Source: Wikipedia

Was the Enlightenment Doomed from the Start…

…like the Titanic?

It rarely happens that men live in obedience to reason, for things are so ordered among them, that they are generally envious and troublesome to one another. Nevertheless, they are scarcely able to lead a solitary life, so that the definition of man as a social animal has met with general assent; in fact, men do derive from social life much more convenience than injury. Benedict De Spinoza (1677) (In Freeman, 2014)

The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason — what a time, what an era!

Starting around 1620 and ending with the French Revolution in 1789, it is also considered the “Century of Philosophy” (Wikipedia, 2019) and science, undermining the authority of the monarchy and the church with its pesky ideas about freedom, equality, and progress. Some of its influential figures were Hume, Kant, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Adam Smith, and Voltaire, and in America Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Even some European rulers were regarded as supporting Enlightenment ideas, including Catherine II of Russia, Joseph II of Austria and Frederik II of Prussia.

However, some argue that the Enlightenment era sunk into the black hole of history, and its ideas still only exist on “paper”, in some old dusty books in libraries, at best, rescanned and put online. But ideas, good and bad, don’t die that quickly. Some hang around for 2,000 years and more, religions for example. Ideas that shake us are quite often those that rattle our bad conscience, that point to finger to things we should be doing and are not doing. They are like ghosts, spectres that still haunt us, like the ancient Greek Furies, the goddesses of vengeance.

In this article, I want to discuss and compare some ideas of recent theorists, that have thought critically about the Enlightenment. In particular, Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno published a fundamental critique in 1944, the Dialectic of Enlightenment. And more recently a ghostbuster, the Canadian-American cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, wrote his two books, the Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress and The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Horkheimer and Adorno’s take on the Enlightenment cannot be directly compared with Pinker’s musings. Their viewpoints are not only completely different, but the purpose of their work is also completely different from Pinker’s two books. But we find the major critical points of Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique in Pinker’s work, which is insightful and worth following up because it touches on core values of the post-war and postmodern values of Western civilisation that we are confronted with on an everyday basis.

First a closer look at the famous Frankfurt School, associated with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany, and a theoretical haven for the post-war student generation that tried to come to terms with the fascist past of their parent generation. Figures such as Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Fromm and Habermas still haven’t lost their importance or influence. The Frankfurt School has been around for quite a while. Founded in 1923 in Frankfurt it was the first Marxist-oriented research centre affiliated with a major German university. At that time Marxism was popular in Europe, not only among intellectuals but also the traditional working classes. This situation changed after WWII, when only small groups carried on the Marxian flag, culminating in the 1968 student uprising that had great difficulties finding support from the working class.

Source: Wikipedia

So what was their “Marxism” like? Well, in general, European Marxists at the time were quite disillusioned about the realities of the communist revolutions that Marx had predicted. Although Marx’s analysis of the capitalist economics was profound and insightful, his political agenda was more or less wishful thinking. So Marxists pondered about what went wrong with Marxism. But not only that. They also were much concerned about the rise of fascism in Germany, Austria, Spain, and Italy, and Socialism turning into Stalinism in the Soviet Union. So things were going badly therefore there had to be more than just some bad apples. For the Frankfurt School’s critical theorists, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, after experiencing directly the horrors of fascism in Germany, that forced them to move the School temporarily to the US, the culprit was clear and their judgement was ruthless “ In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.

Although recognising the progressive agenda of the Enlightenment Horkheimer and Adorno nevertheless saw that something was fundamentally wrong with it, what was it?

To make that clear we need to go back a little and look at what the Enlightenment was really about.

The Vitruvian Man. Source: Wikipedia

Europe in the 16th and 17th century had undergone massive changes. Advances in science, (Kepler 1571–1630, Galileo 1564–1642, Newton 1642–1726), changes in the political landscape (Thirty Years’ War 1618–1648), and the advent of print media (printing press 1439) as well as the conquest of the Americas and parts of Asia have changed people’s worldviews from a traditional “God-centred” universe to a “Man-centred” universe, famously depicted in Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452–1519) drawing, The Vitruvian Man (c. 1485), showing the ideal human body proportions of the classical age, which is a completely different depiction of Man than in the devotional imagery of the Middle Ages. Man, embodied, in mathematical proportions, as “Measure of all Things” (Protagoras) has now become the signifying trope of the modern age. Instead of wondering about God and the afterlife, people now had more human concerns.

The lower classes (peasants, workers, servants) and middle classes had suffered under the austerity and warfare of the European aristocracy. In France, the aristocratic Ancien Régime lasted from the late Middle Ages until 1789, the year of the French revolution, ending the monarchy. Ideas of freedom and equality were shared among popular intellectuals across the Atlantic. Some American diplomats, representing the new revolutionary government of America, “Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had lived in Paris where they consorted freely with members of the French intellectual class “(Wikipedia).

