Is Jordan Peterson an Antidote Against the Pitfalls of Postmodernism?

Synthesizing neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, literature, and mythology, Peterson distills a message of individual responsibility, and how we can find meaning in the balance between chaos and order.

Feminist maverick Camille Paglia has called him “the most important and influential Canadian thinker since Marshall McLuhan,” declaring that “his bold interdisciplinary synthesis of psychology, anthropology, science, politics and comparative religion is forming the template for the genuinely humanistic university of the future.” Meanwhile, conservative commentator David Brooks has echoed sentiments also shared by economist Tyler Cowen, referring to this moment as Jordan Peterson’s ascension to the most influential public intellectual in the West.

A clinical psychologist initially trained in political science, Peterson is a professor at the University of Toronto who has risen to prominence as a firm advocate of free speech and individual responsibility. Raised as a cowboy on the Canadian plains, he toiled through various trades before entering the ivory halls of Harvard, writing Maps of Meaning, a complex but groundbreaking tome in the psychology of religion. His recently published, and more accessible book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, could not come at a more perfect time for Peterson’s career, and perhaps, for Western civilization.

Although he’s been caricatured and mischaracterized as many things, Tim Lott most aptly captures his essence. “He is a strange mixture of theologian, psychologist, conservative, liberal, wit and lay preacher. He’s a powerful advocate of the scientific method who is not a materialist. He can go from cuddly to razor sharp in a beat. His primary concern, however, which underpins nearly everything about him, is the defense of the individual against groupthink, whether on the right or the left.” In his own words, Peterson says,

politically, I am a classic British liberal. Temperamentally, I am high in openness, which tilts me to the left, although also conscientious, which tilts me to the right. Philosophically, I am an individualist, not a collectivist, of the right or the left. Metaphysically, I am an American pragmatist, who has been strongly influenced by the psychoanalytic and clinical thinking of Freud, Jung and the psychotherapists who have followed in their wake.

His nuanced blending of these philosophies makes it difficult to pigeonhole him. He routinely cites Nietzsche, Buddha, and the Bible, pulling from neuroscience, literature, psychology, and world mythologies. It’s futile to trap him into a particular ideological tribe or identity group, largely because the heart of his work is a reaction against the detriments of identity politics and collectivism. The individual is paramount. The sanctity and preservation of the individual, he argues, is the greatest achievement of western thought, which is why he can be heard rallying against the destructive authoritarian forces that arise from left-wing and right-wing identity politics, and what he sees as the greatest threat to the individual: postmodernism.

Postmodernism is most easily understood as a toolkit for dismantling the ideologies and institutions of modernism. For good reason, its proponents have impacted many foundational elements of society, rejecting most hierarchies, universalisms, grand narratives, and objective notions of truth, reason, and morality. Reality and society, they say, are social constructs. This has allowed for greater fluidity regarding gender, sexuality, and family structures, much of which has given individuals more freedom to express themselves and to explore the limits of human possibilities. Unfortunately, postmodernism is mostly a device for deconstructing culture, not building it, offering us few, if any, answers to the questions about human flourishing or ethics. By destroying social structures, it has removed order, and according to Peterson, robbed us of the steady groundwork necessary for living meaningfully. We occupy an empty existence, a nihilistic vacuum where no value has a claim to superiority over another. This has heralded in the age of moral relativism where the only thing that resembles virtue is an amorphous praise of tolerance.

“He can be heard rallying against the destructive authoritarian forces that arise from left-wing and right-wing identity politics, and what he sees as the greatest threat to the individual: postmodernism.”

When your membership as part of a particular group is more important than your personhood as a whole, tragic things happen. As moral relativism has completely unmoored us from order and hierarchy, we have abandoned widely-shared and practiced virtues, lacking guideposts. Peterson argues that “people who live by the same code are rendered mutually predictable to one another. They can act in keeping with each other’s expectations and desires. They can cooperate. They can even compete peacefully…A shared belief system, partly psychological, partly acted out, simplifies everyone–in their own eyes, and in the eyes of others.” Shared belief systems help us to regulate the socially powerful and emotionally dark forces that result from chaos and uncertainty. Postmodernism has unleashed more of this disorder, demolishing our notions of shared belief systems. This has left us to occupy a chaotic cultural landscape. Peterson feels called upon to correct that; Postmodernism in general, and critical theory, in particular, have rejected millennia of accumulated wisdom in living well, as individuals and as communities.

