Sam Harris vs. Jordan Peterson: Key Philosophical & Personality Differences
Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson are two of the most popular and influential public intellectuals of our day, with Harris currently boasting nearly a million Twitter followers and Peterson a quarter-million.¹ Harris is a seven-time author with degrees in philosophy and neuroscience. He also has, in my view, one of the most candid, informative, and insightful podcasts in the world. Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, a clinical psychologist, author, and public lecturer. He is most widely known and easily discovered on YouTube, where he enjoys over a half-million subscribers.
Before we dive into the differences between these two important thinkers, it is worth acknowledging some points of similarity and convergence. Despite being politically left-leaning (especially Harris), both Harris and Peterson have joined the fight against certain liberal causes such as political correctness, identity politics, and moral relativism / post-modernism. Harris is also famous (or infamous) for his stand against Islamist extremism. These and other issues have left both Harris and Peterson with relatively few allies on either side of today’s polarized political media. They have, however, managed to garner growing sympathy from moderates, independents, and perhaps some libertarians. They may thus be paving the way, even unwittingly, for the emergence of a new type of third party.
While not at all downplaying the importance of Harris’s and Peterson’s political ideas and influence, my primary interests, as a student of philosophy and psychology, are their philosophical views, as well as the ways in which their personalities shape and inform those views.
In this post, we will examine some of the core philosophical and psychological propensities of Harris and Peterson. This will include attempts to locate and classify them both philosophically and psychologically. Doing so should help us better understand their relationship to other thinkers as well as the central motives and ideals that drive and animate their work.
What Type of Philosopher is Harris? Peterson?
It is unfortunate that Harris’s historical animus toward religion has ostracized many who might otherwise resonate with his ideas. This seems particularly unfortunate in light of the fact that Harris is actually more metaphysically open than one might expect from his atheist reputation, confessing agnosticism on matters such as the nature of consciousness and even the afterlife. Indeed, both Harris and Peterson seem open to the idea that consciousness may in some way be fundamental to the fabric of reality.
Among the more central distinctions between Harris and Peterson is their attitude toward narratives, symbols, and archetypes. To Harris’s analytical mind, such topics appear philosophically insignificant or superfluous, or in the case of archetypes, empirically unconvincing. In his view, truth should be amenable to empirical testing, rational scrutiny, and explication through concepts and constructs. Symbols and narratives may thus obscure or clutter our view of what is most essential.
In this light, we might roughly situate Harris within the analytic school of philosophy, which according to Wikipedia is “characterized by an emphasis on argumentative clarity and precision, often making use of formal logic, conceptual analysis, and, to a lesser degree, mathematics and the natural sciences.” In his book, The Age of Analysis, philosopher Morton White offers a thumbnail sketch of the analytic philosopher:
“Analysts are all hostile to speculative and obscurely written metaphysics of the kind one finds in the later works of Whitehead, to the kind of writing we see in Bergson and Husserl…Analysts think of philosophy not as a rival to science but rather as an activity partly devoted to clarifying it.”
In Harris, we discover a close connection between science and philosophy. Although he is more willing to admit and evaluate introspective data than many analytic philosophers, his affinity for science, as well as the logical way his mind works, is characteristic of those in the analytic tradition.
If we think of Harris as a philosopher-scientist, Peterson is more like a philosopher-storyteller. A self-described existentialist and pragmatist, Peterson rarely uses formal logic and is far less structured and systematic in his approach than is Harris. Taken as a whole, I think we can safely locate Peterson on the opposite side of the philosophical aisle, namely, within what is commonly known as the continental school of philosophy.² As described in my book, The INTP Quest, continental philosophy:
“…finds its roots in French and German thought, with the term continent referring to that of Europe. Generally speaking, continentalists are drawn to subjectivity, history, idealism, introspection, ethics, and speculative thinking…They are more apt to be critical of science and logical positivism.”
Continentalists often criticize analytic philosophers for their relative inattention to epistemology (i.e., how we go about knowing things), their disregard for the historical-cultural context in which their work is nested, and their avoidance of topics that matter most to human beings (e.g., existential issues). Analytic philosophers, in turn, are inclined to see continentalists as vague, speculative, and lacking methodological rigor, as well as contributing little of real substance to the advancement of knowledge.
These are precisely the sort of issues we see arising between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, which were on full display in their first podcast discussion entitled What is True. Despite many repeated (and painful) attempts, both were essentially talking past each other and unable to move toward philosophical consensus. Of course, it would not be unreasonable to anticipate a similar sort of gridlock between any two thinkers on opposing sides of the philosophical spectrum. There is good reason, after all, for the analytic-continental demarcation, not to mention that of the political left and right.
Harris & Peterson on Truth
Harris’s approach to truth is in many respects simpler and easier to outline than is Peterson’s, characterized by a belief in our ability, with the aid of science and reason, to discern objective truth. Harris adopts what is commonly known as a correspondence approach to truth, which holds that our beliefs, if true, correspond to the actual state of things. This view dates back at least to the Classical period, probably earlier. It in many ways resembles what we might call a “common sense” approach to truth, that is, the view that most non-philosophers would naturally assume. Of course, the fact that Harris’s approach is more common and straightforward does not make it wrong, but only easier for most Western minds to comprehend.
