The Detraction of Jordan Peterson
Constructive Criticism to a Public Intellectual
This is part 2 in a series on Jordan Peterson.
Part 2: The Detraction of Jordan Peterson: Constructive Criticism to a Public Intellectual (A Critique)
Part 3: The Resolution of Jordan Peterson: Truth, Lies, and Reconciliation in a Time of Chaos (A Synthesis)
“I would like to know where I’m making errors.” — Jordan Peterson
I will do my best Professor.
The cult of personality and hero worship around Jordan Peterson is not undeserved, but perhaps its about time he met his match. While that person is probably not me, I at least intend to give Peterson a run for his money. So, this article is a critical follow-up to my positive post The Abstraction of Jordan Peterson (one should read that first for context). Peterson graciously tweeted that post along with his signature words of derision: “Good luck with that.” As per the title of this one, I am calling Peterson a detractor — ‘a person who disparages someone or something’ — as he is well known for his cutting critiques of postmodernism and marxism.
The detractor epithet is also a sly reference no one will get to the film The Abs•Tract: Core Philosophy in which I generalize the opponents of ‘abstractors’ as being ‘detractors,’ meaning people who are anti-intellectual and reject abstraction. Climate change deniers are detractors, as are ab-gimmick hucksters, or fundamentalists of any kind.
Jordan Peterson is much less a detractor in this regard; although he is a climate change skeptic. He’s partly public intellectual who writes and waxes prolifically with abstraction, which is why I wrote about him and abstraction specifically in the first place. However, he is a detractor in the aforementioned sense of criticizing mere caricatures and straw-persons of complex ideological frameworks and legitimate academic approaches, throwing the baby out with the bath water, missing the forest through the trees, as it were. He is as much a ‘thought leader’ in the pejorative sense as he is an intellectual.
In other words, although he is an expert abstractor, he is not abstracting these theories faithfully. His critique is only true against some. A ‘vicious abstraction’ is a good way to describe when something essential is left out, and this is certainly the case here. That is to say, in his simplifications of the concepts — postmodernism and marxism — vital aspects get ignored or glossed over, and he ends up presenting a harsher position than is necessary or appropriate.
At this point, I would even say his hacking at postmodernism is a ‘reproach of abstraction’; a concept I have introduced before. And with no direct challenger except a lot general controversy and resistance, Peterson’s bullish style is paying dividends in a political economy fueled by partisanship. He is now somewhat both victor and victim of his own success.
It should be known that I’m a great admirer of Peterson. “Insisting on the truth in times of chaos — Jordan Peterson” by David Fuller of Perspectiva Institute is a great positive overview, including some of Peterson’s best quotes. But there are a few specific issues with his implicit politics that he and his followers are inclined to overlook. My approach is part devil’s advocate and part constructive criticism.
There are three methodological considerations: Firstly, my critique is from the left, as that has been his primary target, although I strive to avoid polarization and appearing to take sides. Secondly, my approach is from the perspective and concern of sociology, contrasting Peterson’s expertise in psychology. Thirdly, I am addressing Peterson’s anti-postmodernism from the paradigm of metamodernism, as I understand it (see this post for summary). Combined, Peterson needs a dose of leftist sociological metamodernism to cure his postmodern woes. My hope and goal is, in principle, to write a critique so well that the recipient himself is persuaded by it. Should that not always be our goal in discourse?
As the Peterson’s quote above humbly requests, he wants to be corrected, so I’m trying to answer the call. With that, I am in no way restraining or sugarcoating my critique here, even though I want his support or participation and that Peterson(-level) Patreon money for my own abstract enterprises (support us here for $1). The truth is what matters, and I hope that we can find a new consensus with him and his fans.
“You can’t put a price on abstraction.” — Adam Kadmon (from The Abs•Tract: Core Philosophy)
Also, in the interests of full disclosure I should say that I’ve reached out to Peterson several times and received no reply. He’s a busy guy. I attempted contact for the following reasons: 1) To ask for some form of participation and contribution to the study of abstraction, beyond that which he already did indirectly through Maps of Meaning, 2) to engage him on new ideas he is unfamiliar with, such as metamodernism, especially as it pertains to his repugnance for postmodernism with no hint of what comes next, and 3) to offer a critique and feedback on his worldview and agenda, via private channels.
Seeing that he tacitly declined, even though the top quote suggests that he would want to know, my critique must go unidirectionally through public mediums, as somewhat of an open letter. And although I’m disappointed that he prioritizes certain other engagements and appearances over the urgency of abstraction itself, my critique is no way motivated by any bitterness. On the contrary, I am merely following through on my commitment to abstraction, and my offer of critique, and we shall leave it up to his fans to judge.
Here we go.
In The Abstraction of Jordan Peterson I wrote about how Peterson uses abstraction a lot in his writing and speech. I generally have no criticisms of how he has used it explicitly in the context of his work — as thinking and mapping. It has always served to clarify and help visualize what he is teaching. In this first example, he defines the basic function of abstraction, and how the fruit from the tree of knowledge in the story of Adam and Eve is an abstraction.
“If you have a set of things and you abstract out from them a common element, you can make a strong case that the common element is more real than the set of things from which you abstracted it. That’s the whole utility in abstraction.” — Jordan Peterson
Where I object is where he has not sufficiently applied abstraction in the things he criticizes. Moreover, that he has no interest in taking abstraction further and indulging it in other realms how I have laid out in this publication. As you will note, in addition to the Peterson article I have so far discussed how abstraction is distinguished and revelant to thinking, body mechanics and fitness, society and alienation, racism, anti-intellectualism, political polarization, globalization, AI, abstract art, meditation, and Benjamin Bratton’s geopolitical Stack.
