Jordan Peterson vs Ken Wilber

Via Jeff Salzman at

This commentary is inspired by Jeff Salzman’s podcast:

Jordan Peterson and Ken Wilber are both map-makers and popular philosophers with a background in science who have spoken about religion in a postmodern way. At the same time, both men have a strong critique of the more pathological aspects of post-modernism and have talked about the ‘shadow’ of materialism, feminism, and social justice within the post-modern view. And because of their strong polemic positions — and sometimes over-simplifications — they are both loved and hated.

Peterson has been called a mere ‘self improvement’ author, to minimize his real gravity as a thinker — when he is not being called fascist, that is — despite the fact that he has taught on the dangers of fascism his whole career. Similarly, Ken Wilber is usually dismissed as a ‘new age guru’, even though he has a strong critique of the new age. The fact that his books sell so well, causes some academics to consider him to be a lesser thinker, which I don’t believe is the case. In any case, both men have contributed massively to the conversation and culture at large, and both have an evolutionary view of science and religion. So how do they differ?

In the past year, I’ve been defending Peterson for a lot of reasons, not the least being the ridiculous mischaracterisation of his work as ‘alt-right’. But now that Peterson has cracked the mainstream — become ‘bigger than Jesus’ so to speak — he doesn’t need to be defended anymore. Therefore, I’d like to articulate a respectful criticism of some of his views. I’m loath to do this, since I think his work is of immeasurable importance. I have praised Peterson ad nausea in my previous essays, and, incidentally, been accused of being a ‘fan-boy’ as a result. I have probably caused some progressives to get squeamish when I said that Peterson is one of the few public figures out there ‘on fire with the holy spirit’. But I stand by that old-fashioned phrase.

I’ve listened and read a lot of critiques of Peterson, very few of which were unpartisan, fair, or understanding — let alone wise or compassionate. The very first is by Jeff Salzman on his podcast The Daily Evolver. Salzman analyses Peterson’s ideas though the lenses of Ken Wilber’s ‘Integral’. ‘Integral’ is a theory that tries to map everything in consciousness in a way that doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Of course, Integral is complex and I can’t do it justice here. But I can say that the integration of science and soul, roughly speaking, has also been Peterson’s main concern — especially in his seminal book ‘Maps of Meaning’.

I liked Salzman’s critique of Peterson for a few reasons, even if he hasn’t delved that deep into Peterson’s more complex work. First of all for its ‘tone’. Salzman doesn’t flail hysterically in fear and contempt, he isn’t the least bit dismissive or condescending. He does what Peterson tells us to do all the time, that is: ‘separate the wheat from the chaff’. Peterson may be correct in attacking the invasion of French theory in education, and the subsequent deterioration of the humanities. We do need to return to a traditional view of education and live by what was written on the temple of Apollo at the Delphic oracle: Know thyself. We do need to teach people to read, write, think, and talk — not just to become jargon-ridden, oversensitive snowflakes and wounded social justice warriors.

However, Salzman’s point is that there is also a virtuous side to post-modernism along with its easily debunked pathologies. He suggests Peterson is both very right and very wrong about post-modernism. Of course, by post-modernism I don’t necessarily mean merely ‘French deconstructionism’ and its accompanying theories, but rather the entire 1960’s Zeitgeist, with its beautiful and terrible excesses, and how they are playing out in society today. Peterson—and Wilber 20 years ago—are right to be critical of a culture of nihilism and narcissism, which speaks about human rights but less about human responsibilities. On one hand, I don’t agree with Salzman that Peterson is an alarmist — the dangers and pathologies of post-modernism are real and Peterson has articulated them very well. But I do agree that there is something Peterson is leaving out.

Take political correctness, which wasn’t invented by ‘snowflakes’ or ‘social justice warriors’ yesterday. Salzman rightly points out that there is political correctness — or extreme orthodoxy — in all the major stages of societal evolution. For example, in a traditional society it would be politically incorrect to insult the king and you could be hanged for that. In a modern setting you can lose your research grant and be excommunicated from the academy if you don’t profess a dogmatic materialistic view. (See Rupert Sheldrake’s banned Ted Talk). And in the post-modern milieu, just try going to a university cocktail party and criticising any aspect of accepted climate science or feminism. You are bound to get crucified, aren’t you?

Well, actually no. You wouldn’t be crucified, just socially ostracised. That is because postmodernism, in its healthy manifestation, brings real tolerance to the table. There are post-modern witch hunts certainly — but they pale next to traditional or even modern witch hunts. Traditional and modernist societies are more punishing than post-modern ones. Furthermore, complex systems of terrifying taboos and arbitrary punishment have been broken down by post-modern tolerance. Of course, there is a danger of chaos in a relativistic society — but the real danger is the reinstatement of rigid traditionalism. Generally, the postmodern project has been successful in creating a more open world. That is not to say that postmodernism doesn’t have its own maniacal orthodoxies — which again, Peterson exposes brilliantly.

Wilber also does a good razing of post-modernism, but he doesn’t consider it an historical aberration, rather a necessary and vital stage of evolution. Here is his critique:

“In short, (Postmodern/Pluralism) believes that it is universally true that there are no universal truths; it believes that its view is superior, but it also believes that there are no superior views anywhere. This is called a “performative contradiction,” because you yourself are doing what you claim you cannot or should not do.

