The Political Problems with Steven Pinker’s Book ‘Enlightenment Now’

Ed Fernyhough
Jan 20 · 4 min read

Steven Pinker promises us the world is becoming a better place, but he fails to see that it is only improving for some people, not for everyone

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Photo by João Ritter on Unsplash

In 2018, Bill Gates had great praise for Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now, also published in 2018. Gates says that Pinker’s book is admirable in its demonstration that over the past few centuries, civilisations have been making progress, and, in aggregate, people have been faring better.

Pinker’s observations are no doubt true for many people living in developed countries, but his book is a total failure through its negligence to properly recognise the fact that different countries experience vastly different rates of progress and why they do, as well as his neglect of why people from different countries experience inequalities of wellbeing.

“Enlightenment Now is not only the best book Pinker has written. It’s now my favourite book of all time.” Bill Gates, 2018.

Pinker shows moments of brilliance in his book, praising human ingenuity, science, and people’s abilities to construct systems which increase their capabilities for knowledge, wisdom, health, comfort, and their abilities to flourish. However, he fails to see that not everyone across the world is benefiting from this progress. Pinker’s political views are thus indistinct from today’s capitalist orthodoxy, which experts know needs to change.

Politically, Pinker is basically just a neoliberal who has very conventional views you can find expressed by many other people. He’s a run-of-the-mill centrist — he does argue that people’s qualities of life have, in developed countries, improved over the past few hundred years, which is so obvious and so platitudinal I don’t know why he bothered writing a book about it (probably to make money). He does argue that people deserve to do better off, which is an admirable position not everyone takes.

However, he spends full chapters of space saying things as mind-numbingly obvious as “people died younger when there were no hospitals” — although I am paraphrasing, his typical approach to political analysis is very shallow, and extremely self-evident at best. Moreover, he doesn’t give nearly enough space in his politics to account for global inequalities and the unsustainabilities of present capitalist systems as currently constituted, which is why he won’t be taken seriously as a 21st century political thinker. He doesn’t, for instance, give much thought about how resources should be redistributed globally to improve everyone’s access to basic resources, like hospitals, which is partly why his political thought is impotent.

Pinker simply assumes that “things are getting better”, without explaining how international economic power dynamics contribute to who gets what, who things are getting better for, and for how long they can expect things to get better. Pinker’s tendency to aggregate information about how people’s welfare has changed over time, presenting “people” as a homogenous and unchanging group, precludes any ability to detect how different groups are doing at a particular point in time and why. Serious social scientists would ridicule this aspect of his method as wholly inadequate.

Nor does Pinker pay enough attention to the potentially catastrophic environmental effects industrialisation and unbridled consumerism have. He is guilty of the historicism that Karl Popper warns social scientists against. About Pinker’s attempt to predict how things will be in the future from some people’s present, Popper might have said something like: just because things are getting better for some people now, does not mean they will continue to do so indefinitely under current conditions. To presume that they will is horrifically naive, complacent, and negligent.

His political thought is positive but superficial; he makes some okay observations about the impotence of doomer pessimism, but makes no effort to identify the genuine issues current economic and political systems contribute to, nor does he suggest any meaningful solutions besides inheriting “Enlightenment values” — some of which are responsible for the problems we’ve now got. He does usefully condemn the vacuity of postmodern politics, philosophy, & nihilistic positions in general, recognising their recent vogue while also recognising their utter ineptitude at solving the problems Pinker’s panegyric for the status quo also ignores.

In essence, Pinker praises our current economic situation and its outcomes, without paying any attention to the glaring economic insufficiencies of hundreds of millions of people, which is obviously a huge problem. His political thought can be summarised as saying “wealth and technology is great for those who’ve got it.” In short, his book is pop-propaganda advocating laissez-faire market policies and capitalist conventions, which he masquerades as academic social science using tenuous stats.

The reason I have criticised this book so harshly, a book which despite my criticism is admirable in many respects, is because its tone is dangerously and deceptively seductive, encouraging an optimistic complacency about people’s future outcomes despite many people’s present disadvantages, and despite the potential exacerbation of present risks which could leave many presently well-off families destitute in the future, risks which include a climate change caused by the systems and ideas he praises.

Excessive optimism of Pinker’s brand could engender a self-destructive and uncritical ambivalence preventing people from identifying problems and solving them — which are fundamentally the attitudes which drive the social and economic progress Pinker is such a keen advocate of.

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Ed Fernyhough

Written by

Cambridge, LSE & Bristol graduate. Write on culture, philosophy, business and politics. Owner of The Retrospective.

The Retrospective

The place you can trust for today’s news explained.

Ed Fernyhough

Written by

Cambridge, LSE & Bristol graduate. Write on culture, philosophy, business and politics. Owner of The Retrospective.

The Retrospective

The place you can trust for today’s news explained.

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