Pinker’s Pollyannish Philosophy and Its Perfidious Politics

By Jessica RiskinDecember 15, 2019

Pinker’s Pollyannish Philosophy and Its Perfidious Politics

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

“INTELLECTUALS HATE REASON,” “Progressives hate progress,” “War is peace,” “Freedom is slavery.” No, wait, those last two are from a different book, but it’s easy to get mixed up. Steven Pinker begins his latest — a manifesto inspirationally entitled Enlightenment Now — with a contrast between “the West,” which he says is critical of its own traditions and values, and “the Islamic State,” which “knows exactly what it stands for.” Given the book’s title, one expects Pinker to be celebrating a core Enlightenment ideal: critical skepticism, which demands the questioning of established traditions and values (such as easy oppositions between “the West” and “the bad guys”). But no, in a surprise twist, Pinker apparently wants us over here in “the West” to adopt an Islamic State–level commitment to our “values,” which he then equates with “classical liberalism” [1] (about which more presently). You begin to see, reader, why this review — which I promised to write last spring — took me all summer and much of the fall to finish. Just a few sentences into the book, I am tangled in a knot of Orwellian contradictions.

Enlightenment Now purports to demonstrate by way of “data” that “the Enlightenment has worked.” [2] What are we to make of this? A toaster oven can work or not by toasting or failing to toast your bagel. My laser printer often works by printing what I’ve asked it to print, and sometimes doesn’t by getting the paper all jammed up inside. These machines were designed and built to do particular, well-defined jobs. There is no uncertainty, no debate, no tradition of critical reflection, no voluminous writings regarding what toaster ovens or laser printers should do, or which guiding principles or ideals should govern them.

On the other hand, uncertainty, debate, and critical reflection were the warp and woof of the Enlightenment, which was no discrete, engineered device with a well-defined purpose, but an intellectual and cultural movement spanning several countries and evolving over about a century and a half. If one could identify any single value as definitive of this long and diverse movement, it must surely be the one mentioned above, the value of critical skepticism. To say it “worked” vitiates its very essence. But now the Enlightenment’s best-selling PR guy takes “skepticism” as a dirty word; if that’s any indication, then I guess the Enlightenment didn’t work, or at any rate, it’s not working now. Maybe it came unplugged? Is there a paper jam?


By “the Enlightenment has worked,” Pinker turns out to mean that the Enlightenment, by establishing the methods of reason and science, has caused things to get better and better. We don’t realize that progress has been occurring all this time, and is occurring even now, because we are being misled by intellectuals and by The New York Times. I’ll come back to the Times in a moment, but first, the intellectuals. Pinker tells us that they “hate progress”: “Intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressives’ really hate progress.” [3] That this is a profoundly anti-intellectual book is nicely encapsulated in this wild and ill-defined claim (what could it mean, specifically, to “hate progress”?), in support of which Pinker uncharacteristically offers nary a chart or graph, and the literature he cites is not by the putative progress-hating intellectuals in question, citations from whom would at least constitute primary sources, but rather it is by various disgruntled conservative pundits who charge an array of philosophers from Nietzsche to Cornel West with spreading the cancer of skepticism. The situation, these pundits warn, has been getting ever worse as the skepticism that was once “confined to a very small number of intellectuals […] has grown and spread to not merely the large majority of intellectuals […] but to many millions of other people.” [4] So, our rosy optimist does find that something has been getting worse: skeptical intellectualism has been running rampant. (Who knew?)

Actually, Pinker doesn’t really hate skepticism; he loves it, just as long as it’s pointed in the right direction — for instance, at headlines conveying “bad news” in The New York Times. Misdirected skepticism, however, is very bad: Pinker deplores “today’s intellectuals” because, he says, they treat science with skepticism. [5] Why should a scientist, of all people, insist that science be held sacrosanct? Good science must surely require skepticism, and not only directed outward. Skepticism directed at other people’s ignorant dogmas and fake idols is an easy matter. What’s hard but essential, as each of Pinker’s favorite Enlightenment authors recognized, is skepticism directed at one’s own principles and ideals. Pinker, however, identifies not self-directed skepticism but a different value as definitive of the Enlightenment: “[A]n insistence that we energetically apply the standard of reason to understanding our world.” [6] Pinker is no intellectual historian, so perhaps it should not be surprising that he overlooks a key Enlightenment debate. I’m referring to the long and vigorous debate over the power, foundation, and limits of rational inquiry, perhaps the core example of Enlightenment self-directed skepticism.


