Jordan Peterson Doesn’t Understand the Relevant Philosophy

Let me start by saying that I think Jordan Peterson is an important intellectual. His narrative work, his psychological and biblical work are really fascinating to me. But Peterson is wrong about postmodernism.

First, understand that postmodern thought is not a single thread of ideas, so his rejection and mischaracterization of postmodern philosophy is as absurd an idea as a rejection of all ancient philosophy or all of modern thought. Postmodern thought has primarily affected art, philosophy, and history. I can only speak to history, but given that Peterson has said postmodernism means an end to history, my explanation should suffice.

“History is decided by its victors.”

First, understand that the “post” in postmodern is not an overcoming or death of modernity in order to give rise to the postmodern. That idea is inherently modern. History before the Enlightenment told cyclical narratives that were multifaceted and complex, of humans interacting with each other and the world. Modern historiography developed into historical narrative in Judaeo-Christian terms: the idea of the long arch of history bending towards  salvation or overcoming or progress. In short, the Hero’s Journey. Peterson’s work reflects this. Postmodern thought simply questions the completeness of that concept. There is no “end of history.” That’s absurd. Rather postmodernism calls for a dissolution of the historical narrative as a singular course of events. We often hear the phrase “history is written by its victors.” That is the modern worldview. That is the hero’s journey, because the villain can never triumph. Right? History is a much more complex narrative than modern thinkers would like to admit. And these stories are never complete. There are always more stories that branch from others in the spider’s web of history. And that’s the point. History is never fully precise and our work in understanding the past is never finished.

Now, on philosophy, Peterson seems to be confused. I’m not sure if Peterson believes that Marxism is the necessary conclusion of all postmodern thought, or even if it is, why he believes this to be true. Peterson takes great issue with Marxism, which is fine, but defeating the Marxist ideology does not defeat postmodern thought. Marxism is not the same thing as postmodernism. Furthermore, we do not dismiss all of ancient philosophy for Aristotle’s bad ideas, nor modern philosophy for Descartes’s. They were thinkers whose ideas had unforeseen consequences.

The Relevant Philosophy

The thinkers most responsible for the social justice movement that I think Peterson wrongly attributes to the entirety of postmodernism are Jacques Derrida and Michael Foucault. Both are highly regarded postmodern French philosophers. Peterson really hates Derrida primarily for his association with Marxism but even philosophy students who love Derrida hate his writing, which is dense and difficult to read. Philosophers, Continental E philosophers in particular, are deliberately ambiguous and obfuscatory. They are definitely not litigious and easy to digest like John Locke or Edmund Burke. Derrida’s difficult writing is a porthole to his philosopher’s mind and inner dialogue. He was struggling with these ideas too, that’s why he was a great philosopher. There’s a joke that every great philosopher must have at least one mental breakdown. Often, even philosophers within the same school of thought do not agree on the details. Foucalt and Derrida had more than one disagreement themselves.

But why does Peterson center his focus on Foucault and Derrida? Does he not understand all relevant philosophy? I wouldn’t say that he does. You can study philosophy your entire life and not read a word of Derrida. Most prefer it that way. Peterson may be familiar with Lacan and Deleuze as he has mentioned, if he were to claim that Deleuzean thought leads to fascism there is might be merit to that argument. But no mention of Heidegger? Guattari? Vattimo? Kuhn? What about Peterson’s most revered thinker, Nietzsche?

That’s right, Nietzsche is the pioneer of postmodern thought along with Martin Heidegger. Their breakdown of modernity’s ontological presuppositions was a real breakthrough. And this is why I find myself to confused by Peterson’s position on postmodernism, because he doesn’t understand it. If he did, he would realize he is also a postmodernist thinker. Either his beliefs through Nietzsche are postmodern, or he doesn’t understand Nietzsche — which, ironically, would confirm the postmodern idea that truth is conceptual, rather than the Darwinian, pragmatic idea of truth Peterson argues. In his last appearance on Joe Rogan, he mentioned Foucault’s idea of the functions of power (an evolved Nietzschean idea) dismissively in passing and then spoke at length about the evolutionary function of power — not only affirming Foucault but demonstrating it in detail!

Again, I think Peterson does great work in his field of psychology. I signed up for his self authoring program and find it unquestionably useful. But we all have blind spots, which is why mixed mental arts is so important; so that we can collectively have a better understanding of the world around us.

Further reading:

“The End of Modernity” by Gianni Vattimo. The introduction alone explains much of the conflicts Peterson sees in postmodernity. It’s 11 pages.
Complexity and Post-Modernism: Understanding Complex Systems” by P. Cilliers. It’s behind a pay wall, but I’m sure with some good sleuthing, a free (or at least free to you) copy can be found.
A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction by Linda Hutcheon
Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique by Alex Callinicos

Wikiversity: Historiography

I'm just here to poke holes in things.

