeymen who haunt the minds of rationalists and centrists, but do not really exist. The humanities professors whom Pinker chides are not opposed to science, do not deny its basic conclusions or methods, but rather just want it to be more introspective, to appreciate its limitations, and to curb its imperial ambitions. And the progressives whom he scolds for illiberalism are not opposed to reason or dispute, but just want it to be inclusive, respectful, and tolerant of historically marginalized peoples.
We will contend that many of the arguments used to support this objection are, if not completely erroneous, then highly misleading, for at least two reasons. First, there absolutely is a popular group of academics and intellectuals who disdain what they have termed “scientism” and who have repudiated the use of scientific methods and theories, especially if those include Darwinian insights, in many spheres of intellectual activity. These academics and intellectuals include both the premodernists and postmodernists that Helen Pluckrose and James A. Lindsay aptly warned about in their article “A Manifesto Against the Enemies of Modernity,” and we will call them romantics in this article to signify their skepticism of Enlightenment values and their embrace of sentiment in one way or another. And second, since the late 60s, the intelligentsia (academics, media pundits, public intellectuals) have established a quasi-religious narrative which contends, among other things, that most demographic groups (sexes, races, classes) have nearly identical capacities and that Western history is a brutal tale of exploitation, imperialism, and oppression that continues to unfold its dark and depressing plot, although punctuated by a few flashes of progress (perhaps, say, the end of slavery; the end of colonialism; the end of Jim Crow). They often derogate those who challenge this narrative, defending it not with reason or data, but with accusations of moral turpitude.
I. What is Enlightenment?
The most obvious and easily rejected objection to Pinker’s defense of Enlightenment values is simply that there is no such thing as the Enlightenment. Many have voiced this criticism, including Vox’s Matt Yglesias, who rhetorically asked,
Do people seriously believe that there is a discrete, well-defined thing called “The Enlightenment” that is in some meaningful way under siege from a different discrete, well-defined thing called “postmodernism” ???
— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) February 10, 2018
The answer, of course, is no. Historical movements, paradigms, zeitgeists, are not “discrete” things; they are complicated congeries of ideas, values, and commitments. However, this does not mean that the terms “Enlightenment” and “Postmodernism” are meaningless, nor does it mean that the heritage of the Enlightenment is so amorphous that, like the liquid robot from Terminator 2, it is impervious to attack. Scholars still use the terms “Renaissance,” “High Middle Ages,” “Enlightenment,” and “Modernity” precisely because they are useful designations. But, like other ontologically indistinct terms such as “river,” “self,” and “universe,” they aren’t discrete, clearly demarcated entities.
In Enlightenment Now, Pinker describes the values of the Enlightenment as reason, science, humanism, and progress. Of course, not every thinker in the Enlightenment endorsed these values, and many, in fact, disdained one or more of them. But, on whole, the Enlightenment was committed to a vision that celebrated reason, lauded science, extolled moral and technological progress, and espoused a worldly humanism that stood in stark contrast to nostalgic, religiously oriented values of conformity, awe, and submission. Historians can cavil about this or that feature of the Enlightenment, as they should, but contrary to the claims of Pinker’s critics, there is nothing wrong with talking or writing about Enlightenment values, so long as one recognizes, as Pinker clearly does, that the Enlightenment was a variegated historical and intellectual phenomenon.
In this article, we will accept Pinker’s broad description of the Enlightenment, which Kant best articulated in a single sentence: Enlightenment “…is the freedom to make public use of one’s reason at every point.”
II. The Romantic backlash
In June 2016, the esteemed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson Tweeted that earth needs a virtual colony called Rationalia with a one-line constitution: “All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.”
Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) June 29, 2016
Reaction to the Tweet was fast and furious, with many pundits mocking Tyson for his excessive optimism about human cognitive capacities. Although there are rational reasons for suspecting that such a virtual colony would be an abysmal failure, many responses evinced a romantic skepticism about science and reason that is popular among scholars and media mavens. Some pundits have even created a new term to describe what they view as excessive science optimism: Scientism. Scientism is an ill-defined but pejorative term that is often directed toward those who believe that the best insights of modern science — critical reflection, reliance on data, careful methodologies — should be applied to the humanities and to social policy more broadly. It describes a supposedly avaricious and imperial science that demands to conquer all spheres of intellectual activity, slowly crowding out all non-scientific forms of understanding. In its more graphic depictions, it is a nightmare wasteland of bean-counting bureaucrats who rule an anesthetized population of passive consumers.