The first Enlightenment figure Pinker cites as a champion of the energetic application of reason was in fact a leading critic of, and critical believer in, the power of reason: Immanuel Kant, author of the three Critiques (Pure Reason, Practical Reason, and Judgment). These were landmark works in the establishment of the method of critique, which is at the heart of philosophical investigation. A central principle of Kant’s method of critique was that we cannot know things in themselves, but only our experiences of things. Regarding science, Kant wrote that we apprehend the natural world in the first instance by an act of aesthetic judgment, a feeling of pleasure or displeasure. Moreover, we must be guided in our understanding of nature by reflective principles that pertain not to nature in itself but to our own ways of apprehending nature. To these central Kantian tenets, Pinker’s continual invocation of “data” as though it were handed down from on high is utterly alien, as is his complacent call to “verify ideas by confronting them against reality.” [7]Donnerwetter! Why didn’t I think of that?” Kant is surely muttering as he turns over in his Königsberg mausoleum.

Pinker also includes David Hume in his list of devotees to the energetic practice of reason. Hume, having dedicated his career to arguing against philosophical rationalism and in favor of applying skepticism to the process of scientific reasoning, might be surprised to find himself listed as a champion of reason in a book deploring skepticism. Hume’s skepticism led him to doubt that reason allowed people to connect causes with effects, and to conclude that it was not in fact reason that made these connections, but rather custom or habit. Pinker writes that Hume, among others, was “all too aware of our irrational passions and foibles,” and devoted himself to overcoming these “sources of folly.” [8] I suppose Pinker must have a different David Hume in mind; this can hardly be the one who wrote: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” According to the historical Hume, as distinct from Pinker’s version, the passions were the forces that bound people to external objects and other people, serving as the inducement behind all our activity in the world. The passions supplied people with motivations and purposes; reason could never do this but must rely upon the passions to tell it what to do, and thus, Hume concluded, “[w]e speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason.” [9]

Also transformed by Pinker’s magic wand are the Encyclopedists, whose supremely Enlightenment project it was to create an encyclopedia encompassing all of human knowledge. They become monomaniacal proselytizers for rationality, urging that “we ought to be rational, by learning to repress the fallacies and dogmas that so readily seduce us.” [10] And yet Denis Diderot, the editor and orchestrator of the Encyclopédie, was a great enemy of rational systems, and deeply suspicious of the faculty of reason as tending to “live within itself.” Diderot recommended instinct — continually “looking, tasting, touching, listening” — as a surer source of understanding than reason. [11]

In fact, every one of Pinker’s boosters of reason and science was a skeptical analyst of these. It’s not that they were anti-reason or anti-science. Rather, it was the twinning of reason and skepticism that most definitively characterized Enlightenment thought and writing. In particular, Enlightenment authors were keenly aware that knowledge is inseparable from the knower, composed not only of the thing known, but of the knower’s perspective, passions, experience, interpretation, and instinct. Skepticism was the means by which they acknowledged this truth and put it to work. By eliminating skepticism from his rendition of the Enlightenment, Pinker has done the equivalent of removing every second word of a book: what’s left behind is not half the sense of the original, but just nonsense.


Speaking of nonsense, a few words about the data. The first thing Pinker does with data is to establish an enemy: The New York Times. The first of his 75 graphs purportedly shows that The New York Times has been misleading and gratuitously depressing its readers by becoming increasingly “negative” between 1945 and 2010. [12] This graph has been produced by a market research tool called “sentiment mining.” According to Kalev Leetaru, an internet entrepreneur and Pinker’s source on the negativity of The New York Times, “Sentiment mining counts up the number of words in a document that appear in precompiled dictionaries of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ words to determine the density of emotional language and its overall ‘tone.’” The scare-quotes around “positive,” “negative,” and “tone” are a giveaway: Leetaru himself realizes it can’t be this simple. He continues, “[w]hile not as accurate as humans, automated sentiment mining systems are robust enough that they are now used by most large companies to monitor the online discourse about their products and learn which areas consumers like and dislike.” [13]

