North America's Most Popular Clinical Psychologist Is Better Than His Own Philosophy
For Jordan Peterson, truths about the objective world are the purview of science; phenomenological truths about our subjective valuation of the world are the purview of myth. This is an absolutist fact/value dichotomy which could easily lead to cultural relativism. But Peterson avoids relativism by means of Darwinism. “True” values are those that natural selection has conditioned humans to feel in order to survive.
When Peterson explores biblical and mythological texts, he appears to be taking religious ideas seriously. What he is really doing, however, is constructing a myth of his own from Darwinian premises. Myths are created, Peterson suggests, by observing behavior and “extracting out” patterns. Peterson begins his mythopoesis with an observation he believes to be fundamental: that human beings behave differently toward familiar things and unfamiliar things. The abstract idea of familiarity and unfamiliarity are then hypostatized, becoming “the known” and “the unknown”, the domains of Peterson’s mythical world. In the center of this barren cosmos is the individual, a hero, forever hacking away at the unknown and constructing knowledge from her pieces.
Peterson’s Darwinism-based mythical world-picture is intended to help secular people escape nihilism by giving them access to a quasi-religious source of transcendent meaning. This is one step beyond Victor Frankl’s logotherapy. Unlike Freud, who was primarily concerned with analyzing a patient’s past, Frankl immersed patients in visions of achievement in the future. Peterson noticed that, in terms of personal psychological benefit, life-transcending religious goals are superior to the kinds of temporal goals people set for themselves. Peterson’s myth offers secularists a long-term, overarching purpose to their life grounded in a mytho-religious view of themselves as courageous explorers.
Against Peterson’s unquestionably successful self-help methodology stands the mocking voice of King Solomon.
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath man of all his labor wherein he laboreth under the sun?” Ecclesiastes 1:2-3.
“Man in his pomp will not endure, he is like the beasts that perish.” Psalm 49:12
Biblical wisdom deconstructs the temporal sources of meaning embedded in pagan mythology (i.e. self-worship) as well as the virtues of self-reliance and competence which spring from it. As Nietzsche pointed out in On the Genealogy of Morals, Judaism was a “transvaluation of all values … [which] triumphed … over all more aristocratic ideals”. The moral revolution embedded in Judaic Revelation is fundamentally at odds not only with pagan mythological conceptions of the world (like Peterson’s) but also with the evolutionary processes that selected for them. Instead of valuing strength, competence, and achievement (i.e. fitness), Judeo-Christianity values lowliness, meekness, and humility.
If Peterson lived by the values he preaches, he would focus, as his followers do, on his own competence and personal achievements. Instead, Peterson gets choked up when young men see him as a father-figure and tell him that he has been their salvation. This is not the behavior of a heroic explorer; it is the agony of a guilt-ridden saint. Nietzsche might like Peterson’s myth, but he would gag at his displays of worthless pity-morality.
Peterson desires to improve the lives of fragile young men who are offered little more than nihilism by modern culture. This makes Peterson better than his preaching. What he preaches is an empowering neo-pagan heresy built on a materialist metaphysic. What motivates him to preach is Christian charity and the fact that he sees a spark of the divine in every young man. As is common among Liberal Protestants, Jordan Peterson no longer believes the Christian dogmas he was taught in his youth. Yet he still acts like a believer.
My description thus far might not be immediately evident to the casual observer whose exposure to Peterson is limited to one of the three primary types of online video clips: 1) Peterson making circuitous but palpably conservative political arguments; 2) Peterson waxing lyrical about the psychological brilliance of Biblical passages, or 3) Peterson defiantly objecting to the political argument-from-compassion regarding the coerced use of transgender pronouns. In these clips, Peterson appears more like a Right-wing political pundit than a Christian saint. Myopic Left-wing critics even describe Peterson’s support for the cultural value of Christianity and his criticism of feminism as a gateway drug to the alt-Right. That is not accurate. However, to understand Peterson’s rise to fame, one does need to understand the current political moment on the Right, especially the American Right.
In 1980, while Milton Friedman was popularizing libertarian ideology and world peace was being threatened by totalitarian communism, Ronald Reagan built a populist Republican coalition out of religious traditionalists, libertarians, and former Democrat union workers. Reagan’s jokes about government’s regulatory incompetence resonated with traditionalist conservatives who wanted to see federal power shrink relative to the power of their extra-governmental social institutions and also with American workers who saw how ludicrous OSHA regulations could be.
