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Is Jordan Peterson Doomed by Liberalism Itself?

“The publication of Peterson’s latest book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life is an opportunity to reflect on the impact this man has had on the cultural debate…”

In these chaotic and confusing times, people are looking for figures to make sense of the increasingly senseless world they inhabit. Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson is a prime example, offering apparent wisdom for the anxious. The publication of Peterson’s latest book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, is an opportunity to reflect on the impact this man has had on the cultural debate, and what if anything he has done, or can do, about the direction of our culture. There is a strong argument that Peterson has no answer to the problems tearing through our societies, except more of the same status-quo liberalism, rooted in a bankrupt humanism.

Peterson, in his faith in dialogue and rational discourse to sort through problems of existence and our living together, represents the last gasp in the life of the failed idea of humanism. The goal of humanism, a way of thinking that emerged in the Renaissance, was founding an earthly order in which freedom and happiness reigned, entirely human in origin and end. Humanism was (and still is) about removing the inner and outer natural constraints on man’s reason, desires, will, and potential so that he should shape the world according to his wants and needs. The ideal of humanism since the Renaissance has been “we become what we will.”

Attendant to this, Peterson shares the Enlightenment commitment to science as the highest good of human achievement (and as the only legitimate explanation for the world), as well as the means for unlocking who we really are. Even though he acknowledges religion and the deep roots of religious myth, he does so in terms of scientistic utility, reducing the possibility of divine truth to evolutionary adaptions for individual and group survival. This is highly problematic to his efforts, as will become clear later on.

When Peterson articulates most strongly his radical complacency, desperately trying to shore up the foundations of the fraying neoliberal order, he reminds me of George Marsden’s description of the intellectuals in America in the 1950s, who were seeking a philosophical basis for the continuation of American society, politics, and culture around a broadly Enlightenment liberal consensus. Those intellectuals were concerned with similar problems of truth, reason, and debate as Peterson has been. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. captured the thought and politics of the “vital center.” In our time, a revitalization of liberal centrism in the face of misdiagnosed postmodern theorizing and its woke offspring is the main goal of Peterson and his Intellectual Dark Web allies, never mind that this is a hopeless goal woefully inadequate to the task.

Peterson emphasizes the need for agreement concerning the reality of facts and the utility of debate in finding and exploiting scientifically informed knowledge. This is something I agree with, in its place. However, it is worse than useless when truth and facts themselves are disputed as normative concepts. Under what terms can we engage in debate, indeed, what can debate even look like, when two people with totally different moral outlooks bring incommensurable worldviews to the table? Cardinal Manning was right when suggesting that all conflicts are ultimately theological, but how can we debate morality when the scientistic worldview Peterson pays homage to itself denies the basis for its normative existence?

One’s ideas and hallowed principles are useless unless those of like-mind enjoy some sort of hegemony in the social structures that shape the direction of society.

Peterson has exploited the new communication and presentation medium of the Internet to spread his ideas on the importance of facts, truth, and honesty, forthright Being. But this again simply serves to demonstrate the inadequacy of his vision for a world disaggregated by the very technology he seeks to harness. As Geoff Shullenberger argues, the belief that the Internet represents a global commons, where reasonable interlocutors could engage in dialectic and bring about a digital form of Immanuel Kant’s perpetual peace through dialogue, was flawed from the start.

This utterly utopian vision has been killed by both the reality of fallen human nature and the exaggeration of these worse aspects of our characters in an online world shattered into incommensurable epistemic tribes by the very nature of the technology itself. Much of the postmodernism Peterson rails against, particularly that of Francois Lyotard, was actually an attempt to grapple with the new reality of linguistic and epistemic chaos created by the potential of digital technology. In this way, Peterson is proving postmodern analysis by his attempts to refute a misrepresentation of their ideas through the very medium that was seen as bringing about this new dispensation. It would be farcical if the missed targets were not so many, or so dangerous to a basic level of social comity. For a man who so focuses on scientific materialist explanations for metaphysical phenomena, Peterson is remarkably unable to appreciate material reasons for the problems he tries to address.

And yet, when we move to the world of ideas and their role in driving human affairs, Peterson’s focus on debate, of finding the right ideas and facts that “we can all agree on,” shows his lack of recognition of the reality that ideas only matter insofar as they can be implemented. Saying, as conservatives and classical liberals do that “ideas have consequences” is all well and good. But the substance and consequences of those ideas only matter when entrenched through political and cultural power, reinforced with economic power. As James Davison Hunter writes, “[T]he key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks.” Ideas do emerge among non-elites, but such ideas do “not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites,” working through their “well-developed networks and powerful institutions.”

