It seems that in order to discuss Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson at all, a person must declare her loyalties right away, pronouncing him either a messiah or a devil. The primary problem with this is that all of the nuance of a realistic, considered look at his ideas lies outside of declarations of political fealty or ideological loyalties and speculations as to his presumed intent. There is much in what Peterson actually thinks, writes and says to criticize. The primary obstacle to this is not necessarily Peterson’s ideas themselves, but the polarization which prevents any sincere intellectual dissection of them. The discourse around Peterson has rendered what he actually thinks unclear to almost everyone. This problem is exacerbated both by Peterson’s own convoluted rhetorical style, which is digressive and esoteric, and the inaccurate, caricatured reports of his views, which are almost as ubiquitous in the media as Peterson himself. He is frequently woefully misinterpreted, while legitimate criticisms go unmade. All of this fuels polarization.
When Peterson visited Dublin last July, I had the opportunity to sit down with him for an hour for an interview which later ran in the Irish Times. We discussed the philosophical grounding of his ideas in detail. These are both more coherent and benevolent than Peterson is generally given credit for, and less philosophically straightforward or easily defensible than his fans might like. In order to look carefully at what Peterson thinks and where his ideas originate, we must wade into philosophy and psychology, because Peterson bases his ideas about how we think and function at the intersection between these two disciplines.
Three things became clear from our conversation. First, Peterson’s perspective is based on well documented ideas within the history of psychology, but is unorthodox in the context of modern psychology. That unorthodoxy is not straightforward, because it rests upon the same widely accepted philosophical maxims that modern orthodox psychological theory and approaches grew out of, but which their practitioners are not necessarily well versed in. Secondly, Peterson’s philosophy is untidy, and contains inherent problems, though not necessarily worse problems than those that anyone who tackles big issues like mind, consciousness and the nature of reality will run into. His training as a clinical psychologist does not mesh comfortably with his habit of appealing to the metaphysical for overarching explanations, and makes him an outlier within what has become known as the Intellectual Dark Web. Finally, I realized that 12 Rules for Life, his bestselling book, is not deserving of the controversy it has generated. It is a solid self-help book. The rules themselves can be found in many other self-help texts, all the way back to the first ever written: Samuel Smiles’ Self Help, a Victorian bestseller published in 1859.
Peterson’s notion of truth is his biggest problem, because it is fundamental to his perspective on everything else. Even after conversing carefully with him about it and giving it significant thought since our conversation last summer, I am still not completely clear on it, and I am not alone in that—the topic was the source of the remarkable confusion and miscommunication between Sam Harris and Peterson during Peterson’s first appearance on Harris’ Waking Up podcast. However, it is clear that Peterson’s conception of truth is modeled in part on William James’ pragmatic theory of truth, which suggests that the truth or meaning of a statement should be considered in relation to its practical consequences.
The primary problem with Peterson’s theory is attaching it to a concept of truth at all: doing so pitches him into a sort of relativism about truth, which erodes the concept of truth it relies upon. This position forces Peterson to prioritize certain interpretations of reality based on their predicted or observed consequences rather than how factual they are, which brings him within sniffing distance of the postmodernists he finds so unreasoned, who prioritize narratives that describe the world on the basis of interpreted meaning rather than truth. Obviously, this creates philosophical and practical problems, the most basic being that relative truth is not truth. It is a self-defeating appeal to a concept of truth, which maintains that nothing is objectively true apart from the statement that nothing is objectively true. Such theories fly in the face of an objective or scientific approach. It is difficult to appeal to facts when what constitutes a fact can shift according to the interpretative narrative in play.
In Peterson’s defense, his perspective makes more logical sense than it may at first appear to and arises from a certain humility about what we can know. While he doesn’t appear to posit that only minds exist, Peterson does understand that reality is mediated through minds. When I touch the bark of a tree, it is very difficult to distinguish information about the tree from information about my hand, and I cannot really know whether the view through the eyes of a cat is a truer representation of, say, my living room, than the one being processed by my own eyes. Psychology is interested in brains, not minds, but Peterson maintains that brains and minds are not the same thing. He correctly asserts that there is much about the brain or mind—the thing that mediates between us and the world—that we don’t understand. We think that we have knowledge of the external world, but we might be wrong—and, in fact, are often proved so.
The difference between Peterson and, say, Judith Butler, the famous philosopher and gender theorist, who argues that gender is socially constructed through performative speech and behaviors, is narrower than might first appear, but still distinct. Both understand us to live in a world in which our interpretation of reality might very well be wrong. Both are ultimately skeptical about the concept of an objective truth unmediated by human experience. In response to this skepticism, Butler throws everything out, both baby and bathwater, but Peterson suggests that if we can’t hold fast to objective truths, we can utilize pragmatic ones. This is, to some extent, abductive logic: a statement is an apt truth statement if it is pragmatically useful. This might be the case in mathematics, and in its usefulness as a basis for fields like physics, engineering, chemistry, and so on, which we use to better understand and live in the world. This position is not without significant issues, however. Figuring out where to draw the line, and whether there can be any truths at all, who gets to decide whether this is the case and what those truths might be, has an element of arbitrariness to it. In this sense, it is what philosophers call a wicked problem: one that is extremely difficult or perhaps impossible to solve because of incomplete or contradictory information or knowledge, a changing landscape or the relationship of the problem to other problems.
