How We Evaluate Our Current Circumstances: Talking to Steven Pinker

In what ways do progressive critics of the Enlightenment’s legacy find themselves nonetheless indebted to Enlightenment principles and argumentative practices? In what ways might constrictive counter-Enlightenment trends prompt sober, empirically circumspect thinkers to become ever more engaged, impassioned, inventive writers? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Steven Pinker. This present conversation (transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman) focuses on Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Pinker, an experimental psychologist, conducts research in visual cognition, psycholinguistics, and social relations. Currently Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard, he has also taught at Stanford and MIT. He has won numerous prizes for his research, his teaching, and his nine previous books, including: The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and The Sense of Style. Pinker is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Humanist of the Year, a recipient of nine honorary doctorates, and one of Foreign Policy’s “World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals” and Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” He chairs the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and writes frequently for The New York Times, The Guardian, and other publications.


 ANDY FITCH: This book often evokes the abstracted premises and broader cultural implications of Enlightenment arguments. But here could we start by addressing what you also might value and potentially emulate in Enlightenment writers’ (not just thinkers’) mode of presentation? What do you consider the most “Enlightenment” stylistic or rhetorical aspects of Enlightenment Now — its innovative methods of making its case (here prioritizing quantitative data in place of moralizing preference)? Its at times polemical tone? Its tonic public interventions? And why did this form of the big, sprawling book with dozens of technical subtopics make sense here? What do you see that gesture towards the synoptic or comprehensive social vision accomplishing, particularly amid your own weariness of “specialists in generalizations”?

STEVEN PINKER: One aspect of the book unlike anything that came out of the Enlightenment is the use of data as a basic component of the argumentation. It’s not that I think Enlightenment figures would have found this mode of argument alien. On the contrary, the use of graphs to visualize data was itself an Enlightenment innovation. Algebraic equations had been displayed as graphs ever since René Descartes invented analytic geometry, but the extension of graphs to illustrate messy real-world data, rather than abstract mathematical relationships, emerged in the 18th century, thanks to the Scottish engineer William Playfair. Of course data to fill those graphs, on the scale I relied on in this book, simply did not exist at that time. Data-driven argumentation required the establishment of institutional data-gathering (by United Nations agencies and NGO’s, and also by academic projects), which furnished large-scale quantitative measures of well-being for societies in the past and at present. This also required the computational resources to store, analyze, and display the data.

One feature of Enlightenment writing that I strove to emulate was the avoidance of turgid, colorless academic prose, and a reliance instead on concrete examples and vivid imagery. Many Enlightenment thinkers (including David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, and Voltaire) were dazzling stylists — a mode of presentation that got lost with the scholarly specialization of the 20th century. As a psycholinguist who wrote a book on writing style, I often wonder why we are so struck by the vividness and emotional punch of writing from earlier centuries. Perhaps it’s just a selection bias — the drudges of the 18th century have been forgotten, while the wordsmiths attained immortality. But I suspect that intellectual writing styles have changed. We have developed a vocabulary for abstract concepts that makes our prose more efficient, but also more lifeless. In eras before that technical vocabulary had arisen, one had to reach for metaphors, idioms, and images to convey an abstract idea. We, for example, might use the term “aggression,” whereas Hume might have referred to “the elements of the wolf and serpent kneaded into our frame” [Laughter], which makes for delightful exposition, with just a bit more verbosity.

As for a polemical style, certainly many Enlightenment treatises were polemics. It’s not that they pursued a single idea for an entire monograph; the authors folded in a number of arguments they wanted to advance. Similarly, Enlightenment Now doesn’t present a single idea that’s carried forward as a narrative arc from beginning to end, but makes the case for several ideals, namely those making up the subtitle: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

For abstract terms that Enlightenment Now makes quite vivid, I first think of “entropy.” And it intrigues me that such an optimistically inclined book seems to found its worldview on this picture of existential bleakness (though of course Existentialists likewise might have considered themselves optimists), here particularly in relation to processes of entropy playing out at the level of cosmos, species, civilization, institution, person. But in case my account of entropy already sounds arid (or alternately, mystical) in the abstract, could you clarify how this foundational assumption that existence holds possibilities for an exponentially greater number of disordered than of ordered states contributes, say, to this book’s basic call not to take for granted the world-reshaping efficacy of rational human agency?

