Jordan Peterson, Historian: aide-mémoire
Before talking about Peterson we should figure out how to talk about Peterson. The journalistic style of covering him (the man, the phenomenon, the intellectual of the hour), and the polemics erupting around him, have done little to educate non-specialist readers on the many areas they might need to evaluate his spectacle and arguments. I am picturing my childhood friends casually picking up 12 Rules for Life as a self-help book — and realizing that it is much more than a self-help book since it engages in political, philosophical, and historical arguments that clearly leave the realm of psychological advice. Peterson’s 12 Rules and many of his videos excoriate (a few of) the very same French intellectuals I study as a historian, so I will focus on this topic. Since Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault perhaps represent Peterson’s ultimate villains — aside from Karl Marx, of course — both friends and foes of Peterson might be interested in this piece.
Scholars need to tell their stories: if I simply dump a bunch of predictable labels on Peterson or his enemies, and teach you nothing about the relevant intellectual history, then I’ve clearly failed you. Hold me to telling this history generously and truthfully — and let us hold Peterson to the same standard. For he writes, “above all, don’t lie. Don’t lie about anything, ever. Lying leads to Hell.” To this end, I’ll provide you with as many primary and secondary sources as I can. Right now, YouTube culture rewards — rather than punishes — people for making the most sweeping, inflammatory claims possible about swaths of philosophy, culture, history, and art. This trend can be fought by patiently returning to essays and books — not necessarily academic ones, but to texts that demand we slow down and calm down. I am writing this epistle as a genuine nobody, so my argument rests on the quality of my sources more than my reputation or camera appeal.
I am not here to attack or defend specific philosophical positions within French intellectualism, but I utterly oppose the inane punditry, hyper-generalizations, and irresponsible ignorance swirling around a history that can be readily sketched out: French intellectuals may be notoriously hard to understand, but their historians aren’t. A number of excellent historians and biographers precisely capture the French political and intellectual milieu that Peterson deems so reprehensible (eg. Dosse, Eribon, Sirinelli). The best ones for my purposes are all French, and North Americans tend to distort French ideas because we are so keen on applying them to our own literary, political, and cultural concerns. The extreme disparities between French inception and later American application unfolds in French Theory by François Cusset, the best (but imperfect) work on the trans-Atlantic journey and divergences. Cusset argues, among other things, that a tendency towards identity politics is not inherent in the original French works, which is something that Peterson routinely suggests. The pre-Peterson confusion of French thinkers with their American reception creates quite a mess that I begin to sort out here.
The End of the Humanities?
On many occasions, Peterson traces back what he believes to be the nearly total corruption of the social sciences and humanities to various French intellectuals imported to North America, and to a lesser extent, to the Frankfurt school: this is his historical argument par excellence. Despite being a psychologist, his primary narratives against campus politics, social justice, the academic left, and sundry villains fall under the purview of intellectual history. Peterson remains extremely serious in his belief that postmodern (neo)marxists from Europe have tainted the majority of the social sciences and humanities beyond redemption. Indeed 1960s France, according to Peterson, has “probably produced the most reprehensible coterie of public intellectuals that any country has ever managed.” Facing extensive criticism, he retracted the illiberal idea of the postmodern course detector or blacklist system that he proposed, and now wants to promote those old-school courses with a “classical” humanities curriculum.
The humanities today discourage both the classical and “theory” types; the dividing lines are often illusory. Our precarious states remain a vital question with complex multiple causes. Peterson inadvertently identifies one of these causes in a statement I agree with: “the incremental remake of university administrations into analogues of private corporations is a mistake.” However, consulting his many tweets and polemics, we discover that Peterson thinks the humanities are primarily afflicted by useless, undercited scholarship, full of “ideology” tracing back to the continent.
Uselessness and ideology: the topics diverge. The “passion of uselessness,” as George Steiner lovingly put it, drives the humanities. We must ultimately realize, as an erudite introduction to the question argues, that “There Is No Case For the Humanities.” But to grasp the postmodern (neo)marxist “ideology” in question, French intellectualism itself should be investigated, which is where I hope I can be of help. Attempting the ridiculous and impossible task of distilling postmodernism down to a single everyday word, let us call it skepticism — but a skepticism applied to a bunch of unusual categories outside of everyday incredulity. Yet we will get much further by investigating the two specific “bloody postmodernists” in question, Derrida and Foucault, who Peterson takes as mortal enemies.
