Over the long arc of his writing career, Steven Pinker has gradually but unmistakably drifted from a cognitive psychologist publishing scholarly monographs within his field of expertise to a popular author preaching a full-blown Weltanschauung for a devoted audience of followers. His most recent book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, continues this transformation. Despite the grandness of the title, this book does not offer any sustained philosophical investigation into rationality as a concept. Instead, after more or less stipulating a definition, Pinker spends the majority of his energies stringing together various methods of formal reasoning that are in vogue in the social sciences, suggesting they are essential to human flourishing.
What makes all these methods and topics hang together is not a groundwork of reason itself, but Pinker’s ethical-political program. Those familiar with Pinker’s wider opus will quickly detect the motifs of his vision for universal human betterment. These include a fusion of empiricism, liberalism, technocracy, evolutionary psychology, materialism, anti-wokeism, and anti-clericalism. All of this is delivered in colourful diction and in prose barbed with polemical asides against American universities, social justice warriors, theists, postmodernists, Trumpists, and other such bugbears.
Those who wish to see these heterogeneous threads interwoven into the imposing battle standard of capital-R “rationality” will certainly enjoy this book. They will delight in page after page of Pinker’s dexterous reconstruction of various kinds of formal reasoning. But those less inclined to judge all of these themes as interlocking into some kind of harmonious (one might even say “rational”) whole will be considerably less impressed.
Of course, even sceptics might benefit from Pinker’s book by reading the middle chapters – constituting the bulk of the book – as a series of short, episodic primers on highly technical academic subjects such as formal logic, probability, Bayesianism, game theory, causal inference, and so on. These popularizations of ideas from the naturalist mainstream of American social science are expounded with impressive pedagogical clarity (how many writers can render explanations of signal detection theory or forecasting quite so readable?).
If Pinker simply recognized that he had mostly written a popularization of naturalistic methods in the social sciences, the present review might be more favourable. But, unfortunately, his book avows ambitions that fly far above the elevation of any of its actual accomplishments. As Pinker makes clear from the outset, his goal is to offer readers nothing short of an account of the “nature of rationality” as “the loadstar for everything we think and do,” while also explaining its value to human life and “why it seems so scarce.”
For those keeping track, Pinker is promising his readers a philosophical project – the definition and grounding of reason – that has strained the greatest minds in the history of thought from Plato to Kant. If that were not enough, he is also claiming to answer a sociological question of Weberian proportions: namely, an explanation of the pathologies of rationality within modernity. In fact, viewed from this perspective, Rationality is a massive exercise in intellectual bait and switch.
The trouble starts early with a chapter that pushes back on the recent trend inspired by behavioural psychology to view human agency as persistently irrational due to cognitive biases. Pinker instead attempts to persuade readers that humans are “cerebral problem solvers” and “wise hominin.” Yet his justification for this position relies heavily on a single, sketchy case of the San – a Kalahari hunter-gatherer people – whom Pinker breathlessly presents as proto-rationalists complete with a “scientific mindset” and an “intuitive grasp of logic … statistical reasoning, causal inference, and game theory.”
This is, of course, a revival of the armchair-anthropological trope of the noble savage, but unlike with Jean-Jacques Rousseau the aboriginals now play the role of logical savants that are amazing “Bayesians.” The sociologically sophisticated reader will immediately recognize that Pinker is trying to establish a foundational anthropological claim by handpicking a single case study from the literature and blowing it up to Gladwellian anecdotal proportions. Meanwhile, the philosophically lucid reader will detect that Pinker’s attempt to naturalize rationality into a spontaneous feature of human agency is in tension with his need to strenuously prescribe the powers of reason to modern and purportedly more advanced peoples.
If the San, whose practices predate science and the formal articulation of logic, are such fantastic reasoners then why are so many modern people, living in a post-scientific revolution, such wayward irrationalists? Perhaps a defender of Pinker might point out that rationality, as he puts it, “is not a power that an agent either has or doesn’t have, like Superman’s X-ray vision. It is a kit of cognitive tools that can attain particular goals in particular worlds.” So, ironically, the world of technological modernity might be short-circuiting our rational capacities in a way that the world of hunter-gatherers does not. If so, there is at the very least a deeply underexplored paradox in Pinker’s own account: how does a world of greater science, technology, and what Max Weber called “rationalization,” create an environment that leads individuals to be on the whole far less rational than the San?
But the tensions in Pinker’s account only grow more acute when he provides readers with a definition for rationality in chapter two. Pinker is rightly unsatisfied with the conception of rationality as a mere set of rules, like those of non-contradiction (the famed: if P, then P). True, Pinker does write phrases like “the core of rationality … must surely be logic” but he also makes clear that rationality requires goal-directed agency. As he puts it, “a rational agent must have a goal” such that “no one gets rationality credit” for merely “cranking out the logical implications of a proposition.”