41 Comments

  1. Cord Nielson Reply

    Thanks for this article. I’m a big fan of Peterson’s, and I’m always curious to hear someone poke holes in his reasoning. I’m not qualified to discuss philosophy at this level, but maybe I can clarify some things I think you’ve missed in Peterson’s thinking.

    To my understanding, Peterson sees Marxism as the necessary conclusion of postmodern thought (maybe not all of it), because when “the damned French intellectuals” decided there were infinite ways to interpret the world, and no interpretation was correct or incorrect, they left themselves nothing to do. No goal to move toward. And since they were also proponents of Marxism, they defaulted to that narrative in order to move forward, replacing financial oppression with Identity Politics. Again, this area is where I’m least informed, so I probably couldn’t elaborate further, but I think that’s his stance.

    Peterson has recently, and often, brought attention to the fact that using the term “Dominance Hierarchies” as he does might not be appropriate, because it’s likely the scientists who formulated the idea of Dominance Hierarchies were doing so from a Marxist viewpoint. He’s said that the term is more of a shorthand, and that the hierarchies he describes are more like Competence Hierarchies, because boiling the success of an individual down to power alone (as you claim he does here) is too simplistic. He even provides examples (often through chimps and rats) to show how a hierarchy based on power alone is unstable and won’t last long. Check out his second “Transliminal” interview, and, I believe, his second or third Bible lecture to hear him talk about it.

    1. James Sullivan Reply

      Thanks for the resources, I’ll delve into them further tonight.

      I don’t believe that Marxism is the necessary conclusion of postmodern thought as Peterson does, as evidenced by the many fields in which Marxism doesn’t play. If I were to put this in MMA terms, Peterson’s view is atomistic. This atomism, this hard line dividing, is a product of modern thought and is what postmodernism aims to correct with a more wholistic, inclusive, nuanced vantage.

  2. Andrew Meintzer Reply

    Thanks for writing this post. It made me think more about Peterson’s position on postmodernism. I should do more research into the other seminal thinkers in this philosophy that you mention. I think I’ve been falling into the trap of going along with criticisms of postmodernism, without fully understanding it. While i’m a huge fan of Peterson too, I’ve also noticed that he praises Nietzsche in terms of “killing religion”, and pointing out that there is a hole without it, but then he seems to often go from there to talking about the importance of religion, and particularly how awesome Christianity is. That seems like the opposite of Nietzsche’s message in terms of existentialism as an alternative to nihilism, etc., which I think is mentioned in that video about Nietzsche in your blog.

    1. James Sullivan Reply

      You know, it took me a few encounters with Peterson before I realized my mistake in the going-along with his thread of thought too, and I studied a lot of this stuff. Part of the postmodern condition is the paradox of having so much information and so little. It’s easy and in fact compelling to dive into a thinker’s perspective and linger there because their answers seem to clear and you don’t see the holes in their logic because you’re not being given all of the information. I did this with Sam Harris too. That’s why we have to be ever more vigilant in unfolding our ideas.

      1. pwlsax Reply

        Peterson is making a name thru attracting just that kind of goers-along. It can’t be an accident that his critique of leftish thinking is so vague. I think he knows that if he gets deeply specific with it, it will turn out to be a critique of fundamentalist assumptions, and not just generalizable to everything left of center – and that the young right-leaning crowd he attracts will turn on him.

  3. Thomas Brussel Reply

    Good point. But where I depart from you, and where Peterson most-likely would too is my consideration of the evolution of post-modern thought and the ideas that have characterised its thinkers during the nearly two centuries that it has existed. Just as Steven Pinker believes that Feminism is in the midst decadent phase, I believe that Post-Modernism is too. I should use Nietszche as a reference point. Nietzche was not a mennquin, he was a man. And if he was not one, it was at least one of his greatest desires to become one. You see, Nietszche exalted masculine virtues, it was what redeemed Germany for him. For instance, he adored the Italians, who he considered the most noble of all Europeans. He thought that the Italian ideal reached its zenith in Leonardo DaVinci, whose appreciation of spiritual vigor as well as the potency of reason, art and innovation is inspiring to everyone. I personally doubt that post-modernist thought as it is currently manifested celebrates the human, particularly masculine mind as much as Nietszche and DaVinci did. Also, what is vital in Nietszche’s thought is that he denounced what he saw as ‘slave morality’, as explained in the School of Life video. Without a doubt Nietszche must have felt a sense of compassion towards those who were and are members of historically opressed communities. But, and this is important, he despised those who held it up as a badge of honour.