Despite the fame of Derrida and Foucault in North America, we must never allow this perplexing, somewhat antithetical pair to personify 20th century French intellectualism and slip into a cheap Francophobia that would omit a Bergson or Durkheim at the edge of the 19th century, or a Cassin or Descola entering into the 21st. The “top ten French stars” approach can be an irritating impediment to those who map the broader lines of thought woven through dozens and dozens of thinkers. For me, personally, the most interesting French thinkers are those who were influential but only barely or belatedly recognized in North America, such as the brilliant linguist Émile Benveniste.
If intellectual history is a game where we fault the originators of certain concepts for their subsequent usage, evolution, and (mis)interpretation, Peterson should be attacking linguists such as Benveniste and especially Ferdinand de Saussure, without whom the history of structuralism (Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, etc.) would not be possible (or Derrida’s spectacular American debut of 1966). This linguistic framework would reach its peak in the extremes of American postmodernism. If we play blame-the-inventor, then Peterson should vilify the classic How To Do Things with Words by British philosopher of language J. L. Austin: the idea of performatives, as applied by Judith Butler, helped distance the world of (biological) sex from (cultural and linguistic) gender, and it was Peterson’s reaction against this distancing via pronouns that originally put him in the spotlight. Our everyday political attention to language today surely has something to do with the linguistic turn (or turns) of the 20th century. But Peterson does not blame linguists and philosophers of language. Their concepts, even when amplified through the wildest genetic fallacies, produce a tiny rhetorical ripple when compared to Peterson’s favorite move. Why bother with language when you can invoke Karl Marx?
Peterson’s Method: Marx as the Measure of All Things
Let us first tackle the Marx half, the more important half, of the epithet postmodern (neo)marxist. Peterson’s dominant rhetorical strategy is to measure various thinkers’ proximity to Marx — via their thought or personal politics — and thereby indict them in proportion to how (neo)marxist they were, never failing to estimate of number of deaths attributable to the horrors of Stalin and Mao. Here are two excerpts that perfectly represent this strategy, in which Peterson declines to define postmodernism (an extremely tricky and multifaceted term to be sure) but immediately identifies the relevant thinkers as “avowed Marxists”:
I want to talk about postmodernism a little bit. That’s Michel Foucault in the middle [of the PowerPoint screen] and a more reprehensible individual you could hardly ever discover or even dream up no matter how twisted your imagination. Foucault and Derrida I would say — there’s more — but I would say they’re the two architects of the postmodernist movement. In brief, I think what they did was in the late 60s and early 70s they were avowed Marxists way, way after anyone with any shred of ethical decency had stopped being a Marxist. …[various ad homs] … Foucault in particular, who never fit in anywhere and who was an outcast in many ways and a bitter one and a suicidal one his entire life, did everything he possibly could with his staggering IQ to figure out every treacherous way possible to undermine the structure that wouldn’t accept him in all his peculiarity. And it’s no wonder, because there would be no way of making a structure that could possibly function if it was composed of people as peculiar, bitter, and resentful as Michel Foucault. … He did put his brain to work trying to figure out A) how to resurrect Marxism under a new guise, let’s say, and B) how to justify the fact that it wasn’t his problem that he was an outsider [and] it was actually everyone else’s problem.
This performance at UWisconsin represents classic Peterson invective oratory, but he or his editors at Penguin toned things down for 12 Rules:
More important in recent years has been the work of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, leader of the postmodernists, who came into vogue in the late 1970s. Derrida described his own ideas as a radicalized form of Marxism. Marx attempted to reduce history and society to economics, considering culture the oppression of the poor by the rich. When Marxism was put into practice in the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere, economic resources were brutally redistributed. Private property was eliminated, and rural people forcibly collectivized. The result? Tens of millions of people died.
When we consult the relevant biographies and historical sources on the life and work of Derrida and Foucault, these statements would be fairly termed “egregious misrepresentations” — or in Peterson’s vocabulary, “lies” (“leading to Hell”)— for readers disposed to historical accuracy, neutral presentation, and other scholarly values.