I take no position on the utility of sentiment mining for marketing purposes. But for the purposes of scholarly analysis and the understanding of texts, sentiment mining produces gibberish, and the problem is not a superficial one of “accuracy”; rather, it’s that understanding texts requires critical interpretation. Let’s consider the examples Pinker takes from Leetaru — “good,” “nice,” “terrible,” and “horrific.” In The New York Times for September 28, 2019, a search for “good” yields an AP headline: “Pope warns tech execs to use AI for the common good,” which is more negative than positive, the context being that the pope believes tech execs have been ignoring the common good. “Nice” yields Trump on Greta Thunberg, “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” If there is any meaningful sense in which this appearance of “nice” — or “happy,” “bright,” and “wonderful” — reflects a degree of positivity in the Times, then Trump adds a lot of positivity to the news, perhaps counterbalanced by other staples of his vocabulary such as “sad.” A search for “horrible” yields: “This video game fulfills your fantasy of being a horrible goose.” You get the idea.

There are also higher-order questions, such as whether a rosy, upbeat coverage of the news is a positive or negative thing, utopian or dystopian. Does a cheery press fulfill its critical role in a democracy as first formulated during, yes, the Enlightenment? The notion that The New York Times has a net negativity value that one can chart over time by counting words is, unfortunately, not merely ridiculous. It reflects a development with which those of us inhabiting universities in the early 21st century are all too familiar: the corporate takeover of our culture, especially our intellectual and university cultures, in which the language, values, and goals of entrepreneurialism (“innovation,” “impact,” “leadership,” “branding”) are rapidly and pervasively replacing the language, values, and goals of knowledge, teaching, learning, reflection, scholarship, and especially, criticism.

Adam Smith, one of Pinker’s main heroes of “classical liberalism,” warned of this danger. “These are the disadvantages of a commercial spirit,” he admonished: “The minds of men are contracted, and rendered incapable of elevation. Education is despised, or at least neglected, and the heroic spirit is almost utterly extinguished.” [14] Accordingly, Smith emphasized, commercial societies vitally required educational institutions (especially public schools) in which people might pursue learning unrelated to their livelihoods. Without such institutions, he observed, the common man

generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. [15]

To be sure, Smith worried primarily about educating the laboring poor rather than the wealthy, as it apparently never occurred to him that those with the means and leisure to pursue their educations beyond their livelihoods might lose all interest in doing so. But isn’t this exactly what happens when the great universities of the world are overrun by corporate-driven projects and marketing techniques such as “sentiment mining”?


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. Both Max Roser, the research fellow at the Oxford Martin school who runs Our World in Data, and the Oxford Martin School directorship share Pinker’s dedication to optimism, which, I imagine, sells better than pessimism. One of Our World in Data’s guiding principles is that “[m]ost of the long-run trends are positive and paint an optimistic view of our world,” while the Oxford Martin School presents itself as definitively characterized by “urgency and optimism” in its pursuit of “innovations” with “impact.” A principal supporter of Our World in Data, in terms of both money and publicity, has been another marketing genius and technology evangelist, Pinker’s great friend and mutual admirer, Bill Gates. Pinker’s appreciation of Roser and Our World in Data is also reciprocated: Pinker is prominently featured on the “motivation” page of the website and cited throughout as one of its main sources. In short, Our World in Data and its most prominent tech-entrepreneur-evangelist affiliates form an intimate circle of mutual gratification.

Our World in Data has been controversial. Some have suggested that the site leaves unasked important questions about the origins and completeness of its data. For example, in its presentation of data displaying decreasing racial violence in the United States, Our World in Data overlooks a fact that the FBI itself admits: that it “does not collect complete information on USA law enforcement police killings.” Indeed, Our World in Data makes no mention of “police killings of black people,” surely an important category of racial violence. [16] Bill Gates prompted a small firestorm of controversy when he tweeted, from the Davos World Economic Forum, six optimism-inspiring graphs from Our World in Data accompanied by the comment, “This is one of my favorite infographics. A lot of people underestimate just how much life has improved over the last two centuries.” Writing in the Guardian, Jason Hickel dismantled the most discussed of the graphs, which Pinker reproduces in Enlightenment Now, purportedly showing the decline in “extreme poverty” since 1820. [17] Pointing out, among other things, that “real data on poverty has only been collected since 1981,” and that enormous economic transformations such as the passage from subsistence to wage-based economies make meaningful long-term comparisons tricky at best, Hickel wrote, “There is no actual research to bolster the claims about long-term poverty. It’s not science; it’s social media.” Roser, Pinker, Gates, and the Davos set, Hickel concluded, were singing a neoliberal triumphalist anthem about free market capitalism saving the world. [18]

