Jordan Bernt Peterson was born in 1962, holds a B.A. in political science, and a PhD in psychology. He teaches at the University of Toronto.
Like a lot of smart people, he was a very successful and interesting figure in his own field, who then decided to branch out and start bloviating about other fields he knew jack shit about, because he’s a smart guy, and therefore he must be able to understand everything effortlessly (see also Dawkins, Richard).
It’s easy to attract a crowd by doing two things: giving them an enemy, and giving them simple self-help advice. The latter is so formulaic that it barely is worth mentioning, but it is instructive to touch on briefly because it is done by just about every one of these types, from gurus like Peterson to the bigger groups like the Scientologists or the Objectivists. Basically, it involves two main things: one, focus on fixing your own problems by calming down, making a list of problems that you’d like to work on and a concrete plan for how to achieve them, and then only working on those problems to the exclusion of other things because your problems are self-caused, and two, the reason you’re not successful is because other people are holding you back and there’s a subtle and insidious conspiracy at work to keep down people like yourself, people who want to use hard working and responsible people who are in the know, to get ahead without doing the hard work that you’re doing.
Yes, they contradict one another. If you’re responsible for your own problems, then they are self-caused, and not the fault of the Enemy. But let’s not worry about that. The first part isn’t shitty advice at all, and it works — planning for the future and focusing on one problem at a time are excellent ways to eliminate problems from your life. And having a mantra to help you remember to do so, be it “Clean your room” or “Remember the present moment is all you have” or “Constant and Never Ending Self-Improvement” or “Know very clearly where you want to go,” well, that works too, as corny as it might sound. And because that works, it let’s the second part take hold, and can help foster a dependence on the person, the desire to spread the ideas that made you feel good, and, of course, spending money on the things they’re selling. And they’re always, always selling things you can buy, from books to tapes to online seminars to in-person courses…
Like a lot of gurus, Peterson thinks that his audience is stupid. Really stupid. It might not seem like it at first, because he comes out all pepped up and full of energy, like a gym school coach ready for the “big game”, but if you know anything about the subjects he’s talking about, he’s lying through his teeth most of the time to make himself look smart and his opponents look stupid. But there’s an understanding that you’ll get your information from him, and not from other sources. It’s not stated outright, but it’s understood that people criticizing him are either jealous of his success, or want to tear him down for some political agenda. So who would think to check his sources, or see if his statements are accurate?
A good example of this is the C-16 bill, which launched his career into public stardom. Now, Peterson wants you to believe that this bill makes it so that if you don’t call a hypothetical tumblr strawperson bunself, bun can call the cops and have you thrown in jail. What the bill actually did was just classify trans people in the same manner as, for example, black people or women when it came to being discriminated against for hiring and renting, when criminal actions taken against them, and such. So, basically, if you’re that sort of jerk, just make sure you can say the white guy you hired was at least as qualified or was a better fit for the company, or document them slacking off on the job and don’t say you’re firing them for being trans, and their case won’t go anywhere. The odds of a prosecuting lawyer accepting a case for someone using the wrong pronoun are about the same as the odds of hitting the lottery, and then convincing the judge and jury over the defense attorney… I don’t want to say never, but it isn’t going to happen.
This is not exactly dramatic stuff. Beating up a person for being trans should be treated as a human rights violation, same way it is for beating up someone for being a woman or a minority. It is a hate crime, full stop. But you wouldn’t know it from the way Peterson stomped his feet and threw an adult temper tantrum over how he could tell if someone was serious or not when they asked him to use different pronouns.
Because of course he can.
He also thinks that lobsters are just like humans, because both of them are effected by anti-depressants, according to a study he didn’t understand. Therefore, because lobsters have a dominance hierarchy, so should humans, and we should embrace our “inner lobster”. As you no doubt be shocked to learn, this isn’t the case:
From Psychologist Jordan Peterson says lobsters help to explain why human hierarchies exist – do they? — Leonor Gonçalves, Phys.Org, Jan 25 2018
Peterson uses the example of lobsters, which humans share a common evolutionary ancestor with. Peterson argues that, like humans, lobsters exist in hierarchies and have a nervous system attuned to status which “runs on serotonin” (a brain chemical often associated with feelings of happiness).