That pinpoints a major component of the worldview motivating this book, together with evolution (the fact that human nature emerged from a competitive process that selected for reproductive success, rather than for well-being or any other state we value). These two concepts can’t help but shape one’s assumptions about the default state of human existence, and hence how we evaluate our current circumstances. If, as I argue, the human condition tends toward squalor, disease, early death, and violent competition, then one can celebrate the accomplishments of civilization and of the Enlightenment. These include institutions (such as liberal democratic governance, regulated markets, the rule of law) that make possible our advance over this state of nature. In contrast, if one assumes that human beings, left to their own devices, bring forth harmony, abundance, and equality, then every shortcoming in our present world is a crime, an outrage, a punishment, or degeneration from some Edenic state, and one seeks malefactors to blame for our fall. So what may seem like an optimistic view of modernity is in fact a consequence of a realistic assessment of what we have a right to expect from the default human condition. Every pushback against entropy, the darker sides of human nature, and the living world’s indifference to our well-being represents a victory that we ought to savor, a victory attributable to human ingenuity and human sympathy. From that perspective, you don’t see every problem as a sign of evil intent by some malefactor whom we must punish or defeat.

I’ll definitely want to return to some concrete examples for how these different baseline assessments shape one’s interpretation of present social circumstances. But since we’ve both referred to optimism, could we first clarify how Enlightenment Now defines and applies that concept — specifically in relation to what you present as a pervasive optimism gap? And could you track, say on a personal level, how our lived grappling with entropy might in fact contribute to this widespread optimism gap — to our palpable sense of a circumscribed zone of order and strength emanating (for now) from our own embodied being, even as we witness order routinely seeming to collapse all around us?

I borrowed the phrase “optimism gap” from the journalist David Whitman. It describes a phenomenon familiar to public-opinion researchers and pollsters: people typically give a far more pessimistic view of their society than of their own personal circumstances. People perceive the nation’s schools as failing, but consider their own kids’ school pretty good. They like their congressional representative, but consider Congress corrupt and incompetent. They represent their neighborhoods as safe, but their broader city as dangerous, and so on. With questions of happiness, the gap is more like a chasm, with people declaring that they themselves are pretty happy, but their compatriots live lives of quiet desperation. Editorialists are often victims of the same illusion, presenting the public as angrier and more miserable than they really are. This makes human progress invisible, and it can feed into political forces such as populism, which we in turn misattribute to widespread misery.

Of course certain sectors of the American population (such as African Americans in some urban neighborhoods, and rural, non-college-educated, middle-aged white men) often do live in genuinely miserable circumstances. But we make a mistake when we conceive of the whole country as being in desperate straits. And often these negative misperceptions of national trends motivate anti-establishment voting patterns, which then intensify cultural pessimism among many intellectuals, who perceive people’s prospects as getting worse, even when data points to global human prospects getting better. We develop spurious theories about the world, stoked by journalism’s tendency to report catastrophes, violence, and misfortunes wherever they occur worldwide — which often are the definition of newsworthiness. This habit ignores the slow systemic trends towards human progress that we continue to make. Data can help to correct those misperceptions, by folding into the totals all the happy (if less newsworthy) non-occurrences of catastrophe, all the countries that are at peace, all of the people who don’t get murdered, all of the schools which don’t get shot up, so that we can appreciate the tremendous progress the world has in fact made.

