The Curious Case of Jordan Peterson

Few have reigned as steady and strong a champion of free speech as well as an opponent of political correctness as University of Toronto professor of psychology, Jordan Peterson. Over the years he has attracted a host of followers in his crusade against identity politicspostmodernism, and campus orthodoxy. Additionally he has been able to earn an impressively high honorarium through donations from his ever-increasing fan base.

However, despite his growing reputation, because of his refutation of Bill C-16 and his criticisms of socialism and gender identity, some have claimed that Jordan Peterson is an ally of neo-nazis and “right-wingers.” Many however, including this author, have come to his defense believing these comments and their accusatory tone are farfetched and miss their mark.

Let’s be clear: Peterson is erudite. He has impressive knowledge in a vast array of seemingly unrelated fields. On a podcast hosted by evolutionary psychologist, Gad Saad, they both agreed with Steven Pinker’s premise in The Blank Slate that our core psychological traits are designed by evolutionary mechanisms. In other words, Peterson is not uninformed on a number of complex and pressing issues. Even in a surprisingly convoluted podcast with Sam Harris (where the discussion was bogged down over “what is true”), Peterson still managed to affirm his understanding that things like gender, race, sexual preferences, etc. are not just social constructs.

To reiterate, Peterson’s criticisms of identity politics and postmodernism are in concordance with that of this author’s. For example, while I listened to the Joe Rogan podcast which included Bret Weinstein (of Evergreen State College fiasco fame), Peterson’s comments resonated almost identically to my own. I had little to no disagreement with what he said. But closer inspection reveals a man behind a curtain.

When Peterson articulates his understanding of how the evolutionary mechanisms of group dynamics have set the stage for modern identity politics something of curious note arises. I say “of curious note” because although he seems to levy fair accusations against postmodernism, is able to brilliantly elucidate the toxic nature of identity politics, and while he clearly is able to espouse on the evolutionary roots of identity, upon careful inspection, the philosophical premise he operates on has at least one wheel in the ditch.

In an article Peterson published, he sounds not so much a critic of postmodernism, as he is heralded, but more like a bishop of it. In this article, Peterson pays homage to the philosopher, Heraclitus, whose ancient philosophical works on logos, many agree, are the progenitors of postmodernism. He agrees with Wittgenstein, whose magnum opus, Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus, influenced the way postmodern and poststructuralist thinkers have come to believe language is a tool of the oppressor. He also mentions Alfred Adler, whose individual psychology paved the way for a paradigm shift in utilizing postmodern thinking with psychotherapy.

Peterson rails against postmodernism but in the article referenced above he suggests that subjective experience is the equivalent with what is in fact real (which is the exact argument postmodernist and poststructuralist thinkers make). This makes as much sense as when someone criticizes ISIS but praises the Saudis. So as to avoid a straw man argument here, it is important to consider alternative explanations. Perhaps Peterson had a change of heart — after all, the document was published in 1999. Was Peterson, like this author, once PoMo, but now no mo’?

In a nutshell: he criticizes the anti-rationality of postmodernist and poststructuralist thought but then goes on to suggest (in a number of places) that we do not live in an objective world. To use his own phraseology: what if we risk the presupposition that he is a charlatan and conclude that Peterson’s rhetoric is nothing but fanfare designed to lead his followers up the garden path?

Is Jordan Peterson and/or his followers even aware that he is doing this? To be clear, the question isn’t so much whether or not Peterson says subjective experience is prime but then goes on to criticize this notion himself — he undoubtedly does, and does it often. The question that arises is what degree of self-deception is he practicing? Is he, like the Wizard of Oz, playing a game of smoke and mirrors to make people happy while he is fully aware that he contradicts himself? That would be something! On the other hand, if this is ignorance on his part is a result of basic human cognitive errors, he should address it and change his views somehow. But if this deception is in fact willful then the question is to what degree is he a hypocrite and to what degree is he psychologically compensating for the loss of something? What exactly is going on here?

Having studied postmodernism and poststructural thinking in graduate school I am familiar with the “double speak” that many deconstructionists and poststructural lecturers and writers utilize. Many of these academics are what some might call “moderate Christians” (for lack of a better phrase). Meaning they have left the dogma of the church but retain many elements of its thinking — including its obfuscations, its biases, as well as its parochialism. With one hand they will (as Peterson often does) say science can in fact make valid predictions about reality. With the other, however, they will incite an almost convincing cantrip and say, “but since a person’s ‘subjective experience’ is prime, anything beyond one’s immediate experience of ‘the things themselves‘ (which includes science) is nothing but an abstraction and is to be considered secondary at best.” This use of (dare I say) “logic” is similar to the type employed by Pope Francis when he declared evolution and the Big Bang to be real — but ultimately thanked God for them.