Therefore, although deGrasse Tyson’s Tweet might not capture the exact spirit of the Enlightenment — it is unclear that those dedicated to reason and science would feel obliged to endorse Rationalia — , the arguments it inspired do capture the spirit of Romantic opposition to Enlightenment values, opposition that is nearly as old as the Enlightenment itself.
In the late 1700s, for example, some poets and intellectuals of the incipient Romantic movement began to attack the great figures of the Enlightenment for their Promethean pretensions and ignorance of passion, conflict, and transcendental values. William Blake, the English poet, abhorred what he saw as the empty empiricism of Voltaire and the Enlightenment, writing “Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau; mock on, mock on; ‘tis all in vain!” And others attacked the Enlightenment’s embrace of reason and progress, contending that humans are fundamentally irrational, intuitive, and hierarchical creatures who require the order and stability of tradition, ritual, religious doctrine, and monarchical rule. For example, Joseph de Maistre, a French philosopher, lawyer, and diplomat, fiercely argued that the Enlightenment was a spectacular failure, and that the values of reason, science, and progress, were corrosive of crucial norms and ruinous of social order.
What we will call “modern romantics” express similar concerns about Enlightenment values and attack them from both the right and the left. On the right, intellectuals such as Ross Douthat, have argued that “scientism” (here, synonymous with Enlightenment values) is a sterile philosophy, one that is incapable of providing transcendental meaning. His main objection against scientism, an “empirically overconfident, intellectually unsubtle, and deeply incurious…” philosophy, is that it attempts to derive an ought from an is, and really just reflects “a philosophical preference for Mill over Nietzsche.” From this perspective, the Enlightenment understanding that human flourishing should be the measure of successful governance is simply a prejudice and there is, or should be, more on heaven and earth than is dreamt of in the pages of Utilitarian philosophy.
Table on basic philosophical propositions of modern romanticism on the left and the right.
Modern right-leaning romantics also echo the arguments of de Maistre, seeing a direct connection between Enlightenment values and the worst excesses of the French Revolution. Kevin Williamson, at the National Review, wrote, “Conservatives, who always have the French Revolution in their thoughts, reminded him [Neil Degrasse Tyson] that this [scientific approach to social policy] already has been tried, and that the results are known in the history books as ‘the Terror.’” Similar sentiments were echoed by writers at the Federalist, who worried that Enlightenment values don’t recognize that humans are flawed, fallen creatures with sharply circumscribed cognitive abilities. Like Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, T. S. Eliot, and other conservatives who were ambivalent (at best) about the Enlightenment, modern conservative romantics view reason, science, and humanism skeptically, often contending, against all evidence, that society, that morals, that human dignity are all degenerating as overconfident elitists such as Pinker fiddle optimistic and superficial tunes about progress.
Left-leaning romantics are probably more diverse than right-leaning romantics, and comprise many categories of modern discontents from Marx-inspired intellectuals who contend that the Enlightenment birthed destructive and exploitative technologies and corporate capitalism to postmodern-inspired professors who argue that science is just one “language game” among others and is used primarily to oppress historically marginalized peoples. Many of these left-leaning romantics are particularly hostile to evolutionary psychology, a science that applies Darwinian principles to human nature, and they often attack those who promote it with vile epithets and bad arguments (of course, there are good criticisms against specific evolutionary hypotheses and vigorous debate about those is healthy). Some, such as the postmodernists, are generally hostile to notions of objective truth altogether; others, such as modern socialists, value truth but believe that Western notions of science and progress have been ruinous of the planet and of other non-Western peoples. What ties many of these thinkers together is a commitment to a quasi-Rousseauian view of humans as creatures corrupted by the empty pleasantries of civilization and a fear that much of what passes for science is simply a narrative employed by the privileged to justify the status quo.
One result of this commitment is an idealization of hunter-gatherer peoples as living idyllic lives undisturbed by the trappings of civilization. According to this popular narrative, Western Civilization does not represent progress, but instead exploitation and technological terror. Life before civilization was one of “affluence,” equality, and relative peace. The agricultural revolution destroyed this halcyon existence, forcing people to work long, brutish hours on abstemious and monotonous diets. The industrial revolution further alienated people from the land and from themselves and birthed technologies that are destroying the earth and threatening to extinguish humanity. These technologies in conjunction with avarice and sundry diseases, led Europeans to imperialize and exploit much of the planet. Science, from this perspective, is a political tool often wielded to justify barbaric crimes and systematic marginalization.