Here you astutely call on longer historical trajectories to provide a more galvanizing narrative of human achievement. And here perhaps you most acutely differentiate your own approach from many artistic, intellectual, academic colleagues’ — those you characterize as pointing a blaming finger for remaining social problems, let’s say, rather than recognizing these suboptimal states as the default in an indifferent universe, rather than recognizing Enlightenment projects as among the most inventive, most constructive responses that humans ever have devised to this default state. Could you give a couple instances of where you see critiques of Enlightenment values and/or Enlightenment social gains most strikingly overlooking their own indebtedness to those very values and gains?

I’d start with the denigration of reason, objectivity, and truth, which is the core of postmodernism. As Thomas Nagel points out, these critiques cannot sustain themselves. Any argument presenting everything as relative, and nothing as objective, instantly undermines its own claim to be universally and objectively true — as opposed to being just the prejudice or opinion of the one stating it.

A Cretan paradox.

Exactly. How do you evaluate the claim of a Cretan who says that all Cretans are liars? More broadly, the facts that most people today live well into their seventies and eighties, and that they acquire so much information from computational processing and electronic media, reveal the cosmic ingratitude of anyone who claims that science and technology have made our lives meaningless. Or think of our modern capabilities to keep in contact with loved ones, to travel and see the world, to experience the world’s cornucopia of cultures through streaming audio, video, and digital archives. With a few mouse clicks one can watch any of the classics of cinema, which was impossible in my student days — at best, if one lived in a major metropolitan area, every few years perhaps one could catch a film at the local repertory theater, or could see a masterpiece of painting in muddy black-and-white reproduction.

So, for a more abstracted case, critiques of the Enlightenment’s implication in colonial and racist enterprises might be valid to a large extent, but do not exhaustively account for the Enlightenment’s legacy — which in fact provides the intellectual and ethical foundation for any human-rights based critique of these Enlightenment outcomes.

The idea that the Enlightenment is responsible for colonialism and racism is ahistorical and indefensible. Imperial expansion is as old as civilization. Remember all those empires? The Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the expansion of France in the era of Louis XIV. Imperial expansion was what civilizations did.

In fact, many Enlightenment thinkers provided passionate opposition to the colonialism and imperial expansion of their own countries, possibly for the first time in history, so any attribution of imperialism to the Enlightenment is just anachronistic. Indeed the historically most influential rejection of European colonialism was a quintessentially Enlightenment product. It’s called the American Revolution! And the founders and framers were Enlightenment thinkers, inspired by the Scottish, English, and French Enlightenments. These Enlightenments also included arguments against slavery and the mistreatment of Native peoples. Slavery, like imperialism, is as old as civilization, and it was around the time of the Enlightenment that concerted arguments against slavery got voiced. As for racism, it’s probably a default attitude of humanity — part of our tendency to demonize and denigrate out-groups, whether defined by visible biological differences, language, or ethnicity. To claim that racism emerged with the Enlightenment is historically ignorant: there were claims by the medieval Arabs and the ancient Greeks about the inherent inferiority of Africans which would make your skin crawl.

And for the broader concept of fallibility, could you outline a more coherent conversation we could have today regarding the Enlightenment’s legacy, in which we first recognize that even the biggest problems we presently face imply a great deal of preceding historical progress — and yet in which we simultaneously embrace the fallibilist’s assumption that such progress inevitably brings forth new threats, new concerns, new recognitions of our inability to uphold our own ideals, new baseline standards, newly rigorous requirements to improve our circumstances even further? Could you describe how such a process of conceptual unbundling (perpetually addressing problematic symptoms as they arise, without presuming any possibility for some finalizing, totalizing cure) differs categorically from a “root cause” critique calling for more sweeping, definitive, revolutionary change?