This is what furnishes Pinker with the tidy definition of rationality as “the ability to use knowledge to attain goals.” This is far from a universally shared definition of rationality in philosophy (after all, there is no such thing) but it does vaguely resonate with respectable Kantian and neo-Aristotelian notions that beings without goals or purposes are incapable of rational action because their movements would simply embody the impersonal unfolding of a mechanism or causal sequence. This implies that teleological or goal-oriented behaviour is a central feature of rational agency.
Yet here Pinker falls into two big philosophical problems. The first is that unlike either Aristotle or Kant, he does not provide a sustained argument as to how to reason through competing aims. The result is that his definition of rationality is too capacious. After all, any number of goals or aims might orient human action. Pinker’s preferred way out of this simply begs the question – namely he asserts that the goals are simply given naturalistically by evolutionary psychology: the “operations are designed … in the case of the brain by natural selection” which is “hardwired into the machine or brain and runs because that’s how the circuitry works.”
The problem with this resolution, of course, is that the conflicting goals that comprise human life exist within the same biological and genetic apparatus. Whether the highest goal is mystic union with God or maximizing social utility or something else, the many teloi that emerge in human culture emerge from the same biological being. Even worse, Pinker’s attempt to put a backstop on this problem by grounding it in a set of natural givens, threatens his entire enterprise with incoherence.
In brief form this is because Pinker frequently avows a materialistic, law-governed metaphysics in Rationality (what he calls brute “laws of the universe”) that is not in any clear way reconcilable with an agency that can freely reason about goals and how to attain them. Readers of Pinker’s How the Mind Works (1997) will recall that he spends considerable space there arguing in favour of the computational theory of mind as a form of materialist monism and blasting those who insist on some agent or homunculi within the genetic machinery as reverting to a “ghost in the machine.” The brain, readers are assured, is instead akin to “lifeless gumball-machine parts.”
But a goal-directed being that can reason differently about various goals and aims, is not one whose operations are subsumable under mechanistic laws. Teleological causality is incompatible with mechanistic, antecedent causality. If humans were reducible to such a set of mechanistic processes, then there would be no need to exhort a normative, logical or rational set of principles. Human agency would simply unfold deterministically – not reaching the bare minimum levels of Pinker’s own definition of rationality.
Pinker is therefore on the horns of a dilemma. He must either radically revamp his metaphysics to allow for free, rational agency, or he must double down on material monism and render human agency definitionally non-rational. Instead, he ignores the basic philosophical problems and chides “32 percent” of Americans for believing in “ghosts.” Yet in his own schema the whole of Rationality is a meditation on the ghost of reason haunting the genetic house of the human body.
After this lone, quasi-philosophical chapter, Pinker’s book largely devolves into a series of chapters strung together on the formal reasoning typical of naturalistic social science, climaxing in a polemic against American irrationalism both inside and outside the academy. Herein lies another big philosophical problem for Pinker’s enterprise on its own terms. Namely, there is a certain incoherence as to what is included and what is left off the menu of rational thinking. Pinker never offers a framework for understanding what’s in and what’s out. To the contrary, by his own definition the topical chapters appear arbitrary, even somewhat random (for example: why probabilistic forecasting and not formal music theory?).
After all, Pinker has defined rationality as the use of knowledge to pursue goals. This might be fine as far as it goes, but the sheer capaciousness of the definition should include many activities that are never mentioned or even briefly entertained by Pinker as domains of human rationality. For instance, if rationality is simply goal-directed behaviour grounded in knowledge then why is not the practice of interpretation (or hermeneutics) a form of rationality as well? Does a reader of a novel or beholder of a painting not have a goal and apply knowledge? Likewise, those who read sacred scriptures (say, the Qur’an or the Bible) within a religious tradition to gain holiness or disabuse infidels of false beliefs are also using knowledge in the pursuit of some aim or telos.
Pinker’s unstated assumption seems to be that highly formalized and mathematized domains like probability, logic, and causal reasoning are somehow closer to the heart of human rationality (though even here one might wonder why some forms of formal reasoning are covered and others are not). Yet there is a very good case to be made that domains of goal-directed behaviour like ethics and politics – although not easily subject to such formalism – are nonetheless central areas of human rationality because they order and organize individual and collective aims. A form of this argument was classically deployed by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics.
Unfortunately, in both the case of ethical-political reasoning and hermeneutics, Pinker’s neglect is far from accidental. After all, philosophically speaking, both these broad areas are notoriously difficult to reduce to formal methods or steps which seem to be Pinker’s preferred ideal of rational thought. It seems that the minimalist, rational-rule based definition of reason is more important than the goal-oriented element after all.
Indeed, Pinker even flirts with the notion that moral goals are not really rational at all, citing Hume’s famous quip: “‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” In this Humean view, rationality is purely instrumental and cannot arbitrate or furnish substantive ends or goals. The aims of ethical life are arbitrary and reason only furnishes formal consistency and strategic rationality.