In many humanities departments, the cure to this “scientism,” to this misplaced faith in progress and reason, is a sophisticated skepticism about truth, which apparently can only be communicated in dense prose and impenetrable jargon. Many professors in these departments wince at, object to, angrily denounce basic scientific facts about human nature. And they promote a species of cultural relativism that discourages students from contending that any cultural practice is better than another. (Although, it must be noted that this relativism is generally confident that modern capitalism is worse than other economic systems). Although this might sound like a grotesque caricature of Literary Studies, we have both taken many classes in the humanities and know many others who have as well, and our experiences concord rather well with this description. Of course, there are many terrific humanities professors (we even had one or two). But too many departments are stacked with professors enamored of Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida, and too few with professors enamored of Locke, Hume, and Darwin. Instead of talking about how Shakespeare’s works illuminate evolved aspects of human nature, many students learn to “deconstruct” popular texts, learn to uncover “hidden tensions” in popular poems, and learn how class conflict best explains the killer’s behavior in the Halloween film series.
Counter-Enlightenment romanticism is not a wholly harmful movement. And, indeed, some of the insights from romantic thinkers are worth contemplating. But, its more fervent denunciations of reason and science-based social policy are undoubtedly obstacles to productive debate and optimal solutions to difficult problems. And its takeover of many once revered departments at Universities is lamentable, because it inculcates in students a blinkered and mostly hostile view of science, of reason, of humanism, and of progress.
III. The Rise of New Orthodoxy
Perhaps the most pernicious challenge to Enlightenment values is, in some ways, more subtle than modern romanticism. It is the rise of a new, quasi-religious orthodoxy among the intelligentsia, an orthodoxy that adheres to a sacred narrative that doesn’t explicitly reject science or reason, but that subordinates it to the defense of perceived victims’ groups (e.g., minorities, women). In a recent article, Bo Winegard argued that this sacred narrative goes something like this:
“Many groups have been abused, exploited, and oppressed by powerful European (white) men. These groups still suffer from this legacy. And society, despite modest improvements, is still sexist and racist. Although many people proclaim their dedication to equality, they are often prejudiced, sometimes in subtle ways. Victims’ groups don’t do as well in society as privileged groups because society has set the rules against them and because many members of the privileged purposefully harass, abuse, and discriminate against them. Although many ignore or perpetuate a system of exploitation, there are some people who have realized how heinous and oppressive society can be and who are fighting back against it. If more people come to think the way they do, if more people study racism and sexism, if more people join movements and denounce all forms of discrimination, then the world will become a better place. Those who disagree with this are part of the problem. Even if they mean well, they are part of the system and will only hinder progress and abet racists and sexists.”
The narrative itself may be right or wrong; and it is certainly worthy of debate. But the danger of the narrative is not that it might be erroneous, but that it is held with sacred fervor by many academics and media mavens, and that it is supported not with facts, theories, and reasoned argument, but with insults and moral opprobrium. Thinkers who contradict the narrative are often subjected to grotesque rituals of public defamation. Consequently, people are taught, if not explicitly, then by observation, that they do not need to dispute controversial ideas that challenge the narrative; rather, they can simply derogate the person who forward them, can indict him or her of nefarious motives, and let the moral disapproval of the intelligentsia remove him or her from the sphere of respectable public discourse. As a result, many minds, even courageous ones, are fettered by the not unreasonable fear that the intelligentsia will ruin them with accusation of turpitude and treachery. For the power of social opinion is often as effective and restrictive as the chains of a shackle. What results is a severely circumscribed arena of debate, bereft of challenging ideas and arguments. And perhaps worse, a legion of scholars and intellectuals who daily betray their consciences because they feel compelled to hide from the public what they believe in private.
A couple examples should illustrate the force of this narrative.
Consider, first, Nicholas Wade. In 2014, then a respected science writer for the New York Times, he wrote a book entitled, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History. With a few possible exceptions, the book was unique: A mainstream and readable account of race differences and their potential consequences in human history. In it, he contended that (1) many researchers shied away from candid discussions of race for fear of censure; that (2) such moral concerns were legitimate, but no excuse for the regime of informal censorship that had stymied conversation about human evolution; because (3) race is a real and biologically useful construct; (4) races are different from each other in small, but likely meaningful ways, and (5) some of these differences likely explain differences among human civilizations.
