I have seen more than a few people praise this piece, by Yoram Hazony, as having had some influence on them. So I figured I would respond to it.
The first sentence of Hazony’s piece betrays his biases. He says, “A lot of people are selling Enlightenment these days.” The use of the term “selling” here is a slight of hand, meant to convey both literal and metaphorical truth. It’s literally true that books about the Enlightenment are being sold. But more importantly, it’s metaphorically true that people don’t like being “taken in” by salespeople. Without saying anything at all, Hazony already has his readers primed for where he wants them: skeptical of those enlightenment hucksters.
Pinker addresses this form of criticism during his overview of the “negativity bias”, which psychologists have demonstrated we’re all prone towards, including Hazony. He discusses how pessimists are generally viewed as “trying to help” and having “moral seriousness”, while optimists are compared to “people trying to sell you something”. So it seems almost as though Pinker was prescient of the criticism that would eventually be thrown his way.
Much of the rest of Hazony’s piece is a strawman of Pinker’s position. For example, Hazony takes issue with Kant’s definition of reason as “universal, infallible and a priori” or “independent of experience”, but Pinker doesn’t ask us to believe in progress based on reason alone, his entire book is a masterpiece of empiricism.
He makes a case based on the data so far, and he “forecasts” rather than “prophesies” that we may see more improvements ahead if we continue employing the very same methods that have gotten us to this point. But Pinker also concedes that such progress may not come, because, “For now, we should keep in mind that a positive trend suggests (but does not prove) that we have been doing something right, and that we should seek to identify what it is and do more of it.”
Pinker’s tome is not a dogmatic embrace of any one enlightenment philosopher’s viewpoint, and so Pinker’s views should be taken up on their own terms. He recognizes that while the enlightenment made great contributions, it was hardly composed of perfect people.
He says, “The Enlightenment thinkers were all men and women of their age, the 18th century. Some were racists, sexists, anti-Semites, slaveholders, or Duelists. Some of the questions they worried about are almost incomprehensible to us, and they came up with plenty of daffy ideas together with brilliant ones. Or to the point, they were born too soon to appreciate some of the keystones of our modern understanding of reality.”
Which is why when Hazony dismisses Pinker’s embrace of skepticism as a “paradigm of how to achieve reliable knowledge” by pointing out that some Enlightenment thinkers were as “rigid as the most dogmatic medievals”, he’s missing the forest for the trees. There’s variation in personality in every group, including enlightenment thinkers. So what? The point is that when Pinker refers to “enlightenment thought”, and embraces incrementalism over revolutionary change, and the scientific method over magical thinking, he is arguing for the antithesis of what Harzony is criticizing, which makes me wonder if Harzony read the book.
Harzony attempts to round out his piece by making some empirical claims of his own. He blames the breakdown of the family on enlightenment thinking, but he fails to explain what that means. It’s a hollow statement that’s emotionally compelling but empirically empty. He ignores the fact that stasis comes with consequences too, and that traditionalism for traditionalism’s sake cannot solve novel problems. He chastises the Elites for having contempt for the people, as if this is anything new and at all undermine’s Pinker’s argument.
He points out that many “reasonable” ideas and practices preceded the enlightenment, but then ignores the REASON-ableness of the ideas, implying that they are a product of traditionalism and non-enlightenment thinking (Kant did not invent reason, he critiqued it).
It doesn’t matter that Newton was religious, when he formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation, he did so using the principles of science and reason. He did not come to the conclusion that he can fly, simply because a dream told him that the force pulling him down was but a fiction of his imagination.
Hazony concludes with a logical fallacy, the false dilemma. He says, “You can’t have both Enlightenment and skepticism. You have to choose.” Hazony is confused. There is no skepticism if there is nothing to be skeptical of. What an odd hill to die on.