Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Counter Counter Counter Enlightenment

Stephen Pinker apparently imagines he is on a crusade to save the Enlightenment.  To those who disagree with him, he has this (among other things) to say:

Some [of the vitriol] is turf-protective: some highbrow pundits, cultural critics, literary intellectuals, humanities professors, and other members of C.P. Snow’s “Second Culture” resent the incursion of science, data, and quantification into territories traditionally fenced off and claimed by them. And a surprising number are cultural pessimists who despise the Enlightenment ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress. They prefer hermeneutic [textual interpretation] to analytic reasoning (one of the reasons they are sympathetic to religion even if they are atheists), valorize the consumption of elite art (as opposed to the well-being of the mass of humanity) as the highest moral good, and believe that Western civilization is on the verge of collapse and is so decadent and degenerate that anything that rises out of the rubble is bound to be an improvement.

The title of that article is "Counter-Enlightenment Convictions are 'Surprisingly Resilient'".  So yes, he really does believe he's defending the ivory towers of the Enlightenment from the barbaric hordes of postmodernism.

(A true story from my days in graduate school.  I took a class that met at night, which meant many of the professors came and many graduate students doing their doctoral work came to pontificate at each other.  I know how prone I am to do that, but I am still a piker compared to those who remain in memory green around that table.  One night the talk turned to what we are all doing there, as students and professors, and one professor, waving his hand in the direction of the football stadium, declared we in that room were defending the treasures of civilization from the barbaric hordes, meaning the people who filled that stadium and most of the students on campus.  It was a state school, not a private one, so it wasn't exclusive enough, I'm sure.  I don't remember now, 40+ years later, his precise words, but I remember the tenor, and I burst out laughing.  I was sure he meant it as a joke, it was such a cliche.  No one else laughed, and I might just as well have shit on the center of the table for the effect my laughter had.  Any idea I had of taking a Ph.D. in English ended that night, a decision I've never regretted.)

Let me first say Pinker doesn't understand C.P. Snow's argument at all, and second point out that even "analytical reasoning" is a hermeneutic (and not a unitary one; there are many kinds of analytical reasoning, but I'm sure Pinker insists there is only one true "analytical reasoning," much as Robert Jeffress would insist there is only one true Christianity, and he is the judge of it.).  To call it a hermeneutic, of course, is to remove it from the pantheon of Truths, or even from the pedestal of The One Truth, which he clearly thinks it is.  Part of the problem of scientists with no background in the humanities imagining they don't need to understand the humanities  but can just dismiss it in the name of Science, Truth, and Analytical Reasoning (which are a holy trinity, since they are all the same thing, right?  Funny how that works out.)  I don't resent the intrusion of science, data, and quantification into the humanities (has this guy ever studied prosody?  History?  Textual analysis?), but he clearly seems to resent the intrusion of hermeneutics (philosophy) into his science and quantification.  Maybe I should introduce him to Godel's Theorem of Incompleteness; it is, after all, based on mathematics, and is practically the underpinning of postmodernism.

I know I'm sidestepping the rest of his comment, for the moment; I'll come back to it.  Maybe.

The funny part about this conversation, prompted by Pinker's new book (and it turns out he's a psychologist?  I'd have sworn he was a linguist.  Well, that explains a lot, too.) that I stumbled into via Vox.  Pinker himself wrote this second book because the first book, about the "angels of our better nature," didn't actually bring the entire world to acknowledgment that Stephen Pinker had Figured It All Out.  No, really:

“I had thought that a parade of graphs with time on the horizontal axis, body counts or other measures of violence on the vertical, and a line that meandered from the top left to the bottom right would cure audiences” of their delusions and “persuade them that at least in this sphere of well-being the world has made progress,” he recalls near the beginning of “Enlightenment Now.” But Pinker’s inability to “cure audiences” and “persuade them” doesn’t mean he has reconsidered his rhetorical approach; 300 pages after bemoaning those poor souls who read “Better Angels” and weren’t bowled over by his panoply of statistics, Pinker doubles down with still more data. “We have seen six dozen graphs that have vindicated the hope for progress by charting the ways in which the world has been getting better,” he writes.
Being a teacher of composition and argument, my first thoughts on reading this go to Aristotle's four elements expressed in the rhetoric:  Ethos, Logos, Pathos, and Kairos.  Of the four (Ethos relates to the character of the speaker; Logos to the reasoning of the argument; Pathos to the ability of the speaker to connect emotionally to the audience, and Kairos, the current situation the audience is most interested in), only one rests on charts and graphs.  As I tell my students, the most logical argument in the world would appeal to robots (theoretically) or sentient computers (again, theoretically), but not to human beings.  3 of Aristotle's 4 elements concern audience response; without those three, logic is useless and ineffective.  Of course, Aristotle is not part of the Enlightenment, and his ideas of rhetoric don't take account of the power of science, data, and quantification; so what does he know?

I mean, really, this isn't rocket science.  And for all its accomplishment, the Enlightenment didn't reinvent the wheel.  Then again, I suspect Pinker's education not only didn't include humanities, but anything regarded as "the classics" (i.e., Greek and Roman writings).  One reason "if Voltaire or Leibniz or Kant stepped out of a time machine and commented on today’s political controversies, we’d think they were out to lunch."  More likely Voltaire, Leibniz, and Kant would regard Pinker and those who think him intelligent as uneducated boors.

