[Marxism] Stephen Pinker’s Pollyannish Philosophy and Its Perfidio us Politics

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Sun Dec 15 15:38:40 MST 2019

I have had a number of beefs with Pinker over his book Enlightenment Now, which I think is quite overrated in the humanist community. I also have taken issue with Pinker for his habit of misrepresenting the ideas of thinkers that he disagrees with. One example of that was he utter distortion of B. F. Skinner's ideas in The Blank Slate. Another bad habit of his is failure to give due credit to thinkers from the past, on whose work he has drawn upon. Over a dozen years ago, I attended a talk by Pinker on the evolutionary psychology of religion. In that talk, Pinker made the case that religion acts to promote social cohesion by among other things demarcating the boundaries between different social groups. So far, so good, but Pinker neglected to mention that the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, had made that very same argument more than a century ago. A person could have easily walked away from the talk with the impression that this was all Pinker's own thinking.

And don't get me started about Pinker and Marxism. Pinker knows next to nothing about Marxism, has no interest in learning about it, but thinks himself to be eminently qualified to pontificate about it, nevertheless.

Here is another comment that I made about Enlightenment Now in a FB group disucssion back in 2018:

I have been reading Pinker's discussion of social Darwinism and I found it a bit 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 ignores 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 yes, if anybody wondered, Pinker is an apologist for capitalism. (https://tinyurl.com/s6veyqc).

 Much of Pinker's capitalist apologetics in Enlightenment Now, is derived from Pinker's reading of Friedrich Hayek, except that Pinker, who identifies himself as a supporter of the center-left, is more supportive of government providing a strong social safety net than was Hayek. Many of the flaws in Pinker's accounts of how capitalism is responsible for the progress that has been made over the past couple of centuries can be found in Hayek, when he wrote on economic history.

As I also noted last year. Yoram Hazony professes to respect and admire Steven Pinker but doesn't have much use for the Enlightenment. (https://tinyurl.com/v3qjvv9)

 I would disagree with Hazony in terms of classifying David Hume and Adam Smith as "critics of the Enlightenment." Both men were central figures in the Scottish Enlightenment. They were "critics of the Enlightenment" in the same sense that all the Enlightenment thinkers can be said to have been "critics of the Enlightenment." They all criticized each other. Yoram Hazony makes the same sort of error that Steven Pinker does in his book, Enlightenment Now, namely, he treats the Enlightenment as a monolith and fails to see that it was full of contradictions.

BTW Hume and Smith were close personal and intellectual friends. It was Hume who encouraged Smith to devote his academic career to the development of a "science of man." The notion of a science of man had been much bandied about by other Enlightenment thinkers too, like Rousseau and Kant. Hume himself had written on many topics pertaining to this proposed science but he thought that Smith was the man who could bring it to fruition. Towards that end, Smith proposed to write a whole series of treatises that would cover such topics as moral philosophy, political economy, jurisprudence, aesthetics, the philosophy of mind, etc. Much to his own consternation, Smith was only able to complete two them: The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and The Wealth of Nations. The incomplete treatise on jurisprudence was incorporated into The Wealth of Nations.

Hazony, however, does stumble into the truth, more or less, when he writes:

"These writers also tend to pass over Karl Marx’s debt to the Enlightenment. Marx saw himself as promoting universal reason, extending the work of the French Revolution by insisting that the workers of the world stop (again in Mr. Brooks’s words) “deferring blindly to authority.” The “science” Marx developed “from the ground up” killed tens of millions in the 20th century."

Marxism is IMO a culmination of the Enlightenment tradition and he is right to knock Pinker for attempting to ignore or deny this. Pinker attempts to treat Marx as being of the Counter-Enlightenment.

And this professor has, what I would regard, as a pretty good take on both the Enlightenment and Pinker's book, Enlightenment Now.

Like the author, I take exception to Pinker's tendency towards treating the Enlightenment as a monolith. Instead, like the author, I view the Enlightenment as a complex era that was full of contradictions, most of which are still with us today. (https://tinyurl.com/v8wdr8v)

Jim Farmelant
Learn or Review Basic Math

---------- Original Message ----------
From: Louis Proyect via Marxism <marxism at lists.csbs.utah.edu>
Subject: [Marxism] Stephen Pinker’s Pollyannish Philosophy and Its Perfidious Politics
Date: Sun, 15 Dec 2019 16:14:41 -0500

(Very interesting. The James Martin mentioned below was an IT guru from 
the 1960s and 70s that everybody took seriously, including me. That 
Stephen Pinker relies on his data makes me wonder how I could have gone 

This brings up another important point: the origins of Pinker’s data. 
Just over a third of the charts and tables in his book come from a 
single source: Our World in Data, housed in an Oxford University entity 
called the Oxford Martin School, founded in 2005 with the largest 
donation in Oxford’s nearly millennium-long history by an IT consultant, 
best-selling author, and technology evangelist named James Martin.


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