One’s ideas and hallowed principles are useless unless those of like-mind enjoy some sort of hegemony in the social structures that shape the direction of society. Power needs to be gained and used through structures and institutions in order for ideas to achieve anything. Without the power of implementation, saying principles are everything, that “ideas have consequences,” and that we can solve all our problems through endless debates and conversations about conversations (at the end of which we might agree to talk again next time) is simply a deflection strategy away from the impotence of Peterson’s liberal boomer-influenced worldview.

What Joel Kotkin calls the political and economic Oligarchy (political and technological Left) and its enforcers in the Clerisy (media and academia) do not win because they persuade people with the strength of their ideas. Their ideas are wretched and appeal to almost no one except those damaged by therapeutic beliefs of psychological security through inner cleanliness. They win because they bring the full weight of their political, economic, and cultural hegemony down against anyone who commits ideological heresy against the sacramental liberalism that they serve to entrench. It was because of this that James Burnham wrote that “only power can restrain power.”

This is another place where Peterson is not equal to the moment. He has described himself politically most consistently as some type of classical liberal. As such, let us take him at his word. This still does not mean that he has answers to our contemporary problems, again misdiagnosed as an attack by evil collectivist “postmodern-Neo-Marxists” on foundational truths and the reality of objective fact, in favor of subjectivity, relativity, and emotivism. Peterson’s trust in the ability of Enlightenment liberalism and its emphasis on reason, debate, and the liberal politics of neutral institutions cannot face the realities of a culture coming apart under the dissolving influence of liberalism itself, backed up by the overwhelming power of the market-state apparatus. Liberalism is a philosophy imbued with a sacred teleology, always moving further along the road to maximum autonomy and the removal of any social, economic, or metaphysical constraints to realizing one’s own liberty. One cannot dispute or deny the underlying tenets and logic of liberalism if one wishes to remain part of society: Progress is all, and to deny this is heresy.

Peterson is attacked as a “reactionary” not because he is some sort of fire-breathing throne-and-altar monarchist but, rather, because he wants to retain the position that liberalism occupied a few decades ago. It would almost be better for Peterson if he was a real reactionary, for then the far-Left would ignore him. As it is, they recognize, in the narcissism of small differences, a vision similar to theirs but which they have left behind. Peterson’s classical liberalism is thus seen as metaphysically and morally retrograde. This is precisely Peterson’s political problem, though: He is attempting to rescue the very ideology that has this teleological drive that brought him and us to this situation in the first place. Instead of trying to hold his ground earlier down the road, Peterson might think about stepping off the progressive road of liberalism altogether.

The social ills we see today are many, and they strike at the basis of what it is to be human. There is increasing atomization, as people are broken into smaller wholes by a liberal ideology that bases its foundational anthropology in a totally unrealistic depiction of the isolated human person divorced from time and place in a state of nature. The polarization and general anomie all around us largely stem from an existential isolation rooted in the working out of an ideology over decades. Complaining about the collapse of traditional hierarchies and social structures as Peterson does, while simultaneously appealing to liberal tropes like respect for Lockean rights, is incoherent.

Enlightenment philosophers, Locke in particular, undermined faith in the Judeo-Christian worldview that Peterson clings to. Matt McManus makes the point that from a Lockean perspective, the embodied soul of Aristotle does not comprise the human person. Rather, we are our experiences narrated through memory. The external world and the place of our physical form in it exist principally in relation to our subjective experiences, from which value stems. Furthermore, as Shullenberger points out, postmodernism’s focus on “scepticism” towards overarching narratives bears a striking resemblance to the liberal scepticism embodied by the scientific worldview Peterson adheres to, which arose within liberal societies from liberal academic institutions. Therefore, the virus of postmodernism that Peterson attacks is really a radicalization of tendencies within liberalism and liberal societies themselves.

If liberalism ultimately prioritizes subjective experience and maximizing the individual expression of this, it is not a surprise that claiming any barriers to this is regarded as a moral evil. The state becomes the instrument to liberate us from natural constraints, while any barrier to the expression of the transgenderism that Peterson so opposes is removed by a cultural nominalism defined by “my truth.” If subjective experience is all, why does biological sex even matter? The result is that reason and science, in conjunction with the managerial state, can erase the limitations imposed on us by the reality of physical nature, now deemed unjust because it is not intrinsic. Our bodies are just another kind of matter to be manipulated for the articulation of our autonomy, to harmonize our corporeal existence with our inner reality. Talk about restoring order over chaos.