The higher up a hierarchy a lobster climbs, this brain mechanism helps make more serotonin available. The more defeat it suffers, the more restricted the serotonin supply. Lower serotonin is in turn associated with more negative emotions – perhaps making it harder to climb back up the ladder. According to Peterson, hierarchies in humans work in a similar way – we are wired to live in them. But can a brain chemical really explain the organisation of a human society?
It is true that serotonin is present in crustaceans (like the lobster) and that it is highly connected to dominance and aggressive social behaviour. When free moving lobsters are given injections of serotonin they adopt aggressive postures similar to the ones displayed by dominant animals when they approach subordinates. However, the structures serotonin can act on are much more varied in vertebrates with highly complex and stratified brains like reptiles, birds and mammals – including humans.
If nervous systems were computer games, arthropods like lobsters would be “Snake” on a first-generation mobile phone and vertebrates would be an augmented reality (AR) game. What AR allows us to do and feel are incomparable to Snake, and the mechanisms behind it are a lot more complex. For example, one of the most relevant brain structures for dominant social behaviour is the amygdala, located in the temporal lobe of primates including humans. Arthropods don’t have an amygdala (lobsters don’t even have a brain, just an aglomerate of nerve endings called ganglia).
There are more than 50 molecules that function as neurotransmitters in the nervous system including dopamine, noradrenaline, adrenaline, serotonin and oxytocin. These molecules, however, exist all over nature. Plants have serotonin. In animals (including humans), most of the serotonin is produced and used in the intestine to help digestion. It’s the structure where it acts that determines its effect.
The same neurotransmitter can have contrasting effects in different organisms. While lower levels of serotonin are associated with decreased levels of aggression in vertebrates like the lobster, the opposite is true in humans. This happens because low levels of serotonin in the brain make communication between the amygdala and the frontal lobes weaker, making it more difficult to control emotional responses to anger.
As if that wasn’t enough, he has a great deal of trouble understanding children’s movies, and art in general:
Note that he lists Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Dostoevsky’s Demons and Crime and Punishment, and The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski among his favorite books. By his definition, all propaganda, not art.
But then he starts in with this nonsense, and we hit part two of the cult recruitment pitch: The Enemy.
Don’t bother listening to the entire thing unless you really want to. It’s not really worth it. His his inability to stay on topic for more than a few moments gives me a headache:
As you may have gotten from other entries, this is my personal bailiwick: structuralism and post-structuralism, or, as he calls it, post-modernism.
His analysis is, of course, complete garbage. Early on, he mentions Derrida and phallogocentrism, and even tries to give a definition of it (a definition of the word, certainly, but not quite in the sense that Derrida used it), but then proceeds to just change the subject in favor of “Rah rah go western society!” rather than refute Derrida’s claim that history, as a whole, has favored men over women and privileged the spoken word over the written one, let alone attempting to disprove his much larger point that inside almost everything is an unconscious decision to favor one thing over another, an unconscious hierarchy at work, that we should be aware of and sometimes reconsider. (Not that Derrida thinks all hierarchies are bad (sports teams should have the best players, parents are correctly in power over their children, teachers over their students, etc.).)
But Peterson instead just goes off on how those lazy blacks in America have it better than the ones in Africa, so why are those ungrateful and resentful jerks so unappreciative of what they have? Why can’t they just stay in their place and quit complaining?
To paraphrase his argument: “I guess they have it better than the folks in war torn Libya or whatever, but they get shot by the cops regularly… Sure, relative wealth is a thing, but let’s look at absolute wealth too, like this nice building we’re all in, isn’t it a miracle that we can build something like this? Stupid angry black people…”
He’s blowing on the whistle so hard, but I can’t hear anything for some reason.
What, exactly, does this has to do with Derrida? Good old Jacques never said Logic doesn’t work or to hate people who have what you don’t.
