An Open Letter on Jordan Peterson and Stefan Molyneux

I received a polite email gently critiquing the tone of my ‘hit pieces’ (I accept the characterisation) on Stefan Molyneux and Jordan Peterson. There was some concern about the effect this might have on my academic reputation. I wrote this reply to try to explain my MO, such as it is. I’m posting it here for general interest:

Dear X,

Thanks for this thoughtful email, and for reading my blog posts.

I should explain my motivations for writing them. First, I was moved by the hurt and frustration many of my female friends had expressed about being forced into unpleasant debates by followers of characters like Molyneux and Peterson. I thought I’d cheer them up with a bit of mocking invective, and some told me that they were cheered up. Second, I wrote both pieces when I was at home on a Saturday night and felt like producing some light entertainment to pass the time.

As far as my reputation in the world of philosophy goes, if I have one at all I’m confident it’s for my research on early modern philosophy, the history of logic, and the philosophy of economics. In that professional capacity, I try very hard to maintain a scholarly attitude. You’ll find some criticisms of other scholars in my published work, but never gratuitous insults like I have on my blog. My aim in any case is not to criticise but to contribute to research, by producing translations and analyses of lesser-known materials, by interrogating the logical foundations of macroeconomic models, and so on. This work can be dull, but I hope it’s helpful to somebody.

Peterson and Molyneux deserve none of that sort of attention. I see them as mere charlatans. I’d never write about them in my capacity as a professional academic. I’m happy to make a few jokes at their expense; I have no interest in engaging beyond that point.

My blog is mostly just for fun. If it affected my academic reputation, I’d be sorry for that. But I think most academics in my field see it as nothing more than an eccentric hobby. Some of them tell me they enjoy the joke. Others probably don’t. But none seem to confuse those posts with my professional research, no more than they would a food blog or an Instagram page of amateur photography.

The last thing I want to do is create the impression that I’m engaging with someone like Peterson as a peer. I don’t see him as one. I’d never mention him in an academic journal article. His critique of Marx, for example, is a joke, and it deserves only jokes in reply. By instructive comparison, one of my favourite economists, Joan Robinson, made what I think is a decisive case against some of Marx’s arguments. Her knowledge of Marx’s literature is formidable, and she substantiates every single claim she ascribes to Marx with careful citations from his published and unpublished writings, weighted appropriately. Peterson, by contrast, doesn’t seem to have read any Marx; he constantly just makes things up with no textual basis. Yet he keeps telling people how he has spent decades studying this material. The same goes for his critiques of ‘postmodern’ philosophy.

Molyneux on logic just humiliates himself. And frankly it’s irritating to have spent years of hard study trying to master some elementary logic and then have some pontificating fraud claim the right to lecture others without doing any work at all. Similarly, I haven’t written much on Marx because I haven’t been able to master the complex implicit models in classical economics that underlie his arguments. Peterson rides straight in without even trying, and that, to me, violates a sacred contract among academics.

These men are too intellectually lazy to deserve my respect, not that they want it. Their whole swindle is based on an insultingly simple trick. They make outrageous claims about what their opponents supposedly hold, on the basis of no research at all. Then they make easy, valid inferences from those claims. If you criticise them for reaching their conclusions, they accuse you of not following the form of the inference. But I don’t say that the arguments are invalid. I say that they’re unsound. The premises are unsupported and usually false. In practice, this reply goes nowhere, because their followers are too committed to the conclusions to care. I don’t need to waste my time with that, so I write some insults to amuse my friends instead.

Is this sneering down from the ivory tower? Perhaps, but I always give the time of day to anyone who is willing to put in a bit of intellectual effort. You can ask my students. It’s just laziness that I can’t abide.

Of course everyone is lazy sometimes, including me, very often. But I would never claim to have researched topics in depth that I haven’t researched at all. I’m often ashamed to discover gaps in my knowledge, even about the main topics of my research. Peterson and Molyneux are impervious to this shame. Yet their acolytes seem to regard them as a genuine intellectuals with some actual body of knowledge. I find that embarrassing, and I think that pointing it out is a kindness.

In the same way, I would tell a friend if he had a tear in the back of his trousers. Better to hear it from me than to keep looking silly.

Best,

Alex