Nearly 40 years later, much has changed. The Religious Right has declined in political significance. Libertarian ideology is widely seen as stale and uninspiring. The regulatory state has become significantly more competent. In addition, the Cold War is over, and “socialism” is no longer a dirty word. In sum, the Right is no longer united by an economic enemy. The common enemy is now primarily a social one. American workers who are rarely troubled by economic regulations, these days, are instead irritated by diversity guidelines which suggest that they are implicitly racist. The entire Right wing, religious and atheist alike, oppose social policies premised on cultural relativism or the idea that biological categories (or even science itself) are patriarchal constructs.
Another important change was the dramatic decline in religious belief and observance. Americans increasingly describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated (“nones”), and many who are religious precariously position their belief atop an essentially Darwinist metaphysic. Deep-seated philosophical materialism explains why the only critique of communism that lingers in the popular imagination is an economic one: “communism doesn’t work.” People have forgotten that the best intellectual arguments against communism were religious in nature, including Peterson’s favorite from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Jordan Peterson fits neatly into the American cultural and political moment on the Right. He rocketed into the limelight by taking a stand against a Canadian law mandating the use of gender-neutral pronouns. He increased his fame by recapitulating arguments of great conservative authors of the recent past and couching their social critiques of Left-wing ideology in Darwinist terms. All the while, Peterson managed to avoid the typical routes to obscurity by successfully straddling the philosophical divide between fundamentalist Evangelicals and fundamentalist New Atheists. He satisfies Christians by giving religious texts (especially the Bible) an important place in his understanding of the world. He satisfies New Atheists by subordinating religion to an Enlightenment understanding of what constitutes objective truth.
The final piece of the Peterson popularity puzzle is his style. Peterson speaks and writes in impressive-sounding language sprinkled with psychological jargon. He is often imprecise, even equivocal, and seems to be saying much more than he actually is. He also surrenders to popularly-held philosophic presumptions (e.g. that all articulated knowledge, especially moral knowledge, is reducible to an adaptive Darwinian story). In sum, Peterson’s writing resembles the sort of thing that rises to the top of internet discussion forums – which is precisely what happened on Quora, according to the “overture” of his new book, 12 Rules for Life.
Lest I be thought to be gratuitously insulting Peterson, the following is a typical passage from his magnum opus, Maps of Meaning:
“Unprotected exposure to unexplored territory produces fear. The individual is protected from such fear as a consequence of ritual imitation of the Great Father—as a consequence of the adoption of group identity, which restricts the meaning of things, and confers predictability on social interactions. When identification with the group is made absolute, however—when everything has to be controlled, when the unknown is no longer allowed to exist—the creative exploratory process that updates the group can no longer manifest itself. This restriction of adaptive capacity dramatically increases the probability of social aggression.”
What Peterson means is this:
People don’t like unfamiliar places, things, events or ideas. Tradition protects you from these. But, government-mandated conformity to tradition leads to stagnation and possibly violence.
The kernel of his paragraph is a banal insight. But, the way Peterson phrases it would get many “likes”.
Not all of Peterson’s insights are banal. Peterson touches upon many profound ideas as he enthusiastically explores the works of great authors. He brings into dialogue some of the best religious thought and some of the most sophisticated evolutionary ideas (both as understood by laymen) and attempts to resolve the dissonance between them. The ambitious project of Maps of Meaning was to take religious critiques of totalitarianism and fit them into the Darwinian metaphysical framework assumed by most scientists who study the human being. The project of 12 Rules for Life, far less ambitious, was a similar attempt to reconcile some religious ethical common sense (discipline your children, treat individuals with dignity, focus on changing yourself, etc.) with that same framework.
For those interested in Peterson’s investigations, I recommend his video lectures more highly than his books. It is more interesting to watch his intelligent and creative mind at work than to read a particular stream of his consciousness that has fossilized on the page. As Peterson might put it, he likes to explore at the edge of Chaos, just beyond the bounds of his competence. Sometimes the result is a dazzling display of intellectual achievement. Sometimes he falls flat. Either way, it is an enjoyable show.