But then we finally come to his actual gripe. He needs something to blame for why he and his friends keep getting booted from lucrative speaking engagements on campuses. The degree to which students should be forced to interact with ideas they don’t agree with vs. students understandably not wanting their tuition paying to bring people they hate to speak is one that’s worth having. But Peterson has already declared that postmodernists don’t do dialogue ever (which, again, is completely untrue. If you’ve ever met someone into post-structuralism, god, we talk constantly, and question everything, don’t we?), so don’t talk to them or listen to them, just stamp them out, like we did with the Reds back in the 50s… These people are the new communists, you see… (even if their work doesn’t have anything to do with communism, and many of them were actively un- or anti- communist… (Lyotard was disillusioned with communism after the Algerian Revolution failed to produce the promised outcome — literally the start of post-modernism was his break with the French communist party and his belief that master narratives are too simplistic to explain actually existing social reality, Foucault dropped communism after his first major book, and Derrida barely engaged with it at all in his work; more on those two below)).
And there they are: The Enemy. Hate them. Fear them. They are omnipotent and omnipresent, and yet, paradoxically, we can band together and defeat them if we just work hard and resist them.
If you take him at his word, Peterson lives in mortal terror that the Postmodernist Neo-Marxists are coming to get him (for someone who hates gulags and Stalinism so much, he’s certainly willing to compile lists of people he dislikes to target for abuse.) As he mentions early on, his understanding of the topic comes almost exclusively from the book Explaining Postmodernism by Stephen Hicks, and it’s a dumpsterfire of stupidity.
Hicks is a professor at Rockford University in Illinois, and is… well, basically unknown outside of objectivist circles. He loudly crows about how no one has dared to debate him over his book, thus proving him right, but the truth of the matter is that he just isn’t worth anyone’s time. He’s such small potatoes that any professor who deigned to do so would just be lowering their professional prestige. Thus, he gets to beat up on students, which is just bad form… Students are dumb. They’re enthusiastic, but they’re dumb. They’re still learning, that’s why they’re students. Even if you’re a AAA baseball player, you don’t go play in a high school JV game and then brag about how badly you beat the other team. He’s a friendly enough guy otherwise, but like a lot of objectivists, he’s got his agenda, and he’s going to stick to it, no matter what. Even if it means badly misreading other philosophers.
Now, one of the things you’re supposed to do in philosophy (and in most constructive arguments, really) is called “The Principle of Charity”. You’re supposed to give the person you’re writing in response to the benefit of the doubt, and argue against the strongest possible interpretation of their argument. You should try to fully understand their argument, present it in the strongest terms possible, and then dismantle it (what Daniel Dennett calls “steelmanning”, as opposed to “strawmanning”). This serves two purposes: one, it means that you’ve fully understood the topic you’re addressing and thus your response is all the stronger, and two, it makes you all the harder to argue against, because you’ve preempted many of the responses to you. Despite what some folks might think, Philosophy as a discipline is usually quite rigorous in its argumentation, and the people involved are deep readers and rhetoricians, so if you’re publishing stuff that’s weak, it will get dismantled fairly quick, if it is even published in the first place.
Explaining Postmodernism is like watching Braveheart, only less entertaining. It was initially published by a vanity press (Scholargy Publishing, Inc, also famous for such titles as Complete Guide for Horse Business Success and The Gekkleberry Tree) and then by Ockham’s Razor (which Hicks himself owns (I’ll leave the “self-owning” jokes for the reader to make)).
Hicks does a great job cherry picking to make people look bad. For example, in the very first quotation he chooses from Foucault in Explaining Postmodernism, he states: “Michel Foucault has identified the major targets: “All my analyses are against the idea of universal necessities in human existence.” Such necessities must be swept aside as baggage from the past: “It is meaningless to speak in the name of—or against—Reason, Truth, or Knowledge.”
He makes it out as if Foucault wants to destroy modern society and destroy Truth, Reason, and Knowledge.
But, when read in context, it is obvious that this is not what Foucault is saying at all. (Bolding added by me, to show where the quotations came from, and the ideas they are removed from)
From Truth, Power, Self. An Interview with Michel Foucault – Oct. 1982:
Q. But what about your interest in social outcasts?
A. I deal with obscure figures and processes for two reasons: The political and social processes by which the Western European societies were put in order are not very apparent, have been forgotten, or have become habitual. They are part of our most familiar landscape, and we don’t perceive them anymore. But most of them once scandalized people. It is one of my targets to show people that a lot of things that are part of their landscape — that people are universal — are the result of some very precise historical changes. All my analyses are against the idea of universal necessities in human existence. They show the arbitrariness of institutions and show which space of freedom we can still enjoy and how many changes can still be made.