Whether or not you agree with Hickel’s criticisms, they reveal a truth of which Kant, Hume, Diderot et al. were acutely aware: data and interpretation are inseparable, all the way down to decisions about what to count, what not to count, how to do the counting, and all the way up to decisions about how to understand and present the results. Roser regularly describes Our World in Data as offering “the empirical view” and “the empirical perspective” as though there were only one such view or perspective. Pinker, too, insists on a unitary “scientific mindset,” and maintains that to question his arguments is to fall into “the dataphobic mindset” or to be “delusional” or a “know-nothing.” [19] Despite Pinker’s and Roser’s repeated insinuations to the contrary, there is no such thing as interpretation-free data, nor could there ever be, even as an ideal. The processes of collecting, understanding, and presenting data are interpretive at every level. To assert this obvious truth is not to be a science-hater or data-phobic know-nothing. On the contrary, it is to be two things Pinker claims to prize: a student of the Enlightenment and scientifically literate.


Assessing the charts and graphs in Enlightenment Now schooled with such enlightened scientific literacy raises questions. One might, for instance, take exception to the fact that Pinker’s chart showing the decline in “genocide deaths” between 1955 and 2015 comes from an entity called the Political Instability Task Force, which — though Pinker doesn’t mention it — is funded by the CIA. Perhaps one might argue that the CIA should be considered an authoritative scholarly source on genocide deaths, though, given the CIA’s long involvement with murderous regimes, it’s not obvious. What’s indisputable is that, if one is citing CIA numbers on genocide deaths, one should disclose the source clearly; the CIA appears in the book only as a source for data on increasing literacy since 2000. [20] Or take Pinker’s graphs showing that, as he writes with italic fervor, “in every part of the world, people have become more liberal.” [21] There are several problems here. One is that, in every part of the world, people understand different things by the word “liberal.” Its most common meaning in France is roughly the opposite of its most common meaning in the United States. Even in a given part of the world, even in a given dinner conversation on a given evening in a given part of the world, people use the word “liberal” to mean very different things; for example, they might mean left views (favoring gay marriage) or right views (opposing economic regulations).

Apart from the question what these numbers might be measuring, the other obvious question is: Where do they come from? Pinker’s citations send us to a 2013 book by a political scientist named Christian Welzel entitled Freedom Rising: Human Empowerment and the Quest for Emancipation. Welzel is a member of Pinker’s tribe of mutually citing, TED-Talking professional optimists, and director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of Leuphana, a German university founded in 2006 in an effort to “rethink a university.” Leuphana identifies “[e]ntrepreneurial thinking and acting” as a priority and boasts a top “entrepreneurship programme.” [22] In Freedom Rising, Welzel presents a theory that human emancipation originated in what he calls the “cool-water zones,” or “CW zones” for short: “areas with moderately cool temperatures and continuous rainfalls over all seasons.” If you think you have an inkling which zones those might be, you’re probably right; yes, it turns out that the “human empowerment process” began in “Western Europe.” In deciding how to evaluate Welzel’s charts displaying the progress of “liberalism,” one must surely consider Welzel’s overarching professional purpose: to demonstrate the inexorable forward march of “liberalism” from the “CW zones,” a.k.a. Western Europe, to the formerly benighted rest of the world via global capitalism. [23] Whereas Adam Smith worried about the confining and stultifying effects of commercial society, his 21st-century acolytes, cheerfully devoid of skepticism, see nothing but empowerment all the way.

