In a recent review in The New Statesman, John Gray dismissed Steven Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress in one of the more colorful putdowns of recent times (excuse the pun – grey, pinker and all that).
The title of the piece reads “The limits of reason: Steven Pinker’s embarrassing new book is a feeble sermon for rattled rationalists.” The heading was probably the work of a sub-editor, but it’s a pretty accurate representation of this blistering review.
Pinker and Gray are writers I admire. Gray’s 2002 book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals was a stunning eye-opener, a terse mixture of philosophy, speculation and aphorism. It shed a light on the whole folly of the human project – its rapaciousness, its warmongering, and its ill-founded belief that we’re so, so special.
Pinker’s The Language Instinct was also revolutionary for me. It was one of the very few times I’d read an academic who used stories, humor and pop culture to make great points about language. Besides his insights, I loved his writing style.
On reading Gray’s damning review, I suspected there may be history between these two, but I couldn’t find any. So instead I think it’s a common malaise in the world of academia: when a well-known thinker leaves his or her own field of expertise and enters another, the gatekeepers in that second field rarely offer a warm welcome. I’ve seen it with Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, and countless others. Pinker is a cognitive psychologist and a linguist. His last book, The Better Angels of Our Nature – a similarly massive tome to this latest – veered away from his field, and the new book veers even further.
What does Gray have to say about it? First off, he berates Pinker for hardly mentioning 18th century philosopher David Hume, and describes the author’s approach as “unhistorical.” But Gray is just warming up. Soon he accuses Pinker of using a “cod-scientific formula” – quite a statement to throw at a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He then says Pinker’s is a “comic-book history of the Enlightenment” and merrily annihilates the author’s takes on Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell. Summing up, he says “Enlightenment Now is embarrassingly feeble … a parody of Enlightenment thinking at its crudest.”
So … I think it’s accurate to say John Gray didn’t like Steven Pinker’s book very much. Fair enough, but this was a hit-job worthy of the mafia. Or it would be if mafia hit-men had higher degrees in philosophy and knew their Kant from their Comte.