The second quote isn’t even a direct quote from Foucault, it’s a paraphrase of him from Todd May’s Between Genealogy and Epistemology
From Between Genealogy and Epistemology — Todd May – 1993 p.2
For Foucault, the questions of what we hold to to be true, and how we came to do so, especially as regards ourselves, are of paramount importance especially in attempting to articulate an understanding of what our present is.
The significance of these questions is not confined to their relevance for comprehending our situation. In fact, what is at stake in in the questions of what we hold true and how we came to do so is the conduct of our lives. How we understand what we have come to accept about the world and about ourselves, the context in which we place our various knowledges of things, determines not only the theoretical underpinnings of our epistemology but also the political and ethical commitments of our practice. Both the knowledge that Foucault attempted to provide us and the knowledge of his analyses are inescapably political. Foucault was, above all else, a political writer about knowledge.
And yet, should we follow this line of inquiry too far–that is, should we try to answer the question of what, in their essence, Foucault’s writings _are_–we will only repeat the mistake against which his writings wage a ceaseless struggle. If Foucault was a political writer about our knowledge, it is not because he had anything to say about what our knowledge or reason was like. Indeed, to speak of our knowledge or our reason (or even, at times, our society) invites the kind of blindness that have allowed our knowledges and the strategies within which they are engaged to continue their hold upon us. There is no Knowledge; there are knowledges. There is no Reason; there are rationalities. And so, just as it is meaningless to speak in the name of–or against–Reason, Truth, or Knowledge, so it is meaningless to engage in Politics. The idea that there is one true politics that will lead us to our salvation is a dangerous lie, as the Soviet experience will attest.
So, we have two completely unconnected quotes, one of which Foucault didn’t even say, asking us to pay attention to the origins of our thoughts and ideas, to learn where reason and rationality come from, and to understand that our present sense of everything is contingent upon the knowledge of the past. “Quilt quotations” are just bad form. Hicks’ misinterpretation is garbage on par with Karl Popper’s attack on Hegel, which Walter Kaufmann famously eviscerated. To quote from Kaufmann’s essay above:
From The Hegel Myth and Its Method — Walter Kaufmann, 1959
Here, for example, is a quilt quotation about war and arson: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword… . I came to cast fire upon the earth… . Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you… . Let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one.” This is scarcely the best way to establish Jesus’ views of war and arson.
What Foucault is saying is hardly controversial or difficult to understand. Our present physics is built upon the back of Newtonian physics, for example, which were groundbreaking for the time, but ultimately inadequate. Ptolemaic astronomy was superseded by the work of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Einstein, and many others. One uses a different sort of reasoning when arguing with a child than one does when programming a computer. While I would look dapper in a Beau Brummel suit in the 1800s, I would look like I was attending a costume party were I to wear such an outfit today. Is it so scary to consider that the world once wasn’t like the way it is today, and that perhaps in the future, it won’t be the way it is now? And is it shocking that studying the history of a country through a military lens would produce a different view than studying it through the history of its royal family? I shouldn’t think so.
There is nothing about how these are all equally “valid” or “good” or anything like that. Merely that to understand them, you need to understand them within the context within which they occurred. If I call Henry VIII handsome, one needs to understand that a very large man in tights and velvet was considered the peak of masculinity in his day, whereas we’d laugh him off the runway by today’s standards of beauty. There’s no judgement about “needing” to find him attractive.
Thus, when one can hardly reach the second page of Hicks’ work without seeing one of the central figures in the book completely mischaracterized, where is the sense in continuing? Given Hicks background in Rand, it isn’t surprising that he dislikes this idea (especially since Foucault explicitly identifies himself as a Kantian, and Rand despises her version of Kant, a version that scarcely resembles dear Immanuel at all), but then, given Rand’s reputation among philosophers of all backgrounds, it’s unsurprising that his thirteen year old self-published book hasn’t gotten any traction among them.