Peterson’s suggested solution to the problem around truth is to reinstate a Judeo-Christian narrative to explain and orient our lives. Why the Judeo-Christian cultural and ethical narrative over other narratives, you might reasonably ask? I asked Peterson whether what he is suggesting is a Christian version of cultural Judaism—in other words, Christianity without the religious observance and practice, which might potentially function as a sort of holistic framework. His aim, he told me, is to put the Judeo-Christian substructure back underneath our culture. He argues that what separates this from the ideologies he opposes so stridently (like those advocated by fans of Judith Butler) is the fact that ideologies do not provide a full narrative, but religious structures do. There are many potential problems with this.
Douglas Murray pointed out one of them when he suggested that this is where the Jesus smuggling comes in, in a phrase he attributes to Eric Weinstein. Murray suggests that you can follow along with what Peterson is saying in relation to archetypes and Christian imagery, and you may even feel that it is just a narrative device to elucidate his ideas, but at the back of your mind, there is a part of you waiting for Jesus to be smuggled in through a side door, and for you to be listening in actuality to a religious argument. This feeling is understandable. However, we run into another confusion here, because Peterson does not appear to be advocating any sort of theocratic structure or social body which compels compliance.
He did, in an interview last summer, suggest that monogamy should be socially enforced through norms, such that non-monogamy should be socially disapproved of. He suggested that this would act as a disincentive, in the same way that such forces currently discourage most of us from, for example, defecating outside of a bathroom. This is a controversial view, and will be met with general unpopularity, but those who argue that such views make him a fascist are self-evidently incorrect. He is not advocating harm, or state compulsion, or any form of forcible compliance. Peterson is in the business of encouraging what he sees as ethical norms and values, not compelled speech and action, which he opposed, for example, in the case of Canada’s Bill C-16, his resistance to which brought him to global awareness. Socially enforced norms already operate within every society: he is merely advocating their application to an area to which many people would strongly argue they don’t belong. Depending on your outlook, this may be distasteful, but it is not necessarily coercive—indeed since we’re dealing with something that isn’t about facts, norms and values are all we can appeal to in order to decide how best to live. Since, Peterson says, we can’t create norms and values from nothing, they have to be located inside a larger explanatory theory.
Where Philosophy Meets Psychology
One of the key debates in the philosophy of mind and psychology looks at whether minds are different entities from brains, and whether a non-physical entity, like consciousness, can be a by-product of a physical one, like a brain. Most psychologists avoid this tangle and focus entirely on brains. When I asked him about this, Peterson acknowledged that he is a dualist. In the context of psychology, this dualism essentially means that Peterson does not consider consciousness to be something that arises from brain processes, or more simply put, he does not equate the mind with the brain. Peterson’s rejection of an almost wholly monistic modern psychological discipline, which takes brains and minds to be equivalent or essentially related entities, makes him a heterodox psychologist. This may seem like a lofty and impractical point without pragmatic relevance, but it is the essential element that sets Peterson apart from his contemporaries in the field of psychology and excludes him from the logical positivism that characterizes other figures within the intellectual dark web, such as Sam Harris, who focus on the empirical and material world.
However, it does not necessarily make Peterson unusual within the history of psychological ideas: he is simply out of step with the historical direction that those ideas have taken. He would be well placed as a pre-twentieth-century psychological theorist, but that is not to say that he is old fashioned or unaware of what others are doing. Those familiar with the genesis of early psychology as it branched away from philosophy into a separate discipline will recognize in Peterson’s speech and writing echoes of foundational psychological figures like William James, Freud and Jung. They will also recognize the hallmarks and theories of philosophers whom those three and others drew from (or in Freud’s case, directly lifted from without attribution): Nietzsche, Kant and, to a less widely recognized extent, Spinoza. William James, in particular, is still associated with an unclear and mildly vertiginous style of prose, which has led to fundamental misunderstandings of his most widely known theory: of emotion.
The point is this—Peterson’s slightly rhetorical, dense and image-rich style of expression is not at all out of place within the period of psychology which most appears to influence him and about which he is undoubtedly very well informed. It does, however, contrast heavily with modern approaches, which themselves are still rooted in, but not necessarily analytical about, the sort of fundamental early psychological ideas that Peterson loves best. Critics who describe his ideas as fraudulent, pseudo-philosophical or not real psychology are overlooking the philosophical origins of fundamental psychological concepts. Whether or not the philosophical foundation that underpins Peterson’s ideas is robust enough to do all of the necessary work is another question (I have my doubts). Nevertheless, he did not produce it from nothing, and while he may not be orthodox, that is not in itself a justification for dismissing his ideas.