Heads of aristocrats, on pikes. Source: Wikipedia

Louis XVI and his ministers, the widespread French nobility and the clergy had lost their clout, a consequence of excessive taxation, war and a rigid legal system that stifled a market economy. Many lost their lives in a sequence of violent events that culminated in the Reign of Terror between June 1793 and end of July 1794. According to Wikipedia 16,594 “enemies of the revolution” had their heads chopped off by the new “scientific” killing machine, the guillotine, that was supposed to do the job “more humane”.

The French and the American revolution did not, as some might believe, herald a new way of political or ethical behaviour, as revolutions hardly ever do. What changed was the kind of people that hold power. It wasn’t anymore the aristocracy and the clergy, but those who produced and controlled the wealth of a nation, the bourgeoisie. For the peasants and workers class, not much had changed, neither economically nor politically.

Some of the Enlightenment’s lofty ideas indeed found their way into the political, legal, and educational system, but this did not change European strategies of dominance within Europe as well on a global scale.

The journalist Chris Hedges wrote in his 2013 article “The Myth of Human Progress”, that

The human species, led by white Europeans and Euro-Americans, has been on a 500-year-long planetwide rampage of conquering, plundering, looting, exploiting and polluting the Earth — as well as killing the indigenous communities that stood in the way. …The mania for ceaseless economic expansion and exploitation has become a curse, a death sentence. ..we lack the emotional and intellectual creativity to shut down the engine of global capitalism. We have bound ourselves to a doomsday machine that grinds forward…
Complex civilizations have a bad habit of destroying themselves. Anthropologists including Joseph Tainter in “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” Charles L. Redman in “Human Impact on Ancient Environments” and Ronald Wright in“A Short History of Progress” have laid out the familiar patterns that lead to systems breakdown. The difference this time is that when we go down the whole planet will go with us.

Chris Hedges’s assessment echoes the sharp criticism by The Frankfurt School in the book Dialectic of Enlightenment first published in 1944 towards the end of WWII.

Photograph taken in Heidelberg, April 1964, by Jeremy J. Shapiro at the Max Weber-Soziologentag. Horkheimer is front left, Adorno front right, and Habermas is in the background, right, running his hand through his hair. Siegfried Landshut is in the background left. Source Wikipedia

The Frankfurt School’s critical theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno identified the cultural logic of the West, the Enlightenment, as a myth. They asked the question why a civilised nation such as Germany could succumb to the Aryan tales of an evil fascist regime, a nation with an outstanding reputation in science, literature and philosophy. Major philosophers of the enlightenment like Kant or Hegel were German.

In their book, Dialectic of Enlightenment they show that Francis Bacon, 1561–1626, already discussed essential ideas of the Enlightenment going back to the Greeks.

Although not a mathematician, Bacon well understood the scientific temper which was to come after him. The “happy match” between human understanding and the nature of things that he envisaged is a patriarchal one: the mind, conquering superstition, is to rule over disenchanted nature. Knowledge, which is power, knows no limits, either in its enslavement * of creation or in its deference to worldly masters…. Technology is the essence of this knowledge. It aims to produce neither concepts nor images, nor the joy of understanding, but method, exploitation of the labor of others,* capital. …What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings. Nothing else counts. (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1989)

The Enlightenment, so Horkheimer and Adorno is a capitalist enterprise in favour of the bourgeoisie and regards with suspicion “anything which does not conform to the standard of calculability and utility” and any threat to its domination.

Thus, so they say:

Formal logic … offered Enlightenment thinkers a schema for making the world calculable. The mythologizing equation of Forms with numbers in Plato’s last writings expresses the longing of all demythologizing: number became enlightenment’s canon.

Once the world becomes measurable, it becomes calculable, once calculable it becomes exploitable. I can now calculate the number of guns I need to enslave a population of X number of people and make sure that I win. That which was not calculable remained a source of danger that would be either attacked and subdued, ridiculed or just ignored.

In the end, Horkheimer and Adorno believed that the Enlightenment’s ideas reduced humanity’s essence to language, mathematical thinking, reasoning and material progress, relegating feelings, the arts, music, and the body with all its pleasures to the “underworld”. We’ve already heard that from Plato and the Christian canon, of course. And today, look at the role STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) plays in education compared to the arts and humanities.

The two books by Canadian-American cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress and The Better Angels of Our Nature follow closely in the Enlightenment’s tracks, so Wikipedia. Pinker argues that

the Enlightenment values of reason, science, and humanism have brought progress; shows our progress with data that health, prosperity, safety, peace, and happiness have tended to rise worldwide; and explains the cognitive science of why this progress should be appreciated. It is a follow-up to Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. (Wikipedia, 2018)
Steven Pinker. Photo by Rose Lincoln. Source: Wikipedia

Pinker, a cognitive scientist and psychologist, argues that “that these values are under threat from modern trends such as religious fundamentalism, political correctness, and postmodernism. These are big claims by someone who is not a historian.

