Does the Enlightenment Need Defending?

Steven Pinker and Homi Bhabha discuss.

Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker and postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha, both professors at Harvard University, participated at our festival HowTheLightGetsIn London on 22-23 September at Kenwood House. While Pinker focuses on the merits of the Enlightenment, Bhabha outlines its complicated and dual reverberations. We asked the two luminaries to engage in a written dialogue about the good, the bad and the ugly of the Enlightenment in the twenty-first century, starting from an extract from Pinker's book Enlightenment Now.

Steven Pinker: ''The Enlightenment principle that we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing may seem obvious, trite, old-fashioned. I wrote this book because I have come to realise that it is not. More than ever, the ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress need a wholehearted defense. We take its g

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Rolo Harbiff 19 October 2018

Disappointingly Homi Bhabha appears only interested in pointing out the deficiencies of the modern moment but not in addressing the argument at hand. Surely there must be at least some reasonable arguments against Pinker's position?

Pete Harrison 19 October 2018

The Western ‘Enlightenment’ is the conceptual superstructure that grew upon the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution (when merchants - in weaving particularly - discovered the endless possibilities of extracting 'relative surplus value', instead of just 'absolute surplus value', from the labour of others - this was a technological and organisational change in labour relations that made technological advance a societal motor and imperative). This early superstructure was expressed in movements such as Calvinism, for example. The material base for these changes in 'ideology' was the Industrial Revolution. It is no coincidence that Portuguese-born Spinoza is the first of the 'modern' philosophers... and that he happened to live in Holland.

The Industrial Revolution was not and is not nice. And the same goes for the Enlightenment. Nor was the emergence of the State and its spread across the globe. We mustn’t confuse ‘The Enlightenment’ with the term ‘enlightenment’. Owning a fridge, or appreciating Bach, might make one feel better than ‘prehistoric savages’ but it doesn’t make one any more intelligent.

The defenders of the ‘Enlightenment’ are defending what they perceive as progress, despite the horrors they might admit that lie in its wake. The critics of Enlightenment are saying that the Enlightenment hasn’t gone far enough. They are all on the same pedagogically driven team, but sometimes they forget. Defending or criticising the Enlightenment is to (sometimes blindly) enter the common discourse on ‘progress’, consciousness, and how to get people to think better, and this discourse is shaped by the practical realities of ‘modern’, global, mass, State, society.

The problem for those who wrestle with ‘what is to be done?’ is that there is no going back to before the Industrial Revolution, or to before the State, so criticisms that derive from the perspective of ‘going back’ have no validity or traction. Therefore, the practical options are either to strive mightily for a future Eden (communism, or some other millenarian nightmare) or, to follow Rousseau: make the best of a bad job and try to keep the bastards in charge as honest as possible.

We are stuck where we are. Progress is not movement but only busy work. The same goes for the Enlightenment or however we define the ideological superstructure that is our ‘modern’ mindset. It is noisy, calamitous, and sometimes briefly awe-inspiring. But humanity is by no means headed toward salvation through this process of progress and supposed consciousness-raising. Hegel and Marx were mystics of the materialism/idealism dichotomy and they were wrong.

Miklos Legrady 16 October 2018

excuse typos below, here should be an edit buton.

Miklos Legrady 16 October 2018

To answer Homi Bhabha: “Who has put the Enlightenment in the dock?" I read a consistent message in posts against Western colonialism, that ignores Chinese colonialism or any other nation. Then there's post that accuse the West of historical atrocities, while ignoring the historical atrocities of other nations. Then I read the Mueller report that says the Russians have been conducting a campaign of demoralization in the West, the ame way the U.S. did with Radio Free Europe, that helped bring down the Soviet empire. The Enlightenment is challenged by youtube videos such as #Western Science Must Fail (google it). At a conference a presenter said Western Science is a flawd assumption imposed on everyone. For example, if I call on lighting to hit someone a thousand miles away, and lighting does hit that person, Western Science cannot explain that!" A professor stood up to object but everyone shouted him down and shamed him for being disrespectful to non-Western ideas. Facebook posts are often anti-Western, and I'm wondering why? “ Who has put the Enlightenment in the dock?" Could be the Russians, working the idea that everyone here is to be historically illiterate.

J Moountfort 16 October 2018

It is so tiresome to view a debate in which both sides seek to "reduce" the other. In this instance, since there is so much empty-headed fashionable thinking devoted to reducing the Enlightenment to the sum of its presumed exemplars' errors, or giving it the failed-God treatment, as any self-absorbed sophomore might do, I have to go ahead and side with Pinker.