I am citing all of those articles as evidence in the case against Peterson here. Surely anyone can see the value in cross-training. And I am not finished yet. There is much more to say about abstraction (in future posts). As Peterson knows, abstraction is at the root of how we conceptualize the world and its objects and ideas, so this is a watershed issue.
More specifically to this end, I no longer think that Peterson correctly abstracts abstraction to a sufficient degree outside of Piagetian psychology — at least not as much as I, hence his detraction. My criticism is also how he has not used abstraction in some cases; how he has failed to see its application in other contexts, by other scholars.
While I praise his use of it in Maps of Meaning and as a rhetorical technique, I criticize him here for the following ‘vicious abstractions’ (leaving out essential components) of; postmodernism, academia, atheism, Marxism, sociology, policy, social justice, veganism, and psychology, which are all discussed below. Before that, I will try to critically discuss some of his comments on abstraction in a little more detail, different than what I did in The Abstraction of Jordan Peterson.
“As you move up the abstraction hierarchy the probability that you’ll make a catastrophic error while attempting to fix the problem, radically increases, because abstraction is very very powerful, so you want to be careful… And so part of what I would say an intelligent conservative ethos is, is solve the problem at the highest level of resolution — the most local level of resolution — it’s safer.” — Jordan Peterson
On one hand, he is warning against the carelessness of financial abstraction, and that regulators and investors should be more aware of the deep consequences of their abstraction. On the other hand, as I argue in my article on How to Humanize AI with Abstraction, we must strive to solve problems at a higher level. It’s simply more efficient. The compromise between the two in the real world is to take as much as possible into consideration in the process of abstraction. It’s all about the integrity of the process.
It is not so simple that we should only focus on solving problems at the local level first. Regulators, bankers, mortgage brokers, economists, and traders were all abstracting at their own local level, making rational self-interested decisions. The financial crisis of 2008 was a systemic problem. Only the best high-level abstractors — those who factored in the vulnerability and risk of ordinary people — of the situation could see it coming. Few raised alarms about the precariousness of it — Ron Paul was one of those people who did— but most chose to be blind to it.
An intervention to counter the negative effects of financial abstraction would be a federal minimum wage (to at least $15/hr, which is still not enough. cf. quote below), which is a macro-policy with immediate implications at the local level. Consider the futility and selfishness of trying to change that law in one particular locale, when the entire country needs it. Sometimes the most high-level abstract solutions are the best. Only a conservative empiricist could so blindly embrace horrible math needed to uphold the status-quo.
So Peterson is only partially right here, in that only some of the time is it better to solve problems in the immediate context, and sometimes (more often I argue) it’s better to abstract out. Peterson appears to be directly warning about ‘vicious abstraction’; meaning, as we scale up we may miscalculate some details from the lower level. Dealing in high-level abstractions is risky because abstractions are ‘leaky’, and the more complex they are, the more likely they are to be misunderstood. Case in point: God, the highest abstraction, and the most relativised.
The main thrust of this article is that Peterson is ironically committing vicious abstraction himself about postmodernism and marxism, leaving out key details of the philosophies which he criticizes.
“The best you can do with postmodern philosophy is emerge nihilistic, at best. The worst case is that you’re a kind of anarchical social revolutionary who is directionless apart from that you want to tear things down. Or you end up depressed, which I see happening to students all the time because the postmodernists take out the remaining structures of their ethical foundation.” — Jordan Peterson
Here is the most recent condemnation of postmodernism and cultural marxism by Peterson, from July. The first thing to say about his fiery tirades against postmodernism and marxism is that he’s mostly right, but mostly is not good enough. What I mean by that is that much of the literature bears out what he is saying — that postmodernism has reached a terminal point — except that it is not the full story. Nor is it the best version, which is unfortunate because Peterson is such a great story-teller.
Peterson often briefly prefaces the value of the critique before launching into disdain for pomo. His blanket rejection of pomo ultimately comes off looking like a sophomoric abandoning of it rather than an academic transcending of it. As a friend put it to me, ‘there’s more Don Quixote than integrity.’ While Peterson exudes a lot of legit heroism, he’s certainly tilting at a hell of a lot of windmills. For starters, Peterson claims you can learn this stuff in a week, which is simply absurd. Second, the plentiful critiques of postmodernism also spend equal measure or more on its positive contributions. Third, there is such a thing as post-post-modernism, and now metamodernism, so, update.
“the postmodernists completely reject the structure of Western civilization.” — Jordan Peterson
Contrary to his claim, not all students of postmodernism throw out the baby with the bathwater (reject everything about Western civilization), which is what he’s doing with them. Pomo is flawed, but is not simply a toxic discourse, considering I survived it. Debunking and critiquing of excessive postmodern deconstruction has been well established since the mid-90s.
There’s lots of interesting things to say about it that Peterson doesn’t. And he may find himself more aligned on this issue with New Atheists than he thinks, considering Richard Dawkins’ Postmodernism Disrobed, a review of Intellectual Imposters. In my view, the pomo critique exhausted itself in the late 2000s but people missed the memo and DFW killed himself (see David Foster Wallace — The Problem with Irony).
There is still a lot of deconstructive scholarship published when we should be methodologically focusing on reconstruction. This is where the current tension stems from. And in Peterson’s defence, when he condemns postmodernism he’s referring to this failed version of pomo specifically. But there is also value he is also throwing out, dismissing it so categorically, because a lot of critical insights are suffocated in the pomo atmosphere of relativism and obscurantism, if you will.