Critical Theory, which largely grew out of Marxist thought, posits that ideas, morality, and values, or the superstructure, are based in power dynamics, that one’s worldview is driven by one’s privilege and position in society. Thus, a claim, be it moral, scientific, or cultural, is merely a result of circumstance, an interpretation held by a person because of their privilege in society. And, since much of Western society has been forged by the most privileged of groups, usually identified as white, cisgendered, heterosexual, Judeo-Christian, European men, any claims made by members of these groups are taken with greater skepticism than those pushed by members of historically marginalized ones. It does not matter whether the claim aligns with objective or empirical reality, or not. Perspectives perceived as coming from privileged voices have had their turn. Throw out those oppressive narratives and their accumulated wisdom! Knowledge seekers absolutely should welcome the addition of marginalized voices to the table of human truths, not in the spirit of moral or epistemological relativism, but out of a desire to expand human understanding and to minimize human suffering.    

In this postmodern world of moral relativism, the nearly universally accepted virtues are flattened. Instead, one of the greatest sins we can possibly commit is that of judgment, for it would be hubristic to claim that one value or cultural practice is superior to another. How dare anyone offer a series of rules for living meaningful lives, as Peterson outlines in his book, or suggest that near-universals for human flourishing actually exist?

Millennials are a generation who have been inundated with postmodern perspectives, whereupon exiting higher education, they hold a false sense of being well-educated about the world (I write this as one who is very sympathetic to postmodern philosophy). They have read some of the Western Canon and theories of the world, but mostly with the aim of criticizing them, looking primarily for the ways in which each writer or thinker contributes to imbalanced power dynamics. Critical Theory is a useful tool for analyzing the ways in which somebody’s privilege in society can blind them to the perspectives of marginalized groups, or explain why a white heterosexual male may have advantages in a given situation that might not be available to somebody who is a member of a more marginalized group.

“Critical Theory is a useful tool for analyzing the ways in which somebody’s privilege in society can blind them to the perspectives of marginalized groups…Still, it has limitations.”

Still, it has limitations. Peterson’s colleague Norman Doidge claims that “the postmodernist left makes the additional claim that one group’s morality is nothing but its attempt to exercise power over another group.” This simple, reductionist explanation is very appealing to our desire for an all-encompassing ideology, however, it ignores the richness and complexity of human existence. We contain multitudes, to quote Walt Whitman. We are a plethora of motivations and emotions, many of which are contradicting or subconscious (and oftentimes, both). To reduce human behavior to a single motivation for power does violence to our personhood, and goes against the infinite nature of our humanity, as philosopher Emmanuel Levinas might say. Humans are too expansive to be reduced to group identities or simple motivations.

Jonathan Haidt, moral psychologist and fellow contender for most influential public intellectual today, cautions us against the limits of only seeing the world through the lens of Critical Theory:

Today’s identity politics…teaches the exact opposite of what we think a liberal arts education should be. When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a utilitarian or as a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or as a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any given question or problem.

But what do we do now? Many students are given just one lens—power. Here’s your lens, kid. Look at everything through this lens. Everything is about power. Every situation is analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education…It’s a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety, and intellectual impotence.

Haidt is similar to Peterson in that he seems to transcend the partisan and political lines which have hardened during the rise of identity politics. In his book, The Righteous Mind, Haidt gives insights into how good people can disagree on such fundamental things as politics and religion, offering a much-needed salve amid the culture wars. In short, it’s easy to dismiss another person’s views when we deride the person as evil or mean-spirited, consequently resorting to scarlet letters and McCarthy-era witch hunts. A more intellectually humble and good-faith approach requires us to acknowledge the dignity and humanity of the other, to engage with their ideas, assuming that what they desire most for themselves, and the world, isn’t actually that different from most people.