Pinker does not take the Humean route, but any reader seeking to understand his alternative to Hume will need to refer to an embarrassingly brief section entitled “Morality.” It is here, with very little argument, that Pinker breezily announces that “it is not hard to ground morality in reason.” (Do tell? Who is this man that has solved the sphinx’s riddle so easily?)
It turns out that for Pinker the “core of morality” is simply the “Golden Rule” which includes the major moral insights of everything from Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam to the philosophies of Immanuel Kant and John Rawls. Of course, one might fairly observe that Pinker is simply a Kantian of some sort – a perfectly respectable position in the history of philosophy. But sadly, such a defence is thwarted by Pinker’s own inconsistencies.
Indeed, only a few pages before championing Kant and Rawls one is shocked to read Pinker declaring that it is “nonsensical” to make “proclamations like … ‘We cannot put a price on Y.’” Indeed, Pinker insists that “putting a dollar value on a human life is repugnant but it’s also unavoidable.” Such crude utilitarianism might also be rendered more philosophically respectable, but it is also logically incompatible with Kant’s deontological view of ethical rules, in which willing rationally includes treating people as ends in and of themselves. Kant famously insisted that this means treating people as above all “price” and having “dignity” – an articulation of ethics that flatly contradicts Pinker. Thus, what Pinker declares “nonsensical” Kant sees as one of the major rational precepts of the morality of Reason.
Pinker’s neglect of ethics and political philosophy is tightly related to his having almost nothing to say about the rationality of storytelling disciplines as such. Literature, history, religion, and other humanities disciplines are conspicuously absent from any chapter-length treatments of rationality. Here I can only assume that Pinker’s huge attraction to scientific reasoning has blinded him to forms of rationality that are not structured by abstract method or mathematical formalization.
The interpretation of texts – think of, say, a novel or a historical tract – is not easily given to formal or mathematical resolution. Instead, one must enter the hard work of what is sometimes referred to as the “hermeneutic circle” – illuminating meanings or utterances in light of larger linguistic and cultural contexts. While this form of rationality is older than the natural sciences, it is far from non-rational or irrational. There are better and worse interpretations, in which differing kinds of knowledge must come to bear on the goal of understanding.
Pinker’s neglect of interpretive rationality (and therefore the arts, ethics, history, religion, politics, culture, interpretive social science, and so on) is subtly ironic since in the end his own greatest talent is perhaps not philosophical argumentation or scientific discovery but storytelling. Ultimately, what makes Rationality – and Pinker’s wider corpus – compelling to so many readers is not its formal, conceptual fireworks but the persistent, often tacit, tale it tells.
What is this tale? It is a familiar meta-narrative in our society, and one often favoured by old-style liberals who like to think of themselves as “moderates.” It is the story of a long march towards Enlightenment, toward rational control and material flourishing through the triumph of scientific reasoning and the rejection of what are viewed as the irrational extremes of both the Left and the Right.
“We [are] children of the Enlightenment,” Pinker declares near the end of his book. Such children embrace the “technocratic state” and push “mythology to the margins.” Mythology for Pinker includes both the mystic supernaturalism of traditional religion and the utopian visions of the political Left.
In Pinker’s tale the rational, technocratic, liberal middle is a kind of virtuous and beleaguered minority. They remain what he refers to as “the WEIRD ones: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic” or at least “the highly educated among us are in our best moments.” This WEIRD, rational middle faces a fearsome host of unreasonable foes – not only nationalist conservatives and Trumpists, but also communists, postmodernists and the whole woke Left who make “a guru” and “secular gospel” out of intellectuals like “Derrida … Foucault, or Butler, or Marx, or Freud, or Chomsky.”
Pinker’s unspoken message to his devoted readership is powerful: rationality is all of us who read this book together and agree to adopt what he calls “the reality mindset.” This is highly ironic since in his penultimate chapter Pinker decries what he calls “myside bias” or the favouring of any conclusions whether true or false that enhance “the correctness or nobility” of one’s own “political, religious, ethnic, or cultural tribe.” And yet his final narrative tacitly locates human rationality as reaching an apotheosis within a particular cultural-political milieu that just happens to be his own.
Thus, “rationality” in Pinker’s hands, although it claims to excavate the timeless structures of human thought, is instead a historically contingent product of the last gasps of North American post-Cold War liberalism. The major accomplishment of Pinker’s book – if it succeeds – will not be the triumph of Reason but rather the calling forth of more Pinkers into the world.
Jason Blakely is Associate Professor of Political Science at Pepperdine University. Blakely has written extensively on political philosophy, political theology, and the social sciences. His most recent book, We Built Reality: How Social Science Infiltrated Culture, Politics, and Power (Oxford, 2020), received accolades from luminaries like Charles Taylor and David Bentley Hart. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and B.A. from Vassar College. twitter.com/jasonwblakely
From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 1 ("The New Basics: Planet"). If you enjoyed reading this, please consider buying a copy of this issue or becoming a subscriber. We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.