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Standing By Our Criticisms of Jordan Peterson

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.”

Introduction 

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.  

Conclusion

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 konradbongard@hotmail.com, 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 mattmcmanus300@gmail.com or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.

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Fred
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Fred

Well, glad I muddled through that. NOT!
Nothing like high falutin verbiage that says much of nothing.

Clive Pinder
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Clive Pinder

Here we go again. The good Professor looking to climb on the shoulders of a man whose reputation as a thought leader, mass influencer and humanitarian he can only dream of matching. It is truly disappointing that an Academic appears so obsessed with a fellow academic, who has the added advantage of actually being a clinician and making a positives difference in peoples’ lives, seems to have nothing more valuable to offer than constant criticism in a haze of defensive rhetoric and obvious jealousy. I remind the ‘Professor’ of the words of a writer who actually knew how to make a cohesive and compelling case for his POV….”A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. I hope that at this time of year especially, Matt manages to find some goodwill in his world and that in 2020 he turns his attention to something original and valuable!

Matt
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Matt

Oh Clive. As always so full of reductive anger and so short on actual arguments against our positions. As mentioned many people seem to have found considerable value in our pointing out various flaws in Peterson´s reasoning. We are willing to take him seriously by treating him like another academic whose ideas warrant scrutiny and praise for their insights and criticism for their defects.

If you were actually committed to defending him intellectually you might take the time to analytically demonstrating where we are wrong.

Fred
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Fred

“reductive anger?” How ’bout you point out what he said instead of using gutless nominalizations that don’t even mean anything.
“We are willing to take him seriously …” Oh thank you thank you. I hope you don’t feel you have lowered yourself too much.
Show me something that is clear and astute enough to analyze and I’ll give it a shot.
Please talk Mr. Peterson into debating you. I’m sure you’re conceited enough to try and I would enjoy the massacre so much.

Clive Pinder
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Clive Pinder

Not sure what you mean by ‘reductive anger’, but I will point out that putting things in writing is the only way to comment on a blog! But if you prefer verbal communication I urge you to invite JP to present his ideas to your university and debate them with him. I suspect, if you were lucky enough for him to accept, that your students will find his academic rigour and his observations on life far more compelling than yours. My sense is that you use his name as some form of click bait for editors and publishers…trading in his impressive work and reputation when you have little of value and note in your own catalog.

Bob Melchitt
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Bob Melchitt

Essays and written long form are a form of debate. Simply getting up in front of an audience and conducting a moderated discussion does not imply arriving at the truth any more effectively. In fact, many will never have the opportunity to share a stage with JP, but there’s no reason that they are not allowed to engage in the discussion that he has created – including serious critique, like the above. And I too would invite you, rather than deferring responsibility for your above comments (by prescribing a debate between the author and JP) to account for your comments by demonstrating actual textual analysis of what was said in the above essay. I mean, by your same logic, the publishers at Zero Books have written much more material than you – how dare you question them when you have no reputation or catalog to speak of?

Tony Senatore
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Tony Senatore

. Marcoccia and Ghaderi’s politically neutral film being shut out of independent and arthouse cinemas, the very institutions that should have supported them is proof (at least to me) the progressive left is out of control. I am certain the in the process of making their film, and the setbacks they have endured trying to market it, they have come to the realization that a lot of “very fine people” are being punished by progressives attempting to control the ideological and linguistic territory; something that Dr. Peterson views as authoritarianism. Conversely, I am hoping that further research into the positive aspects of Jordan Peterson’s work, and the thousands of lives he has changed for the better will lead Matt Mc Manus and Hamilton to conclude that they might need to alter their initial hypothesis. It is my fervent hope that Patricia Marcoccia, Maziar Ghaderi and Matt Mc Manus will all have the courage to stand up straight and fully face the darkness and look where they don’t want to look.… Read more »

Bob Melchitt
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Bob Melchitt

Theaters are profit driven and in a Petersonian context have no obligation to a political ideology – and therefore no obligation to champion Peterson’s film. If that were the case, we’d see a broad range of factual films being championed on important issues long before we get to JBP. Even if we wanted to…

