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The Life of the Mind
by Hannah Arendt
Combined volumes
Mariner Books, 544 pp.
$18.95 (paper)

Enlightenment Now
by Steven Pinker
Viking, 576 pp.
$35.00 (cloth)

By some indicators we are entering a new Dark Age: anti-intellectual fervor is raging, suspicion of experts is at an all-time high and appeals to reason are dismissed as passé. What we need—urgently—is a robust defense of the potency of human minds to make sense of our world and guide our progress through it. The Life of the Mind, an adaptation of a lecture series by the popular German philosopher Hannah Arendt, might seem at first blush to be up to the task. Regretfully, it is not. Indeed, there is reason to worry it may only serve to deepen the confusion of its most enlightened readers about who we are and where we are heading.

From its first pages Arendt’s book is suffused with a tone of gnomic profundity. The lectures revolve around three “basic mental activities”: “thinking, willing and judging.” These emerge in her study as hopelessly opaque, self-contradictory categories. Small wonder, considering that she ignores the multiple empirical breakthroughs that have established that thinking, willing and judging are the products of an intricate cascade of neurons firing off in our cerebral cortexes.

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