“If Peterson manages to dispense good advice in spite of muddled philosophical and political reasoning, this attests to his psychological acuity. But it is does not magically redeem his intellectual output.”
We appreciated much in Tony D. Senatore’s article for Merion West, “The Best Argument For Jordan Peterson: My Friend, Fred.” In particular we empathize deeply with Senatore’s story about his friend Fred, whose wife is suffering from frontal lobe dementia—and how Peterson’s lectures about how to handle adversity proved edifying. Life isn’t truly easy for anyone, and we don’t begrudge anyone for seeking help when needed. If anything, the capacity to do so is a sign of considerable strength and depth of feeling. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Senator does not address the content our book, Myth and Mayhem: A Leftist Critique of Jordan Peterson, specifically (indeed, it has not even been published!). Rather, it addresses the idea of our book as presented in a preview article, with Senatore’s argument amounting to the claim that any criticism of Peterson must account for his, “track record of helping those in need.”
It is somewhat difficult to assess Senatore’s claims. This is because we are dealing with different sets of issues. Myth and Mayhem analyzes the arguments Peterson leverages in support of various philosophical and political positions. What it does not analyze is the ostensibly enriching properties of his self-help work (difficult as these are to assess). Evaluating the strength of Peterson’s arguments, of course, does not require taking into consideration whether his advice has helped people. As this is our goal, it is necessary to remark that—while moving—the account furnished by Senatore to support his claim of the positive effects of Peterson’s work has little bearing on said work.
Evaluating Peterson’s Impact
“I discovered that beliefs make the world, in a very real way-that beliefs are the world, in a more than metaphysical sense. This discovery has not turned me into a moral relativist however. I have become convinced that the world-that is-belief is orderly; that there are universal moral absolutes (although these are structured such that a diverse range of human opinions remains both possible and beneficial. I believe that individuals and societies who flout these absolutes—in ignorance or in willful opposition—are doomed to misery and eventual dissolution. I learned that the meanings of the most profound substrata of belief systems can be rendered explicitly comprehensible, even to the skeptical rational thinker—and that, so rendered, can be experienced as fascinating, profound and necessary. I learned why people wage war—why the desire to maintain, protect and expand the domain of belief motivates even the most incomprehensible acts of group-fostered oppression and cruelty—and what might be done to ameliorate this tendency, despite is universality. I learned, finally, that the terrible aspect of life might actually be a necessary precondition for the existence of life, and that it is possible to regard that precondition, in consequence, as comprehensible and acceptable.”
Maps of Meaning, Preface: Descensus and Inferos
Still, it is undeniable that many people claim that Peterson’s work does help them. We might pose the question of why this is the case. Exoterically, the advice dispensed by Peterson often amounts to little more than reframed proverbial wisdom: “make friends with people who want the best for you,” “be precise in your speech,” and so on. Should the goal be to immediately improve the quality of your life, one could do worse than to follow these maxims. No one going to suggest it is unwise to clean your room. But none of this explicates the broader philosophy of Peterson’s academic work, especially Maps of Meaning, and the argumentation deployed therein to shed light on higher-order truths that exceed the commonplace.
This brings us to the esoteric aspect of Peterson’s work—and really, the reason why he’s both well-known and controversial. For as with many psychologists, it is not enough that Peterson simply provide us with a descriptive account of how to better our lives. Rather, he insists on collapsing the distinction between commonsensical wisdom and ‘capital-T Truth’ itself. Thus, for Peterson, standing up straight with your shoulders back is not simply provisionally useful; it is useful because humans naturally descend from a brutal, Hobbesian state of nature where only the strongest thrive—a relationship reflected in the inegalitarian structure of liberal capitalism, which meddlesome leftists are attempting to unnaturally pervert (a gesture that leads, so it goes, straight to the gulag). Likewise, Peterson’s injunction to “not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them” is universally applicable due to the universality of the archetypal “devouring mother.” This is the figure who blocks the individuation of her children by opposing the reality of “differential production” (a set of behaviors associable with women, which Peterson implies are due to women’s evolutionary-psychological fixation on “distribution,” rather than production—a move that situates women on the side of artifice and the promulgation of falsifying illusions). It is these deeper arguments our book takes issue with—not primarily the exoteric surface.
There are two reasons it is important to analyze these deeper claims. The first is, of course, that the truth matters in and of itself. If Peterson manages to dispense good advice in spite of muddled philosophical and political reasoning, this attests to his psychological acuity. But it is does not magically redeem his intellectual output. The flaws in his work still warrant analysis and criticism, if only to push the project of knowledge and deliberation forward.
That his ideas ‘work’ is not the basis of his fame—trite self-help manuals, after all, are a dime a dozen.
The second is that Peterson has not simply relegated himself to offering good advice to the Freds of the world. He has also advanced a sustained political project, centered around support for a kind of autarchic classical liberalism. Peterson has pushed this project through criticisms of the contemporary left, particularly so-called “post-modern neo Marxists.” What exactly is entailed by this neologism is never fully explained (some problems are discussed here), but there is no doubt that many agree with Peterson that the excesses of those individuals who fall under this heading require redress. Such a set of claims go well beyond psychological advice, warranting a response from progressives whose ideas are poorly represented by Peterson’s crass polemicizing. This is also why we have set up our website for other commentators to contribute to an ongoing dialogue and critique of his work.
Of course, it’s easy enough to nitpick these characterizations—to understand the full spectrum upon which our arguments operate, it’s necessary to read our book. But the point is this: were Peterson’s sole modus operandi to tell people to make their beds, he would never have become a crucible for free speech activists, never have been valorized by conservative media, never have attracted the rabble of the alt-right (the truth of the latter claim is demonstrated in a new study by the Heterodox Academy) That his ideas ‘work’ is not the basis of his fame—trite self-help manuals, after all, are a dime a dozen. What is the basis of his fame is the way that—in addition to furnishing individuals with ‘wisdom’ (that men need to “man up” because it’s something “women want,” to give one example)—he forecloses the possibility of a world in which personal gain does not reward conformance to these kinds of reactionary norms.
Senatore is right to remind us that “ivory tower abstractions” often “fall apart in the complex world in which we actually live.” But it’s not we who are ignoring this. By obscuring the distinction between normative judgements and descriptive claims (by not acknowledging the provisional character of his discourse), Peterson himself does a great disservice to the world’s complexity. Taking Peterson seriously means going beyond pointers about posture (or the frequency with which we ought to pet cats) and recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of his system. This remains true even if—as is sadly the case—Peterson is unwilling, or unable, to apply a similar rigor in his critique of the Left.
Conrad Bongard Hamilton is a PhD student based at Paris 8 University, currently pursuing research on non-human agency in the work of Karl Marx under the supervision of Catherine Malabou. He is a contributor to the text What is Post-Modern Conservatism, as well as the author of a forthcoming book, Dialectic of Escape: A Conceptual History of Video Games. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and a catalogue of his writings can be found on Academia.edu.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at email@example.com or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.