The book was greeted with a fleet of enthusiastic denunciations. Many reviewers insinuated, often not subtly, that Wade was either a racist or a useful idiot performing the work of racists. For example, Eric Michael Johnson, an evolutionary anthropologist writing for Scientific American, published a scathing review called “On the Origin of White Power,” which was affixed with an image of the Klu Klux Klan. And Jonathan Marks, a biological anthropologist writing for the Huffington Post, concluded his review of Wade’s book thus: “Afraid not. The burden of proof still lies with the panderer of outmoded, racist ideologies masquerading as science.”
As hostile reviews and accusations of racism piled up, a group of geneticists and evolutionary scientists collaborated to pen an open letter to the New York Times denouncing Wade’s book and his misappropriation of the genetics literature. In it, they wrote, “Wade juxtaposes an incomplete and inaccurate account of of genetic differences with speculation that recent natural selection has led to worldwide differences in I.Q. test results, political institutions, and economic development.” Although these scientists are certainly free to write an open letter derogating Wade’s work or accusing it of morally dubious motives, such a step is highly unusual. It’s hard to imagine that the book would have instigated such a controversy had he speculated (without evidence) that all group differences are caused by the environment. Furthermore, the letter misrepresented A Troublesome Inheritance, as did many of its signatories. In an interview with Ewen Callaway about the open letter, for example, Sarah Tishkoff contended that Wade got the science wrong because, “You may see that individuals cluster by major geographic regions. The problem is, there are no firm boundaries.” But, Wade argued precisely the same thing in the book, noting that “because there is no clear dividing line, there are no distinct races — that is the nature of variation within a species. Nonetheless, useful distinctions can be made” (p 92).
The lesson to others was clear: If you transgress a sacred value of demographic equality, then you will pay a steep price. Let us be clear about what we are saying. The book should have inspired vigorous disputation. That is how science works. Criticize the data, draw attention to flaws in the theory, and sedulously inspect proposed hypotheses. But what happened to Wade went well beyond standard scientific scrutiny as he was subjected to odious attacks and accusations. Furthermore, his book was routinely misrepresented, often in crude ways, to make it sound fatuously dedicated to long refuted Platonic notions of race and racial hierarchies. This is a familiar pattern. When one violates the new orthodox narrative, one’s work is almost invariably mischaracterized and one is then publicly flagellated for being a moral fiend.
Now consider an even more alarming case: James Damore. In August of 2017, his internal memo on diversity, in which he contended that extant diversity programs were badly designed because they ignored genetically caused sex differences, was published online. Reaction was swift and hostile. Damore was depicted at best as a clueless male unwittingly perpetuating tech culture’s toxic patriarchy and at worst, as a insidious sexist defending an exclusive tech club from real diversity. For just a couple examples from mainstream outlets, Vox published an article excoriating the memo subtitled, “James Damore’s sexist screed indicted all of Silicon Valley.” And the Guardian published an article entitled, “Google’s sexist memo has provided the alt-right with a new martyr.”
After a feverish few days of insults, misrepresentations, and scientifically uninformed commentary, Google fired Damore for violating its terms of employment. Damore protested to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that he was improperly fired. On January 16th, the board decided that the firing was acceptable because “statements about immutable traits linked to sex — such as women’s heightened neuroticism and men’s prevalence at the top of the IQ distribution — were discriminatory and constituted sexual harassment notwithstanding efforts to cloak comments with ‘scientific references’ and analysis…[emphasis added].”
This decision should be chilling to anyone who values free speech. Of course, Google is a private business, and it can fire employees for a variety of speech acts that would be protected by the first amendment; but the decision articulates a truly alarming principle: the very act of forwarding scientifically respectable, evidence supported hypotheses about sex differences constitutes discrimination and harassment. Imagine if this principle were applied to evolutionary psychology professors who taught about widely accepted sex differences in sexual desire, personality traits, and cognitive capacities.
The Damore case followed the same pattern noted in the section on Nicholas Wade. First, his work was grossly mischaracterized. Even respectable outlets and pundits described it as a “sexist screed,” and an “anti-diversity memo.” And second, he was publicly defamed for his supposed moral treachery. Like others who have transgressed the sacred narrative of the new orthodoxy, the intelligentsia very publicly punished him as a warning: Do not violate these norms or you will be publically destroyed.