In a way, the critical theorists were right about everything, but people got sick of it, because the deconstruction does not provide us any simple praxis. It gives us a mindbogglingly large jigsaw puzzle to assemble. It delivers us into a sort of prison, with diminishing returns on its intellectual practice, but that is after enormous gains have been made. Metamodernism will determine what gets carried over and what is left behind from the legacy of postmodernism.
In my view, critical theory writ large says ‘this is what’s wrong with the system’, and the postmodern condition is the experience of living in that system. The radicalizing tendency is a reaction to a system that won’t change (at all, or fast enough), but it has to. By the time scholarship that you would call postmodern became a norm, it became a parody of itself, as illustrated by the Sokal hoax, and The Postmodern Generator program which uses algorithms to parody the pomo writing style (link at time of posting is down). That is the paradox, so its not that the postmodernism is “wrong,” as Peterson insists.
Considering this, as much as we ask ‘why did postmodernism fail?’ we should ask ‘how was the rebellion crushed?’ And crushed by conservatism, to be specific. Much of postmodernism (which is an era and paradigm, rather than specific school of thought) includes critical theory, which has hardly accomplished its basic goals (to advance a critical society and avoid fascism). We still have a lot of work to do in this regard, which is why sociologists talk about things like ‘renewed’ or ‘second’ modernity, or reviving the unfinished enlightenment project. Moral progress has been systematically resisted at the most abstract levels by conservatives funding ideology.
If Peterson wants to defeat postmodernism then systemically discouraging students from studying it is not the right way. On the contrary, postmodernism should be studied to death, so metamodernism can rise like a pheonix. Postmodernism is a developmental stage that no one should skip, as it is necessary to pass through to understand metamodernism. The best we can do is not emerge nihilistic, but transition to metamodernism and emerge wise.
The problem is that what people need is a public intellectual to carefully spell out the entire program, not simply declare and deride what’s wrong with it. That’s why some of us are trying to espouse metamodernism. We are working with a new discourse. Peterson’s compulsive rhetoric is no doubt causing some students who have never even been exposed to the subjects at all to lose interest altogether. This is, in short, why he’s galvanizing so much right-wing interest, because they never ‘got’ abstract postmodernism or marxism in the first place. So, we must ask the tough deeper questions about “Jordan Peterson’s personal crusade against the postmodern left.”
Now conservatives have been given every reason to believe that these theories have been completely debunked and are nothing but dangerous. To be sure, they’ve been best debunked by liberals themselves, but conservatives will never get the memo (metamodernism) without going through the gates of pomo first. Another reason people (liberal or conservative) like him is because he’s telling them to clean their room, but this too can be taken to pathological limits (see American Psycho, or any aristocratic culture). Or try telling a homeless person to clean their room and you will quickly understand the bounds of Peterson’s public psychotherapy.
The way Peterson uses his intellect to ruthlessly excoriate Liberals, Leftists, and anyone remotely socialist is fulfilling a conservative wet dream, although he insists he is apolitical. Peterson’s heart is in the right place, but his line of attack is wrongheaded. I would recommend at least becoming familiar with the likes of Jacobin, Naked Capitalism, and TruthDig for a critical progressive post-postmodern perspective.
Peterson’s building his critique through a psychological lens, not a sociological imagination. He depicts much of postmodernism in terms of individuals and ideology, not as an abstract critique of the system. Thus, he interprets Patriarchy all too literally, which thereby demonizes all men (many who are good feminists), rather than the patriarchy being a societal abstraction which we participate in (and is still very literal in many corners of the world). Is the Patriarchy just a mythological man-hating trope? or is it simply a close reading of history? Consequently, he attacks only third wave feminism, which similarly repudiates men, rather than endorsing the abstract fundamentals of feminism and their necessity in the social sciences, notably in International Relations.
Peterson is reacting to the people who take postmodernism too far, such as Google firing James Damore over his ambiguously sexist memo. Postmodern sympathizers, feeling helpless, will take (fire, dox) who they can get, since the elites are irreproachable. For God’s sake, Peterson’s critique is true but he also goes way too far. Postmodernists trying to tweak policy for their peicemeal progress agenda are not totalitarian tools. Peterson should criticize the Right just as much if not more, for creating the systemic conditions so hostile and oppressive to Leftism that they’ve radicalized or been neutered.
The crisis is more product of economic inequality and polarization, not evil-naive postmodernists. He lambasts Liberal education policies, but it was Harper who massively cut education and social programs, and pursued an anti-science agenda.
Do all pomo neomarxists want to destroy everything? No, this is a vicious abstraction, a gross simplification. They are not Fight Club. There are countless level-headed academic marxists out there, who would at once completely share his condemnation of early 20th century fascism, but also have a completely grounded and updated theory of marxism that is more relevant than ever. For example, what about John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology? Perhaps Peterson’s greatest blunder is to bundle postmodernism and marxism, as if they are entirely synonomous. While he may be entirely right on them not mixing, they are not the same.
It is not that postmodernism states that all inequality is due to abusive power and oppression, but some, and its important to know which kinds. Pomo does a great job of helping you see the ‘system’ in all its multifarious extensions and see power operate in subtle and exploitative ways. To take the postmodern critique to the extreme is to pervert and corrupt it, yet this is exclusively the version that Peterson attacks. In the benign sense, pomo ad absurdum is intellectual masturbation. In the pernicious sense, it results in junk science and nihilism. But in the good sense, it is powerful deconstruction.
We can agree that pomo does indeed lead to nihilism, but only if you take it to its reductio ad absurdum. That means you have to take the meta- offramp before launching off the unfinished bridge into the icy waters below.