In Derrida’s biography by Benoît Peeters, we find Derrida criticized by his peers for not being a Marxist. As Derrida wrote to historian Pierre Nora, “It is perhaps the whole of Marxist dogma about colonization, economic imperialism (and the phases of capitalism) that needs to be revised.” Derrida indeed resisted joining the Parti communiste français (PCF), a powerful force in French intellectualism; very approximately, we could say that Derrida was a cosmopolitan social democrat in his own beliefs, working on causes such as apartheid and his native colonized Algeria.
More troubling than misrepresenting Derrida’s personal politics, though, is Peterson’s utter neglect of the thinkers and topics the philosopher actually considered. Derrida published more than twenty books before Spectres de Marx (1993), covering an enormous range of thinkers such as Husserl, Hegel, Heidegger, Saussure, Nietzsche, Rousseau, and Plato. A quasi-sincere attempt to understand him on his actual topics — ranging from education, ethics, and justice to Judaism, animality, and the theory of the gift — is far more likely to produce a frustration with his style than the sort of seething moral outrage that grips Peterson when he discusses the “bloody” Derrida at a sub-Wikipedia level of abstraction. Though Derrida’s deconstruction went through an easily-ridiculed process of domestication in North America — applied, as a fad, to far too many pop culture targets — we must never forget that deconstruction originally concerns itself with a very particular tradition of philosophy. If Derrida’s mission was to blow up Western civilization, he botched the job. Teaching Derrida’s texts demands teaching the resoundingly European texts that obsess him, thus popularizing Plato, philosophical patriarch #1, for North American students who have never experienced the classicism of the French lycée.
Peterson seized a quote from Spectres de Marx to profoundly misconstrue Derrida as a dogmatic Marxist, rather than as a philosopher who, three decades into his career, wanted to investigate the “spirit” of Marxism set against the backdrop of the “totalitarian terror in all the Eastern countries, all the socio-economic disasters of Soviet bureaucracy, the Stalinism of the past and the neo-Stalinism in process” that was formative for Derrida. The mature Derrida wrote this in 1993, long after the nouveaux philosophes such as Bernard-Henri Lévy used the French translation of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (1974) to shame the French far left after the failures of the 1968 protests. A monolithic French left does not exist. Rhetorically, however, it would be most convenient if it did.
What about Peterson’s sources? The Derrida quote that identifies deconstruction with a “certain spirit of Marxism” — elsewhere, he identifies it with America — is to be found at the start of Stephen Hick’s Explaining Postmodernism, suggesting that Peterson never read Spectres de Marx directly. Explaining Postmodernism is indeed the only synoptic work on the relevant intellectual history that Peterson ever cites in 12 Rules. The rest of Peterson’s take on Derrida in 12 Rules improves, ever so slightly, in its honesty, but conflates the hierarchies that Derrida was actually interested in interrogating — metaphysical ones from the history of philosophy — with Peterson’s famed dominance hierarchies, and appears to be derived from a summary of a summary of a summary of Derrida’s late 1960s or early 1970s work. Given that scholars on the left, center, and right have attacked Derrida much more successfully on substantive grounds, it would seem remarkably embarrassing that Peterson attempts this guilt-by-association attack on Derrida based on demonstrably false political affiliations and ignores the countless opportunities for criticizing Derrida afforded by actually reading a few of his books — or books by the epigones who instrumentalized his thought, originally for the purpose of literary criticism.
Let us imagine what would happen if we introduced a certain thinker — let’s say the mysterious author of “Why Socialism?” — by describing the murderous possibilities of socialism, and perhaps, a few sentences or paragraphs later, finally mentioning that his primary interest was physics (I am speaking of Albert Einstein). Yet this is precisely what Peterson does with Derrida: there is a total distortion (or ignorance?) of what Derrida actually spent his life doing, which was, more or less, writing and teaching about many canonical philosophers, and eventually, more literary figures and a grab-bag of other thinkers. Though Derrida might be extremely difficult and often irritating to read, I would invite anyone to flip through his books and confirm the spirit and themes of what Derrida discusses — a prominent one being a resistance, not an embrace, of totalizing systems of thought. Arguing that Derrida is a bad philosopher methodologically would be infinitely easier than arguing he is a evil person morally. One cannot leave his Politics of Friendship with the sense that Derrida (or his friends) hated humanity, love, virtue, kindness, or the tradition of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero that he cites so profusely.
