Jordan Peterson: The Distortions of an Ideologue
Understanding Jordan Peterson’s Postmodernism
‘Be precise in your speech.’ Peterson’s injunction, rule 10 of his 12 Rules for Life, is more than a simple statement of the self-evident. It is a call to give a name to the unnamable; to concentrate an ill-defined nebula into a pin-prick problem that cuts the path to a solution. For Peterson, there is ‘some integral relationship between communication and the structure of being.’ The idea that at least some utterances are performative, that our linguistic descriptions of reality have the potential to bring themselves to bear on it, is not new. Indeed, Peterson reads God’s utterances in Genesis, ‘let their be light,’ and his later instructions to have Adam name the animals as an allegorical projection of this knowledge. After all, “they’re not even really real until they have names.” While it is telling that Peterson should invoke an idea at the heart of Jacques Derrida’s philosophical project, the target of his most vitriolic opprobrium, it also gives us a glimpse of Peterson’s biggest unarticulated problem with postmodernism.
If you will permit me a sweeping statement, a common feature of postmodern philosophical texts is that they quite consciously and deliberately deny readers the option of reducing the nebulae they give rise to. Rather than present neat little theories that can be expressed in a series of bullet points, the intention is in part to illicit dizzying and opaque clouds of thought from which anything we might draw is a provisional construct as much of our own making as of theirs. The point is not to explicate a reading of reality, but to provide us with toolkits to help us find new ways of perceiving the world. To read such a text, we must learn to at least temporarily accept a kind of fluidity that Peterson fears; they are not always possible to concretise with regimes of thought that already make sense to us. If Peterson truly considers these writers dangerous, I would hazard that the danger he detects is here, rather than in that enunciated by the staggering misrepresentations through which he has constructed a focal point for the anger of his acolytes.
One of the difficulties in countering such misrepresentations is that to subsume a group of individuals into a viable scapegoat it is necessary to erase the significant differences between them. As has been previously pointed out , by referring to ‘the postmodernists’ as a whole, he makes it difficult for us to ascertain who precisely he is discussing at any one moment. Postmodernism is not a belief system; it is not even a system of thought. Rather, in the strictly philosophical sense, it is a shorthand label for a series of loose tendencies that arose from a particular geographical, historical and social context: a strong suspicion of universally applicable value systems, over-arching narratives, and the unquestioned presuppositions that lay behind much Modernist philosophy, including Marxism . Peterson is right about one thing: the trajectories of thought we would now identify as postmodernist could fairly be said to have emerged among French intellectuals during sixties and seventies.
Peterson’s Speculative History: ‘Barely Repentant Marxists’
Peterson’s central assertion about this loose and heterogenous group is that they were Marxists in disguise, [4, 5]. For Peterson, growing consternation with regard the atrocities of the Soviet Union made it impossible for the French intellectuals to hold publicly and transparently Marxist views. This is an unforgivably counterfactual narrative. Although Stalinism came under heavy criticism, Marxism in and of itself was nonetheless at the height of fashion. Louis Althusser, an avowed Marxist and lifelong member of the French communist party, published his most influential works from the early sixties to the riots of May 1968. As if to preempt a little light googling, Peterson has occasionally pinpointed the end of the 1960s  as the point at which popular opinion in France turned against Marxism. The seed of truth is that Althusser came under much criticism for his ambivalence toward the riots of May 1968 in Paris, including from his former student, key collaborator, and personal friend Jacques Rancière . His waining influence among the French youth and personal battle with deep depression slowed publications for some time thereafter. Even if Peterson had a point, however, it is further disproved by a simple matter of chronology. Jacques Derrida published his three most seminal works prior to the riots, in 1967. Peterson’s public enemy number two, Michel Foucault, had decisively abandoned Marxism by 1962 at the very latest.