I would say that the scientific mindset has made a major contribution to our understanding of humanity and society. Now, most nonscientists associate the word “science” with precision, objectivity, and experimentation. But if you shook most scientists out of a deep sleep, if you asked them as they awakened for the single word that most captures what makes science science, most would say “falsifiability” — the idea that we must have some empirical means to determine whether a claim is false. Karl Popper identified this conviction as the key to the scientific mindset, which I argue we ought to apply more broadly to beliefs about society and the human condition. Since none of us is omniscient, and none of us is infallible, we need to recognize and accept when our best observations of the real world disprove our most cherished beliefs. This particularly applies to the causes and effects by which (an ideology insists) society functions. Take, for example, the claim that the root causes of crime are poverty, inequality, and racism. It’s an ideological claim that has been shattered by the facts, with crime rates in the U.S. sometimes plummeting while inequality and poverty increased, such as after the Great Recession in 2008.Or crime rates soaring in eras with much greater equality than we find today, such as the 1960s. Similarly, we should approach other complex social phenomena, such as war and health, with the attitude that our beliefs about causes and effects must remain provisional, susceptible to empirical confirmation or falsification.

Here could we keep exploring a tension between defending the Enlightenment, and holding the Enlightenment accountable to its own standards of scrutiny? Could you further clarify if/how you see this book as not reinforcing some categorical distinction between Enlightenment optimism and intellectual/critical/ideological pessimism (or skepticism), so much as fusing the best of both impulses? I guess I want to make clear to readers, for example, that your book doesn’t disparage every regulatory mechanism within society, that you do find significant value in holding progress itself perpetually to account, that you do acknowledge how technocratic pragmatists at times rely on radical (perhaps to some extent counter-Enlightenment) idealists to push public conversations forward (say on responses to climate change).

Indeed. Many intellectuals have been seduced by some top-down view of society, which licenses a political and economic system based entirely on rational analysis. But history shows such plans to be untenable. An example is the extreme libertarian proposal for an ideal minimalist government that does nothing but enforce contracts and keep the peace. I do accept the milder libertarian argument that government shouldn’t get into the business of perfecting people’s lives. But the extreme libertarian analysis has to deal with several recalcitrant facts. One is that 100% of developed states have felt the need to develop an extensive system of social transfers: the number of libertarian paradises in the world is zero. Another is that countries committed to greater social spending than the U.S. (such as the Northern and Western European countries) attain much better outcomes for their citizens by criteria we all accept: rates of violence, health, longevity, education, and so on. Contrary to extreme libertarian theory, countries with extensive market regulation and social transfers don’t slide into totalitarian dictatorships, but tend to be rather pleasant places to live. That should force you to go back and reevaluate arguments presenting a minimal government as the optimal state of affairs.

During my years of reading the data that led me to write The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now, I was repeatedly amazed by the success of countries like Canada, New Zealand, Denmark, and Norway at reaching every measure of well-being one would want to celebrate — including those most embraced by American conservatives, such as infrequent out-of-wedlock births, drug abuse, and abortion (whereas the United States does poorly on all these measures). It also struck me that as countries like Brazil and India become more affluent, they likewise expand their systems of social transfers. After I plotted one graph showing how richer countries expand their social spending, I learned that this trend even has a name: Watson’s Law.

Of course the fact that all developed societies have embarked on social transfers doesn’t by itself imply some optimal, necessary, or inevitable state. But the data do lead one to rethink any libertarian ideology that envisions a wealthy, well-functioning society with no need for social spending or regulation. For that matter, another surprise in the data was that strong indices of economic freedom (how easy it is to start a business, how robust the systems of contracts and finance) are often found in countries with robust social-safety nets. Here the idea that support systems for health care, or for children, seduce governments into exerting a stranglehold on the economy seems theoretically plausible, but empirically false.

Enlightenment Now playfully describes you picking up the broader role of “something of a watchdog for politically correct dogma in academia,” guarding against ideological orthodoxy, so that we can live up to our claims and play the part of objective, transparent experts and authorities. I value you adopting that watchdog role, and working to articulate how such a role can avoid seeming arbitrary, overly personal, positing one’s particular tastes as moralizing preferences. So which specific perversities and excesses that you observe within professional contexts prompt you to more summary statements such as “Intellectuals hate progress”? And how would you recommend pursuing a coherent conceptual unbundling of inherited (potentially unexamined) social premises, while nonetheless remaining wary of more compulsive critical tendencies to resist (at least rhetorically) progress in all its forms?