It took a while for the specialists of history to raise their heads. However, an entire issue of an academic history journal in March 2018 finally took him on and submitted a scathing critique of his theories.

The editor of Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques, Linda Mitchell writes:

Finally, a word about this special issue. I think it is a good omen that my last job as senior editor has been to oversee the publication of this issue, which is devoted to a wide-ranging and erudite critique of the claims of evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker that (a) the modern world is less violent than the premodern world, and (b) historians are not treating the period of the seventeenth and eighteenth century known as the “Enlightenment”with the respect it deserves.
As the pages of this journal have demonstrated over and over, these statements are not just problematic and controversial, they are patently tendentious. Pinker — who is not a historian — belongs to a group of people, … who believe that writing history is easy and that anyone can do it. We know that what makes a good historian is training in the theories, methodologies, and materials of historical study. We know that history is not merely a narrative. Historical writing is labor intensive, often requiring hundreds of hours of sifting through archival materials in many languages and many forms. .. The 12 articles in this issue demonstrate the best kinds of historical writing in critiquing the methodology and conclusions of Pinker’s best-selling pseudohistorical study. (Mitchell, 2018)

The articles in Volume 44, Issue 1 of Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques truly rip Pinker apart.

For example, Mark Micale writes, referring to “The Better Angels”,

Throughout this very long book, the author cherry-picked examples to advance his thesis; alternately idealized and stigmatized entire past eras; and continually dismissed masses of counterevidence. Every page seemed to sport an overgeneralization as Pinker rode roughshod over the complexities and qualifications that a convincing account of the history of human violence would seem to require. Instead of localized, contextualized knowledge about the human past and an acknowledgment of the specificities of place and time — the bread and butter of professional historians — Better Angels advanced a severely reductive thesis that could not possibly be squared with the atrocities of the twentieth century and implied a naive, perhaps irresponsible, understanding of the present. Pinker’s use of historiography was skimpy and tendentious throughout. (Micale, 2018)

And Philip Dwyer in the same journal,

Pinker has reduced the historical narrative to a crude dichotomy: before the Enlightenment, the world was superstitious, cruel, and violent; after the Enlightenment, the world was rational and more peaceful. In doing so, he reduces violence to a fairly simplistic concept; all violence can be equated with irrationality, unreason, and ignorance. History is never as straightforward as Pinker would have his readers believe, and violence is a much more complex notion that is often driven not by superstition or unreason, but perfectly “rational” motives.

So, in a nutshell, Pinker’s books are “fake news” and having been endorsed by Bill Gates (Wikipedia, 2019), who called it “my new favorite book” doesn’t make it more convincing either.

In conclusion, the 19th-century idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel famously noted that “the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk” — meaning that philosophy starts to understand a historical condition only at the very end of the era, just as it passes away. Philosophy appears only in the “maturity of reality,” because it understands in hindsight.

One would think that 200 years later the open questions about the Enlightenment would have been widely resolved, and yet, we are still far away from a more in-depth understanding, probably because we are still too much immersed in it. Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s critique is still important, an early postmodern analysis of the absolute value systems that the “modern” Enlightenment ideas represent with emphasis on language, rationality, mathematical logic, computability, material progress, and Western ideological superiority. The Enlightenment’s rationality is a myth, behind the hubris, we find irrationality, brutal exploitation and pure terror.

Pinker’s analysis seems to have been written with a particular political and ideological purpose in mind, i.e. “whitewashing” the Enlightenment ideas as pure ethical and philosophical progress and blaming the faults of the modern era on postmodernists or fundamentalists, or in today’s parlance, “blame it on the Russians.” The drive towards “calculability” in society and science and its risks has only intensified in today’s era of big data and AI. But this analysis has to wait for another day.


Dwywer, P. (2018, March).Whitewashing history: Pinker’s (mis)representation of the enlightenment and violence. Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques, 44(1), 54–65.

Freeman, W.J. (2014). Societies of brains: A study in the neuroscience of love and hate (INNS Series of Texts, Monographs, and Proceedings Series)(1st ed.)[Kindle]. Retrieved from

Horkheimer, M. & Adorno, T.W., Cumming, J. (Trans.).(1989). Dialectic of enlightenment. New York, NY: Continuum

Lyotard, J. (1993). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge (9. printing. ed.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Micale, M.S., Dwywer, P. (2018, March).Introduction: History, Violence, and Steven Pinker. Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques, 44(1), 1–5.

Micale, M.S. (2018, March). What Pinker leaves out. Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques, 44(1), 128–139.

Mitchell, L.E. (2018, March).Editorial: A Message from senior editor Linda E. Mitchell. Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques, 44(1), v-vi.

Wikipedia. (2018). G.W.F. Hegel, philosophy of right (1820), “preface”; translated by S W Dyde, 1896. Retrieved from