PKR
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PKR

This is coming from an engineering professor from a top 10 school, and a big fan of Dr. Jordan Peterson. Dr. Peterson is a true scholar – someone who can explain to me the philosophical underpinnings of belief and value systems. I devoured his book in a day, and i am reading maps of meaning with no difficulty at all. In engineering we have an unsaid rule – do not use words to replace a diagram or equation.The essence is precision of speech. The authors of this article make no cogent thoughts instead they use jargon and words to befuddle. Llet me put this to the authors directly – you have nothing to offer and you contribute nothing to better ourselves. Here are the twelve rules, as i see it – i challenge the authors to counter. (1) Stand up straight. Take your place in the world with confidence. Have self confidence in yourself, carry yourself with pride, and gusto. Face up to the world. Life is full of suffering,… Read more »

Professor OopsIMisreadTheArticle
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Professor OopsIMisreadTheArticle

I’m amazed that “an engineering professor from a top 10 school” who reads Maps of Meaning (a difficult book for me, though very interesting and rewarding!) “with no difficulty at all” so misread this article. The critique, which is similar to mine against some of his ideas, is that Peterson “insists on collapsing the distinction between commonsensical wisdom and ‘capital-T Truth’ . The article specifically says that the 12 Rules are orthogonal to the arguments the authors were making, but you seemed to have blown right past that.

Exaybachay
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Exaybachay

“The critique, which is similar to mine against some of his ideas, is that Peterson “insists on collapsing the distinction between commonsensical wisdom and ‘capital-T Truth’.”

That’s not a critique – it’s an inane statement and excellent example of “talking loud and saying nothing. BTW, “common sense” would have been a more adequate term than “commonsensical wisdom.” “Commonsensical” isn’t even a word, nor does the phrase “commonsensical wisdom” comvey anything more than the simple phrase “common sense” does.

Fred
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Fred

As a Fred, this doesn’t make much sense to me. There’s absolutely no denying that the work he does has helped people. I’m one of them. Also, lots of big words makes this hard for most people to understand. I tried my best though.

Fred
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Fred

Fred. That mass of verbiage only makes the assertion that Peterson has “muddled philosophical and political reasoning” with nothing concrete to back it up. The authors have never met an obtuse unsubstantiated generalization they don’t like. One of them still has a hotmail account. Authors, writing 101, don’t use big words when small ones will do.

Bob Melchitt
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Bob Melchitt

So they should pander to an audience to make it easier to read? What nonsense… especially given the notorious word salad peterson is frequently guilty of. You’ve clearly also missed the point that there is a difference between the psychological prescriptions being made by Peterson vs. the methodology of his philosophical and political underpinnings.

C M
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C M

I read your sample article, my issue with it was more that it presented no new or original criticism of JP you cannot read somewhere else (typically for free). I disagreed with most of your article but some of it seemed more or less correct, no one is perfect and as I mentioned JP deserves criticism as much as anyone. That being said other academics have reviewed his work and not reached your conclusions, that you can make an intelligent argument against the mans thinking makes you neither unique or correct. Its fine that you have reached the conclusions you do but you are not grappling with the real criticism Mr. Senatore’s article levied, which I read as: for a critique to be truly valuable it must reach those you believe are making the mistake or about to make the mistake and then have some effect. I doubt your work, based on your sample, will do that. It may be quite popular with others who have already reached your conclusions… Read more »

Frank
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Frank

Just wasted two minutes of my life reading this article and comments. The only people reading Matt and Conrad’s body of work will be their postgrad students. Probably going to stay that way until they retire and then no one will read their work ever again. What a legacy! How are the book sales going if you factor out university libraries?

Exaybachay
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Exaybachay

This is exactly what I took from this article: 1. The authors are Progressives and have taken on a mission to enlighten people to Peterson’s alleged fraudulence, not for any genuine alarm at potential dangers of exploring Peterson’s arguments but because the authors are afraid to earnestly explore the political tribalism they have already tacitly claimed allegiance to. 2. They have a book to sell and this is nothing but a long-winded advertisement for that book.

Bob Melchitt
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Bob Melchitt

So, basically 1) you disregard the book because of the political background of the authors, ignoring the very premise of the book – to provide a critique from positions Peterson fails to actively engage in, and 2) on a market based premise. You’re ignoring that Peterson also speaks from a place of strong political bias and does not earnestly explore those ideas, and also that he too has been open about being a captial driven author. Now why don’t you tell us specifically which statements were incorrect and why?

