I only recently received Steven Pinker’s latest book, Enlightenment NOW: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress, so I can only refer to it through reviews and my inchoate perusal. However, attention to The Enlightenment is certainly renewed, and this response is attributable to the exponential resurgence of forces in opposition to progress that is postmodernism.
It is indicative of the nature of postmodernism, that when it is brought up in conversation, many people ask for a definition. Though postmodernism does have a substantial amount of literature devoted to it, one distinction is that while science begins with a question, and seeks evidential answers, postmodernism starts with the answer and sets out to find supporting arguments; it is in its direct opposition to reason. Vagueness and relativity are the instruments of this reaction to progressive values of clarity and distinction. It attempts to defeat clarity with relativity, and distinctions become just another version of the same thing. Criticism of religion becomes racism. Illiteracy becomes “oral culture.” In short, truth becomes relative. Subjectivity supersedes the objective.
The essential character of this is seen in the continued formal acceptance of censorship, relativist judgement, anti-science, religion, and the increasing conflation of cultural practices with contemporary laws. One example of these impediments to reason is “Hate Crimes,” which are determined relatively by motive rather than objective severity: Inflicting harm for no particular reason is not as bad as harming through ill will. This relativity extends to “victim impact statements” used to determine offenders’ punishment - beating up an abandoned street-person is not as bad as attacking someone more popular and socially acceptable. Further expressions of relativist absolutism are demands for acceptance of mythological aboriginal traditional knowledge in university curricula, and that Islam be “respected” – censoring open criticism of religion. Demands for respect for religions are attempts to defuse critical thinking – a discipline sorely needed at this time.
Pinker tends to literalize Enlightenment ideals into results-oriented evidence comparisons. But comparisons of modern material conditions with the past are not entirely attributable to Enlightenment ideals – broad general improvement develops as a feature of the evolutionary process. The Enlightenment is an intellectual motivation for the pursuit of truth – an objective method of evaluating reality.
People are living longer, healthier, freer, and happier lives, and while our problems are still formidable, the solutions lie in the Enlightenment ideals of reason and objective science. That Pinker’s book was necessary indicates that reactionary resistance to progress is robust, and even resurging.
Conservatism is the preservation of the status quo, thus essential to survival in the sense of preserving life. Unpreserved life is death. But which elements are preserved must be determined broadly in the context of the survival of our species and the environment that supports it. Certainly some things should be eliminated in the interests of the survival of others. The role of conservatism is comparable with the role of critical thought in determining reality or truth. The burden of the Dark Ages, that the Age of Reason dismissed, was the conservatism that held progress in suspension. That resistance persisted; the first manifestation was reluctance to change typified by tradition – in thought as well as social practice. As progressive ideology persisted, resistance to it deepened until the reaction took on its own meaning. Direct return to the characteristics of the Middle Ages was bypassed, and the developments of The Enlightenment coalesced into the period of Modernism. Once defined, Modernism became the object of resistance, and postmodernism came about after the Second World War.
As postmodernism opposes objectivity, there is another aspect of human existence that is immune to its reactionary effort: art. An acceptable distinction between art and science is that art is subjective and science objective. Postmodernism challenged the subjectivity of art through the anti-modernist movements of the 50s and 60s. The subject is too complex to elaborate here, but the general examples of the modernist period would be the impressionists and their contemporaries like Van Gough, and in music, Miles Davis and Van Morrison. This period reflected the self-referentialism of the artists through their impressions of reality and their expressions of self. The postmodernists sought to purge the self-orientation, and return to an earlier stage. This meant reverting to the representation of familiar objects and ambient circumstances rather than self-reflexive subjects of modernism. This included art forms like architecture, sculpture, music, writing, dance and film, and the introduction of “performance art.” Postmodernism, in these forms, rejects the limitations of modernism for the freeing of the idea of art itself.
