David R. Henderson  

Passionate Wisdom from Steven Pinker

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I'm just past the middle of Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress for a review I'm writing. I love the book.

Here's one excellent passage that shows Pinker's clarity and perspective as well as his humanity. He is criticizing a 1962 response to C.P. Snow's case for the importance of science. The response is by literary critic F.R. Leavis.

Pinker writes:

Leavis scoffed at a value system in which "'standard of living' is the ultimate criterion, its raising an ultimate aim." As an alternative, he suggested that "in coming to terms with great literature we discover what at bottom we really believe. What for--what ultimately for? What do men live by?--the questions work and tell at what I can only call a religious depth of thought and feeling." (Anyone whose "depth of thought and feeling" extends to a woman in a poor country who has lived to see her newborn because her standard of living has risen, and then multiplied that sympathy by a few hundred million, might wonder why "coming to terms with great literature" is morally superior to "raising the standard of living" as a criterion for "what at bottom we really believe"--or why the two should be seen as alternatives in the first place.)

Indeed.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Bob Murphy writes:

David,

I hope you trust my "consumption is generally a good thing" bona fides, but this rhetorical move only works because Pinker is using "a woman seeing her newborn grow up" as a proxy for "rising living standards."

If instead he had written, "But what do men live by? Anyone who has witnessed yuppies lining up for the next iPhone model know the answer" it wouldn't have been nearly as compelling.

Steve writes:

F. R. Leavis and the old time "new" critics like him are long gone from the academy.

Today's literary types are more likely to say that coming to terms with the racial, gender and economic crimes of the current ruling class is morally superior to a mere concern for raising people's standard of living.

Pinker is correct overall, but he is beating a dead horse here. The humanities establishment of Leavis's day were gruff old teddy bears, compared to the grim ideologues of today.

Thaomas writes:

Since neither Snow nor Pinker argue that science/standard of living are the ONLY good things, why do criticis try to pose them vs "higher values" as alternatives.

Hazel Meade writes:

What exactly is meant by "standard of living"?

You could define that in lots of different ways. A very hard-core socialist regime might measure that purely in terms of number of humans kept alive, or total human life-years, even if those years are spent enslaved in manual labor with no opportunity for individuals to express themselves or direct their own lives.

If you include something like "potential for self-actualization", or "ability to pursue own goals on a level playing field", you might end up with a very different formula for maximizing standard of living, one which might place less emphasis on physical welfare, and more on liberty.

David R Henderson writes:

@Bob Murphy,
I hope you trust my "consumption is generally a good thing" bona fides
I do.
but this rhetorical move only works because Pinker is using "a woman seeing her newborn grow up" as a proxy for "rising living standards."
True.
If instead he had written, "But what do men live by? Anyone who has witnessed yuppies lining up for the next iPhone model know the the answer" it wouldn't have been nearly as compelling.
True again.
Here's why I think Pinker's version is justified though: so many people who attack the focus on higher standards of living are either ignorant of (that's the generous interpretation) or uncaring about (that's the ungenerous interpretation) the huge gain in living standards among the world's poor. So if Leavis wants to make his case, he could do so by, in those days, criticizing people, as Galbraith did, who buy Cadillacs with big tail fins. But Leavis made a more general case against worrying about living standards. Once he does that, he's open to the criticism that Pinker levied.

Capt. J Parker writes:

Reminds me of the best pair of movie lines ever.

From "The Aviator"

Katherine Hepburn's Mother: Oh, we don't care about money here.

Howard Hughes: That's because you have it.

Ron Warrick writes:

Pinker well defends standard of living as "a" criterion. But Leavis was supposedly criticizing it as the "ultimate" criterion. I don't think even Pinker would see it as ultimate.

David R Henderson writes:

@Capt. J. Parker,
Great line! Thanks.
@Ron Warrick,
Good point. I think to resolve this, I would need to see the whole of Leavis's critique and see exactly what C.P. Snow said that he was responding to. I don't have time for that right now.

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