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.
“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