Moreover, the essential connection Smith made between liberty and commercial prosperity was that the first would help to bring about the second, not vice versa. Far from claiming that political constraints on liberty would evaporate as a result of commerce, Smith’s great project was to argue the reverse: political freedoms, brought about by changes of policy, would bring economic growth. The one instance in which he reversed the causation was to explain how the development of commerce and manufacturing in towns tended to overcome feudalism in the surrounding countryside. This happened because feudal lords, instead of using their money to retain armies of vassals, became distracted by the availability of baubles and began foolishly frittering their wealth away on “a pair of diamond buckles, perhaps, or […] something as frivolous and useless.” This gave the tenants of the countryside greater local liberty and autonomy but did nothing to curb the “capricious ambition of kings and ministers” or the “violence and injustice of the rulers of mankind.” [24] In this sense, Pinker has turned classical liberalism on its head, like arguing that according to Newtonian physics, heavy objects produce gravitational attraction by falling to the ground.

Then there are the graphs that do not appear in the book: graphs showing rising sea levels, rising temperatures, the resulting natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and wildfires, mass shootings, and the list could go on. Indeed, it should set off alarm bells that every single graph in the book points in the same direction: every day in every way, better and better. My point is not that things are getting worse rather than better, but that history is not a straight line up or down, and that presenting “data” as though it produces and speaks for itself is worse than useless: it is profoundly dishonest. What we need in this time of political, environmental, and cultural crisis is precisely the value Pinker rejects but that his Enlightenment heroes embraced, whatever their differences of opinion on other matters: skepticism, and an attendant spirit of informed criticism. Skepticism is kryptonite to the sort of demagogue who brandishes something — a cross, a flag, a MAGA hat … or a graph — and calls anyone who questions it a delusional know-nothing. Pinker’s story is Manichaean, good versus evil, and the bad guys are intellectuals, progressives, and the misleading news media. Any of this sounding familiar? With friends like these, the Enlightenment doesn’t need enemies.


Jessica Riskin is a history professor at Stanford University, where she teaches courses in European intellectual and cultural history and the history of science. She is the author, most recently, of The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument Over What Makes Living Things Tick (2016).


[1] Pinker, 5. Here Pinker is quoting, and endorsing, a presentation at the Oslo Freedom Forum from May 26, 2015, by Shiraz Maher entitled “Inside the Mind of an Extremist.”

[2] Pinker, 6.

[3] Pinker, 39.

[4] Pinker, 39–40.  Pinker’s sources are Arthur Herman and Robert Nisbet. The quoted passage is from Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress (1980).

[5] Pinker, 16.

[6] Pinker, 8.

[7] Pinker, 518.

[8] Pinker, 19.

[9] David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature (1739–’40), Bk. 2, Part 3, Section 3.

[10] Pinker, 444.

[11] Denis Diderot, Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature (1754), par. X.

[12] Pinker, 51.

[13] Kalev Leetaru, “Culturomics 2.0,” in First Mind, Vol. 16, No. 9 (September 5, 2011), at, accessed October 1, 2019.

[14] Smith, Lectures on Justice, Police, Revenue and Arms (1763), Part II, Section 17.

[15] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Bk. 5, Ch. 1, Part 3, Article 2. 

[16] Joanna Boehnert, “Data Visualization Does Political Things,” in Design+Research+Society 2016, at, accessed October 1, 2019, p. 4.

[17] Pinker, 87–88.

[18] Jason Hickel, “Bill Gates says poverty is decreasing. He couldn’t be more wrong.” In the Guardian, January 29, 2019, at, accessed October 1, 2019. See also Hickel, “Progress and its Discontents,” in The New Internationalist, August 7, 2019, at, accessed October 1, 2019.

[19] Pinker, 404, 45.

[20] Pinker, 236.

[21] Pinker, 228.

[22], accessed October 1, 2019.

[23] Christian Welzel, Freedom Rising: Human Empowerment and the Quest for Emancipation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), xxv–xxvi.

[24] Smith, Wealth of Nations, Bk. III, Ch. 4; Bk. IV, Ch. 3.

LARB Contributor

Jessica Riskin is a history professor at Stanford University, where she teaches courses in European intellectual and cultural history and the history of science. She is the author, most recently, of The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument Over What Makes Living Things Tick (2016).


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