Yes, some hierarchies are natural and his notion of meritocratic elitism would be fine, but that is not the world we live in. Power often employs some very ignorant, inept, and detached sociopaths, who happen to be perfectly stable psychologically. The Peter Principle ensures that such anti-intellectuals will find a place near the top. Rather than a few bad apples, it is (now more than ever) a systemic bureaucratic feature; an expression of Arendt’s ‘banality of evil.’ I’d say President Trump is case-in-point, but his entire cabinet is full of better examples. They are so banal and viciously abstractly evil that its normalized. We have to speak the truth, as Peterson rightly commands, but his truth is primarily against “the Left.”
Talk about the failure of postmodernism; it’s the failure to sustain critical mass. Over time, our news ‘feeds’ have been abstracted into the most mindless slop, such that the most people voted for the worst possible person. Today’s problems have everything to do with conservative anti-intellectualism, specifically in the defunding of education and funding of the politicization of knowledge, not with leftist humanities departments radicalizing the youth. In this regard, he has it backwards. This false abstraction is his achilles heel.
Today’s problems have everything to do with conservative anti-intellectualism, specifically in the defunding of education and funding of the politicization of knowledge, not with leftist humanities departments radicalizing the youth.
For all his railing against postmodernism and marxism, I am not aware of anywhere he has published on these subjects. His publication history is all psychology studies. Maps of Meaning has no reference to those words, except a passing reference to Marx himself. This in itself is not a very strong argument, but it serves to draw a contrast between the rigour of academic research in writing (which he does) and his cursory dismissal in speech of two important schools of thought. It also makes it more likely for him to be misunderstood, because there is no writing of his on those topics for people to consult.
Postmodernism is simply much broader and deeper than Peterson’s stereotype of deconstruction and destruction.
At any rate, if my arguments are not convincing, I am far from alone in the growing dissent against Peterson’s hardline stance. In May, ZeroBooks posted a great 18 minute critique titled Refuting Jordan Peterson’s Capitalist Realism. In June, a YouTube user name Papapaint posted a well-done 52 minute critique titled “Defending Postmodernism: An Open Letter to Jordan B. Peterson”, which is quite thorough and has a reddit thread here as well. An abstract, and the main points of the video are summarized nicely in the comments.
Papapaint even finally concludes that Peterson actually exudes some qualities of postmodern thinking and might align with thinkers like Foucault more than he realizes. Another reddit thread gives voice to “Some reasonable critics of Peterson.” All the disagreement and various nuanced views speak to the endless contestation in postmodernism. This is part of the chaos of the times we are living in. Peterson is not completely right, nor are his critics, but I do believe there is common ground for all of us.
On Academia and Universities
“The universities are actively agitating to produce people who believe that all inequality is due to oppression and power… it’s technically wrong.” — Jordan Peterson, JRE 1006
As someone who was educated through the university “system” relatively recently (2006–2011), specifically being taught theories of marxism, postmodernism, critical theory, the sociology of knowledge, among other related things, I can honestly say that I was not indoctrinated, nor was I encouraged to become a radical. I was taught postmodernism as a methodology, not an ideology. If fact, at the London School of Economics, where I did my Master’s, it was not radical enough. This was ironic to me considering the school had a radical legacy, founded by a Fabian socialist philosopher-playwright, G.B. Shaw.
Nowadays LSE produces many more abstract finance wizards than they do socialist sages. It was more ironic that in 2011, the year I was there, the school’s director resigned for taking money from Libyans, and the Occupy movement took place (as a direct result of the financial crisis and historic elite abstraction of wealth). Also at the same time, as I may have been proximally aware, metamodernism was being born in its contemporary form by Vermeulen and van den Akker.
Meanwhile, the sociology department seemed guilty of much of the milquetoast hairsplitting and endless deconstruction that Peterson eviscerates. I covered this problem of excessive subtlety in the blog post Fuck Nuance(?), named for a recent article published in Sociological Theory. A lot of postmodern gibberish, no progress, no impact, no consensus. The best it got was Bruno Latour lamenting that ‘the critique had run out of steam,’ and that was from 2004, so those paying attention knew something was up long before long before this current anti-critical bent.
Nevertheless, Peterson overestimates the radical influence of humanities departments and underestimates the corporate influence that has co-opted university agendas. The school, one of the UK’s top ranked, reflected little ability to explain or cope with the crumbling society around it. It didn’t pretend to. Shaw rolled in his grave. To the LSE’s credit though, they are leading the world in global drug policy, essentially calling to lift prohibition, which has proven downright systemic-evil in its consequences. We can only hope that given the dire straits the UK is in, that they would throw their support behind Jeremy Corbyn too.
But it was my whole educational experience, and many great teachers I had (critical types like Peterson counted among my favourites), that led me to carve out my own path into metamodernism, which went through postmodernism first. The temptation towards radical socialism was there, and to elitism, but so was the pragmatism that guided students back to the center.
To insinuate that universities are overrun by hippies is a disservice to the basic concept of liberal education, and the fundamental product of that process: critical thinking. Critical theory and postmodernism are essential for teaching it.
The interplay and contradictions between modernism and postmodernism are what make metamodernism so salient and interesting. Metamodernism is now an emergent philosophical paradigm that is notably being fostered outside academia. I knew that pursuing a PhD would likely only funnel me into more frivolous abstraction, and not profound world changing ideas. Especially not at university would I be able to explore the high-level game changing abstractions that would challenge the established discourse.