Michel Foucault, unlike Derrida, joined the PCF in 1950, and then vehemently rejected communism and dogmatic Marxism. The rigid doctrines of the PCF and its condemnation of homosexuality was a terrible fit for the gay and idiosyncratic Foucault: a heterodox thinker who, on different accounts, has potential sympathies towards the end of his career with libertarianism, neoliberalism, and anarchism, a thinker who claimed “we must insist on the specificity of the Gulag question” against every sort of reductionism. In his personal politics and lifestyle, he was more radical than Derrida; in their thought, it is a toss-up; in their 21st century legacy, I think Foucault will win (a baseless speculation).
Whatever Foucault was (or will turn out to be), he was far from dogmatic Marxism, and though he is loved by the academic left, cannot be understood as a sensitive “progressive” in the sense that North Americans understand it. When Peterson says that “in late 60s and early 70s [Foucault and Derrida] were avowed Marxists way, way after anyone with any shred of ethical decency had stopped being a Marxist,” we are left with the profound impression that, in the most charitable case, he is effectively unstudied in their biographical and intellectual arcs, and, at worse, has simply lied to his audience with an extremely sensational delivery, spicing things up with an extended ad hominem based on Foucault’s perilous mental health (Peterson did read Foucault’s work on madness). Foucault was radical, certainly, but will not fit the rigid archetype — Peterson loves archetypes — that Peterson requires to dismiss him.
A Continental Peterson?
Owing to Peterson’s powerful desire to quarantine various French thinkers supposedly infected by Marx — creating an intellectual tribalism which he against politically — he has yet to realize that various critical theorists, continental philosophers, and literary critics offer certain positions in proximity to his own (“Rule 9: Assume That the Person You Are Listening to Might Know Something You Don’t”). For someone who wants young atheists to seriously study the stories of the Bible, he should be reading John Caputo — Derrida’s student — author of What Would Jesus Deconstruct: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church and The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida. Certainly, he should try out Emmanuel Levinas, Jewish philosopher and Derrida interlocutor, known for “ethics as first philosophy” — or why not Martin Buber, whose I and Thou relation Peterson might appreciate? How about the French Jesuit scholar Michel de Certeau, who ranges from his famous studies of everyday life to psychoanalysis and Christianity? Perhaps more theologians would be in order. It would not take long in a Jesuit college or a Benedictine seminary to realize that Peterson purges Christian doctrine of its communal messages, creating a strange Nietzschean prosperity gospel of individualism. And if his interest in dialogue and fighting polarization is sincere, the work of Russian philosopher and critic Mikhail Bakhtin (a great reader of the Peterson hero Dostoevsky) would be immensely illuminating. Yet Peterson is an absolutist on Marx. His moral condemnation of intellectuals who were merely shaped by Marxist milieus — readers of Marx, certainly, but opposed to rigid prescriptions, doctrines, and obviously, to totalitarianism — seemingly imbues him with an immense postwar Francophobia so strong that he fails to engage many potential allies such as Bernard-Henri Lévy, provocateur-philosopher extraordinaire, whose recklessness and media hunger were renowned (until Peterson came along—even Lévy would turn down Rebel Media).
The preconceived blanket association of mid-to-late 20th century French intellectualism with Stalinism or Maoism — or less explicitly political and extremely retroactive categories like postmodernism — smothers any attempt to learn about French ideas in good faith. Such problems predate Peterson. Certainly, there was a pronounced left lean — and a pacifist lean — in the École Normale Supérieure and its preparatory classes; French Stalinists and Maoists took far too long to get off the wagon. But exceptions abound to the “rule” of the French intellectual left. We cannot ignore the profoundly influential political theorist Raymond Aron (who called Marx “the opium of the intellectuals”), the rightward-drifting historian of the French Revolution François Furet, and the (more inwardly) conservative philologist Georges Dumézil (an influence on Foucault). And we will never properly position the French left until we reveal the wartime cast of collaborationist, fascist, and anti-Semitic intellectuals — barely recognized by North American academics — such as Robert Brasillach, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline (whose name is popping up because some of his most disgusting tracts may soon be republished). I sincerely invite Peterson to apply his theory of fascism — “if men are pushed too hard to feminize, they will become more and more interested in harsh, fascist political ideology” — to either historic French fascism or to the modern French far right (surely, someone on the internet is already working on the puzzle of how to blame fascism on feminism). As always with Peterson, there can be no economic explanations for disturbing political phenomena, only cultural ones.
