Friday, April 20, 2012

Is Enlightenment humanism a coherent world view?

‘The reason so many violent institutions succumbed within so short a span of time was that the arguments that slew them belong to a coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. The ideas of thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and John Stuart Mill coalesced into a worldview that we can call Enlightenment humanism.’

The quote is from Steven Pinker’s book, ‘The Better Angels of our Nature: Why violence has declined’, 2011, p 180. I am only half-way through reading the book, but I am becoming bored with the chapter on ‘the long peace’, so I will comment on this aspect now.

John Gray’s response to the quoted passage is that Pinker has listed ‘highly disparate thinkers, and it is far from clear that any coherent philosophy could have “coalesced” from their often incompatible ideas’.  On the face of it, Gray would appear to be correct. In his explanation following the quote Pinker makes matters worse, in my view, by equating Enlightenment humanism with classical liberalism.

Friedrich Hayek’s classification of liberals into British (classical liberal) and French (constructivist rationalist) varieties is helpful in this context. Classical liberals retained strong respect for traditions and institutions that had spontaneously evolved, including respect for individual rights. By contrast, rationalistic liberals made strong assumptions about the powers of human reason and sought to construct a utopia in which economic and social outcomes would conform to the will of the majority.

Hobbes and Descartes helped to provide the intellectual foundation for the views of Voltaire, Rousseau and Condorcet, which led to the French Revolution, the development of socialist ideology, liberal progressivism and even neoconservatism. (See Troy Camplin’s recent discussion of how neoconservatism can be linked to Continental enlightenment thinking.) There are also several other people on Pinker’s list, including Jefferson and J S Mill, who were strongly influenced by Continental rationalistic thinking.

Would A N Whitehead have agreed with Pinker that Enlightenment humanism constituted a coherent world view? I raise the question because my last post was about Whitehead’s book, ‘Adventures of Ideas’. In fact, Whitehead’s seems to be more guilty than Pinker of lumping classical liberals and rationalistic liberals together. He presented Adam Smith as ‘a typical figure of the 18th century enlightenment’ and emphasized the links between the intellectual life of Scotland and France. He also emphasized the influence of Continental enlightenment thinking on America’s founding fathers by suggesting that the ‘mentality’ of people like Jefferson and Franklin, was French. Whitehead argued that while many factors contributed to the change from a presupposition of slavery to a presupposition of freedom, the ‘chief factor’ was ‘the sceptical, humanitarian movement of the eighteenth century, of which Voltaire and Rousseau were among the chief exponents, and the French Revolution the culmination’ (p 22).

Pinker has a very different view of the French Revolution. He sees it as a catastrophe and a departure from ‘the Enlightenment script’. He suggests that the French philosophes from whom the revolutionaries drew their main inspiration were intellectual lightweights. He argues that the American Revolution was more successful because the founders were products not just of the Enlightenment but of the English civilizing process promoting self-control and cooperation. They were very conscious of the limitations of human nature and sought to devise a system of government that would counteract the temptation of leaders to abuse their power.

In considering whether there is any sense in which Pinker could be correct to view Enlightenment humanism as a coherent world view I think it is important to consider the context in which he makes that claim. He is writing about a market place of ideas, with many new books emerging and being discussed. At the same time, the rise of cosmopolitan cities helped to bring people and ideas together. He implies that when a large enough community of free agents confers on how a society should run its affairs, it is likely that some kind of consensus will emerge.

I think Pinker would be on much stronger ground in claiming the emergence of a more general consensus supporting Enlightenment humanism among leaders of political opinion, rather than the existence of a coherent philosophy shared by a group of intellectuals. While the classical liberals would probably have seen little merit in the views of the rationalistic liberals, and vice versa, many leaders of political opinion would have seen varying degrees of merit in different viewpoints and would have sought to reconcile and assimilate them in developing their own views.

Intellectual leaders can also have an important influence on public opinion. It seems to me that J S Mill was correct in his view that the civilizing process led to the growing power of public opinion which in turn would lead to democratic political reforms. (I discussed his reasons on this blog a couple of years ago.) Mill was particularly concerned about the influence of universities on public opinion and advocated reforms that would enable universities to become bastions of Enlightenment humanism.

Over time, it seems to me that the values espoused by Enlightenment humanism have developed the status of a coherent world view in the democracies that is often, but not always, supported by public opinion. The process seems to be one in which disparate political philosophies, often going back centuries, act as tributaries to the broad streams of thought that flow into the rivers of public opinion. Enlightenment humanism is one of those broad streams of thought. The colour of the water in the streams and the rivers changes over time, depending on relative contributions from the different tributaries.

Jim Belshaw has commented and provided further discussion of the concepts of progress and civilization on his blog. Troy Camplin has provided references below to other posts in which he has discussed the influence of different philosophies on current political beliefs.


Troy Camplin said...

You may find some of my posts on similar topics here and here and here and here.

I think what Pinker is getting at in the difference between the French and American revolutions is that there was a spontaneous order tradition in the Anglosphere -- common law, tradition, etc. -- that influenced the Scots.

Winton Bates said...