If anything, Foucault and Derrida might have been better served by behaving in exactly the opposite manner Peterson ascribes to them: they were corresponding with an audience whose Marxist sympathies were culturally ingrained. Against this backdrop, I am the first to admit that it is of course possible to situate Foucault and Derrida relative to Marxism without making the first-year-undergraduate error that their positions are reconcilable with it on a fundamental level. A central tenet of Marxist analysis is ‘historical materialism,’ which posits that history can be best analysed through the means by which a given society produces the things it needs to sustain itself. These means and their subsequent social structures can be categorised into stages. Marxists believe that the internal contradictions of one stage will inevitably lead to the next on an essentially predetermined journey toward communism.
This is the mother of all grand narratives; exemplary of the teleological pattern in thought that, for Derrida, rendered Modern philosophy (political or otherwise) doomed to straightjacket their conceptions of history relative to arbitrarily predetermined archetypes (does that sound at all familiar, Dr. Peterson?). Similarly, Foucault was more interested in analysing history in what he perceived to be its own terms, not relative to the continually recurrent structure insisted upon by his Marxist contemporaries. In the History of Madness, he strenuously avoided attributing a causative role to production relative to changes in society at all. Rather, he analysed the language used to describe and categorise people with mentally illness across different epochs as a function of social exclusion. His later works, culminating in the Order of Things would focus only on the role of discourse as a function of societal change; this is a very very different approach to historical materialism. To what ends would a Marxist disguise oneself as a non-Marxist in order to publish volume after volume fundamentally at odds with the premises of their secret agenda?
When this fundamental irreconcilability was raised in a Reddit Ask Me Anything thread , Peterson attempted to address it. In the interests of self-preservation, I’ve selected a few key statements from his response containing the most egregious errors. Peterson’s thesis here is that, while they may be incompatible in theoretical terms, in practical terms both Derrida and Foucault were ‘barely repentant Marxists’. Peterson suggests that ’they parleyed their 1960’s bourgeoisie vs proletariat rhetoric into the identity politics that has plagued us since the 1970’s’. I have been unable to find any evidence that Derrida ever had explicitly Marxist leanings (needless to say Peterson is not forthcoming), and neither Derrida nor Foucault advocated for identity politics at all. In a further attempt to baffle us with bullshit, Peterson exclaims that Derrida and Foucault’s interest in social relations and their functions constitutes a ‘rehashing of the Marxist claim of eternal and primary class warfare.’ For Marxists, class struggle is neither primary nor eternal. It is not primary because it is read as a consequence of material conditions, and not eternal because the final stage of historical materialism is by definition free of the conditions that would give rise to it. Further, to take an interest in hierarchy and social relations is not Marxist in and of itself, lest we broaden the definition to include John Stuart Mill. Presumably just to leave us wondering if hr has even actually read Foucault, Peterson finished with the exclamation that ‘Postmodernism leaves its practitioners without an ethic, so [Marxism] has to be at least allowed in through the back door.’
Peterson’s Derrida: Categories, Subjectivity and Identity Politics
At the risk of dangerously oversimplifying an extremely complex and nuanced position, Derrida’s basic thesis is something like this: the language that a given society uses to name things, to classify and categorise, reflects our own cultural and personal biases to such an extent that it tinges our perception of reality. In other words, deciding that a given thing is this and not that can lead us to believe that those categorisations reflect a self-evident and eternal truth. For Derrida, the link between meaning and language is unstable and contingent rather than rooted in objective reality. Through a process he called deconstruction, inherent biases and presuppositions in the language of a text could be exposed. According to Derrida, the history of Western thought is dominated by binaries: arbitrary devisions between things and their negatively defined opposites that cause us to privilege one concept over another, often with disastrous political implications. To name one group of people ’civilised’ is to imply that another is ‘uncivilised:’ the unwelcome barbarian at the gates; the other, an object of fear implying the necessity of subjugation. Perhaps more interestingly, because the definition of ‘civilised’ is in and of itself arbitrary and unstable, it is continually redefined and repositioned relative to specific and contextually contingent parameters that can satisfy particular political ends.
