Jordan Peterson notes

-Neither his fans nor his critics praise him for his less flashy/ controversial work as a teacher of personality psychology, but his lectures on the Big Five are the best I’ve heard:  they dig out the roots of the theory in a clear, systematic and careful way while dealing easily with the sort of distinctions that others trip over.

-Peterson is a born therapist. He’s an extremely good listener and his ability to think quickly in fluid, hostile, and complicated conversational situations is one in a million. He has a very strong grasp of many of the basic faults that lead to difficulties in life and is able to present them as solutions in a way that is very attractive to the listener. Here comes the “but” in 3, 2, 1…

-But he isn’t as famous as he is for his undergrad-teaching chops or his work as a therapist but for all that politico-philosophical stuff that makes fans rave and critics rage, and it’s not always easy to know what to make of it. I’ve come away from some number of his videos and a reading of 12 Rules puzzled about this part of his project. The rest of this post will be criticisms, but I don’t take all of them as insurmountable. Puzzling over someone’s deep philosophical commitments is not the same thing as claiming to know they are false.

1.) Peterson became famous for protesting a law that sought to extend speech protections to transgender persons, but as far as I can tell, the law didn’t bring speech codes into existence but only  extends existing ones, so Peterson seems to already accept speech codes but simply doesn’t want them extended to a new class of persons. Such a position can’t be defended by a general appeal to free speech, but this seems to be the only defense that Peterson offers. It’s not enough to say that transgender persons demand special pronouns: any speech code is going to make some part of speech against the law.

2.) Peterson gives elliptical and often tortured answers to questions about his own belief in God, usually settling on “I act as though he exists”. At the same time, he insists that no one is an atheist in his actions. But how meaningful can it be to act as though God exists when this commits one to doing nothing a professed atheist wouldn’t do?

If his claim is that there is some archetypal, unconscious divine belief that may or may not be recognized consciously, why not just say so? Peterson seems allergic to the thought of saying something definite about God, but this is one of those moments where the principle of contradiction demands that you put yourself somewhere. If you don’t know what to think about God, that’s called “agnosticism” or maybe “open-minded inquiry”, and if this is where Peterson is at he differs from many of the New Atheists only in the details or method of approach. Even Dawkins is open to the possibility that there might be a god.

3.) Peterson’s account of belief seems to be that we first acted without symbolic representation of action, then we represented our action in myth and story, and last (and recently) we interpreted out myths and stories rationally. So just as myth encodes action so reasoning encodes myth. Peterson’s project seems to be a Westerner’s preservation of Western myth. So far so good, but then the puzzles creep in: what exactly is the alternative to preserving the Western myth? If reasoning simply encodes myth it is not clear how it can be lost. Again, is the alternative to Western myth some new, scientific myth or no myth at all?

Here it might seem that Marx is the alternative myth since Peterson is clearly very concerned by the history and presence of Marxist ideas, but this doesn’t get us any closer to understanding the alternative to the Western myth since Marxism is no more mythical than Kantianism or the Laval school. Marx is an economist, philosopher, and early scientist – he may be wrong, but failing at economics doesn’t make the failure mythical.

Peterson is strongly motivated by a horror of 20th Century totalitarianism and sees it as a loss of the Christian myth. But since Peterson’s account of reasoning doesn’t allow for non-myth based reasoning, myth was lost altogether but only replaced with some other myth. This points to a foundational difference and conflict between Peterson and Nietzsche that is not easy to resolve. For Nietzsche, science itself was the last, most degraded stage of Christian mythology, but for Peterson the Christian myth was lost in the technological and scientific utopianism of 20th Century totalitarianism and threatens to be lost in the New Atheism.

I should pause on this since it is so central to Peterson’s commitments to myth and Nietzsche. When Nietzsche critiques the scientific mindset as the last form of Christianity, he critiques it at its most sympathetic. It will be helpful to read Russell contrast science in this most sympathetic sense to Soviet communism:

[A Soviet Communist] is a man who entertains a number of elaborate and dogmatic beliefs—such as philosophic materialism, for example—which may be true, but are not, to a scientific temper, capable of being known to be true with any certainty. This habit, of militant certainty about objectively doubtful matters, is one from which, since the Renaissance, the world has been gradually emerging, into that temper of constructive and fruitful scepticism which constitutes the scientific outlook. I believe the scientific outlook to be immeasurably important to the human race. If a more just economic system were only attainable by closing men’s minds against free inquiry, and plunging them back into the intellectual prison of the middle ages, I should consider the price too high.

This is just the account of science that Nietzsche argues does not escape from “the intellectual prison of the middle ages”, since it places an absolute value on not being deceived, and science, according to its own self understanding, cannot underwrite any absolute commitments.

Peterson could put his fundamental philosophy like this: “I agree with Nietzsche that science is the last form of Christianity, but I think this last form of Christianity is good and I want to preserve it. Therefore I seek to preserve the Christian West so as to keep science, and above all its commitment to free inquiry”.

But then we are left confused about just what Peterson is up to. Nietzsche recognizes science itself as the last Christian myth, even without Christ, the Bible, God, etc. If Peterson wants to preserve the Western myth, then he should then be emphatically pro Naturalist while, in fact, the critique of Naturalism is central to his project.

This point has rambled for a while but it summarizes to this: if Peterson accepts the mythical foundation of all thought as found in Nietzsche and he wants to preserve the free speech and inquiry, he needs to be a Naturalist when, in fact, he is not.

4.) It’s always a bad sign when someone unifies too much evil in a certain group, and Peterson seems to cross the threshold of doing this with his accusations of “Postmodern Neo-Marxists.” Even setting aside that its strange to see someone love Nietzsche and critique postmodernism, it’s hard to see how even the problems of the modern university are exclusively or even significantly Neo-Marxist. Sure, group identity and suspicion of power structures is a problem, but so are a half-dozen other philosophies and mere moral failings. Don’t American universities, at least, suffer from serious capitalist perversions like oppressive tuition costs, the exploitation of workers (i.e. adjuncts), and a consumerist “lifestyle” view of the college experience? While Neo-Marxism is a problem, the structure of the modern university seems less function of domination by a marxist vision and more the result of the loss of any kind of vision beyond a desire to be everything to everyone in a relentless pursuit of warm bodies that can meet minimal requirements.

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