These idealistic factors combine with the materialist fact of economic change enabled by an overbearing managerial state that removes the economic and political agency of intermediating communities and arrogates them to itself. This is, according to Patrick Deneen, the logical statist conclusion to an individualist ethic. Under our managerial system, the state steps in to both liberate people and control the collateral damage from a collapsed civil society, entrenching this order for its own benefit. All that those like Peterson seem to have to offer is more of the same neoliberal poison that has landed us in the mire in the first place.

As a result, in Peterson’s eyes, Christianity is the greatest story of all, but it is like mythologies that developed in order to form and shape society.

In the face of these huge forces, Peterson has attempted to ground our lives again in a sound metaphysical foundation, one that can support the truth and facts he extolls. Despite this grand aim, Peterson’s endeavor at regaining some kind of religious public philosophy amounts to little more than a mythical mash-up. It is in his defense of Christianity, with reference to other religious traditions along with the mythical underpinnings of popular culture, that we see the inherent danger in Peterson’s thought in this regard.

Peterson owes most of his religious analysis to a Swiss Reformed pastor’s son, Carl Jung. Jung grew up in a religious and cultural environment saturated with the work of David Strauss, who historicized the claims of the Bible, argued they were historically inaccurate and, therefore, mythic constructions. Jung took this insight, radicalized it, and fused it with Freudian psychology. If religions express “mythic constructions” of our own minds projected onto external reality, then why does the Christian myth matter above all? The substance of a given tradition could be reduced to, and analyzed in, mythic terms. The underlying themes of these were then reduced to Freudian psychological phenomena of repression and self-expression through narrative archetypes, manifestations in mythical story form of psychological characteristics. Peterson’s particular favorites are the mythical hero and the devouring mother, symbolizing for him civilized order and primeval chaos.

Jung’s views of the underpinnings of religion and how this shapes culture and civilization blow apart any chance of recovering substantive religious truth and the solid ground they offered. He takes religious truth, the metaphysical grounding for objective fact and knowledge, and relativizes it into oblivion. As a result, rather than Christianity being expressed through rational cultural truth, subject to the forensic study of scholastic and Protestant theologians, we have supposed analysts using Jung’s mysticism to capture the vagaries of various “truths’ beneath the “mythic” reality of existence.

Christianity, for Peterson, is the most powerful myth in the West. It is the summit of both Middle Eastern and European mythology. And yet, as with Jung, for Peterson, Christianity is still just a myth, one with evolutionary utility as mentioned earlier. This myth, as Peterson rightly argues, has enabled the West to survive and to flourish. As a result, in Peterson’s eyes, Christianity is the greatest story of all, but it is like mythologies that developed in order to form and shape society. Peterson’s views of the underpinnings of religion—and how this shapes culture and civilization—is the epitome of postmodernism in its denial of what postmodernists call an overarching metanarrative. Once again, in fighting the dragon of postmodernism, Peterson ends up using and strengthening the very tendency he aims to resist.

Peterson’s postmodern theology is allied to an innate individualism rooted in solipsistic boomer idealism, a disposition Helen Andrews so ably describes. Discovering one’s true self through endless introspection and then acting that out in the world, never mind what is happening around you, is the most important thing. Forget the maintenance of civilization and social order and clean your room! Never mind that some of our greatest leaders in politics and culture had flawed personal lives. Far easier to shrug off the burden of responsibility to maintain what is left of the wreck of the polis because one’s inner state is not pure enough, than to move in this broken world as best you can. In Peterson’s hands, everything is reduced to attaining subjective therapeutic “meaning” for oneself. Again, postmodern much?

In sum, the wreck of self-defining humanism that we began with ends up in a postmodern, therapeutic mess embodied by Peterson. His appeals to classical liberalism simply further the social and political ills that he claims to want to remedy. His supposed solutions on the metaphysical level simply reinforce the relativization of substantive truth that resulted in what Alasdair Macintyre called emotivism. This induces an expressive individualism where the highest good of human existence is removing constraints to one’s autonomy, one’s ability to voice one’s truth. Peterson ends up reinforcing the culture of narcissism. Peterson is wrong on humanism: It begets liberalism and its self-defining pathologies. He is wrong on liberalism: It begets postmodernism via its subjectivity. And, finally, he is wrong on Jungianism: It begets moral and cultural relativism allied to therapeutic self-obsession. We are still looking for answers to our questions or origins and ends. Peterson does not give them.

Henry George is a writer from the U.K., focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, Arc Digital, Reaction, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review. 

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