Like recent others, I too have wondered for some time how Peterson manages to make such spot on critiques of postmodernism (like he does on podcasts with Gad Saad, Joe Rogan, and others) while at the same time praise the primacy of subjectivity as well as things like legends and Jungian myths (which, as most academics know, are often loosely associated with phenomenological psychology and postmodernist/poststructuralist frameworks). When someone makes valid and well stated critiques of postmodernism and identity politics but tips their hat to Heraclitus, Wittgenstein, and Adler, a healthy amount of skepticism should be applied.

Those who offer counter refutations to refutations of Peterson’s comments will often say something like: “Well, what’s the big deal? Why are you being so smug? Myths are beneficial and help give meaning to peoples’ otherwise secular lives.”

To be fair, Jordan Peterson is a person who, like anyone else, struggles with the reality of existence. So then who am I to criticize how someone makes meaning in this or any other world? Identity is complex and is not as black and white as we often think it is. Why should anyone get on someone’s case for using free speech and earning some money while doing so?

But when someone says personal truths are the same as reality, that we live in a more spiritual world than a materialistic one, and when this person makes a substantial earning by condemning and criticizing a philosophical framework that holds aloft the very thing he earns a living criticizing (i.e. the primacy of subjective experience), one’s alarm bells should be ringing. To shed light on why this discrepancy in Peterson’s philosophy is so important, it may help to contextualize this.

If someone (like Jordan Peterson, for example) says experience is prime and that truth is based on one’s subjective experience (as Peterson ostensibly does), one is then essentially saying that anyone’s experience is prime. This would mean then that the experience of the Antifa and neo-Nazis are both valid truths… that is, unless you are proclaiming social hierarchies — which is precisely what postmodernists do. By suggesting that one’s experience is the equivalent of what is real, as Peterson does, he is not attacking postmodernism, he is either a follower of it or contributing to it — and his followers are inadvertently and unwittingly helping him subsidize this intellectual cesspool.

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Although Peterson may not publicly endorse the dogma and superstition of Christianity, he has stated that in order to prove something scientifically, one’s subjective experience must include a belief in God. There is nothing necessarily wrong with personal beliefs per se — in fact, religious beliefs can be healthy. But claiming subjective experience (which includes personal belief) as prime is not antithetical to postmodernism (as Peterson claims it to be) — it is in direct conjunction with it. Placing personal belief in front of scientific evidence is an epistemological error.

But deep down, since this author is a humanist, I understand that in life we are all jousting windmills one way or another. Postmodernism is quite toxic as an orientation to the world, but it may have some clinical applications. When people give up the dogma of religion, they seek things to fill the loss of that certainty. Some end up believing in auras while others become lost in substances or astrology. A few deny the moon landing and wax into conspiracy theories about 9/11, while others seek righteous indignation that is often supported by postmodernism. And because it has essentially come to resemble a religious organization itself in terms of campus orthodoxy, dissent from those who dissent, as with any other group, has consequences — just like membership has its privileges.

What happens when we begin to critique the very thing used to replace religion? What happens when it retains vestiges of the elements that caused us to leave it in the first place? One thing that can happen is that a person can start equating a subjective, moral truth with a fact in the shared world. Secondly, that person can pretend they aren’t pedaling their own brand of identity politics while at the same time criticizing it.

In the end, I support Jordan Peterson on his stance on free speech but his inconsistencies and his equating the truth with “what is useful” or meaningful has left this author wondering how a person can hold such incompatible views at the same time. That is, how can he on one hand criticize the primacy of subjectivity on the side of postmodernist and poststructural thinking but valorize it when it comes to myths and religion? That, I propose, is the curious case of Jordan Peterson.

Reza Ziai

Reza Ziai has a master's degree in psychology and is currently an adjunct lecturer at the City University of New York. He is also a writer and a free thinker. His interests include dissonance, music, and evolution.
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Reza Ziai

Reza Ziai has a master's degree in psychology and is currently an adjunct lecturer at the City University of New York. He is also a writer and a free thinker. His interests include dissonance, music, and evolution.

10 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Jordan Peterson

  1. My hypothesis is that Prof. Peterson (intelligently) finds support for each of his religious beliefs in whatever discipline happens to serve a particular belief, scientific or postmodernist. In that sense, his modus operandi is not much different to that of, say, an astrologer or a conman. Here is my case:

    As mentioned in the article, Peterson seemingly affirms and denounces postmodernist thinking at the same time. Why? Because the common denominator in Peterson’s arguments is religion. He needs (objective) science to criticize subjective gender identification and to make an evolutionary case for the validity of religion as a moral code. But he also needs subjectivity to preach the virtues of religion, to not be forced to apply a scientific filter to religion which he knows it will not pass.