This view ranks ranking as being bad; judges judging as being oppressive; gives a very Big Picture about why Big Pictures are not possible; claims it is universally true that there are no universal truths; places hierarchies on the lowest level of its particular hierarchy; and claims its view is superior in a world where nothing is supposed to be superior.”

Source: Wilber, Ken: The Religion of Tomorrow: A Vision for the Future of the Great Traditions

So far so good. Peterson has made many of the same claims. There is a danger of a totalitarian view in the name of post-modern tolerance, a new Maoism, which, in its attempt to flatten hierarchies, ends up re-instating them in a murderous manner. Peterson’s remedy to post modern amnesia is to rescue the father, to rediscover tradition and the individual, and healthy competence hierarchies. He is right, of course. But that is only half of the story. Young people may be missing traditional values and need ‘rules’ and be lost in a ‘flatland’ (Wilber’s term) of cultural relativism, but they are also beneficiaries of a more tolerant, diverse, gentler view of people than ever before. As an illustration of this, ‘gay bashing’ is no longer acceptable among millennials — homosexuality, is not only tolerated but celebrated in some circles. This strikes me as an extraordinary achievement.

Peterson’s heart, as Salzman says, is in re-discovering and re-integrating tradition. He follows TS Eliot’s Maxim: ‘the way forward is the way back’. But the way forward is also the way forward. The integral view says: yes, we need to rescue and integrate tradition but also to transcend it — ‘transcend and include’ in Wilber’s terms. Yes indeed we need to rescue the father — but we also need to outgrow him. And Peterson himself, at times, embodies this very post-modernism. Just the fact that he speaks about religion but doesn’t go to church, indicates a certain postmodern freedom to interpret reality. My point is: you cannot truly go beyond postmodernism without integrating its best aspects first (pluralism, tolerance, human rights, etc.), otherwise your view may lean towards the reactionary.

Peterson is not a reactionary, only there are times I find him unnecessarily conservative. For example, why is he is reserved in wholeheartedly supporting gay marriage in the 21st Century? What is there to fear from gay people, for god sakes! Salzman, a gay man, has spoken on his podcast about how the gay experience was completely underrepresented in the culture until recently — he has a good reason to defend post-modernism. I am not suggesting that Peterson is in any way bigoted or homophobic — I find no evidence for that. However, this may be a blind spot in his thinking.

Jeff Salzman, as a gay man, is generous in pointing out that Peterson doing a world of good for young men who are devoid of the benefits of traditionalism. He also understands Peterson’s critique of the negative effects of post-modernism, especially on young men. Too many men today are told that they are responsible for all the ills of the world. They are told that testosterone is a poison, that they are all potential rapists, they are are taught to be soft and compliant, overly apologetic—they repress a certain bawdy masculinity that is not only necessary but beautiful. Peterson’s celebration of masculinity is very appropriate, in my view.

Salzman also notices Peterson’s ‘sensitivity’ — his emotionality at times — which I view as extremely healthy in a mass-media world of disembodied intellects and talking heads. Peterson’s fearless passion and emotionality is one of the reasons that people like him so much. But is his sensibility a bit ‘post-modern’ ? After all, it is not modernism (or ruthless capitalism for that matter) that taught men to be sensitive. Peterson does have a strong feminine side, an almost maternal affection for young men. As I’ve said in a previous essay: he is not as ‘binary’ or hyper-masculine as all that, and who would want him to be? He seems to get along great with gender fluid types: Camille Paglia and Russell Brand, for example.

At the integral stage of development, according to Wilber, you are able to perceive the virtues of all the previous states, to transcend and include them. But before you get there it is almost impossible to understand the ‘higher’ stage. How do you tell a tribal person, for example, what a nation means? Or a conservative why gay marriage is a good idea? People at different stages of development will not understand each other! A conservative is an extra-terrestrial to a progressive, and visa versa. In previous stages you are unable to see beyond your own orientation, be it tribal, traditional, modern, or postmodern. But at Wilber’s integral stage (which he calls second tier) you are able to integrate all the previous stages. For example, you could be an environmentalist and support gay rights, and still be an orthodox churchgoer and respectful of your tradition — no problem. And nobody will burn you at the stake if you don’t go to church.

Ideally, at the integral stage, you have truly transcended identity politics, ideology, and political correctness, and all the totalitarian tendencies of the previous stages — you have separated the wheat from the chaff. And post-modernism is a necessary stage in getting there, with both a healthy and pathological side. Is Jeff Salzman right to say that Peterson is not quite ready to integrate post-modernism, even if he is actually quite postmodern himself in many ways? However, that might not be necessarily a ‘bad’ thing. Peterson’s is doing a world of good for those who need rules, tradition, and order in their lives — before they can jump into the fertile chaos of post-modern experimentation.

In any case, we all have our shadow, or blind spot. What is Peterson’s shadow? The dragon’s gold, as Peterson has said, is in the last place you want to look for it. The last place Peterson wants to look is in the post-modern world, focused as he on rescuing tradition and reason, or the father at the bottom of the ocean.

To conclude, here is my score card: As a map maker and a universal thinker Ken Wilber Wins. As a depth psychologist and a communicator Jordan Peterson has an explosive lead. But in the post-modern world, it’s not about competition, is it? In an integrated world, however, we can enjoy that competitive male spirit, without being chauvinistic about it.

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