Why you should care

Because this really is a debate about which ideas best explain Western politics today.

Humans are becoming more rational and compassionate, making the world, to quote Michael Jackson’s famous plea, a better place “for you, and for me, and the entire human race.” Right? Political sparring, however, over everything from Trump to Brexit, immigration to Islam — arguments we see played out in daily headlines — seems to suggest otherwise.

But that’s the wrong place to look, says Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. In his new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, Pinker points to a mountain of data to prove that the world is getting better. We’re living longer, learning more, enjoying greater wealth and feeling safer than ever before. Why? The rise of Enlightenment ideals like reason, science and humanism, according to Pinker, are helping to boost our understanding of one another. Those who refuse to see that, along with the media, are responsible, he argues, for pessimism in the political landscape today.

Counter-Enlightenment thinkers were the original Romantics …

Meanwhile, liberals dismiss Trump supporters as lunatics, and Remain supporters view Brexiteers with contempt. Which brings us to the flip side of Pinker’s argument: the counter-Enlightenment view — namely, that science and reason cannot truly capture the human condition. And the grumpy old men associated with this skepticism may have had a point. Understanding their views is key to better understanding today’s political trends — and to seeing how Pinker’s conclusions are so at odds with them.

Counter-Enlightenment thinkers were the original Romantics, counting the poet William Blake in their ranks. Unlike Enlightenment philosophers, the critics saw science as distorting nature, reducing its beauty and complexity to a mere mechanism following laws. Johann Georg Hamann, an 18th-century German philosopher, also saw science as grossly inadequate for capturing the human condition. No amount of data and statistical analysis, in his view, could help us understand individual human beings and the uniqueness of their experience. Which is why Pinker’s methods could not possibly capture the lives and behaviors of those who shape political outcomes: swing voters. To understand others, one needs to be immersed in their lives and experience them from within.

Philosophers Johann Gottfried Herder and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi were skeptical of the power of reason, and particularly its ability to lead to agreement on issues of religion, politics and morality. They saw reason as merely a set of rules that could show you whether what you believed contradicted other things you believed. Reason on its own, they thought, couldn’t show you which moral principles were correct, like one of Pinker’s Enlightenment heroes, German philosopher Immanuel Kant, believed.

For Pinker, “reason is nonnegotiable,” meaning that once engaged in an argument, everyone is subject to the same criteria of what is and isn’t rational. But to Hamann and his colleagues, what counts as rational will be different for people who have different beliefs to begin with. Changing the minds of people with different political, moral and religious beliefs through sheer reason is notoriously difficult, and explaining Brexit or the rise of Trump by arguing that voters were acting irrationally doesn’t get us very far. Reason alone is unable to tell us anything about what we should believe, or how we should act. Instead, what might explain people’s actions is their different starting points, their core beliefs and their overall approach to the world — all of which are rooted in their personal experience.

The limits of the power of reason to produce agreement was also behind the counter-Enlightenment’s skepticism toward cosmopolitanism, another of Pinker’s favored Enlightenment values. Herder was skeptical that cosmopolitanism was possible, or even desirable. He believed that cultures can be so different from one another that they can be impossible to compare, and pushing disparate cultures to converge on a shared set of values would strip people of their individual identities.

When it comes to understanding global politics, there is always the danger of projecting our own cultural norms and values onto countries that share very little with us. Seeing the Arab Spring as a liberal uprising, or thinking that Iraq would become a liberal democracy once its dictator was removed, are cases in point. Pinker can be seen as guilty of a similar projection as he gleefully counts the increasing number of democracies around the world as evidence of cosmopolitanism at work while ignoring the fact that many of those democracies — such as Turkey and Russia — are such only by name.

Enlightenment values, then, might not be the best guide to interpreting the present. But that need not spell the political doom that Pinker thinks comes with the allure of counter-Enlightenment thinking. Quite the opposite. Tolerance for difference and the defense of individual freedoms are more important in a world where political, moral and cultural differences cannot be settled by science, reason and compassion, than in an Enlightenment parallel universe where we are all just a few rational arguments away from agreement.

Alexis Papazoglou is a lecturer in philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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