Academic journal article The Innovation Journal

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Academic journal article The Innovation Journal

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Article excerpt

Steven Pinker Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. New York: Penguin Random House, 2018

Canadian Thinkers and Steven Pinker

For most of its history, Canadian social and political thought has been mainly derivative. It has been the result of inhabiting a geographically remote cultural backwater defined both by insularity and a suppressive colonial mentality. The best Canadians seemed able to do was to mock themselves (however gently) through the bemused writings of political economist and humourist Stephen Butler Leacock (1875-1944), or to rely on a few brilliant, but focussed exemplars of excellence in securely fenced artistic and intellectual fields.

Over the past century or so, however, Canada has churned out an increasingly large number of celebrity artists and intellectuals. Its most prominent "thinkers" range all the way from the pioneering political economist Harold Adams Innis (1894-1952), Kennedy-era liberal icon John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006), media guru Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), literary theorist Northrop Frye (1912-1991), novelists Robertson Davies (1913-1995) and Margaret Atwood (b. 1939) and philosophers George Grant (1918-1988) and Charles Taylor (b. 1931), and songwriterpoet Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) all the way to contemporary, successfully self-promoting, right-wing media sensation Jordan Peterson (b. 1962-he of the passion for celebrating our "inner lobsters") and Harvard University cognitive psychologist, linguist and popular science writer Steven Pinker (b. 1954). It even allowed a certifiably intellectual politician or two: most obviously Pierre Elliot Trudeau (1919-2000) and Michael Ignatieff (b. 1947)-successful and unsuccessful leaders respectively of Canada's federal Liberal Party. Of the lot, Pinker is certainly possessed of the rosiest view of our species and its future. He portrays himself as a humanist and a progressive. He claims an intellectual heritage rooted in the European Enlightenment.

None of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become. People seem to bitch, moan, whine, carp and kvetch as much as ever.

- Steven Pinker (Szailai, 2018)

I have taken the opportunity to read most (and to review at least a few) of the sixteen books that the acclaimed Professor Pinker has published-particularly since he broadened his reach from the fields of visual cognition, psycholinguistics and the computational theory of mind (see: The Language Instinct, 2004; How the Mind Works 1997; Words and Rules, 1999; The Blank Slate 2002; and The Stuff of Thought, 2007). Over the last decade or so, he has begun to delve into more general areas of social commentary. His book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) argued that the prevailing pessimism of people who view the future as one of imminent disaster and devastation is ill-founded. With Enlightenment Now, he has doubled down on his apparent optimism and increased his hostility toward those who, in his opinion, worry excessively about the fate of the planet. In the past, I have tried to be balanced and occasionally quite positive about aspects of his previous publications. I find it harder to be as generous now.

In Pinker's view, it doesn't matter what particular dangers his intellectual adversaries- latter-day Edward Gibbons, Thomas Malthuses, and Oswald Spenglers, all-warn us about. The list of impending catastrophes is long and there is no shortage of archetypal Cassandras ready to point to imminent dangers of the decline and fall of Western Civilization (if not the entire biosphere or, as it is coming to be known, the anthroposphere. Among the large-scale hazards are: unsustainable human population growth and compensatory mass extinctions of other animal and plant species; related issues of climate change and consequent environmental degradation leading to ecological catastrophe; massive economic inequity and class conflict; global debt and financial collapse; violent clashes among various cultures and religions; chemical, biological and thermonuclear war; medical pandemics; cyberwarfare and the collapse of critical technologies; and societal implosion due to alienation and the experienced meaninglessness of human life in the wake of automation and the end of work. …

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