    This leads to what I think is shady about post-modernism. If you consider the most prominent post-modern thinkers active during the 20th Century, many if not all of them come from belonged to populations that have been historically opressed; Simone de-Bouvior – a woman, Jacques Derrida – an Algerian Jew, Michel Foulcault – a homosexual and Jean-Paul Sartre – a 5’3″ anxiety-ridden Frenchman with strabismus. What I find most insidious about Sartre was that he belonged to the Bourgoise, a title that he renounced repeatedly. One could say that he at least felt oppressed. Which leads me to this – Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foulcault and their radical marxist minions wanted to usher in a marxist utopia. This is why I can’t help but feel that Sartre’s philosophy in particular is an impressive smokescreen from a man who in his heart of hearts wanted to watch the world burn. I think that if Nietszche found himself in such a ‘marxist utopia’ (and I’m not merely using the examples such ideas have set throughout the 20th Century), he himself would have become the proverbial madman with the lantern.

    Furthermore, I think it is important to invoke the the falling out of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus; both of whom were thinkers one could consider post-modern. On the one hand, Sartre lived in luxury before and after the Second World War. He was also a partisan, could and would not budge from his political convictions for the sake of himself, and more importantly – others. Now, when Sartre said how the Soviet Gulags were a necessary evil durng a La Tempes Modernes board meeting; Camus barged out, slamming the door behind him. It should be noted that Camus was a pied noir and a native of French Algeria. He was raised in poverty; ‘I grew up in the sea and poverty was sumptuous, then I lost the sea and found all luxuries grey and poverty unbearable’ (Camus, The Sea Close By). Camus was not immune to hypocrisy on a political level. But when all hell broke loose in his native Algeria he had the choice between two sides – the French imperialists or the Arab nationalists. What remarkable about him is that he did not feign partiality; it was as if he accepted as his fate that he should be torn in two. In the infamous flame war that erupted between Sartre and Camus, Sartre appealed to his intellect and his posse of followers – members of the French intellectual élite. Camus was simply incensed, he considered betrayal among friends and family a carnal sin. This was exactly what Sartre did to him. For this reason, as well as for the fact that Sartre essentially had no respect for anyone, Camus was torn apart. But he is also remembered as the most noble and kind-hearted of the two. To finish, I should say that I do believe that most ideas peddled by post-modernists are important in at least some way. My question is, ‘to what end?’

    1. Magsa Reply

      Thomas, one thing that is ignored by advocates of Foucault is that many of the sources he cited in his works don’t seem to exist. What was he trying to hide? The convenient excuse is that Foucault wasn’t ‘doing history’, that he was revealing the contrivance and exposing the limitations of historical narratives etc. That is NOT a sufficient response to a serious allegation, especially when Foucualt’s understanding of power is largely drawn from historical analysis.

      In short, if his view of history is wrong, chances are his understanding of power is too.

      And that’s just the beginning of the problem with many post modernist thinkers.

  4. James Sullivan Reply

    An excellent critique, Thomas. It’s as important to remain critical of postmodern thought as it was to be critical of modernity in modern times, and how every ancient philosopher took the school of philosophy before them to task and built upon it or torn it down. Philosophers are never kings, nor gods, but always human. And yes, postmodernism is going through motions just as modern philosophy and ancient philosophy did before it. And sometimes our philosophers begin with something fantastic and then later fail us miserably (Zizek).

    To what end I do not know. I worry about a progressive movement because if progress must always move us forward then we can never achieve normality, or harmony, and we risk creating problems we don’t have in order to create new solutions in the name of progress. This symptom is what I think Peterson is stressing about and I concede these college campus riots seem to be a symptom of something but I think while the students are borrowing and abusing some postmodern language, identity politics roots itself in modernity.

    Here’s a comment I posted in a facebook thread on postmodernism recently. It goes into some things I left out on here.

    “When you speak about postmodernism, you should recognize how broad that field is. Art, history, philosophy, feminism (and post-feminism), ecology, science, and critical theory have all expanded in postmodern thought. Philosophy alone has a world of different postmodern disciplines within it. So when you or Jordan Peterson say that what’s happening on campuses is because of postmodernists, it doesn’t make any sense to me. What about Heidegger and Nietzsche’s ontology of Being make this unrest possible? What about reevaluating how we measure and account for history-as-can-be-known causes this? What does Banksy have to do with this?

    If your problem is this radical campus social justice, I’d urge you to find me some literature from a postmodern philosopher that argues for this behavior. Identity politics are fundamentally antithetical to postmodernism because they root themselves in categories and the categories, as all categories, are arbitrary. They borrow language from postmodern discourse on power but only superficially and for exploitation. Furthermore, we’re seeing this behavior on campuses, from children. They are not the leaders in any kind of intellectual field.

    For comparison, if I were to speak of modernity the way you and Peterson speak about postmodernity, I would only focus on eugenics and use that as a prop to construct a strawman about modern science and its contributions to society. Would that seem fair to you? No. Here’s something great that came out of postmodern thought: environmental ethics. It started with Aldo Leopold and from him you have John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, and Henry David Thoreau. I studied under one of the top (living) environmental philosopher in the world, J Baird Callicot. Maybe I just had a different experience when I was in college, but I studied under some serious Heideggerian postmodernists and this identity politics rhetoric didn’t exist.”

