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.

15 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.

  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?’

  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.

  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!

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