However, these original figures in psychology were not—by any really respectable definition of the word—scientists. They blended philosophy and empiricism to create a hybrid discipline, but it was flawed, conceptually untidy and inconsistent, and, in some respects, philosophically sloppy. This is the tradition from which Peterson emerges. It is no longer fashionable within the field of psychology for these reasons and others, but it is not wholly without valuable content either. Problems arise for Peterson when he attempts to blend these ideas with his undoubtedly robust empirical training as a psychologist. The fit is not always a comfortable one.
Combine Peterson’s decidedly difficult and confusing concept of truth with the nascent philosophy of psychology that characterizes psychology’s early period, from Wilhelm Wundt to Freud and Jung, and the meandering lyrical writing style of key figures from that period, and there is plenty of room for confusion and misinterpretation. To be fair to Peterson, describing concepts like mind or consciousness, which are inherently metaphysical, necessitates language which is to an extent nebulous or incorporeal. Peterson’s rhetorical, occasionally purple, prose is not out of keeping with the writings of people like Freud or Jung. The problem is that Freudian holistic psychoanalysis is not taken seriously within psychology anymore, and, while Peterson regards Jung’s conceptually demanding and implacably difficult writings as close to revealed wisdom, others see them as purposefully opaque, and as stretching the bounds of rational discourse and understanding to the point, for the some of the work at least, of little more than fantastical hypothesis.
The unusual philosophical orientation of Jordan Peterson’s ideas, and the confusion and bad press that arise from this, extend to the public reception of everything he does. This includes his bestselling self-help book, 12 Rules For Life, which is surely a candidate for the most uncontroversial controversial book ever written, in terms of its psychology. If you look at any self-help book, you will find most or all of Peterson’s twelve rules inside. This is old wisdom repackaged for the modern age.
The book certainly attempts to bridge an ambitious and not entirely successful philosophy with the practical maxims it advocates. However, the idea that the rules themselves are in some way malevolent or a bad influence is frankly laughable, given maxims as benign and constructive as treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping and tell the truth—or at least, don’t lie. One wonders whether, if such advice were attached to a name other than Peterson’s, it would garner any controversy at all. Even the rules that Peterson is most roundly criticized for are benign. I have heard the rule set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world described as insidious, because it encourages structurally oppressed people to turn their focus away from their oppressors and to suffer within the boundaries imposed on them. If this is the case, then every therapeutic approach within psychology is harmful, since they all encourage us to focus on what we have control over rather than what we don’t, and to concentrate on constructive personal responsibility, rather than on resentment of even legitimate wrongs committed against us. Psychologically, Peterson is advising people to do what Stoic philosophers suggested—take charge of what you can control, and try not to obsess about what you cannot. Control your emotions (or rather don’t let them get out of control). Don’t blame others for problems you can fix yourself, and be an independent individual, who can contribute to society. None of this necessarily denies the real role of structural and systemic obstacles to individual progress in the world.
12 Rules for Life is helpful and informative in pragmatic terms, even if you excise the somewhat prolix philosophical chunks. Peterson uses his metaphysical ideas to justify why these rules are worth following, but they have value without them. The rules are as empowering and motivational as those in any self-help book that tells people that they have the power to tackle their own problems. Peterson is neither a generational prodigy, as touchy superfans insist, nor is he a danger to women, minorities or our liberal way of life. A person with a track record of resisting and rejecting state compulsion both in principle and in action, and who willingly accedes that there are dispossessed people for whom the left has a moral obligation to speak, cannot also be a far-right ideologue who wants to trap women in the kitchen and force theocracy on us all.
Perceptions of Peterson are inflated—both those which vilify and those which praise him. In reality, he is a heterodox academic, who is not interested in collective identity, except insofar as it might be criticized. Arguably, this is precisely how a psychologist, whose medium is the individual mind or brain, should think. Epistemologically, he is on a different grounding from most of his academic and clinical colleagues. This makes him unusual in psychology, but not necessarily wrong. He is not a Nazi or a fascist or alt right. He simply isn’t an ally, which, to many, makes him equivalent to one or all three of the former. The reality of what Peterson thinks is nuanced, complicated, inconsistent and not entirely satisfying. Heterodox thinkers don’t usually thrive within the academy, but Peterson is, unusually, thriving outside of it. Jealousy of this success is what partly motivates the intense academic and media loathing of him—that and his opaque style, slightly stuffy manner, tendency to come across as arrogant (like so many academics) and willingness to wade without apparent emotion into territories that are explosive in the current political climate. Peterson’s ideas merit criticism, but this criticism should be focused upon ideas he actually holds, rather than on those foisted upon him.
It has become fashionable to mock Peterson by making fun of his suits, his hair or his diet, listing those who disagree with him and implying that he is a bigot. He has become an individual whom we can dismiss without serious engagement or effort. This is wrong. We should not dismiss anyone without serious engagement and effort, and even then it should be their ideas and not their personhood that we reject. Here is a controversial statement: Jordan Peterson’s ideas, on close examination, are not all that controversial.