Jordan Peterson: Champion of Meaning in a Scientific Age
In my previous post, I sketched a philosophical and psychological profile of Jordan Peterson vs. Sam Harris which many readers seemed to appreciate. What I glossed over there, but would like to explore here, are the core reasons I believe people are drawn to Peterson.
Those who have spent time listening to Peterson may find him a bit difficult to categorize or pin down. Even his most devout followers may struggle to summarize his essential message; they know they like him, but may have a hard time articulating exactly why. This may be largely due to the fact that, unlike Sam Harris, precision and concision of thought are not Peterson’s strengths. Whereas Harris is structured and streamlined, Peterson is divergent and prone to explore tangents. Peterson himself has confessed that his talks amount to something like philosophizing aloud, openly expressing and working out of his ideas in a “stream of consciousness” fashion.
Whatever deficit of structure or concision one might perceive in Peterson’s thought, many people nonetheless sense that there is something special or important about him and his message. High on the list of his noteworthy features are his candor and authenticity. One gets that sense that Peterson truly believes what he is saying and is willing to push back against ideologies he considers harmful or spurious (e.g., political correctness, identity politics, moral relativism, etc.). And while Peterson can certainly play the role of critic, his overall message and demeanor is constructive and optimistic. Moreover, his optimism is not naïve or dogmatic, but is informed by and conversant with modern-day science, psychology, and philosophy. This has allowed Peterson to garner respect as an intellectual and not merely as an enthusiast.
Whatever points Peterson may score for his candor and optimism, I think his most compelling quality, and the one that captivates his listeners, is his philosophical vision and sense of mission. Before unpacking this further, however, we need to clarify a few things.
First, it seems unlikely that Peterson will ever achieve the celebrity status of someone like Bill Maher. Peterson strikes me as too esoteric and academic to maintain the attention of a general audience. One has to be rather intelligent and educated to make sense of the ideational labyrinth that is Peterson’s mind. Furthermore, those following the likes of a Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins are not necessarily the same ones tuning-in to Peterson. Harris is a hard-line rationalist, while Peterson is more of an existentialist and storyteller. Harris draws a clear line between facts and fiction; Peterson sees the line as blurrier than most people are willing admit.
Despite his ostensible openness and tolerance for ambiguity, Peterson is not a relativist. This can be difficult for people to understand, because there does seem to be a relationship between openness, doubt, and relativism. After all, if one is constantly operating from a place of doubt or openness to alternative views, “relativist” becomes a tempting label. What is often missed, however, is that open individuals, or those we might call “seekers,” don’t want to remain in a perpetually uncommitted state, but ultimately hope to move toward greater convergence and certainty in their understanding. What one finds in Peterson is a long-time seeker who, after decades of exploration, has finally found himself and his message. And because he’s done so in an authentic way and zeroed in on his core values and beliefs, it shines through in everything he does.
A Meaningful Self-Role: Peterson’s Hero Conception
One of Peterson’s central concerns, which I see as foundational to his mission and popularity, involves proffering a worldview that is not only intellectually tenable, but also deeply meaningful.
Of course, the problem of meaning is by no means a new one. Ever since the Enlightenment, intellectuals have been wrestling with how to find / cultivate meaning in a scientific age. Nor is Peterson the first to propound solutions in this regard. Existentialists like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard were immensely concerned with cultivating meaning and vitality in a post-Enlightenment context.
With that said, Peterson does put forth his own unique solution to the problem of meaning, which might be characterized as a fusion of existentialism, evolutionary theory, Carl Jung’s hero archetype, and certain themes from Christianity. Here’s my attempt at a brief summary of his conception:
Real heroes are not only brave and talented, but also care about doing what’s right. And because some level of prosocial behavior would have conferred evolutionary advantages, evolution has in many respects shaped us to be moral. Therefore, those willing to assume the hero role (again, in the sense described by Peterson) are in many respects fulfilling their evolutionary destiny and thus apt to find meaning and purpose in life.
One can see how this motif might be attractive to a certain type of reader, particularly those seeking some sort of synthesis between the intellectual and the moral / spiritual. In addition, Harris has pointed out that a sizable chunk of Peterson’s followers are young men. From what I’ve observed, men are generally more apt to struggle with concerns about meaninglessness, or are least more inclined to approach such concerns in an abstract / conceptual fashion. They also seem more likely to embrace the hero role. It is therefore unsurprising that males would comprise a larger portion of Peterson’s followers than females. Finally, those from a Christian background may appreciate his sympathies toward, and incorporation of, certain themes from Christianity.
In my work in personality studies, I’ve come to appreciate the potential value of adopting an archetypal role (e.g., creator, explorer, sage, etc.) as a general means of framing one’s purpose in life. And since the hero archetype is one of the broadest and most universal archetypal roles, one can see why it might have widespread appeal.
Another benefit of Peterson’s hero motif is it reintroduces a measure of objectivity into our moral discourse. In this respect, Peterson diverges from existentialists or relativists who suggest that the individual can choose from an infinite number of paths and still find his way to meaning. As we’ve seen, Peterson believes that the path to meaning has already been paved and circumscribed by evolution (and possibly by a creator). Rejecting or failing to integrate that path is therefore inadvisable.
Finding meaning in modern life, especially for those who can no longer swallow the whole pill of traditional religion, can be a tall task. One can easily feel overwhelmed in a world of infinite options and competing paradigms, or what Barry Schwartz has dubbed “the paradox of choice.” In response, we all do our best to pare down our options in hopes of discerning the most sensible and meaningful course for our lives.
Despite his focus on morality, Sam Harris has little to say about meaning. Meaning seems to be neither a personal nor a philosophical concern for Harris. It may be the case that Harris sees the practice and insights gained from meditation as a sufficient remedy for any perceived deficits of meaning.
But many meaning-seekers want something more than Harris is offering. They want to discover and embrace a meaningful account of existence, as well as their role in it, one that can serve as a reliable source of guidance and inspiration. While Harris seems eager to dispense with myths altogether, Peterson and his followers see stories, both personal and collective, as necessary and powerful vessels for meaning and direction.
With that said, the degree to which Peterson’s hero conception will exhibit historical staying power remains an open question. But the fact that someone with Peterson’s intellectual clout is willing to advance this sort of meta-narrative has kindled a sense of hope in those seeking a meaningful story in which to situate their life and existence. The ability to inspire hope, purpose, and meaning, without resorting to salesmanship or intellectual dishonesty, is what I believe people value most about Peterson.
The “Seeker” Personality & Archetype (on my Personality Junkie website)
My Bio (Personality Junkie)