This brings us to another key component of Peterson’s anti-postmodern philosophy. Regardless of how varied our genes or lived experiences may be, or how different our very malleable brains may be, we all face the same great unknowns of existence, and similar limitations inherent to the human condition, which results in suffering. For him, suffering is the foundation, and arguably, a necessary feature for meaningful living.

Suffering is inescapable. And, each of us strives to create order from entropy so that we can minimize it wherever possible. In a relapsed moment of moralism, Critical Theory advocates conclude that suffering is evidence of evil. Peterson adds some nuance here, asserting that tragedy is a consequence of Being, the result of material limitations placed on us by nature of our existence as physical beings (death, illness, missed opportunities, weakness). Alternatively, evil is defined as the willful causing of unnecessary suffering (theft, violence, emotional abuse, harassment). Suffering is a given, and it takes place within the yang and yin of Being–order and chaos, authority and freedom, tradition and progress. Meaning is found in suffering, in balancing along the “border between the ever-entwined pair…stay[ing] on the path of life, the divine Way.” His universalism here kicks up against the aimlessness of postmodernism and serves as the core of his message; we want to live meaningfully, diminishing our own suffering and that of others. In order to do that, Peterson provides us with 12 rules for life.

Peterson’s 12 rules

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

These rules derive from his multidisciplinary approach, a deep dive into the slow rolling mass of wisdom gathered from world religions, mythology, neuroscience, philosophy, and psychology. He is a pragmatist in the truest sense of the word. Recalling many dinner table conversations with his friend, Doidge remembers that “this cowboy psychologist seemed to care about a thought only if it might, in some way, be helpful to someone.” If art, literature, scientific theories, or technology don’t empower another person, don’t help us to live well, then they are of no use. More time spent on them is time that could be spent improving the lives of our fellow humans.

Despite all the indicators that his message resonates, including over 40 millions of views from his YouTube videos and subsequent book tour success, Peterson’s new radicalism, or reaction to postmodernism, may not be enough to usher in a new intellectual age. He has plenty of critics from within academia and among some of the hard-lined social justice camps who struggle to appreciate the overall thrust of his philosophy because of his outspoken criticisms toward censorship and victim-culture; his detractors also gripe with his calls for moving humanities education away from the “indoctrination cult” centers found in most universities, and into more accessible online platforms aimed to provide a properly empowering liberal arts education.

“His universalism here kicks up against the aimlessness of postmodernism and serves as the core of his message; we want to live meaningfully, diminishing our own suffering and that of others.”

A wholesale embrace of his philosophy may not be desirable (a sentiment with which Peterson himself would likely be inclined to agree). Still, his call for each of us to take personal responsibility for our lives is a welcomed approach compared to the victimhood-mindest alternatively preached by critical theorists. His respect for world mythologies, the power of metaphorical thinking, and the need to delve into our own personal darkness are reminiscent of the late scholar of comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell (another student of Carl Jung). Notably, Campbell also became a counter-cultural icon through his own video series, The Power of Myth, a collection of PBS interviews with Bill Moyers. He awakened within us a reverence for the wisdom of mythology, at a time when many struggled to anchor their lives amid the snarl of a secularizing world. It’s questionable whether we need religion to flourish, but Peterson makes his case, to theist and atheist alike, for how we can make use of our rich cultural heritages.

The most influential western public intellectual today may not be the second-coming of Joseph Campbell, the champion who rescues the individual from sacrifice upon the altar of collectivism, or even the anointed leader for a growing movement of individuals who are unsure how to become the authors of their own fate, but, he makes a strong case for his own candidacy, and the philosophy he espouses. He could be the antidote to the pitfalls of postmodernism many of us have been waiting for, but I’m not sure if I have enough hubris to make that sort of judgment.

(Image source: knowyourmeme.com)

  1. […] Is Jordan Peterson an Antidote Against the Pitfalls of Postmodernism?, by Jeffrey Howard […]

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