Now, however, I am wishing I was back, considering that the real world is very inhospitable to sociologists and their ideas. I say this because Peterson is himself not offering constructive criticism to the liberal arts but merely affronting them.
“I think disciplines like women’s studies should be defunded… We’re causing full time, destructive employment for people who are causing nothing but trouble. What they promote has zero intellectual credibility.” — Jordan Peterson (source)
Most savagely, his call for the closure of women’s studies departments makes them sound like misandry factories, when in truth they have a very important function. That function is to educate about the repressed history of women, and not just to ‘tear down the patriarchy’ literally, but to redefine it. These leftist disciplines are peripheral yet vital, not dangerous. Rather than be scapegoated, they should be cherished. But they should also try to process the critique coming from Peterson and others.
The whole issue speaks to the ‘availability bias’ because by default we draw on what we know. Our general knowledge of history and philosophy happens to be based on systems that elevated the privilege and voice of white men. It is not that all white men are evil, but the system creates more opportunities to participate in evil abstractly.
For a better critique of universities than Peterson can muster, I would suggest starting with No Place to Learn, by Pocklington and Tupper. See also The Academic Ideologies that are Dividing America, Criticisms of Academia, The Real Reason the Humanities Are ‘in Crisis’, Crisis in Liberal Education and Liberal Democracy, What’s Wrong With Canadian Universities.
Peterson: “I’m unwilling to rule out the existence of heaven.”
In a recent interview — Am I Christian? | Timothy Lott and Jordan B Peterson (6.5 minutes) — Peterson gave his critics a gift by revealing a flimsy stance on the metaphysics of Christianity, noting even that he wasn’t sure whether Christ rose from the dead or not. A second version of the video, abridged and annotated, makes his avoidance look ridiculous for effect: Jordan Peterson Struggles to Answer a Simple Question (3.5 minutes).
While taking a refreshing spiritual stance against the New Atheists, Peterson appears to be doubling-down on his religiosity, which is completely unnecessary. His Bible series is gripping it its secular, visceral, and rational immediacy, so why did he profess such a vague and dogmatic view in that interview? The Christians listening to him are hungry for the truth, and it won’t hurt his leadership at all speak of Christianity in an even more metaphorical and gnostic way. Instead he chooses a faithful ‘agnosticism’; a postmodern principle if there ever was one.
Resentment towards New Atheists has been growing for years, as atheism delivers (some) people into a spiritual vacuum, as does postmodernism. But this need not be the case. There are alternatives that fuse the secular and the sacred perfectly well, and I think they only work under metamodernism. It is completely possible (and necessary) to be an atheist and religious/spiritual, and not only with secular humanism. Buddhism is the most abstract religion and it embodies this principle.
The fallacy of New Atheism is the false dichotomy of theism vs. atheism — God vs. no God. In the context of criticizing traditional institutional religion, this dichotomy makes sense, but they are both true and both false depending on how you define God. Meanwhile, the original secular message of atheism has been lost in the new contrived culture wars between “the West” and Islam. The New Atheist movement became somewhat dogmatic and callous. But there are plenty of alternatives to (a)theism.
With the theological concept of syncretism (fusion of faiths), we have new hybrid forms of spirituality. There is also the sociological concept of civil religion, equating sports and nationalism with old religion, or the idea that society itself is “God.” There are fictional and parody religions that are just as functional (if not more) as historical religions. And then there is Alexander Bard’s Syntheism, a created synthetic religion that invokes the internet as a hive mind.
Syntheism posits a fourfold theology which pretty much covers everything. In Syntheism, Bard makes a three sided pyramid out of Atheism, Pantheism, Entheism, and Syntheism. All four points are simultaneously true. Note that there is no ‘theism’ by itself, and there doesn’t need to be, as it is implied in the latter three. The question of does God exist/not exist becomes moot in the former dualistic ontology. Does God exist? Yes and no. It depends how you define it. End of (that) debate.
- Atheism: There is no God (diety is a made up entity), God is dead. Zeus is fiction or symbol.
- Pantheism: God is all; nature, the universe, society. Environmental access.
- Entheism: God is within; divine, transcendent experience. Direct access.
- Syntheism: God is created, socially constructed, synthesized. Social access.
But when pressed for details on his personal views, Peterson does not have the answers. By being a good Christian in the abstract Peterson takes us forward, but by ambiguously identifying as one he certainly takes the discourse backwards. I contend that Syntheism is a metamodern religion, as is the nascent project Entheism.org, a portal for personal religion. Atheism and humanism have secularized religion a great deal.
Now metamodernism transforms religion and secularism, and Peterson should want to understand this so he can ride the wave rather than be bowled over by it. “Towards a metamodern academic study of religion and a more religiously informed metamodernism” is a good introduction to this topic, based largely of Seth Abramson’s 15 principles of metamodernism.
It is a question of first principles. If we going to fulfill the mandate of Christ, “Christianity” alone is not going to do it, we must make religion abstract, and relegate all dogma to the esteemed category of myth. Joseph Campbell was way ahead in doing this. Now Peterson is doing it over on stage, but with Jesus apparently waiting in the wings.
A YouTube video A Short Critique of Jordan Peterson’s Philosophy points out that Western civilization is in fact not founded on Judeo-Christian values (although they play a role) but rather Hellenism, which predates Christianity. I would add, that much Islamic philosophy has been imported and rewritten throughout the ages. Peterson is of course aware of all of this, yet he reluctantly identifies as a heaven-bound Christian and often stresses the importance of Judeo-Christian values as foundational to Western civilization, so we might question his exceptionalism here.