From Maps of Meaning, through his videos, and all the way to 12 Rules, Peterson seems torn up by his youthful socialist beliefs and doubtful as to economic policy. One of the most unappreciated statements in 12 Rules is this seemingly innocuous aside: “I have some beliefs that might be regarded as left-leaning. I think, for example, that the tendency for valuable goods to distribute themselves with pronounced inequality constitutes an ever-present threat to the stability of society.” Yet Peterson’s belief in this tendency appears absolutely remarkable when we consider his (1) non-engagement with the classic sociological tradition that studies inequality (2) non-engagement with Thomas Piketty — another “bloody” Frenchman — and other economists who study inequality (and who propose solutions, which Peterson suggests are illusory) (3) attacks on modern left or liberal academics who want to address a multiple package of extreme inequalities including, but not limited to, inequalities of wealth and income.
Ever the historian, Peterson regards the “overwhelming horrors of privation and necessity” as the real problem of history (why not study economics, then?). Of course this is and was a major problem — but shall we simply shut down the departments of academics who want to study other major problems? Accusing “soft,” “irrational,” Continental-inspired scholars of various psychopathologies ensures Peterson will never have to tackle the vast empirical literature on those inequalities that reach demonstrably oppressive proportions. Analytic feminism? Feminist empiricists? Feminist scientists, feminist historians? Thinkers with plenty of methodological rigor and no affections of style calmly making their cases? Such people do not exist for Peterson, who historically bonds social justice with the non-analytic postmodernism in order to dismiss them together.
Peterson’s associative logic thwarts him from actually studying the inequality he claims is dangerous: people who study inequality today may also read Marx to critically revise his critiques of capitalism, and this, for Peterson’s cold war mindset, is seemingly intolerable. As he must realize as a psychologist, one of the hallmarks of conspiratorial thinking is the belief that everything is connected, that each emergent fact is linked to other facts that all become interpretable with respect to the conspiracy. If it is true that French intellectuals such as Foucault went too far with a conspiratorial study of power as a singular, transcendent, and reductive category, slipping into what Eve Sedgwick called paranoid reading, then we should also accept that Marx cannot be the measure of all things, which is indeed the primary rubric, a paranoid rubric, that Peterson applies to French intellectualism and its delayed afterlife in North America. Somewhat like American liberals who interpret each bumbling decree of the Trump administration as an inexorable tumble on a slippery slope to fascism, the genetic fallacy incessantly beckons Peterson back to Marx, barely allowing a crack of moral daylight between anti-totalitarian readers of Marx and the gulag itself.
What were French intellectuals up to, aside from politics? Phenomenology (eg. Merleau-Ponty), existentialism (eg. Sartre), structuralism (eg. Levi-Strauss), and the Annales School (eg. Braudel) represent tremendously important movements or milieus in the 20th century; Nietzsche cast a long shadow into France from 19th century Germany. Peterson, to my knowledge, has never seriously engaged so-called French Nietzscheanism. If and when Peterson reads Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies” — an anthology favorite — he may have to give up Nietzsche as a treasured thinker, for there is no better example of vulgar postmodernism than this text, which proclaims the illusory linguistic-rhetorical quality of truth. If he is to be consistent, Peterson’s associative moral logic necessitates dumping the whole of Nietzsche’s thought. For most scholars, there is some kind of Good Nietzsche and Bad Nietzsche (in fluctuating, debatable proportions). the Bad Nietzsche is more than his appropriation by the Nazis and the domestic French fascists; there is something, perhaps small, but really dangerous lurking within. Peterson typically consumes his thinkers whole to prevent these sorts of situations that require nuanced thinking. “Philosophizing with a hammer”: this is Peterson’s favourite Nietzschean expression. “Historcizing with a bulldozer”: this is Peterson’s actual method.