Peterson’s approach is more complicated and places less faith in our ability to know things with objective certainty. The reason for this uncertainty, in his view, is that the human mind is always operating within a specific context (continentalists are notoriously obsessive about context), a context which is always molding and coloring our beliefs.
One of the central contextual factors for Peterson is evolution. His argument might be framed as follows:
Evolutionary pressures have shaped the human mind / brain to work in a characteristically practical way, one aimed largely at survival. If the modern mind is still running on evolutionary hardware and remains practical in its aims, then it is not optimized for ascertaining objective knowledge, that is, knowledge which is divorced from, or independent of, our survival interests.
Jurgen Habermas, the acclaimed continentalist philosopher known for his work in Critical Theory, has proffered a similar argument, namely, that scientific / “objective” thought was predated by and developed within the subjective and intersubjective context of the lifeworld. It is therefore erroneous to consider it truly objective since its subjective elements are more foundational and can never be completely eliminated.
Like many scientists, Harris exhibits little patience for these sorts of arguments. For him, there are certain truths or facts which are so patently obvious that questioning their objective reality seems nothing less than absurd. And because such hard truths are well within our reach, we needn’t expend undue energy questioning the epistemological veracity of science and rational thought.
To be clear, it’s not that Peterson is in any way hostile toward, or ignorant of, science. In fact, many of his talks and writings are peppered with scientific references. He does, however, seem more open to straying from hard science and to entertaining notions that border on metaphysical — things such as archetypes, the collective unconscious, and other Jungian or religious ideas. As we shall see, Peterson’s vision of truth ventures further beyond the standard boundaries of empirical science than does that of Harris.
Like all philosophers, both Harris and Peterson can be seen as guided by an overarching philosophical vision or ideal. Harris’s ideal, I will argue, involves what we might call “rational morality.” Namely, he aims to cultivate a more orderly and sensible world, one in which moral behavior is informed by sound reasoning. One might even argue that Harris’s philosophy is duty-centric, entailing an alignment of ethics with the findings of science and rationality.
Peterson, by contrast, promulgates a meaning-centric philosophy, as suggested by the title of his foundational work, Maps of Meaning. Unlike Harris, Peterson does not emphasize moral behavior per se, but generally sees the meaningful life as a precursor to, or catalyst of, the well-lived life. In other words, if people are happy and satisfied with their lives, they will naturally act more virtuously. Peterson also argues that human beings are not rational actors and may thus fail to respond to rational arguments or dictates. This nicely dovetails with his emphasis on myth, narrative and inarticulate knowledge, all of which he sees as historically more powerful and compelling for most people than rational arguments.
In his Maps of Meaning lecture, Peterson makes a noteworthy observation regarding the dual meaning of the word matter. While matter can of course refer to the material building blocks of the universe, it can also connote that which is most important to us — “what really matters.” He then points out that even scientists who attempt to reduce everything to matter and mechanism are still motivated by, or behave as though, their primary concern is what matters. In keeping with his self-described pragmatist approach to truth, Peterson believes that what is evidenced as most important to us in our everyday conduct should somehow be factored into our understanding of truth. For only by making this concession can we claim in good faith that works of fiction, for instance, which deal with what we might call lived truths, qualify as truth. While Harris reluctantly concedes that there is truth in fiction, he still seems inclined to believe that much of a story’s context could be stripped away and whatever truth it contains be extracted and expressed in terms of concepts or rational arguments. Peterson, not surprisingly, disagrees, seeing the full context — the whole story — as critical for readying the heart and mind to receive whatever truth it contains.
Undoubtedly there is much more that could be said regarding the Harris-Peterson philosophical divide. But because history apprises us that the thinking styles of Harris and Peterson are not entirely unique, but can be understood in terms of certain philosophical types, readers seeking further insight can consult extant discussions of analytic vs. continental philosophy and the like. We must now turn our attention to the relationship between philosophy and personality, including the specific ways in which personality factors might inform the respective views of Harris and Peterson.
The notion that the structure of an individual’s mind shapes his philosophical propensities is an ancient one, but its most comprehensive expression can be found in Kant’s seminal work, Critique of Pure Reason, as well as in Jung’s Psychological Types. But William James may have said it best in his philosophical classic, Pragmatism:
“The history of philosophy is, to a great extent, that of a certain clash of human temperaments…Of whatever temperament a philosopher is, he tries, when philosophizing, to sink the fact of his temperament…Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises…He trusts his temperament. Wanting a universe that suits it, he believes in any representation of the universe that suits it…Yet in the forum he can make no claim, on bare ground of his temperament, to superior discernment or authority. There arises thus a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions; the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned.”
For reasons we will soon get into, Harris — a strong believer in objective truth and our ability to know it — is more apt to take issue with, or be unimpressed by, James’s observations than is Peterson. In concert with James, I see this as stemming from Harris’s personality type, that is, from the nature of his psychological lens.