According to Peterson, Derrida claimed that society and categorisation exist for the sake of marginalization,[15, 16]. This is a simple falsehood. Derrida sees hierarchisation and categorisation as part and parcel; one cannot be meaningfully said to exist for the other any more than we could say water exists for the sake of making things wet. To say that a hypercritical awareness of the relationship between society and language allows us to better interrogate ourselves and our society, to perhaps even rethink the terms of a given discourse, is not to suggest that we can make do without such terms altogether. In a head-spinningly contradictory claim, Peterson also argues that (while simultaneously doing away with categories) Derrida insisted that society boiled down to groups of people vying for power, split along identitarian lines, such that ‘everybody is… not an individual’ Not only did Derrida make no such claim, such a view would be irreconcilable with his belief that classification was ultimately arbitrary.
It is true that Derrida’s suspicion of binaries caused him to problematize aspects of modernist philosophy that had hitherto been taken as given, including the notions of subject and object as distinct and opposite. The two concepts are implicitly interdependent. It is impossible, after all, to define the boundaries of one’s selfhood without defining it against that which is perceived to be exterior. However, this is not to say, as Peterson suggests, that Derrida wanted to do away with the notion of the individual altogether. Rather, he understood subjects not as sovereign and autonomous actors that can straightforwardly impose their will on the world, but rather as contingent on the language that fundamentally constitutes them: If we think, therefore we are, it stands to reason that it’s worth interrogating the degree to which what are we thinking with determines to who we are.
Peterson’s Foucault: The ‘Reprehensible Outsider’
Given that Peterson has asserted that Foucault is the only postmodernist he actually understands, it is odd that he only very rarely addresses the content of Foucault’s arguments directly. Peterson generally prefers instead to speculate on Foucault’s motives based on vague allusions to his supposed personality and biography, but has none-the-less perpetuated a number of falsehoods with regard to the content and implications of Foucault’s project that ought to be addressed. The first of Peterson’s criticisms is that Foucault’s work on mental illness as socially contingent has been a trivially obvious fact to professionals for ‘the last 60 years.’ In evidence, Peterson points to Henri Ellenberger’s The Discovery of the Unconscious, which was published in 1970. Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation was published in 1961, and was the culmination of years of earlier research stretching back to the early fifties. Together with the work of Thomas Szasz, who also published The Myth of Mental Illness in 1961, I tentatively suggest that it is as a result of the influence of his research on the field that Peterson, who has been a qualified clinical psychologist since 1993, takes the obviousness of their arguments for-granted.
Peterson mischaracterises the basic premises of Foucault’s understanding of institutions and power. For Peterson, Foucault conceived of the institution as an entity ‘always run for the benefit of those at the top.’ This is not a Foucauldian argument at all; at best it is a gross oversimplification of the Marxist structuralism he was reacting against. For Foucault, power is much more horizontally dispersed across societies and perpetuated discursively by their specific institutions rather than orchestrated from the top on behalf of particular people. Foucault’s power cannot be ascribed straightforwardly to particular actors, because it is manifest in social norms and societally agreed truths, such as the mechanisms for delineating sexually acceptable practices and disciplining deviant bodies. There are a number of further complications too involved to thoroughly detail here, but it is worth noting two additional fundamental points. The first is that discourse, while producing and enforcing power, simultaneously contains the seeds of its own resistance; for a narrative to form it must also make possible its own counter-narrative. The second is that, as the productive force of reality, Foucault’s power is not an inherently negative phenomena. His conceit is not that it should somehow be erased, but that keeping a critical eye on localised power dynamics can be a more effective ward against totalitarianism than state-centred analyses.