The similarities between painting and music are most apparent in the iconoclastic postmodernist works of John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg. Cage, in his 4’33” (four minutes, thirty three seconds), created a work of that length in non-music, as a musician sits at a piano or other instrument, while only the ambient sounds are heard. Other musical examples are John Cale and Brian Eno, originators, with Lou Reed, of Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground. Both musicians make alternate use of instruments, and discard structural elements. Rauschenberg erased a de Kooning drawing leaving only faint impressions of the original work. Unconstructed sounds in music are comparable to the techniques of painters like Jackson Pollock whose “drip paintings” were established after the paint was dripped randomly to the canvas, incorporating chance into the form. Andy Warhol reduced film to documentary essentials in his eight-hour shot of the Empire State Building and in other works that focused on repetition, and simply stopped. Theatre of The Absurd is characterized by its abandonment of reason in its lack of structure and meaning. The French New Wave (Nouveau Vague), typically embodied by Jean-Luc Godard who created patchworks instead of using conventional story-telling and plot, contested the character of cinema as an extension of the novel.
The challenges that postmodernism imposed on the subjective nature of art broadened understanding and encouraged the finding of new meaning, but the impediment of postmodern rejection of reason in the objective discipline of science is another matter. The function of rationality, critical thinking and logic are fundamental to the survival of our species.
The unique political situation in the United States presents some of the elements of the postmodern effect. Truth is openly treated as relative, with the Trump apologists claiming “alternative truths,” and assumptions that contradict reason are elevated to “opinions.”
If The Enlightenment philosophy were to be confined to a word, that word would be reason. Believing something without a reason is, well, unreasonable. And while the assertions of reason, rationality and critical thought have dealt faith-believing a blow, there is a resurgence of support for religion. This is disguised as “minority” membership, ethnicity, and even race. Opposition to the imposition of religion is met with accusations of bias, intolerance and even racism.
So, it is not that The Enlightenment presents a philosophical view that we should all follow everywhere toward improvement. It argues for rationality mainly in our way of determining truth, and for acting in the context of that truth. Here, then, are examples of postmodernism’s effect on society.
In education, the Socratic method and objective were academic in nature in that the pursuit of truth was optimal. The objective of knowledge and understanding is a faded memory in contemporary education. The association with education as a training ground for profit makers, and the resulting preoccupation with marks, has resulted in a focus on self-interest and material success. This is doubtlessly the result of capitalist interests in our universities and their exercise of control through various funding mechanisms. But it is the reactionary character of postmodernism that creates the environment that accepts this way of funding education.
Human evolution is arguably marked by the overcoming of conflict and the practice of cooperation. Domination through force leaves the differences in interest unresolved and the resulting society in stress. However, as differences are overcome, commonalities are strengthened, agreements are made and conflicts overcome. Once cooperation ensues, the focus on progress continues until another obstruction to evolution is encountered. Postmodernism is the contemporary obstruction to The Enlightenment.
In opposition to enlightening humanity through cooperation, identifying mutual interest and emphasizing reason, postmodernism advocates diversity and separation. Diversity can mean variety, different kinds, or separate from. It emphasizes difference in the context of sameness, but when people of widely different cultural experience meet, they find commonalities to allow them to be sociable. Consider that if you meet someone who can’t stand sports, while you are an enthusiastic fan of six teams, they are vegan while you are a carnivore, they love camping and you are a golfer, they’re rabid churchgoers and you’re an atheist; there’s not much chance of either enjoying the other’s company. Until, that is, you find that you are both disgusted by the Calgary Stampede’s barbaric cruelty to animals, and have rescued pets – both named “Spooky.” Now, are you going to celebrate how different you are?
Mention of diversity therefore is often related to “tolerance”; there is no reason to have to tolerate anything. Think of the things that are the objects of demands for tolerance – race is commonly cited. But race is not something that requires tolerance. How can a race be tolerated, or need tolerance? If something is to be tolerated, it must be disliked in the first place. So, the significant question is the reason for the initial dislike.
The celebration of difference is the primary feature of “diversity”. This is the opposite of harmony, which is the basis of a healthy society. Postmodernism obstructs the pursuit of common good. It warrants our very close inspection.
The salient distinction between art and science is that art is subjective while science is objective. Differences in artistic philosophies do not impose any more than other subjective choices – like preferences in ice cream flavours or genres of music. However, science is the pursuit of objective truth, and the consequences of distorting that are dire indeed. Scientific reasoning is imperative to overcoming the legacy of confusion that signified the Dark Ages. As Pinker reminds us, postmodernism is the reactionary stumbling block to be overcome in the struggle for objective truth.