    I’m working on a three part article that describes the differences between the ancient, the modern, and the postmodern worldview. I’ll work harder on it now.

    1. pwlsax Reply

      Unfortunately, with people like Peterson appealing to minds in search of authority as much as anything else, what po-mo is or isn’t, or even what identity politics is or isn’t, matters little. If he says po-mo leads to Stalinism, Maoism, or baby-eating, and he’s the big seeker-after-truth of the moment, they believe it and that settles it.

      1. James Sullivan Post author Reply

        I think you’re right. The more closely I follow Peterson, the less I like the dude. I’m finding him really frustrating lately.

        But a lot of that has to do with how people feeeeeeel about certain aspects or perceived manifestations of postmodern thought. They associate the two and because their feelings towards it are negative, they do not properly engage the source and instead listen to the person telling them what they feel is correct without weighing the merits of his claims.

        1. Doolio Reply

          I agree. I thought of him as an interesting and engaged lecturer (I mean, I still do, I think he’s a good professor and that he tries to express the curriculum in an appealing way to his students) who found himself in an uncomfortable situation. The more I see from him, the more he seems like a misguided caped crusader of sorts.
          He is set in his ways to the extreme and seems to avoid any influx of different notions, even when it comes to a mere discussion and exchange, let alone more practical things. His reasons for that also seem too subjective, to put it that way.
          Some of his relentless criticism is, frankly, confusing. I honestly don’t see how, for example, Lacan, attacks Peterson’s positions and in what way. What exactly is Peterson protecting from him and why? And why does he insist on the whole “he writes weirdly in order to hide hollowness” when that’s demonstrably not the case… what about Nietzsche? He seems to value him immensely, although Nietzsche was often way more cryptic and hard to follow than Lacan (although I like Nietzsche, this is true). Also, all that aside, Lacan is pretty clinical, he’s often practice-oriented. He isn’t that much about life stances and ideologies in the first place. I bring him up as I never got interested in Derrida or Foucault and I can’t comment on them. But I see him always and I mean always bring those up.
          I always found it to be odd. Like a misleading critique of something that’s sideways to his agenda and irrelevant when it comes to the point of large social shifts that Peterson is concerned about.

          1. James Sullivan Post author

            This was my point. Peterson’s biblical work is great, thorough, thoughtful, and worth consideration. But, somehow, he stepped way outside of his wheel house and not only makes claims about thinkers he doesn’t seem to understand, but then digs his heels in so deeply on those claims. There’s very little criticism of postmodernism he’s stated that fits any understanding I have of the thinkers he attacks. “It’s written weird and hard to understand” is not, to me, itself a valid criticism.

          2. Doolio

            It is not. And he does it to the point where I am beginning to wonder if he does it all on purpose. Pwlsax is right too, popular “anti-sjw” entertainers have idolized Peterson exactly to the point of never analyzing what he says. I saw a video (I forgot whose it was) the other day and the guy inserted the “and heeere comes postmodernism” sentence to describe some stupidity that followed regarding the event he was criticizing and I instantly knew that he simply picked it up from Peterson, without giving it a second thought. So, basically, a fairly specific category of “sjw” was completely replaced with “postmodernism”, which makes no sense whatsoever.

  5. Andrew Meintzer Reply

    Haha I don’t think anyone is judging you for your spelling mistakes. Thanks for all that information. It was very informative. I didn’t know that Sarte was a postmodernist, and I didn’t know anywhere near that much about Camus either. I just knew that he was a nihilist, and I like a few of his books, like The Stranger.
    I’m not saying that I completely changed my mind about postmodernism. It still seems like either a bad idea, or that people today take their principles too far, and other people have as well. Or that Marxism is a bad idea, there’s a fine line between that and some brands of postmodernism, and that people use one to insidiously promote the other. I’m just more open to being convinced about the benefits of postmodernism than I was before, but I still enjoy seeing and hearing Jordan Peterson talk about it.

    1. Thomas Brussel Reply

      Ahaha thank you, you’re very kind. I personally wouldn’t consider Camus a Nihilist, as he was very influenced by Nietzsche who himself invented the term ‘nihilist.’ Nietzsche considered nihilism something to be wary of, rather than embraced as a ‘philosophical compass’ so to speak. I myself haven’t read much of what Camus has said on the topic, but from what I gather he did embrace core values and ethics. I personally have read WAY to little of Camus (considering what I’d like to), yet know a disproportionate amount information on his life. I think this is because I know how hypocrotical a lot of post-modernists (particularly Sartre) have been, and how their actions have often spoken louder than their words (especially their tomes). I’m still excited to read some of the great post-modernists more seminal works; Foulcault’s ‘The Order of Things’ has caught my eye recently. Yet I find it so much more easier and convenient to listen to someone like Peterson cut through their bullshit, and thus leave the burden of having to read such perplexing texts off my shoulders. I think Marxism itself is a strange phenomenon, especially given that it’s maintained its popularity. I’m open to some socialist ideas, but to me there seems to be too much conviction among Marxist thinkers for me to stomach. Thanks for the comment Andrew!