The refutation to his work is “No, they didn’t say that. Read the actual book by these authors and you’ll see that.”
There are plenty of reasons to dislike or criticise Foucault, but he never said “Reason is meaningless, destroy history, follow Marx!”
Oh yes, this is all tied into a grand Marxist conspiracy. Because of course it is.
The Marxist accusations are just as stupid, and seem to stem from a desire to just chain together words to call people you don’t like: the conspiracy theory version conservative of “Stupid cocksucing motherfucking son of a bitch!” becomes “Liberal Marxist postmodernist feminist relativist!”
Even a cursory glance at Foucault’s work would show that, not only isn’t he a Marxist, he’s actually quite specifically un-Marxist.
Foucualt dabbled in Marxism in his early years, but didn’t much care for it as he aged and matured as a philosopher. I’m just going to copy a section of the IEP here, because it’s not worth rephrasing what they already wrote:
The Order of Things charts several successive historical shifts of episteme in relation to the human sciences.
These claims led Foucault onto a collision with French Marxism. This could not have been entirely unintended by Foucault, in particular because in the book he specifically accuses Marxism of being a creature of the nineteenth century that was now obsolete. He also concluded the work by indicating his opposition to humanism, declaring that “man” (the gendered “man” here refers to a concept that in English we have come increasingly to call the “human”) as such was perhaps nearing obsolescence. Foucault here was opposing a particular conception of the human being as a sovereign subject who can understand itself. Such humanism was at that time the orthodoxy in French Marxism and philosophy, championed the pre-eminent philosopher of the day, Jean-Paul Sartre, and upheld by the French Communist Party’s central committee explicitly against Althusser just a month before The Order of Things was published (DE1 36). In its humanist form, Marxism cast itself as a movement for the full realization of the individual. Foucault, by contrast, saw the notion of the individual as a recent and aberrant idea. Furthermore, his entire presumption to analyse and criticize discourses without reference to the social and economic system that produced them seemed to Marxists to be a massive step backwards in analysis. The book indeed seems to be apolitical: it refuses to take a normative position about truth, and accords no importance to anything outside abstract, academic discourses. The Order of Things proved so controversial, its claims so striking, that it became a best-seller in France, despite being a lengthy, ponderous, scholarly tome.
The explicit criticism of Marxism in [The Order of Things] was specifically of Marx’s economic doctrine: it amounts to the claim that this economics is essentially a form of nineteenth century political economy. It is thus not a total rejection of Marxism, or dismissal of the importance of economics. His anti-humanist position was not in itself anti-Marxist, inasmuch as Althusser took much the same line within a Marxist framework, albeit one that tended to challenge basic tenets of Marxism, and which was rejected by the Marxist establishment. This shows it is possible to use the criticism of the category of “man” in a pointedly political way. Lastly, the point of Foucault’s “archaeological” method of investigation, as he now called it, of looking at transformations of discourses in their own terms without reference to the extra-discursive, does not imply in itself that discursive transformations can be explained without reference to anything non-discursive, only that they can be mapped without any such reference. Foucault thus shows a lack of interest in the political, but no outright denial of the importance of politics.
And this is just looking at one of the many philosophers he touches on. Derrida, for example, didn’t write anything about Marx until the 1990s, and even then, it was to say (paraphrasing greatly) “Well, this certainly is an idea that has been around a lot without ever really doing anything, but while still being in the back of everyone’s minds, kinda like a ghost, huh?” And Derrida and Foucault basically hated each other.
So, yeah. Peterson is attacking an idea that exists in his head. A conspiracy of dead French philosophers who are out to get him, somehow, with their philosophy that says such scary things as “people use different frameworks of reasoning to come to different conclusions” and “understand things in context” and “people have different ideas from one another”. Really scary, mindblowing stuff there. They both get more complex, and they both use more examples, but you’d have to actually read their books to learn those, and neither Peterson nor Hicks have done that. They haven’t even reached “I browsed wikipedia” levels of understanding. That takes time and effort. And why bother with that when you could just spout off nonsense and rest assured that no one giving you money will bother to check your work?