Enlightened Skepticism

Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony has penned an interesting essay in The Wall Street Journal (“The Dark Side of the Enlightenment”) about Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. I have not read the volume in question, but the fact that Bill Gates calls it his “new favorite book” makes me doubtful.

Hazony takes issue with Pinker’s belief that all of modernity’s best ideas came from a pantheon of secular 18th century thinkers. Historically it simply isn’t true. Instead Hazony traces many advances in science and some of our cherished Western political assumptions to Renaissance theorists, who flourished in an age when religion and custom were just as venerated as the goddess of reason. By that same token other, less desirable, developments can be attributed to the philosophers celebrated by Pinker.

It was once well understood that much of the modern world’s success grew out of conservative traditions that were openly skeptical of reason. When I was a graduate student at Rutgers in the 1980s, the introductory course in modern political theory had a section called “Critics of the Enlightenment.” These figures included more conservative thinkers such as David Hume, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. They emphasized the unreliability of “abstract reasoning,” which they believed could end up justifying virtually any idea, no matter how disconnected from reality, as long as it sounded self-evidently true to someone.

Yet on one point at least he seems to be justifiably consistent in his optimism: modern race relations. Whereas ideologues on the hard left, committed to the notion of crisis politics, tell us that racism is just as pervasive as it was in the days of the lynch mob, Pinker’s view of human progress inclines him to acknowledge the statistical decline in racialist attitudes (for further commentary, see a recent article in Quillette).  This notable exception aside, however, I tend to agree with Hazony:

Mr. Pinker praises skepticism as a cornerstone of the Enlightenment’s “paradigm of how to achieve reliable knowledge.” But the principal figures of Enlightenment philosophy weren’t skeptics. Just the opposite: Their aim was to create their own system of universal, certain truths….

Hazony questions the genius of rationalists like Locke and Kant, who thought of morality as a laboratory experiment. Pinker’s research can be criticized as being highly selective and he glosses over important exceptions. Kant’s contemporary, the more traditionally-minded Samuel Johnson, warned that “We seldom consider that human knowledge is very narrow,” and as for benevolent social schemes: “Every novelty appears more wonderful as it is more remote from any thing with which experience or testimony has hitherto acquainted us.” Remote, and often attainable only at a very high cost.

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