      1. James Sullivan Reply

        You know, a week ago I wrote a really thoughtful response to everything you laid out but it didn’t save, or get published, or something happened.

        So, I agree with almost everything you’ve said. I would only add that I do not think Peterson’s critique of Foucault is an accurate representation of the text, and I’d urge you to do the hard work (even those of us who are sympathetic to the message of postmodern thought have to crawl through much of this) and absorb the text yourself. I once took a class on Heidegger’s Being and Time and we would not move forward one page until each page was fully absorbed and understood. A graduate level classroom made it through half of the text in a semester, we made it nearly as far and it was more valuable that way. We all wish postmodernism was easier to read but it just isn’t. Kant wasn’t either, so meh. Philosophers just aren’t great writers.

        1. Thomas Brussel Reply

          Thank you for this and your previous reply, I believe the latter only recently came through. I’m also excited to read your upcoming article; I’ve always been fascinated by the evolution of world-views throughout history. I’m not partaking in any formal philosophical training myself, so the process of reading philosophers such as Sartre, Foucault and Heidegger will be more tedious for me. As an undergraduate film student, I think a post-modern tome every year or so would be a worthwhile grind. I think what is more important (for me especially) is vigilance over what ideas I accept into or dissmiss from my worldview. It’s all too easy to cultivate a worldview nowadays, and even easier to assume a stance. Thankyou for your replies James, appreciate the sentiment!

          1. James Sullivan Post author

            If you have trouble, I found a great great source online. PhilosophyTube is a great content creator that breaks down philosophy into short videos where he concisely covers it all. He just did some on Foucault and Power, check them out!

          2. Andrew Meintzer

            I’m not trying to defend my new idealogue, especially since I don’t agree with Peterson about religion. But I just think that he’s such an articulate speaker with well-thought out ideas that he’s worth paying attention to, regardless of how much I agree with him. I like his biblical lecture series even though I’m an atheist, for example, because while I don’t agree with his conclusions, I think his perspective on Christianity is fascinating and admirable.

            I should check out that Youtube channel. Another good one is 8-Bit Philosophy. If anyone hasn’t heard of it, what it involves is classic video game characters being used to convey complex philosophical ideas and philosophers in 3 minute long videos. 8-Bit Philosophy is part of a larger channel called Wisecrack, and those ones analyze the philosophy of popular culture. There’s another channel on Wisecrack called Thugnotes which is hilarious because in the videos, a stereotypical black dude analyzes and summarizes books in street talk. Crash Course Philosophy is another video series that seems to do a decent job of explaining philosophy.

        2. Andrew Meintzer Reply

          Philosophers should write for a general audience rather than just for academics if they want their ideas to actually spread. I know that historically though, people in general seem to have been more interested in, and capable, of reading dense texts. But my relatively limited experience of more modern philosophy tells me that this trend doesn’t seem to be stopping. One aspect of my own writing that I’m always trying to fix is one that seems prevalent in philosophy, other than maybe in Stoicism, which is the natural tendency to be verbose and go into way too much detail. What would you say is Foucalt’s general worldview James?

          1. James Sullivan Post author

            Asserting that philosophers OUGHT to do something (write for a more general audience) is itself a moral, philosophical claim. Lots of people would agree with you, and though I wish more philosophers would write in a way that is more consumable, that ignores an important issue: that these ideas are simple to understand. You very often catch philosophers struggling with their own ideas. Derrida remarked numerous times how crazy he must sound. It’s not uncommon, and we joke in the field that it is a mark of pride, that any good philosopher has at least one mental breakdown.

            I’ve found trouble reading philosophers throughout history. Plato was articulate, but Aristotle wasn’t. Kant is a notorious bastard to read. I don’t think there’s anything novel about postmodernism being difficult to read, we’ve just had less time to study and dissect it in the way we have with the thousands of years of previous philosophy.

            Hunter and I have talked and one of my goals here is going to be breaking down some philosophy for you guys. I’m being lazy lately because I’m overworked at work, but I promise I’ll get on it.

            Foucault was interested in power and how it is manifested in every aspect of our lives. Everything, Foucault believed, is a function of power. This applied explicitly to discourse, law, and relationships. He has fascinating essays on crime, sexuality, and politics. Find a short one and read through it. If you have questions, email me @ JamesandtheGiantPodcast@gmail.com. I’ll read it with you and we can discuss it. Or, I can write up an explanatory post.