    Religion seems to come first, and anything that may be used as a tool to defend it, scientific or postmodernist, is fair game. The ultimate reason for citing the biology of sex to attack gender fluidity is that gender fluidity undermines the “truth” of gendered religious stories and archetypes: Adam and Eve, Jesus the perfect man, Mother Nature, the Tyrannical father etc. The ultimate reason for defending free speech and shunning political correctness is that doing so embodies the “logos,” which God used to speak meaning into the world, whatever that means. The ultimate reason for condemning “neomarxism” is that it threatens to flatten the evolved “dominance hierarchies” necessary for the existence of the “hero” archetype.

    How do we further test my hypothesis? First, is Peterson himself religious? Yes, he “acts as if” God exists. Second, and crucial, is how he handles uncontroversial scientific facts when they contradict religion. Does he concede a blow to religion or simply change to his “subjectivity” hat to defend religion? I’m not aware of much data required to answer that. But for one, he has said that he believes we don’t know if the (physical) body of Jesus resurrected because we don’t know what happens when (subjectivity alert!) a person brings himself “into alignment,” whatever that means. Can we seriously say we have learned anything at all from science if not that dead bodies do not come back to life?

  2. Jordan Peterson on Postmodernism: Why You Have to Fight It:

    https://youtu.be/MPojltjv4M0

    In the transvaluation of all values from good to evil (decadence), clearly Peterson values Pomo less by comparison to other decadent values dejour.

    Enough to stake his political reputation on it. Enough to risk losing his job to the Canadian thought police. This is high stakes subject matter. JP is not a nihilist.

    Pomo wants to destroy the free speech platform upon which it arrogantly makes objective knowledge claims about subjectivity. Akin to Apple and Amazon arguing against platform marketing, the edifice upon which they stand.

  3. Others commenting here have already made the point but it’s worth underlining: you mischaracterise and quite possibly misunderstand Peterson in thinking that he believes subjective experience is prime and therefore he’s the same as the pomos he critiques. He acknowledges that pomo is right to claim all truths are subjective and that there are an infinite number of interpretations of any given thing (a book, a law, an interaction, a belief, Life itself). Where he differs – and this is perhaps where you get him wrong – is that he makes the compelling case that not all interpretations are equally valid. Hamlet is not about frog hunting in the Amazon. We are constrained by biology, nature and social hierarchies of competence (which are millions of years old and to which we have adapted, they are not constructs) to only have a limited set of workable interpretations of how to act. It is not, as the pomos like the bafflingly popular Foucault claim, merely a function of power games. It is something far more complex than that. This is why he delves so deeply into myth and religion. His point is that these are not power structures handed down from on high to control a gullible and weak populace. They are stories and rules governing ‘best’ (ie. workable) behaviour that have emerged out of hundreds of thousands of years of interaction, observation and reflection. First we acted, then we observed the kinds of actions that led to success (ie. mating success, defensive success, food success, dispute resolution success etc), then we told stories about successful individuals and these stories were remembered and passed on through generations because they were ‘true’. Finally we codified the stories and noticed the abstract rules underlying successful behaviour. Then the structures of religious law emerged. If you want to attack Jordan Peterson because you find his religious ideas challenging it would be best to try to understand them properly before you begin. Finally, he is not necessarily a fan of rationality. As he points out, the Enlightenment is 400 years old. Compared to 6 million years since we split from our last chimp cousins and several hundred thousand years since hominids emerged, then 70 thousand years of homo sapiens, 400 years is nothing. “It’s a lick of paint on a mile deep rock.” Our behaviours are ancient and our religious stories are an attempt to observe and understand them and then make recommendations for the most appropriate behaviours that serve both individuals and communities and don’t tear us apart or have us at each other’s throats. We need to be more sophisticated in our understanding and appreciation of religion. Dismissing it as merely the product of primitive infantile minds is astonishingly arrogant and patently false.

  4. istm one yardstick JP has for reality and truthfulness is survival. Much of the way we relate to the world (relate to it in the non PoMo manner) is deeply programmed and tested over evolution, and so more true and real than less ancient evolved things like arms and legs. The spurt in cognitive evolution which made us human, not ape, is part of that.
    He seems to take the deep creation myths as a recapitulation of that spurt: mythology repeating phylogeny. It may therefore be true in a way which combines science, history, practicality. He certainly links their abandonment to the crumbling of civilisation. He especially links the individualising parts of these myths to civilisation: an ideology which leaves out individuality is one regressed to an earlier evolutionary point and incapable of maintaining a civilisation. As I understand it
    One risk is that linking evolved local populations to the myths they have carried leaves a crack open for racial cultural determinism.