Because Foucault concentrated on the socially constructed truths generated by institutions, his ideas and concepts have occasionally been weaponised in anti-scientific polemics. This is an unfortunate fact that Peterson has applied to Foucault himself. Although Foucault said little in relation to the natural sciences, he did argue that we cannot assume science as a practice is free of hidden ideological biases, and that we ought to be suspicious (but not necessarily dismissive) of political policies that claim to be a straightforward response to scientifically ascertained truths. Further, that these truths are provisional, and cannot be taken as given to reflect anything intrinsic about reality per se. It was once considered a scientifically objective truth, after all, that populations of humans could be categorised into a hierarchy of discrete and distinct races. This ‘fact’ both emerged from socially constructed biases, and in turn gave them sufficient intellectual weight to justify all manner of horrors and atrocities. Perhaps more pertinently, I should imagine it would be useful for Jordan Peterson if those who took him seriously were to unquestioningly accept as objective reality his particularly bizarre interpretation of evolutionary psychology in a way that just so happens to support the completely unfalsifiable and pseudoscientific ideas he inherited from Carl Jung.
When I began this piece, I was inclined to believe that Peterson was just in a bit over his head; his field of expertise is clinical psychology, not philosophy, sociology or political science. Various controversies aside, he is best known as the charismatic author of a fairly unremarkable self-help book aimed at young men. When I sat down to trawl through his videos and other assorted media, I had already decided it would be unfair to expect the kind of heavyweight interrogations that feed my own ambivalent relationship with these two deeply polarising figures. Nonetheless, I half expected to agree with the gist of at least some of the arguments he might have made. Instead, I found myself having to tediously debunk assertions and highlight errors so unbearably featherweight, it began to make me a little angry.
Not only because this exercise has been about as intellectually stimulating as unpicking the carpet with a pair of tweezers, but because of the disservice he is doing to those of you who take him seriously. This man takes you for such a fool, ladies and gentlemen, that he trusts you are incapable of crosschecking so much as a date. Equally frustratingly, I recognise that it is hard to be heard with rational and reasonable arguments over a deafening foghorn of ignorance. You cannot be precise in your speech, Dr. Peterson, if it consists of conjecture, conspiracy, and outright falsehood. Other critical pieces have been far too kind. You are no stranger to the concept of academic integrity; you are familiar with the necessity of diligent and thorough research in a way that other purveyors of misinformation on the internet may not be. Readers, forget 12 Rules for Life. If you want to understand Jordan Peterson, look no further than Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit.
- That the lack of internet-accessible, readable rundowns of postmodernism as a philosophical entity are few and far between is testament to its fluidity. However, the wikipedia article is at the time of writing accurate enough to suffice for this purpose. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodern_philosophy
- Jacques Rancière has continued to publish and lecture within the Marxist intellectual tradition to the present day, and can hardly be said to have suffered for it.
- Foucault was a former student of Althusser and his earliest work, Mental Illness and Psychology, reflects this. In 1962, Foucault revised to excise it of Marxist content. It is much more likely his motivation was intellectual consistency as opposed to cover-up, given that even by Peterson’s logic, he had nothing to actually cover up until May 1968.
- See https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/marx/
- For a much more detailed account, see https://www.iep.utm.edu/fouc-pol/
- It could fairly be argued that recent leftist apologetics for certain flavours of identity politics draw heavily from Derrida and Foucault among others. However, identity politics in and of itself existed both on the right and left long before this. In any case, there’s no smoking gun here: it only leads us to the conclusion that one’s political persuasion has no baring on one’s ability to fundamentally misread complex and nuanced texts.
- Foucault’s work is continuously reflexive with regard to ethics, including the ethics of philosophy itself and his own ethical obligations as a philosopher. In relation to the former, see The Ethics for the Concern of Self as a Practice of Freedom.
- For more, see https://www.iep.utm.edu/derrida/
- ‘Cuck Philosophy’ on Youtube also noticed this contradiction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cU1LhcEh8Ms
- It’s ‘trivially obvious’ to me that we should clean our rooms, tell the truth and stand up straight, but whatever.