Peterson’s category postmodern (neo)marxist puzzles historians in the same way that married bachelors might trouble logicians. Dogmatic Marxists believe too strongly in deterministic understandings of history to be considered properly postmodern. Indeed, in Lyotard’s famous definition, postmodernism is “incredulity towards metanarratives,” specifically the kind of historical metanarrative that Marx offers. On the other hand, the Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson wrote a famous critical account of postmodernism, attacking it as the “cultural logic of late capitalism,” marked by an emptying of historical knowledge, a lack of depth, and sleazy forms of pastiche in art. Nonetheless, there is a proximity of time and place between those actual Marxists (eg. Althusser) and other thinkers who would eventually be lumped together— across the Atlantic but not in France — as postmodernists.
Long before Peterson, Anglophone scholars made mistakes in labeling Derrida and other French intellectuals as postmodernists in the first place; Peterson recently dubbed this pair the “architects of postmodernism” as if they had some sort of blueprint (an anachronistic vision to be sure). Across the political spectrum, scholars attached the terms postmodernist and poststructuralist to thinkers who explicitly rejected or never recognized these labels. To grasp the relevant French history, free of North American “key terms,” I recommend reading François Dosse alongside Why There Is No Poststructuralism In France.
If we use the term “postmodernism,” it becomes rather easy to group French intellectuals with vehement disagreements into a unified school and hence dismiss them — or as used to be the case — to publish more books on postmodernists as if they were as tidily clustered as impressionists. Whether we are talking about movements in art, music, literature, or thought, grouping related figures together under key terms is academically profitable and easily publishable. Decades later, however, the most brittle terms fall apart. Postmodernism — as a (deeply Americanized) grouping of ideas, as a historical moment, and as a term — was declining before Peterson’s rise, roughly in sync with this Google Ngram chart:
I welcome the death of the term “postmodernism;” the thinkers associated with it mainly died 15–35 years ago; contemporary French intellectualism is not nearly what it used to be. I do not know, frankly, what to call our age, but we need to do better than post-postmodernism or post-truth. Whatever might be happening in global contemporary ideas, and might not be happening in France, new terms, hopefully free of a “post,” will be required. What better foil for Peterson’s heroics than a dead movement — which wasn’t really a movement — of dead philosophers? Perhaps, deep in his psyche, he still atones for the Lacanian obscurity of Maps of Meaning’s diagrams? Or its very “postmodern” beginning, which begins by elevating his confessional, subjective experiences above a scientific, detached quest for meaning and completely neglects the linguistics literature on semantics and signification? Peterson never comments on the analytic tradition of philosophy; he has the soul of a continental. So why resist his own disposition?
Peterson vilifies ideology and ideologues; in his claimed politics, classical liberalism, he professes to be free of ideology. Ideologues are those who approach the world with a rigid, preconceived parcel of beliefs that are too ossified to respond to new revelations, to things as they are, to things as they were. History is a translucent — not transparent — window upon the past, tinted by those write it. But Peterson’s version of history is nearly opaque and entirely red. He is thus a fiery ideologue, one who chooses to ignore a preexisting arsenal of patient arguments developed against Derrida and Foucault (and corresponding defenses) in favor of his red-baiting tactics. If and when, for instance, he discovers the quasi-libertarian streak in Foucault’s thought, the dialogical strains of Continental philosophy, or the “postmodern” openness to religion, he will be faced with a choice: double-down on his original arguments — the ideologue option — or grapple with the intellectually responsible task of separating the good and the bad. As the introduction to 12 Rules tells us, “Ideologies are substitutes for true knowledge, and ideologues are always dangerous when they come to power, because a simple-minded I-know-it-all approach is no match for the complexity of existence.” In my view as a perpetual student of people and their ideas, the “complexity of existence” shines forth most radiantly when we read history, and the “know-it-all approach” — the dangerous way of the powerful — when we don’t.
When it comes to the immensely important question of what to read in life, of what to enshrine within a curriculum, ideologues are those who recommend, defend, and attacks books they haven’t read based on mere reputation and perceived politics. Whereas in the old canon wars of the 1990s, the defenders of the Western philosophical-literary canon actually read the books they insisted were vital, today its most famous and imperious partisan attempts to defend vast unread areas of a canon he approaches from outside the humanities. In one traditional view of humanities education, the classical canon is supposed to inculcate values such as literary discernment and intellectual charity. It is this discernment and charity — along with a demonstrable familiarity with centuries of philosophy and literature — that Peterson lacks. Thanks to the incredibly challenging and comprehensive entrance exams to the École Normale Supérieure, many French intellectuals possess and arguably defend the very sort of classical humanities education that Peterson raves about. Deeply immersed in European culture, they will simply engage Mallarmé, Malraux, Marx, Malebranche, or Merleau-Ponty without the requisite chest-beating about greatness, goodness, or evil: show, don’t tell.