My intent is not to misrepresent and criticize his personal beliefs, which are obviously complex, but rather to affirm that the world does not need any more excuses to engage in archaic belief systems. His cathartic preaching comes in a time of great need, but so does metamodernism, and his views should update to integrate it. The New Atheists would similarly reform from a metamodern turn.
First off, there is no way to convince someone as adamant as Peterson that Marxism has any redeeming qualities, and I certainly won’t repeat his most loathed excuse given by students: “that wasn’t real Marxism.” The bottom-line is Peterson conflates the historical and political program of Marxism with the academic approach taught to students. Moreover, he criticizes the worst political attempts of it, while ignoring successful socialist models, and even the basic principles of them (indebted to Marx).
For those who missed it, the 2008 global financial crisis, and subsequent consolidation of financial power, proved unequivocally that “Marx was right.” The event was not a simple singular act of greed and corruption, but close to it. It was actually a confluence of pathological factors based on knowingly exploitative capitalist practices. Marx was right.
This does not mean that we are reverting to hammer and sickle socialism, or even anything to do with capital M- Marxism. Let’s be clear, those people exist but need to be interpreted and addressed, not condemned. Nor does it mean that capitalism is evil and it must be destroyed. It means is that the critique of capitalism is absolutely valid and everyone should listen. Instead we are still watching an intellectual tug-of-war play out. Marxism is under the gun again, ironically, even though it has virtually no power right now. All Peterson hears is ‘proletariat’ when we are in fact now talking about the ‘precariat.’ At least we can note that Bernie Sanders almost won the presidency last year, the DSA tripled it’s membership, and Chapo Trap House is bringing in as much as Peterson on Patreon.
But how could I even begin to convince a conservative that this is all true. They already know that Marxism is pathological, right? No, that is an allergy to the critique and to its flaws. We are being distracted from the abstract fundamentals of economy and society, that would actually build consensus around concepts like universal basic income, let alone minimum wage. How much more obvious could the crisis be? We must agree about the writing on the wall. Let me simply point to large segments of the economy that contribute absolutely no value.
I use ab-gimmicks as the proverbial example of wasteful exploitative business, for its obviousness and absurdity, as much as its normalization. Why do they exist other than for a cheap laugh? No doubt it is a multi-billion dollar market, in itself but a small slice of a greater portion of health and fitness bullshit. Yet Peterson’s reproach of Marxism is so vigorous, its awfully close to market fundamentalism, which is as laughable as it is scary. The free market produces great things but also endless crap and oppression, while protecting and exonerating the agents of it.
Finance is at the other end of the spectrum from ab gimmicks — the most abstract of abstractions — contributing a marginally functional service, completely socially detached, and charging an exorbitant fee for it.
At the end of the day, Peterson’s attack on his crude caricature of postmodernism and marxism, at time when they actually need rejuvenation to metamorphose into metamodernism and socialist capitalism, is irresponsible, unprofessional, anachronistic, and anti-intellectual. This weakness is entirely at odds with the rest of his Peterson’s academic profile, which appears nearly flawless. He alone has the capacity to upgrade is worldview, because nobody is going to beat him into submission in a debate.
The central questions of political sociology are of the relationship between elites and masses, and knowledge and power. You cannot conceptualize or critique these concepts with out reference to Marx. I recognize the importance of psychoanalysis in social theory, so why can’t Peterson appreciate sociology more in his work? For another great critique of Peterson’s ill-informed anti-Marxism, see Zero Books’ Refuting Jordan Peterson’s Capitalist Realism.
On Policy and Politics
Bill C-16 may be a trivial and minute aspect of Peterson’s overall clout as a scholar, but it also may represent a glaring blind spot. Supposing he is right about the free speech angle, is he not still making a mountain out of a molehill when there are other more pressing red flags in our system? Think about it. While Peterson was ranting about Bill C-16, an asshole demagogue was winning the election of the most powerful country in the world.
While Peterson was, and is, warning us about “the Left” taking us down the road to fascism, “the Right” is actually taking us there via a shortcut. My point: in probably the most vital political Overton window (opportunity for change) of this century, Peterson’s priorities were a little misplaced, instead focusing his critical energy on the minutia of Canadian identity politics legislation and not the pathological macroscopic double-bind US politics is in.
Alexander Offord argues a more thorough critique of the issue of Bill C-16, albeit in the style of an attack, in The Intellectual Fraudulence of Jordan Peterson. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Peterson deserves a taste of his own medicine, but considering the vitriol he projects towards that which he criticizes, this type of response shouldn’t surprise us. The comments play out an interesting balance of opinions as well. My own take on this issue can be reduced to pointing out the double-standard Peterson has for neologisms.
All words are made up, yet Peterson insists we can’t just make up words. In my tweet below, both Peterson quotes are from different contexts, but appear to contradict each other. At any rate, it seems Peterson and most trans- people would be happy to settle for the ‘they’ pronoun, so that should be the end of it. Nobody was ever going to compel anyone to call them Xir; it was just the ignorant good intentions of a bunch of postmodern bureaucrats.
On Social Justice and It’s Warriors
The term “social justice warrior” originally had positive connotations, for it meant that individuals who took up the struggle were indeed up against a war machine and would have to be resilient and figuratively fight. The irony of the term ‘warrior’ is that social justice is the antithesis of war, but its proponents knew that taking their peaceful fight meant risking death at the hands of the leviathan state. Just look to the Water Protectors and Dakota Access Pipeline protestors from 2016; actually righteous peaceful civilians, suppressed with brutality by a militarized police force. Obscene.