Various positions get bound together, which we ought to unbundle. Take the sociological fact that people who favor gun control as a way of reducing violence also tend to favor greater government support for the arts, and a stronger system of social welfare. Nothing in any one of these positions logically entails the others. Some of these preferences might involve defensible beliefs, and others might not. And so we should put more effort into examining individual beliefs, and avoid basing our judgment on which ideological tribe we belong to. With the exception of reason itself, which can’t be questioned (as long as one insists that one’s arguments are reasonable in the first place), any principles, Enlightenment or not, should be subject to analysis, critique, refutation.

Again in terms of counter-Enlightenment tendencies, and returning to questions of style, of tone, I appreciate your formulation that, at least since the Hebrew prophets, pessimism often has been equated with moral seriousness. And I sense an interesting tension in Enlightenment Now coming across as argumentatively optimistic, but tonally pessimistic. I sense a paradox in your book confidently tracking the global spread of Enlightenment principles and outcomes, even while detailing many localized pockets of counter-Enlightenment resistance. But should rates of counter-Enlightenment pressures today (like rates of violence — still intolerably high, no doubt, but nothing like the past) ultimately provide some comfort as we keep pushing for further Enlightenment progress? If progress never comes monotonically, should we watch out for getting too hung up on hiccups along the way? Should we redirect ourselves to soberly (but also exuberantly) discerning which cultural developments have succeeded best at promoting Enlightenment values, and how to intensify these trends? Could this type of resilient, pragmatic exploration even stem from a place of joy (in the Spinozan sense, with our capacities most fully flourishing), and again, why didn’t that particular tone predominate all the more here? Or to pivot slightly with this question: how/when should we not only resist any counter-Enlightenment, but also learn from it? What can it teach us about rhetorical insufficiencies in how Enlightenment projects have presented themselves thus far? Especially if we posit that advocacy for rational human agency does not inevitably presume that humans in fact behave as perfectly rational agents, then what other types of affect-heavy engagements, perspectival articulations, projection-inducing myths, etcetera, might we need alongside virtuoso arguments and even inventive catalogues of quantitative data?

First of all, as you hinted, progress cannot possibly mean that everything gets better in every way for everyone everywhere all the time. That wouldn’t be progress — it would be magic! Progress consists in solving problems, and problems are inevitable. Indeed, solutions themselves create new problems. And we always can be blindsided by unpleasant surprises. I certainly felt that point acutely when, halfway through writing this book, the United States elected Donald Trump president. That didn’t seem to be such a good example of progress [Laughter], particularly since the themes that Trump and other authoritarian populists in the Western world have advanced are so floridly counter-Enlightenment. These tribal, authoritarian figures show no particular sympathy for science, nor for humanism.

I would have needed to write this book anyway, given the considerable hostility directed at science, reason, and rationality within certain sectors of academia and intellectual life. But given the political developments of 2016, I couldn’t conceivably have written a triumphalist record of advancing Enlightenment values. For one thing I had to separate even further the normative argument that we ought to embrace Enlightenment values from the empirical argument that Enlightenment values have become increasingly influential. I tend to consider both arguments true, but they are not the same argument. During the Enlightenment itself, Enlightenment institutions barely existed. The argument had to be made for the desirability of such institutions, in an era when they were products of the imagination. Today, to a large extent, they do exist, but they are still under threat — which explains why I consider the book’s argument so timely.

And you’re right that I present my arguments in a forceful polemical style, in part responding to the pugnacious style with which contrary arguments are often presented (often obliviously, with their proponents simply considering themselves to be standing up against evil and foolishness). As the economist Joan Robinson put it, “Ideology is like breath: you never smell your own.” [Laughter] I do of course have to apply that point to myself, if I hope to remain thoroughgoing and rational. And I take your point that ultimately the persuasiveness of Enlightenment ideals ought to get communicated through a variety of styles. Here I’ve used the method at which I feel most competent. But soaring, inspiring rhetoric can provide another means of persuasion. The literary arts can provide a third. Other people have in fact advanced compatible ideas with different styles. I would characterize Barack Obama as having a worldview largely overlapping the one this book advances. I use a quote from Obama as the epigraph for the long section on progress. And Obama was often credited for his ability to inspire, to use the cadences of a preacher, to use vivid imagery, to use soaring rhetoric — techniques I would not trust myself to attempt, but which can complement the polemical style that I did use.

