[Marxism] Steven Pinker’s Ideas About ProgressAre Fatally Flawed. These Eight Graphs Show Why. - Resilience

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Sat May 26 07:38:44 MDT 2018

Given the prodigious amount of research that went into that book, one would think that Pinker would have done a better job with it.

A couple of points:

Steven Pinker writes as a defender of the Enlightenment heritage. One would think that given this objective, he would have dug more deeply into the intellectual history of the Enlightenment. But that was something that he did not do. For example, I'm not sure that I agree with Pinker's classification of Rousseau as a counter-Enlightenment thinker. I think that by doing so, it makes it easy to paper over the fact that the Enlightenment was not a monolith. That it was full of contradictions, which still exist to this day. I think it is a mistake to conflate Romanticism with the counter-Enlightenment, even though there was a good deal of overlap between the two. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was certainly a Romantic thinker but he was at the same time an Enlightenment thinker, and I think one can classify him as being a counter-Enlightenment thinker with a certain measure of trepidation. (BTW there is a decent discussion on the classification of Rousseau here: https://www.iep.utm.edu/rousseau/)
There are other Romantic writers who can be clearly classified as having been Enlightenment thinkers such as the poet Percy Shelley. He is generally classified as being a Romantic poet but he was almost certainly an Enlightenment thinker too, as reflected in such writings as his essay, The Necessity of Atheism, for which he was sent down from Oxford, and his poem, Queen Mab.  

All this complicates things for Pinker because Immanuel Kant, who is cited by Pinker as one of his exemplary Enlightenment thinkers, was very much an admirer of Rousseau. And just to complicate things a little further, intellectual historians and other commentators have debated whether Kant should be classified as an Enlightenment or as a counter-Enlightenment thinker too.

IPinker has a discussion of social Darwinism that I found to be unsatisfactory. Pinker complains that the term is too widely used such that it has become meaningless. He seems to blame Richard Hofstadter's book, Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860–1915 for this. He also pins blame on Stephen Jay Gould as well. Pinker seems to think that the only genuine form of social Darwinism was the kind that stemmed from the work of Herbert Spencer and his followers. Pinker takes some pains to show that Spencer's thinking about evolution was not Darwinian, but was very much Lamarckian. He also emphasizes that Spencer's thought was basically libertarian in character and that Spencer was an opponent of imperialism and eugenics. Hence, in Pinker's view, it's illegitimate to tie social Darwinism with other right-wing ideas .

What Pinker's discussion fails to take into account is that there were indeed other forms of social Darwinism around in the late 19th and early 20th centuries besides Spencer's. The German biologist Ernst Haeckel, the man who introduced and popularized Darwinism in Germany, was also the proponent of his own brand of social Darwinism. And his variety of social Darwinism was indeed less individualistic than Spencer's, placing emphasis of the struggle for existence between competing nations and races. Haeckel was politically an avid supporter of Otto von Bismarck. He was himself a staunch German nationalist and he attempted to use his work in evolutionary biology to lend support to his political beliefs including his embracing of "scientific racism." Pinker says nothing at all about Haeckel. His name does not even appear in the book's index. And yet, Haeckel's brand of social Darwinism was at least as well known as Spencer's and nearly as influential.

Jim Farmelant
Learn or Review Basic Math

---------- Original Message ----------
From: Louis Proyect via Marxism <marxism at lists.csbs.utah.edu>
Subject: [Marxism] Steven Pinker’s Ideas About ProgressAre Fatally Flawed. These Eight Graphs Show Why. - Resilience
Date: Fri, 25 May 2018 08:10:54 -0400



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