          2. Andrew Meintzer

            I’m well aware that saying philosophers SHOULD write a certain way is a moral, philosophical claim. That’s why I qualified it by saying “…if they want their ideas to actually spread.” I’m not saying that philosophers should be more concise in general. I try to avoid telling anyone what to do because I don’t think that’s my right, and it’s very dependent upon circumstances. I’m also certainly not an authority on how philosophers should write. I just mean that being more concise helps more people understand their ideas.

            I also understand from reading, learning, thinking, and writing about philosophy as an amateur for at least a few years that most, or at least many, philosophical ideas are complicated. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to be explained in a verbose and detailed way. In my opinion, a true sign of intelligence is understanding ideas well enough to clearly communicate the main points in a concise way. I’m not saying that philosophers should only be concise because, in addition to what I already said, I like some of the long, detailed writing too, and it’s probably important for there to be different writing styles. But an idea being complex doesn’t necessarily make it a good one. You could eloquently explain a wide variety of complicated concepts, but that wouldn’t necessarily make them valid. Conspiracy theorists can offer detailed explanations for why JFK was killed by the government, or why 9/11 was a false flag attack, for example, and they sometimes make good points, but that doesn’t mean that they’re correct.

            Yeah, I like Plato’s communication style more than Aristotle, but I like his ideas more than those of Plato. I don’t think I’ve read any of Kant’s work yet, but I have a vague understanding of some of his opinions from hearing people talk about him. I understand that postmodernism is a newer philosophical idea than many others, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good one. I’m not saying that I fundamentally disagree with it because I need to do a lot more research, and I agree with a few of the fundamental points. But an idea being difficult to explain doesn’t necessarily make it valid.

            Awesome man. I’m looking forward to those posts. I’m a big fan of philosophy in general.

            Ah okay. What do you think about Foucault’s opinions? I haven’t read any of his writing yet, but my intuition is that everything being a function of power is a massive oversimplification. It just seems like ideological thinking to me because it means blaming everything on only one factor. I think that reality is a lot more complicated than that, and that actions are the functions of many more factors than just power. There probably are some situations that are based only one power on one side of the spectrum, and others that have nothing to do with it on the other side. Situations are likely functions of power, and every other concept or factor, in varying degrees depending on the circumstances.

            You could easily look at anything in any way you want to as well. It doesn’t seem like sleeping is a function of power, but you could choose to view it that way if you think of sleep as a way of surrendering your power. That doesn’t necessarily make it true. There’s probably not a correct objective way of viewing the world, which if I understand it correctly, is one of the propositions of postmodernism that I mostly agree with. So asserting that looking at everything as a function of power is correct seems to be a way of postmodernism violating its own fundamental principles. I could be oversimplifying or missing some important details with this, but this reminds me of one of Jordan Peterson’s points about postmodernism with which I agree. There are tons of possible interpretations of everything, but some are a lot more useful than others. If you want to be pragmatic, it seems like looking at everything as a function of power is a bad idea, but people obviously don’t have to be practical, and some worldviews are more pragmatic for some than others. Maybe Peterson takes his conclusions too far in the same way that postmodernists appear to, by asserting that his worldview is more correct than theirs. I just think that there is less ambiguity in the relevance and practicality of different interpretations than my current understanding of postmodernist opinions. Does that make sense?

            Premature criticisms aside though, thanks a lot man. I appreciate the discussion. I’ll definitely read at least one of those essays, and send you an email to tell you what I think about it and ask you questions.

          3. James Sullivan Post author

            Oh, I wasn’t trying to say that having an idea be complex meant that it held any more merit than a simple one. Sometimes the simpler ideas are best, because our overanalysis and thinking gets in the way of action. Further, ideas can get convoluted and unnecessarily complex and this is definitely a symptom present in philosophy. But it happens in the sciences too. My point is that philosophy takes rigor.

            I preferred Plato to Aristotle. Aristotle made lots of progress in Platonic ideas, but I do not agree with a single conclusion Aristotle made that I can think of. Kant sucks to read, reading a synopsis of Kant would be preferred.

            You’re correct; in postmodernism, truth is not an objective thing. Truth is not singular. Truth is not prescriptive. Even those statements have contradictory values (“it is objectively true that there is no truth”) which is kind of the point. There are different kinds of truth, different ways in which things can be true, and lots of interpretive truth (“it is true to me”). Peterson, funnily enough, has an interpretive view of the truth in the Bible. He teeters on certain postmodern ideas but stands strong on other principles of modern philosophy. I find him to be as ideologically motivated as any other he might criticize, and less self reflective on that point as well. Still, I think his biblical work is really interesting. He just seems to have stepped outside his wheelhouse when talking about postmodernism and really dug his heels in on the issue as well.