Again in terms of style, or method, I very much admire your innovative and ethically rigorous approach to quantifying trends of human well-being (rather than cherry-picking anecdotal accounts from the textual records typically left by privileged individuals). And here, and at the risk of raising another polarizing topic: if we posit the possibility of present-day audiences perhaps at times feeling overwhelmed by data, skeptical of any particular data set, starved for the non-quant case that this specific data set we’ve chosen is in fact the best set to choose, then I sense us straying back towards thinking through the foundational place of valuation in promoting a catalytic sense of human agency — and I can think of no more prescient explorations on such questions of valuation than those made by Friedrich Nietzsche. And if you don’t mind a little additional Nietzsche needling, I also might point out that your book presents Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault as seductive, charismatic, persuasive, popularizing pessimists — and, yet, at the same time, as somehow repelling today’s youths from humanities departments “in droves.” Or could I just offer the admittedly unverifiable intuition that Nietzsche himself would have liked your book [Laughter], particularly the critique of Nietzsche?

I would like to think so. It’s an appealing thought. The discussion of Nietzsche in Enlightenment Now comes from a number of observations. First, many defenders of religion say that Nietzsche got it right: if you abandon belief in God, then you inevitably abandon morality, compassion, universal human values — all you’re left with is the ruthless egoism of the superman. Therefore, if we believe in compassion and universal human rights, we have no choice but to accept God. But both Nietzsche and his religion-defending adversaries have accepted the same false premise — that there cannot be a robust secular basis for morality. In fact there is such a basis, both in the interchangeability of perspectives and interests (whereby I can’t hope to convince you that only my interests count, because I’m me and you’re not), and in the enormous opportunities for positive-sum benevolence (when people treat each other well, everybody is better off, so that we have a selfish interest in everyone being moral). So the Nietzschean assumption, accepted even by his worst enemies, that only God can justify a compassionate, benevolent morality needed to be countered.

Also, regardless of whatever subtle or paradoxical or oblique conclusion a sophisticated exegete may pry out of Nietzsche’s writings, the fact is that almost everyone else he inspired was atrocious. The Nazis, the fascists, and today’s alt-right and neo-Nazis all credit Nietzsche as among their biggest inspirations. Now, it’s true that Nietzsche himself was no racist or anti-Semite or nationalist, but it’s only a short step to generalize from his superior individual to a superior nation or race — with both sharing Nietzsche’s indifference to the well-being of the mass of humanity. And historically, we know that many people did make this leap, especially Nietzsche’s own sister, who made him the posthumous Nazi court philosopher. Any defender of Nietzsche needs to take seriously the adage “by their fruits ye shall know them,” and recognize the flaws in an ideology that inspired so many malevolent movements. Bolshevism itself (which is ideologically contrasted with fascism, though with obvious practical overlaps) was influenced by Nietzsche, as was Ayn Rand — although she later tried to conceal it.

Yeah, I think religious advocates like to present this narrow “God is dead” view of Nietzsche, just to scare off people from seeing Nietzsche actively seek to redefine ethical possibilities, rather than to dismiss those possibilities. But anyway, I won’t hold your guilt-by-attribution or -association or -influence critique of Nietzsche to any further account. I appreciate you giving me a lot of time amid all the attention your book has received, and I’ll just point out that if you ever look at the Gay Science, you might happen to find an essential precursor to Enlightenment Now.

Yes, I am fully prepared to try that and see — Enlightenment open-mindedness in practice.

Photo of Steven Pinker by Rose Lincoln / Harvard University