Passionate Wisdom from Steven Pinker
By David Henderson
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.
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.)