The notion of “types” is by no means limited to personality studies. We’ve already seen, for instance, how Harris and Peterson represent two different philosophical types. And although there is certainly much to be gained from studying philosophical types, we can go even deeper by tracing philosophical preferences back to psychological ones.
I find it curious that, despite his frequent discussions of and obvious admiration for Carl Jung, Peterson typically references the Big Five personality taxonomy rather than the Jungian / Myers-Briggs model. To some extent this is understandable in light of the fact that the Big Five is the leading academic model and Peterson happens to be a university professor of psychology. And because this isn’t the place to develop an argument for the Jungian framework, I can only refer readers to my post, Beyond Scientific: The Case for Jungian / Myers-Briggs Typology, for some of my thoughts on this matter. Here, I will offer a few observations regarding the Myers-Briggs types of Harris and Peterson, including how their types might shape their respective philosophies.
To my eye, Harris is almost undoubtedly an INTJ and Peterson an ENTP. The first thing to notice here is that both are NT types, which speaks to their shared preference for intuition (N) and thinking (T) as opposed to sensing (S) and feeling (F). However, the fact that Harris is a judging (J) type means, according to the Myers-Briggs model (an offshoot of Jung’s), that he will show his judging side to the world by way of strong and direct assertions, which he clearly does, while Peterson is a perceiving (P) type, indicating a more open, malleable, and receptive presentation.
Even more important is how these personality preferences translate into philosophical ones. INTJs, such as Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Al Gore, can be seen as aspiring to make the world a more rational place, one free of the myriad ills they see arising from irrational thinking. This is exemplified, for instance, in the title of Gore’s book, Assault on Reason, as well as in the following assertions from Harris: “Nothing is more sacred than the facts”³ and “Where we have no reasons, we have lost our connection to both the world and one another.”⁴ These attitudes, in conjunction with their reverence for science and objectivity, stem from the INTJ’s use of what Jung dubbed Extraverted Thinking (Te).
By contrast, Peterson’s type, ENTP, uses Extraverted Intuition (Ne) in tandem with Introverted Thinking (Ti). This combination of functions (also used by INTPs) makes for what Williams James (likely an ENTP himself) called a “tender-minded” (as opposed to a “tough-minded) philosopher. As outlined in my post, The INTP / ENTP Need for Mystery, NTPs are often drawn to religion, mysticism, and/or metaphysics because of the sense of meaning and mystery they engender in the NTP, which is certainly the case for Peterson.
In light of Harris’s long-standing interest in meditation, one might be tempted to also consider him a mystical type. While he clearly values meditation for its insights into the mind and consciousness, he is not mystical in the way that NTPs tend to be. As a point of illustration, INTJs are rarely bothered by the idea of explaining life and its evolution in terms of pure mechanism. However, as discussed in my book, The INTP Quest, this notion can be off-putting to NTPs, many of whom prefer to see the universe as somehow alive or infused with mind or spirit, as seen in various pantheistic philosophies and in the works of NTPs like Spinoza, Hegel, Fichte, Bergson, Tillich, etc. Purely mechanistic thinking leaves little room for the mystery and wonder that inspires NTPs.
On the whole, NTJ personality types, such as Harris, are more structured and systematic in their thought, often drawn to objective methods and more formal types of logic. They can thus be associated with science and analytic philosophy, even if only for the way they approach and think about philosophical problems.
NTP types, like Peterson, are typically drawn to metaphysical thinking, meaning-centered philosophies (including religion), history, existentialism, and other forms of continental philosophy. Rather than seeing things through a mechanistic lens, many prefer philosophies that engender a sense of mystery toward life and humanity. While NTJs are well-described as knowledge-oriented, NTPs are generally more concerned with existential issues, things such as meaning and wisdom. They are also more comfortable allowing certain truths to remain implicit, as doing so preserves the sense of mystery and potentiality they value.
As mentioned above, Harris’s and Peterson’s first conversation failed to produce much in the way of philosophical consensus. When two great minds such as these fail to synchronize, we are behooved to ask ourselves why.
Objectivists are apt to explain such failures in terms of some deficit of knowledge or understanding by at least one party. An alternative view, outlined by James and elaborated by Jung, is that philosophical differences to an important extent reduce to psychological ones.
In this post, we have adopted the latter perspective. This is not to say that there is no objective truth or that it cannot be better approximated. But we must be willing to acknowledge and understand the proverbial elephant in the room — personality / psychological factors — if we are to have any hope of transcending philosophical gridlock.
My Bio (on my Personality Junkie website)
1. I find it historically interesting that, while both Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson are undoubtedly brilliant, their meteoric rise to fame has surely been aided by the growing popularity of podcasts and YouTube. Without these newer forms of media, it seems improbable that either could have garnered the following they have today. The same could be said for thinkers like Ben Shapiro and Stefan Molyneux, who have amassed similarly large followings on the back of the grassroots internet.
2. The analytic-continental distinction is one of the broadest and most commonly used construct for classifying philosophers.
3. Harris, S. The End of Faith. p. 225.