In 2011, the term “SJWs” went viral on twitter, becoming a pejorative suggesting that they were actually more disruptive than helpful. The term rightly, although wrongly taking on a form of bullying, eschews ineffectual social justice advocacy practices, so it appealed to both liberals and conservatives. The problem is that conservatives have run with the slur and by doing so have actually undermined progress. Now some liberals have caught this cold as well.
Activists aside, what’s important is that the concept of ‘social justice’ is legitimate. Social justice refers to issues related to systemic injustice, which are much more abstract, intangible, and institutional than ordinary questions of justice. Social justice is a sociological abstraction, and a very vital one.
The fact that Peterson is aghast at the existence of “social justice tribunals” is disappointing. In principle, its scarcely different from a truth and reconciliation commission, which usually only comes after an atrocity. The concept of social justice hinges the existence of completely unecessary systemic injustice, of which there is plenty still.
To deny social justice is to deny the democide and modern slavish prison complex that is the war-on-drugs, for example. The entire thing has got to end, and Peterson should be on board with that as he endorses psychedelics, yet when it comes to ‘social justice’ he joins the right-wing chorus by mocking activists and students for being too sensitive.
Others have taken on Peterson with respect to more specific issues. A 34 minute YouTube critique against Peterson focuses on veganism and animal rights, titled “Jordan Peterson vs VeganGains.” It shows Peterson’s tendancy to jump into an issue that he’s clearly researched, but failed to realize how politicized it is, and consequently how ignorant his view is. In other words, he’s researched it wrong but his intellectual defenses shield him from new inputs. VeganGains deserves a lot of credit for producing such a detailed and well-cited response to Peterson’s utterly blind stance on veganism. This example perfectly frames the over confidence of Peterson on issues outside his purview or that challenge his conventions.
“You are the king of bullshit when you’re backed into a corner.” — Vegan Gains
His defensiveness is particularly salient with the veganism issue, where we see a bland scripted version of Peterson hosting some pseudo-documentary against veganism. The point is not that these critiques are absolutely correct either, but the ease of which they dismantle some of Peterson’s core arguments. In this case, I agree with the pro-vegan argument, except for the part about the reviewer’s rejection of intersectionality, which I consider a perfectly valid concept, not simply some postmodern sub-cult that one subscribes to.
Peterson calls vegans “clueless religious” assuming that the primary motive is ritualistic and assumption-laden. This is absurd; bullying a stereotype. At any rate, my own defence of veganism is much simpler, devoid of any paranoid political associations that Peterson or others may project onto it. Veganism is one of those sticky issues that’s been overly moralized and philosophized. It’s paradoxical, but it need not be so complicated.
Argument 1: Veganism is right/ eating meat is immoral
Reason 1: Human health; factory farming is unhealthy. Veganism is healthier.
Reason 2: Animal welfare; factory farming is beyond cruel and unnecessary.
Reason 3: Environmental sustainability; meat production is the prime factor of environmental degradation and greenhouse gases.
Argument 2: Eating meat is natural. Veganism is wrong.
Reason 1: Evolution; we developed by consuming meat, our biology still partially depends on it, other animals do it. Necessary evil.
Reason 2: Social evolution; It tastes good, we deserve to be happy, and we domesticated animals for this purpose.
As you can see, arguments 1 and 2, for and against veganism, are both true, so it is a paradox. But when you look at the big picture, weigh the options against each other, veganism is a moral imperative. It also happens to be the more difficult choice, both logistically and socially, and thus veganism is less obvious, not to mention heavily politicized. The extent to which you buy my simple argument above may depend not on your level of education (Peterson’s is maxed out), but on your relevant knowledge and experience, and whether or not you’ve befriended an animal besides a dog or cat, or seen the truth revealed in documentaries like Earthlings, or Cowspiracy, to name only a couple out of dozens.
Social construction (constructivism) is a core aspect of social theory, and is Peterson’s biggest straw-person. Peterson is right in how many of the tenets of these theories have seeped into policy and had counterproductive or counterintuitive effects. He’s right that many bland bureaucrats have attempted to integrate postmodernism into policy for political points. But I would add that the reason the policies backfire is because they were also selling out in the process.
There is a lack of resolve and commitment. Everyone (and I mean everyone) is satisficing and cultivating a culture of suboptimal outcomes. When you consider the level of actual corruption, the so-called corruption of postmodernism is negligible. This is the hypocrisy of Democrats; they tried to by pragmatic on one hand, while receiving pay-offs into the other.
There is some truth in saying ‘everything is socially constructed’ but to say ‘everything’ is also self-defeating, because there is also a material basis to reality. Time (calendars, schedules) and space (territory, situations) are socially negotiated and determined, while still being rooted in some external logic. What is true is that all social reality (not actual reality) — that is the narratives, norms, and institutions we create —is in effect ‘made-up’ and tentative and provisional, including the very language we use to describe it. Ironically, I thought this is what Peterson was tracing out in Maps of Meaning through his process of abstraction.
The constructivist turn hit big in the ‘60s with books like Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, and peaked in the 90s with Alexander Wendt’s award winning Social Theory in International Politics. The long and the short of it is that ‘ideas matter’ and influence the world. Moreover, those ideas are not fixed, they are ‘socially constructed’, but they also become ‘reified’ and then people think they are real. This is the danger of nationalism — it becomes real, but it never truly exists outside the imagination of its subjects.
It seems Peterson misreads, or hasn’t read, these foundational books. There is nothing to loathe about them. Instead, he zeros in on the few postmodern scholars and activists who take it too far, and claims the whole enterprise of sociology is corrupt. The core theories are still valid. No need to throw out the baby with the bath water. The subjectivity of gender takes place on a different level of abstraction from the physical, so there is no conflict. Most people still fall into binary categories. Constructivism is just one of many approaches, not an absolutist methodology. Wendt himself has moved on to a more advanced quantum and holographic models for social science, but the principle of social construction still remains.