Which Big 5 personality traits compel Peterson to defend the traditions of pre-Heidegger continental philosophy and of various national literatures without a genuine attempt to survey them? How’s his French, German, Italian, and Spanish? To deem the humanities as irrevocably corrupted by nefarious foreign thinkers insults the very same people Peterson needs to defend them. The famed American “postmodern” (anti-foundationalist) Stanley Fish cares little for marginal literature, and is indeed a master of Milton. The professors I know personally who study Derrida and Foucault teach rather classical courses in English literature and comparative literature departments. Had Peterson studied the history of the French infiltration he deems so dangerous, the folly of his us-versus-them strategy would become apparent. Certain followers of Derrida and Foucault could eventually be enlisted against the extremes of campus politics — but only if Peterson ceases his shtick: melting the crayons of the intellectual rainbow into a hideous dull brown lump worthy of the Tate Modern. There is nothing so patronizing as receiving the “help” of someone who defends texts and values he neither understands nor embodies, by attacking Gallic “barbarians” whose language he refuses to speak.
Peterson treats philosophy so casually that major ideas get attributed to the wrong thinker. His versions of Foucault and Derrida could be readily swapped with each other — or combined. On the Joe Rogan Experience, Peterson said: “He’s absolutely pathological to the core, Jacques Derrida. And apart from his claims that all we do is trade power games — because that’s another one of his claims — his other claim is that the purpose of categorization, the purpose of society is to marginalize, and that’s absolutely absurd.” Though neither of these “claims” is true to the French thinkers, the term “power” is associated with Foucault, and “margins” with Derrida. In Peterson’s “Biblical Series III” lecture, he misattributes Camus’ “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” to Nietzsche, and alters this statement’s commonly understood meaning. This carelessness, needless to say, does not bode well for Peterson’s authority on these matters.
Peterson, Man of Letters
To put my point delicately, Peterson isn’t exactly Northrop Frye, Helen Vendler, or Harold Bloom. If I’m in the mood for an edifying and entertaining romp through Western literature that fires a few volleys at French obscurantists and “political correctness” — a romp that humbles me through how much more I must read — I might pick up George Steiner, who reads Homer in Greek, Virgil in Latin, Foucault in French, and Freud in German. Want a better “map of meaning”? A meditation on logos? Intellectual fireworks? Jabs at French Theory? Then try Real Presences. The polyglot Steiner veers into pedantry and sweeping generalizations, it is true, but his erudition inspires me to read wonderful books instead of clicking on yet another recommended YouTube video full of irascible ignorance. Even when Steiner scathingly reviews Foucault’s Les Mots et Les Choses he closes on a tempered, humane note: “even where its sybilline loftiness is damaging, one is left with a sense of real and original force.” When the sententious Peterson dismisses French intellectuals, a seemingly mandatory invocation of Solzhenitsyn or of fellow Foucaultphobe Camille Paglia quickly gives way to a total non-engagement with both text and context. Paglia packs zingers — and nothing more. The paternalistic guardians of vague “Western” or “Enlightenment” values who Peterson eagerly interviews often enjoy telling us what not to read, making a mockery of Kant’s very Enlightenment decree — Sapere aude — dare to know.
Patiently criticizing a thinker one text at a time: what could be more reasonable, more scholarly, more old fashioned? If we come to a fair conclusion that Foucault’s Les Mots et Les Choses is a bad book — it is this book, much more than his later work on power, that stoked his reputation in France— then we could only possibly arrive at this conclusion through some familiarity with the history of structuralism and the French classical age, the historical organizations of knowledge whose transformations Foucault attempts to chart (with Petersonian grandiosity). The work cannot possibly be dismissed through red-baiting tactics, because no committed Marxist would ever say, as Foucault does, that “Marxism exists in nineteenth century thought like a fish in water: that is, it is unable to breathe anywhere else.” And even if Foucault was a committed PCF member during the book’s creation (he wasn’t), it would be entirely fallacious to dismiss it via his personal politics (shall we dismiss Einstein’s relativity via socialism?). Skilled readers might be able to find a mature Foucault who, if alive today, would potentially critique certain left and right wing speech codes. Yet Peterson can’t be bothered to read enough Foucault to begin commandeering his weaponry.