            I think Foucault offers important perspective to discourse, politics, and understanding power. I do not think he is entirely correct, but as a student of philosophy I know that no philosopher is. You take what makes sense and make sense out of what doesn’t or if you can’t do that, rebut it. Philosophy is about the process of philosophy. I agree that sleeping doesn’t seem like a function of power. But see how you took a premise and did a few mental twists to find a scenario where the premise seems implausible? That’s philosophy. That’s the rigor. That’s the process. Ethicists do that their entire career. I’m far more concerned with getting people to do the act of philosophizing than having anyone agree with a worldview (that, by all historical evidence, will change eventually).

            Pragmatism is great if you only concern yourself with what is extrinsically useful; but, often times and especially when concerning the meanings of our language, we step out of the pragmatic in defense of principles concerning truth-seeking and wisdom. Truth is not necessarily pragmatic. Moreover, pragmatism can only concern itself with what is useful or practical in-the-moment since it cannot know what future uses an idea may have. The problem of pragmatism is the assertion that a thing only has value insofar as it is useful (and useful to who?) as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. I don’t agree, though I certainly see the appeal. If you haven’t already, read some William James (father of pragmatism). He was an American philosopher and psychologist and did some great work, you’d probably like him a lot. I did. He’s Hunter’s favorite philosopher too.

          4. Andrew Meintzer

            I completely agree with your first paragraph.

            Fair enough. I agree with a lot of Aristotle’s conclusions, and I mostly agree more with him than Plato because in the dialogues between him and Socrates like The Republic, Plato makes points that Socrates seems to me to successfully argue against. I also prefer the alterations to Plato’s ideas that Aristotle makes. Plato also seemed like a little too much of a religious rationalist for me, if I’m interpreting that correctly. But I think that it’s almost undeniable that he had a lot of good ideas, and my opinions are obviously not superior. I’ll keep that in mind about Kant too.

            I agree with you about Jordan Peterson. I particularly noticed his ideological behaviour in a recent video of his I watched where he was talking about how evil postmodernism is, and how to defeat it. I’m not sure that I would say that he’s less reflective though, because everyone who does that seems to lack self reflection, and he seems like a very reflective person. But yeah, even though I like and learn a lot from him, I have also noticed before that he claims to offer a more correct version of truth, while criticizing others who do the same thing. I like his talk of pragmatism, but not his pragmatic conception of truth.

            I also agree with everything you said about Foucault and philosophy. “Taking what makes sense and making sense out of what doesn’t” is a great way of putting it. I try to philosophize with rigor about premises as much as possible, and make my own constantly shifting worldview based on aspects that I like and don’t like about various sources. I’m not just trying to get people to agree with me either. I want to understand how people think, so I can help myself and hopefully sometimes others thoroughly examine ideas. That can lead to changing worldviews, but it obviously requires a lot more than exchanging messages on the internet.

            Those are great points about pragmatism. I’ve thought about that myself before, but not to the same extent. Cool man. I really should read some writing by William James because I’ve heard him recommended now by you, Jordan Peterson, and a guy with whom I’ve been talking about religious philosophy. The only research on philosophical pragmatism that I’ve done so far is by reading the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy page on it, plus a few Youtube videos.

            Thanks a lot for this conversation. By the way, I finally read a Foucault article. I’ll send you an email about it.

          5. Andrew Meintzer

            Also, are there any particular books or other sources by William James that you would recommend?

          6. James Sullivan Post author

            Thanks for the dialogue. It was helpful for me as well to think harder about my position.

            I admit I only have a cursory knowledge of William James. Reach out to Hunter Maats for recommendations on readings.

            I look forward to your email. Please include the article.

          7. Andrew Meintzer

            Coolio. Oh sorry. I just saw this comment and didn’t include the article. I actually just started reading The Varieties of Religious Experience because that other guy I mentioned recommended it to me, but I’ll ask Hunter for suggestions too.

          8. Magsa

            There is power in obscurity. It’s a great way of establishing yourself an authority for one, but there are other advantages.

            We need to get over this romanticised idea that philosophers are above petty self interest because they attempt to reach for grandiosity. It isn’t helpful.

      2. Andrew Meintzer Reply

        You’re welcome. Oh I know, as far as anyone can know anything, that Nietzsche wasn’t a nihilist. His existentialism was his solution to the nihilsm brought about by the “death of the old Gods”, right? You don’t think Camus was a nihilist? Well like I said, I’ve only read The Stranger by him, and the message seemed pretty extremely nihilist, but maybe I missed his main point, or he has many other books with completely different messages. I also know nothing about his life or what he personally said about nihilism.