Remember Kant’s definition of Enlightenment: “It is the freedom to make public use of one’s reason at every point.” As the cases of Wade and Damore (and many others) illustrate, this freedom is under assault from the intelligentsia. What make this assault particularly insidious is that many who lead it are ostensibly dedicated to science, to humanism, and to free inquiry. Unlike religious conservatives, for example, they do not reject many modern scientific discoveries, and they do not promote transparently ridiculous metaphysical claims. They are more refined, more like a subtle rain than a storm, slowly eroding norms of free speech and inquiry.
Take Vox, a popular liberal outlet, for example. It advertises itself as a hyper-rational, scientifically literate source that “explains” the news. The writers and editors clearly lean left, but often grapple intelligently with conservative ideas. It now releases many podcasts, including The Ezra Klein Show and Vox’s The Weeds, which are rather like the website. conservatives often appear on Klein’s show; and he disputes them without resorting to ad hominem attacks.
But when issues that touch upon the new orthodoxy’s sacred narrative arise, Vox is almost as bad as any articulate campus crusader. It routinely publishes tendentious articles that personally assail those who contradict the narrative. For example, the first four articles that came up on Google when we searched for “Vox Damore Memo” were all hostile and full of blatant misrepresentations. The first was called, “James Damore has sued Google. His memo on women in tech is still nonsense” and subtitled, “Don’t be taken by the document’s faux reasonable tone.” The second was called, “Google has fired the engineer whose anti-diversity memo reflects a divided tech culture,” and proceeded to call the memo a “sexist screed.” The third, written by Ezra Klein, was subtitled “Why an anti-diversity memo by a midlevel software engineer became a national scandal.” The fourth was an article that attempted to smear Damore for a poorly considered joke on Twitter, entitled “The Google memo guy wants us to acknowledge all the ‘fun’ parts of the KKK.”
Instead of inviting vigorous debate or talking to scientific experts on sex differences, Vox consistently assailed Damore’s character and incessantly misdescribed his “memo” as an “anti-diversity screed.” Those who have read the document carefully know that it was enthusiastically pro-diversity and that it was judiciously written, the furthest thing from a screed one could imagine. But the damage was done, because (1) many people didn’t read the original document, so just assumed that it was, in fact, a relentlessly hostile rant and (2) Damore’s public reputation was severely damaged and he was fired from Google.
We don’t mean to single out Vox, but they are a great illustration of this problem precisely because they can be so reasonable about other issues. They and others like them, establish the limits of acceptable discourse. But they do so in a subtle way. They appear cool-headed, rational, and open. And they assiduously mischaracterize before they attack, so that fair-minded observers think, “Well, if that is what Damore (substitute Charles Murray, J. P. Rushton, Nicholas Wade, et cetera) wrote, then he deserves to be chastised.”
Racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry certainly still plague modern society. And it is laudable that modern thinkers are devoted to defending those who have been victimized by iniquitous discrimination. But this defense doesn’t require the ritualized slandering of those who forward controversial but judiciously worded theories that challenge implausible notions of demographic similarity and cultural equality. It requires a commitment to treating people as individuals, not as token representations of broader aggregates such as racial or sexual or religious groups. Men might, on average, be physically stronger than women. But this doesn’t mean that women who are qualified should be barred from becoming firefighters or police officers. This simple message used to inspire near universal consent, now it might qualify as a microaggression.
The informal censoring of speech is not just an assault on Enlightenment values, it is also quite probably counterproductive. It leaves a void for extremists to fill because moderates are too afraid to speak or write about controversial topics. And as the censorship increases in intensity, the appeal of these extremists increases as well. They might be vile, but at least have the courage to say what they think, and at least they talk about easily perceived differences without resorting to implausible explanations. The result is a dwindling center, vacated by those who sympathize with moderate philosophies, but who are disgusted by the censoriousness of the intellectuals who now propound them. As this intellectual center unravels, the values of the Enlightenment unravel with it as extremism on both sides replaces free inquiry and dispute with name-calling and mutual hostility.
IV. Enlightenment Now
Although many of us take the values of the Enlightenment for granted, they are not a gift of nature nor of a benevolent god. They were hard earned achievements that require commitment, protection, and vigilance. We should all fear that the Enlightenment might have been an ephemeral moment, a transient ray of light striking a dark world, that may give way again to the barbarism of passion and prejudice. And that fear should motivate us to give vigorous defense to reason, to science, to humanism, and to progress. Pinker’s book is a stirring call to do just that. Cheers to those who heed his message.