Now that the second book is safely out of my hands, I’ve been working for the last little while on some new things: perpetual motion machines (see this earlier post for a very preliminary version), Spanish ghosts in English-conquered Jamaica, scientific projectors in Restoration England, and so on. One of these, as previous posts might lead one to expect, is the Enlightenment — not so much the history of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century as the way this history, or movement, or set of ideas, or project (it is all of these things or none, depending on whom you ask) gets used in the present, especially in the culture wars still tiresomely raging over the humanities and sciences in academia. To make a long story short, academics — even those who, like me, focus on early modern European history, to say nothing of those whose main interests lie elsewhere — are liable to be accused of hating, endangering, undoing or otherwise mistreating the Enlightenment, and thereby contributing to the destruction of Western Civilization.
At the centre of the storm, and at the source of many such accusations, is Harvard psychologist and sometime plastic brain model Steven Pinker’s bestselling book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Penguin, 2018). Pinker levels all manner of charges at “intellectuals” and “academics,” including “historians of science,” about which I shall have much more to say another time. I was recently invited to discuss Pinker’s book and views on #FreezePeachLive, a YouTube channel run by online acquaintances Dr. Jo Edge, a historian of medieval science and medicine, and Dr. Eric Lybeck, a sociologist of education. As this was my first ever YouTube appearance, I can’t say I knew what I was doing, but I found the experience well worthwhile and the discussion did get to some important points. (It did not get to Pinker’s interesting use of footnotes, which merits treatment on its own in any case.) If it does absolutely nothing else, it shows the havoc that 16 months without shaving or haircuts can wreak.