        I appreciate Peterson explaining postmodernism too. I could always learn more about Marxism, which is probably a good idea, and I think the The Communist Manifesto makes some great points, but I think that I understand enough about it to have my opinion of it pretty well-supported. It seems to oversimplify issues, and you only have to look at the history of Communism and Marxism to see all the harm it can cause. A lot of proponents of it seem to be emotional babies who don’t know what they’re talking about. Many people also appear to not even be aware that not their entire worldview, but some of their ideas, are Marxist or Communist. I do like some socialist ideas too though, like socialized healthcare, infrastructure, and emergency services of every kind. But in my opinion, while at least almost every political ideology has merit, it just causes too many problems when people take their conclusions too far and become extremists.

        You’re welcome again. Thanks for your comment too.

  6. blixa Reply

    Here’s some Friedrich N. that should help clarify what Peterson concludes from N.:

    The greatest danger that always hovered over humanity and still hovers over it is the eruption of madness – which means the eruption of arbitrariness in feeling, seeing and hearing, the enjoyment of the mind’s lack of discipline, the joy in human unreason. Not truth and certainty are the opposite of the world of the madman, but the universality and the universal binding force of a faith; in sum, the non-arbitrary character of judgements… Thus the virtuous intellects are needed – oh, let me use the most unambiguous word – what is needed is virtuous stupidity, stolid metronomes for the slow spirit, to make sure that the faithful of the great shared faith stay together and continue their dance… We others are the exception and the danger – and we need eternally to be opposed. – Well, there actually are things to be said in favor of the exception, provided that it never wants to become the rule.

    from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, s. 76

    – and Peterson sees the danger in the exception trying to become the rule. His teaching is there to make sure the virtuous stupidity that is necessary for society stays where it is supposed to stay- with the masses.

    Peterson also tends to get confused about mythological characters, and confuses images, names and meanings within their respective cultures – I particulatrly remember an image of a minor hindu-deity which he assumed was Kali, because there are some parallels in the way the two are depicted- but then he goes on to mess up what Kali stands for, let alone what the deity he’s actually showing represents- he just interprets the image he chose, regardless of the underlying myth.

    so… Peterson is a traditionalist – and while he says he studied how fascism evolved and fights against it, he introduces a concept of the sacred, higher authority for the sake of hierarchy and order and so on. So maybe he should read more Lacan, or listen to that marxist Zizek…

  7. Jon Burke Reply

    The more I hear Jordan Peterson speak, the more I think he’s just taking old ideas (defined gender roles, contempt for collective action/thinking, mistrust of academics [who don’t agree with him] and questionable “science”) and simply wrapping them up in an erudite, authoritative package. Also, the whole “intellectual rebel” pose he’s adopted is as troubling as it is ridiculous. His voice is important but he seems to struggle with anyone who disagrees with him, in no small part because he seems to operate entirely on hard binaries: right and wrong; black and white, etc. Say what you will about postmodernism but at least it allows some room to breathe.

    We all suffer from confirmation bias and it seems to me Peterson is a master at confirming some of the deepest fears/questionable beliefs of his fan base. It’s also interesting how he constantly praises Joe Rogan’s intellect (which clearly pleases Joe) while in the next breath dismissing all of Foucault’s work in a few sentences about Madness and Civilization. Though I am no expert, I’ve read some Foucault and while that book, his first, certainly laid the groundwork for his thinking, it is by no means is his definitive statement, his best work or contains his most interesting ideas. It’s akin to making a blanket statement about all of Disney animation having only seen Steamboat Willie or reviewing an entire book based only on the foreword.

    We all get it that Jordan Peterson doesn’t like Marxism but what else is he really offering us, aside from a very articulate, traditional, conservative worldview?

    1. Magsa Reply

      The ‘breathing room’ that postmodernism allows carries potential in all forms, including the potential for destruction. This is probably what Peterson is concerned with, but he isn’t being consistent by identifying strongly with Nietszche while objecting Pomo on those grounds.

      I guess the issue is that he doesn’t seen that potential in postmodern thought, probably because it has been hijacked by vested interests.

      He also exaggerates the uniqueness of their worldview. The whole notion of truth being relative and/or conditional is hardly unique to postmodernism.

    2. Magsa Reply

      The problem with Foucault is that he is rarely criticised by his supporters. In other words, his supporters don’t recognise the very obvious limitations of his work. There is far too much hero worship, which tends to produce strong opposition to his ideas.

      A good example are his views on education. He makes the same mistake that leftists generally make, especially of his generation, of conflating authority with authoritarian, thus he was unable to see schools as being anything more than disciplinary institutions of power designed to create submissive beings rather than sites that can impose the kinds of restraints necessary to individuate and empower people. As a result, he completely neglected the value of the master/teacher relationship and the reconstructive potential of technologies of power/knowledge, among other things.

      What Foucault needs are more sympathetic critics who are willing to evaluate his ideas with a critical eye. There is great potential there, especially if you attempt to re-read his early ideas through the prism of his late work oriented around the technologies of self which he unfortunately never got around to completing.

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