We have been critical of pinker for a long time: the original blog Darwiniana critized his darwinism and his flawed take on the ‘Enlightenment’. His darwinism next to that of coyne is hard to grasp: smart people are supposed to be smart, but when it comes to darwinism people seem to ‘lose it’.
I fear that when someone like pinker, along with sam harris and many secular humanists making religion of reason, try to promote the Enlightenment the whole effort backfires and the period can suffer attacks from enemies of pinker, and those sick of ‘Enlightenment’ propaganda. With friends like this, who needs enemies… It is useful to see the period in term of the ‘eonic effect’: the whole period is a part of larger process and is like the ‘banner of the regiment’, setting a possible keynote. To promote reason is thus the play of one of the instruments in the concert. Not some ultimate. After two millennia of religious confusion its keynote is thus a tonic, no more no less.
That said, it is very hard to grasp the Enlightenment period because it is both under-rated and over-rated. It is part of a much greater transformation and is only a moment in that process. Further, taken in isolation it is subjected to a set of ideological fan-club hyped promos and/or exposes. The Dialectic of the Enlightenment was one of the critiques, as brilliant as it is flawed, but par for the course: the ‘Enlightenment’ is not divine revelation. Why on earth not apply rational critique to the Enlightenment itself? A related critique article here linked asks why rousseau and marx aren’t a part of the enlightenment: but absoutely they are, but in a different context of the modern transition which includes trends toward liberation, and the somewhat later critique of liberalism, another good example of the ‘dialectic, not of the Enlightenment’ but of the modern transition. The birth of liberalism and its critiques are thus a successive dialectic of the larger modern transition. The Enlightenment is clearly closer to that era of liberal emergence.
But getting it right can be tricky. To say that the Enlightenment invented modern racism is a baffling distortion.The modern transition gestates the passage to abolitionism and the latter is one of his great outcomes, and that is a good example of a larger transformation which transcends the Enlightenment itself.
It is useful to stand back and study the so-called ‘eonic effect’ and from there the ‘modern transition’: we see the Enlightenment as a climactic moment in that mystery, but it is such in concert with much else: we forget therefore that the Enlightenment and the Romantic era are counterpoint is a complex process, one that is larger than that expressed by individuals as thinkers. Dialectic indeed.
The modern transition stretches between the Reformation, the rise of the new science, revolutionary democratic, social equalization, and finally the gestation of the industrial revolution, and much else. It gives birth to socialism and capitalism in tandem, dialectic indeed. At all points it is a complex of opposites and yet a unity and each stage is expressed via (often flawed) individuals. That’s an important person: we tend to abstract the ‘Enlightenment’, but in the end it is a concert of individuals, and of those some were counterpoint. It is important to see the rise of secularism in this context: the ‘age of reason’ produces a classic range of critiques of religion, along with the seeds for a new future of such, etc…
The misunderstandings of pinker are thus not surprising, and his lingering darwinism is a sabotage of his entire oeuvre, unfortunately.
The Enlightenment taken alone is misleading: it is part of the larger process of the modern transition. It is part of the battle for modernity and its plug for rationality is in concert with romantic era challenges.
The reader might adjourn to a reading of the material on the eonic effect, forthwith…