GD
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GD

When promulgating your esoteric cogitations, or articulating your superficial sentimentalities beware of the use of ponderous verbosities. Sophisticated reiterations inebriated by the exuberance of your own verbosity. Over educated, obvious, and oblivious. Surprise surprise! A Post-modernist conservative machination, the malicious malaise of the Marxist malcontent. “But it is does”……. Nicely edited. Good day to you.

Bob Melchitt
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Bob Melchitt

Good Peterson impression. You’ve captured his vacuousness perfectly.

Willem van der Schyf
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Willem van der Schyf

A man stands up for something he believes in, promotes positive thoughts and deeds, gains thousands of followers and is crucified for trying to make people believe they can be more than they think they are.
I’m not saying JP is JC, rather that the authors are not painting themselves in a very flatterig light.

Bob Melchitt
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Bob Melchitt

I guess you’re not generous enough to believe that they are also trying to stand up for what they believe in, are attempting to promote truth or to help promote the belief that people can be more than they are. How interesting that one is afforded scrutiny and the other is not.

Chris
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Chris

Matt’s research record is absolutely insignificant compared to Jordan’s. He does not have the intellectual horsepower to grasp Jordan’s work, and thus engages in a superficial critique. Mildly engaging, but meaningless.

Bob Melchitt
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Bob Melchitt

Jordan Peterson misrepresents a number of things in his most academic work (maps of meaning) including George Orwell, Ulrich Beck and Sir James Frazier. He ignores that much of the work was already discussed by people like Mary Douglas (linking up similarities between mythologies and how it affects human morals in an actual scientific way, not by shoving round pegs into square holes when a specific mythology doesn’t fit), Victor Turner, Mikhail Bakthin, Victor Schlovsky and others who make assessments of narrative and mythological relationships to psychology, ritual, power, morals, etc. That is of course, when JP isn’t uttering complete gibberish within the book. He is NOT reknown for his academic rigour in any real circle. There’s a reason he was never tenured at Harvard and required major advocates at UofT within his department in order to gain tenure. In my time there he was certainly admired for his charisma, but also laughed at for being a pseudo-intellectual.

Jack
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Jack

So what you’re saying is… I should buy a second, or even third copy of his book, and forget yours exisits?

Cynthia Perkins
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Cynthia Perkins

I’m unsubscribing.

Cynthia Perkins
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Cynthia Perkins

I’m unsubscribing

Bob Melchitt
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Bob Melchitt

Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out i guess. I’ll keep a candle lit for you to find your way back from the place you hide from scary ideas or critiques of people you like.

Greencoat
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Greencoat

I must disagree with your assertion that the label of “post-modern neo-marxists” is insufficiently defined. It has been repeatedly described as a rearticulation of the central Marxist narrative with “privilege” taking the place of “capital” in the classical Marxist narrative.

Bob Melchitt
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Bob Melchitt

Yes it has been described that way, and usually is an indicator that the people making the description probably have a poor understanding of the term postmodernism. Simply because it has been described that way does not make it correct. Peterson derives the term largely from the only book he had read on the subject (by his own admission, mind you) the Stephen Hicks book on postmodernism. That book has been ripped to pieces by serious philosophers, some of whom would not defend postmodernism per se, but wouldn’t consider statements like “Immanuel Kant is not an enlightenment philosopher” to be credible (or for that matter go 30 some odd pages without a citation, particularly in the few chapters that actually discuss postmodernism). In this respect, yes the definitions must be made clear and understood, it will help prevent you from reiterating dumb comments.

Pieter
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Pieter

I have read your preview article and if your preview article is a gauge for the rest of the book then I’m afraid the four of you are in for somewhat of a surprise: nobody is going to buy your book, let alone read it. Four of you gang up as wannabe bullies against Peterson, a man of superior intellect and original thought, with the single-minded goal to find flaws in his arguments: not a recipe for success my dear fellows ! Instead of squandering your efforts, why don’t you actually write something where you try to do the most good possible in the shortest period of time. Something that can actually assist your fellow human beings.

Bob Melchitt
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Bob Melchitt

Wow. What a defense of Peterson’s work, and what a scathing critique of this essay. Man you ripped them apart point by point. You know this book has already sold tens of thousands of copies on pre-sale, right?