 Part of the argument here is carried on in the Vox article, albeit rather weakly (especially as the author there identifies himself as a scholar, and dismisses the NYT review of Pinker's new book as the work of a "generalist"), that argument being that  SURPRISE!  SURPRISE! the Enlightenment was not a unitary thought project of Europeans who all thought as one because "analytical reasoning" can yield only one conclusion, and that conclusion = TRUTH!*

Who'da thunk it?

I was going to carry it on a bit and straighten out some of the weaknesses of the Vox article (IMHO, of course), but why bother? (Indeed, having read the NYT review of his book, I think the writer at Vox made the cardinal error of taking Pinker and his argument too seriously).  Pinker is a flyweight, a Sam Harris with tenure and minus the blatant racism; he's Jordan Peterson with better credentials than a YouTube audience provides.  But Immanuel Kant would have only been a university professor without his writings to leave behind, and despite Pinker's veiled swipe at people who are more highly regarded and likely to be better remembered than him, like Jacques Derrida (Derrida, not exactly an atheist but not exactly a confessing believer, was a professor of philosophy of religion; I think his "success" stings Pinker, so he alludes to Derrida as preferring hermeneutics, a common subject of Continental philosophy, over "analytical reasoning," the hallmark of Anglo-American philosophical schools.).  The examples of Kant and Derrida point up Pinker's failing:  he hasn't established anything worth discussing, nothing really lasting.  Daniel Dennett explained consciousness, and no one seems to have noticed.  Pinker has assured us, twice now, that this is the best of all possible worlds, but we all keep talking about Candide.  Oh, wait, sorry, that was a novel; no room for science, data, or quantification there, eh?

I all but promised to dig deeper into Pinker's statements quoted here, and I fully set out to do so; but why bother?  It's impossible to take him seriously when he thinks charts and graphs say all that need be said.  All I'm left with is Shakespeare's derisive dismissal, from the mouth of a university student, no less, and a student of human life:  "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."  Or captured in a graph with time on a horizontal axis, for that matter.  But then, "analytical reasoning" that isn't turned upon reasoning itself is not really analytical at all, is it?  I'm sure C.P. Snow would agree with me, just as I'm sure Stephen Pinker would dismiss me as being anti-Enlightenment.  Given Pinker's argument, I'd take the critique as a compliment.  And spend my time watching Wim Wenders documentary about Pope Francis.

*Part of the problem in the Vox article is the defense of the Enlightenment project as being a promotion of knowledge as a good, a benefit.  There is some acknowledgement that "progress" always has its cost, and that too is part of the knowledge that should be promoted; but the very idea that "knowledge" is good is so mundane and anodyne it can't really be called a product of the Enlightenment; at least not without committing Pinker's sin of ignoring the bulk of human history, knowledge, literature, and recorded experience.  Knowledge has always been considered better than ignorance, else why tell stories, why write poems, why invent written languages and methods of preservation?  What kind of knowledge may be of particular interest to the figures of the Enlightenment, but even then too narrow a definition is just putting blinders on.  The better term, in fact, is wisdom; which is considerably beyond knowledge, although not superior to it.  Well, not necessarily, anyway.


  1. Pinker: "...realistic fiction encourages readers to put themselves in the shoes of others unlike themselves, expands their circle of empathy, and makes them more receptive to humanitarian reforms...."

    Which makes me wonder how badly I screwed myself up reading Finnegans Wake.

  2. Still haven't done that. Haven't read "Ulysses," either. Knowing what I know about why Joyce wrote 'em, I doubt I ever will.

    Always knew you were a better man than me, Gungha Din.

    And realistic fiction is no better at Pinker's claim than Harry Potter or "The Lord of the Rings." To name two off the top of my head. Really, Pinker should stay out of areas of thought he has no training in, at least if he's going to pontificate on them.

  3. Of course there's no moral imperative to read them. I happened to enjoy them (well, at least part of the time). So much depends on what we want to do with the little time we have.

    But at the same time I had to smile at the aged Evelyn Waugh's take:

    EW - and he wrote absolute rot, you know. He began writing quite well and you can see him going mad as he wrote, and his last books - only fit to be set for examinations at Cambridge.

    EJH He didn’t always write gibberish, did he?

    EW No, you could watch him going mad sentence by sentence. If you read Ulysses, it’s perfectly sane for a little bit, and then it goes madder and madder - but that was before the Americans hired him. And then they hired him to write Finnegan’s Wake, which is gibberish.

    EJH Mm.

  4. I enjoyed Ulysses, though I found it impossible to take seriously for most of it. I looked at Finnegan's Wake and opted not to plough through it. I also looked at E.E. Cummings EIMI which makes Finnegan's Wake look lucid. Joyce generally put subjects verbs and objects in some of his sentences. I can't say it put me off of Cumming's poetry entirely but his political conclusions from his visit to the Soviet Union, what EIMI is supposed to be about, certainly made a dent in it.

    I don't remember who it was who talked about the phenomenon of university professors who had never read him but didn't hesitate to non placet Derrida because they knew he had cooties, I suspect that Pinker may have never read lots of what he comments on. I suspect that he, like most people who went to college about the time I did, didn't actually read authors, they read second-level things about them.

  5. Derrida is a tough read, no question about it, and extremely French. They embrace rhetoric in ways Anglo-American thinkers don't, and use it in ways that can seem bewildering (but it is the subject of their discourse, as much as the method of it). It can seem very foreign.

    I've found things that seem so foreign are usually dismissed out of hand, especially by people who write "BIG" books for popular consumption on subjects they really aren't trained in.