  5. You are wrong in your judgement of Peterson, Let’s start with the the two debates between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson about the nature of truth, they are a clear indicator that Jordan doesn’t believe that our experiance of the world is entirely objective, it’s clear he believes there is a degree of subjectivity to everything, that’s a clear and consistent stance of his, this is something he also shares with the post-mods but where they drastically differ is that Jordan doesn’t believe that ALL subjective experiances are equal, he clearly believes that subjective experiances (or even religious experiances) that align with scientific facts, well-known archtypes and are proven to be useful in a somewhat objective way have more value than other experiances, whereas the post-mods believe that ALL subjective experiances are equal, and the radical left just creates a hierarchy of victimhood to gives some people’s experiances more value than others, the point of contention here is that this hierarchy is based on either things out of people’s hands that shouldn’t matter (like one’s race) or on pure emotions which makes it in clear opposition to Jordan’s position and view point.

    Long story short, just because Jordan shares some points of view with a certain movement’s world view doesn’t mean he fully agrees with it or with how it’s being used, the world isn’t entirely black or white specially when it comes to philosophy and psychology, intermediate positions are quite valid specially if they are well justified like Jordan’s.

  6. “If someone (like Jordan Peterson, for example) says experience is prime and that truth is based on one’s subjective experience (as Peterson ostensibly does), one is then essentially saying that anyone’s experience is prime. This would mean then that the experience of the Antifa and neo-Nazis are both valid truths.”

    You seem to overlook a key difference in Jordan’s darwinian pragmatic interpretation, that is, every interpretation (subjective experience) is indeed valid, but they’re not *equally* valid, some are more valid than others and herein lies the difference that sets him apart from postmodern pragmatists.

  7. I enjoyed this piece quite a bit until this line: “Those who offer counter refutations to refutations of Peterson’s comments will often say something like: “Well, what’s the big deal? Why are you being so smug? Myths are beneficial and help give meaning to peoples’ otherwise secular lives.”

    That’s not at all a Jungian or Christian argument. That’s an atheist caricature of religion. Peterson doesn’t defend Jung to defend the infinite subjectivity of being. It’s the exact opposite – Carl Jung advocates for a wholly synthesized individual who is fully aware of their thoughts and their deepest origins, and maps those thoughts onto a symbolic structure, such as the biblical stories. The message of Jungian psychology is the exact opposite of infinite postmodern subjectivity. In his biblical lectures, and his study of Jung, Peterson marshals these symbolic stories, such as Cain and Abel, or Noah and the flood, to argue that there is definitively a right and wrong way of living.

    Neither he nor a Christian would ever say that Cain and Abel are equally valid. The point of the story is to illustrate that the way of Cain, of resentment and hating the people you wish you could be, will destroy you. Peterson sees this very same attitude in postmodern thought. Hence, the Jungian exploration of myth would lead one to reject the path of Cain and seek instead to ‘walk with the father’ or ‘cultivate the garden of creation’.

    The postmodernist’s response to this would be that there are an infinite number of interpretations of the Cain and Abel story, and that Peterson is almost certainly wrong. The only way out of that problem is to conclude that truth helps you live, and falsehood destroys you. If you live like Cain, and end up miserable, you chose objectively wrong ideas. Why? Because you put them into practice and they consumed you. This is how Peterson views communism, after all – it consumed itself, therefore it was absolutely false.

    I would just conclude by saying that the Jungian/mythological worldview aims at finding a truthful and ‘correct’ way to live. To say that it simply rewards subjectivity is wrong. I agree that that particular Tweet of Peterson’s is absurd, but he rarely tries to make perfect proofs for God’s existence, and instead focuses on behavior and patterns, which I think tethers his ideas better to reality and lived experience. In that realm, the myths aren’t subjective at all, but actually seem to provide clear choices for individuals to reject or pursue. Those choices then shape you in a tangible direction.

  8. Good article, and you have clearly identified Peterson’s feet of clay. It’s a shame, because he’s one of the most articulate critics of postmodern identity politics working today, and he has many of us cheering on his good days. But his bizarre underlying metaphysics and epistemology undercut what at first seems like a rational world view. And that undercuts his whole message. A curious case indeed.

What are your thoughts?