So I contend that Peterson does not understand the nuances and novelties of contemporary sociology, nor is he trying to. As well read and connected as he is, he’s bouncing around somewhat of a political echo-chamber and can’t see any of the valid arguments for socialism that are extant. At least BigThink appears to be on board with “Why Socialism Is Back as a Political Force That Will Only Grow.”
I am hardly qualified to criticize Peterson in his own field, but its worth a try. There is something weird about Peterson’s psychology. That is to say, I have never heard him mention the game changing WEIRD study out of UBC. The study pointed out that the bulk of psychology studies tell us very little about human nature, since they focus on Western-Educated-Industrialized-Rich-Democratic countries to find their subjects, and particularly college students. This new awareness implies a sociological turn for psychology. What are all his certainties about human behaviour really founded on?
Peterson is a scientist and empiricist to the bitter end, but the data may be corrupt. There is a fetishization with data in general, and Democrats learned that the hard way in 2016.
Exhausted Afterthoughts (or Concluding Remarks)
We need to approach all abstractions from first principles, establishing essential qualitative definitions, not vicious abstractions. Words like Marxism, socialism, postmodernism, are no more or less dangerous than the ultimate abstraction: “God.” For the damage that Marxism did in the 20th century, let’s not pretend that “God” never genocided anyone. They are instructive concepts, especially the more you abstract them. It’s ironic he wants to tear down the abstraction “Marxism” while wanting to build up “God.” Peterson’s very compelling and right about a lot of things, but people should be able to see through his conservative bulwark.
To his credit, Peterson often maps out the bounds of his own ignorance. With reference to the alt-right and various cultural paradoxes, he says things like “that’s something I’m trying to figure out” or “that’s something I’m investigating.” Even as a public intellectual, he is still learning (we all are), and this is admirable. I think the Kermit meme is perfect here. Peterson playfully accepts the comparison to the earnest frog (and Pepe), but the Evil Kermit meme is a fitting expression of his own dilemma: how to “educate the masses.”
I love Jordan Peterson as much as anyone and most of his legacy is left untouched, but if my critique is sound then he is presenting vicious abstractions of postmodernism, academia, atheism, Marxism, sociology, policy, social justice, veganism, and psychology. He’s a politically conservative psychologist (identifying as a ‘classic British Liberal’) acting out strong anti-sociological antipathy, and I’m still not entirely sure why. Perhaps something to do with his paranoia about the nukes that are on standby. If that is the case, then he should join me in directing criticism at the military-industrial complex, not Leftists.
I have faith and hope that he can change. As I have described them, Peterson’s critiques are only valid within a certain bounded rationality and historical parallels that don’t resonate universally. And obviously there are extant critiques of postmodernism, which is why we are at metamodernism. But he’s still flailing away at a dead horse, and nearly everyone is cheering him on. His only Marxist foil is Zizek (who is not a postmodernist), and they’re seemingly scarcely aware of each other’s existence.
I recently came across this meme on a Peterson Facebook discussion group. It’s asymmetry might as well be the joke too, as it entirely dehumanizes one intellectual and essentially canonizes the other. While I admit that Zizek is hard to understand compared to Peterson, the jury is still out on this. It should not take a genius to appreciate the value in both of their works, but apparently it may to synthesize it.
It’s like the whole world needs a Sociology 101 course, meanwhile Peterson is crying for Women’s studies departments to be shut down. He’s got a powerful truth to share with the world, but it would be better if it was declawed and feminized. Point being, there is just so much trash talking in every direction, the public is being mislead every which way into various types of pseudo intellectualism. The last people need is more provocation and demagoguery.
The fact that he integrates so much knowledge, and speaks on so many topics, has an effect of amplifying his intellectual credibility. So people lap it up, the true with the false. However, if one can easily point out certain errors he commits, he can integrate it and it wouldn’t undermine his overall expertise. The opposite risk is that he becomes polarizing. Those who agree with him generally, will become partial to all his wild ravings. For those who dissent on some details, they may just get lumped in with the stereotypes of SJWs and Marxists. For obvious reasons, this is dangerous and he should err on the side of caution.
He’s justifiably proud that he’s a capitalist, but severely misunderstands the chasm between hard honest work and earning a living, and thus the need for a welfare state. If Peterson honestly wants to prosecute that I’m just another freeloading millennial who can’t sort himself out, get out the cross bucko and I’ll nail myself to it to prove you wrong. The power of Christ will compel you, man.
If we can resolve these contradictions, these pathologies, these antinomies of postmodernism, we will get through it. It will not be by destroying postmodern thought, but by evolving into metamodernism. The critique may have run out of steam, but it has a new renewable power source within metamodernism. For an even more incisive critique of Peterson than mine, see Peterson Gets Played (author unknown).
Only Peterson can correct himself and change his mind. This is the great meaning of the concept of metanoia (both in the Christian sense and the psychology sense), which I argue is integral to metamodernism. “Sort yourself out” means nothing if not metanoia. For the sake of abstraction and metamodernism, I sincerely hope that if I write a third piece on Peterson, it can be titled The Retraction of Jordan Peterson.
This series is continued in Part 3: The Resolution of Jordan Peterson: Truth, Lies, and Reconciliation in a Time of Chaos, in which I try to move beyond the critique and urge a resolute Peterson and his followers to resolve the paradox that Peterson represents.
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