I agree with Peterson on the following point: “Ideas Have Consequences.” The Big Idea of 12 Rules seems to be: clean your literal and figurative rooms (fine advice) — yet this is unfortunately wed to something more sinister: submit to the structures of life, or climb them, but do not change them more than a hair. Stop obsessing over the power of the dominant people, says Peterson, and acknowledge their skill and competence (Trump, right?). The rules of the apex are evidently not those of the nadir; there is often a lofty point beyond which one can simply ignore the moral imperatives and strictures of one’s inferiors. This is too often the case in the political and intellectual worlds. In the conjoined games of substantive intellectualism and pop intellectualism, a point exists at which thinkers —on the left, center, and right — are no longer held accountable to those quaint and lowly tasks that occupy the people at the bottom. These tasks include (1) actually reading the thinkers we’re talking about (2) inserting them into their true historical contexts (3) checking our facts (4) changing our arguments in response to criticism.
Rather than asking anyone to change political beliefs, I am asking for something infinitely more reasonable from Peterson and his friends, followers, and foes: express a commitment to the basic scholarly practice of the humanities without any whataboutism. Keep reading; we all must. If Raymond Aron could be friendly with Jean-Paul Sartre across a political chasm, it was only because they shared an intellectual culture at the École Normale Supérieure that demanded deep and broad readings before railing against one’s opponents. If attacking communism is life’s primary purpose, why would anyone prefer Peterson to Aron? This is because, I suspect, Petersonism tends towards a swaggering anti-intellectualism and historical amnesia so severe it thwarts identifying one’s best allies.
Before the limelight, Peterson climbed to a midpoint in the hierarchy of academic psychology — by being a scholar. Leaving his old colleagues behind, he skyrocketed up a new YouTube/Patreon/Twitter/public speaking hierarchy of his own design. There is something to be said for circumventing The System. But there is also something to be said for not implicating anti-totalitarian intellectuals in the deaths of millions of people before reading enough of them to realize that they might agree with you on certain points — that they might defend something you claim to treasure. Advocating for free speech along with restricted reading yields a veritable hysteria. One cannot be an oncologist of culture without studying countless healthy, cancerous, or indeterminate cells. It was the French protesters of 1968, not Peterson, who proclaimed “C’est interdit d’interdire”: it is forbidden to forbid!
Ultimately, I fault no one for reading Peterson with an open mind — the bestselling 12 Rules could be the first book they open outside of school. Insofar as he embodies a paternal humanities archetype, I do not think the desire for a Peterson figure is a dark one. But for those who are championing Peterson as a serious thinker on the order, let us say, of a Chomsky or a Nussbaum in America, a Badiou or Habermas in Europe, or less political thinkers like Saul Kripke — I feel a sense of embarrassment. Of course a reactionary opportunist with a genuine genius for media exposure would become a household name. His fame increases, not decreases, his responsibility to telling the truth about the histories that have become absolutely central to his message.
Relevance isn’t permanence. In our vaunted classical humanities education, we discourage students in history and philosophy from the perilous slippery slopes. Improving their reasoning, as it turns out, would be bad vocational advice in the age of Peterson: leaping from pronoun politics to perishing in the gulag portends of stardom. Why bother with the thousand intermediate steps that comprise the commendable drudgery of intellectual history and philosophical argumentation? If it pleases you, pathologize my snowflake psyche, check my facts, and alert me to salient points in Peterson’s videos (I’m happy to make edits). A few of my sources — books, not videos — are given below. I cannot offer you twelve rules for your life, but only one humble suggestion. Go read a book. Perhaps when you clean your room, you’ll find one you’ve been missing.
History of Structuralism by François Dosse (2 volumes) [available via Google]
French Theory by François Cusset [available via Google]
At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell [not academic, but excellent]
Michel Foucault by Didier Eribon [a biography]
Derrida: A Biography by Benoît Peeters
Real Presences by George Steiner
Comprendre le XXe siècle français by Jean-François Sirinelli
Why There Is No Poststructuralism in France by Johannes Angermuller