In criticizing an irritating Peterson fan a while back, I made the following claim:
In this case, the problem is in trusting an argument which you cannot understand, without realizing that you don’t understand it. If asked to explain an idea, can you describe it without using vague adjectives like “deep” and “profound?” Can you outline the premises, the steps, and the conclusions of an argument without depending upon shifting definitions and abnormal interpretations of otherwise commonly understood terms?
Campbell’s thesis — that of the Monomyth, or “hero’s journey” — is complex, but the argument can actually be made. The same is true with Jung, at least so far as his theory of the collective unconscious is concerned. Same with Nietzsche and “slave morality,” and to some degree, the death of God.
Peterson’s worldview, so far as I can tell, cannot be made as an argument. It is a collection of name-drops, conflations, literary references, and metaphors, mixed up with some real psychological facts, and packaged in a peculiar, meandering manner of speaking. This leaves the listener with the feeling of depth and profundity.
But if you actually take the trouble and pick up a scalpel, peel back the skin and look at the insides, there’s nothing there.
Incidentally, this coincides with Milo Yiannopoulos’ criticism in his foreword to Vox’s book:
I’m a smart person. Really smart, actually, and very expensively educated! But half the time, I just can’t understand a bloody word Jordan Peterson says. And I’ve been thinking recently about why that could be. Ordinarily, I can listen to someone prattling on and quickly get to the heart of what they are trying to express. That’s one of the skills you pick up as a journalist: You learn to quickly identify the core of a problem, the essence of what’s being said. You learn to filter out the noise—and to identify bullshitters. But with Jordan Peterson, once I’ve filtered out the noise, I don’t find a lot left to work with.
So the question is, if we tried to summarize Jordan Peterson’s worldview in a way that was coherent and comprehensible, what would it look like?
Vox Day’s new book Jordanetics: A Journey into the Mind of Humanity’s Greatest Thinker is not just a criticism of the Canadian professor, theologian, philosopher, and psychiatrist. It is a connection of the dots, a filling in of the blanks left by the old professor in his meandering lectures and his compelling but somewhat confusing exhortations.
And the connections are not at all attractive.
Day claims that Peterson’s path is not transcendent, but that of balance — the path of the middle, and the mediocre. While each rule as presented in Peterson’s best-selling 12 Rules for Life — the chapter titles — are not merely defensible, but good (if simple) life advice, the expanations provided in the chapter often have very little to do with the ostensible rule, and even contradict their ordinarily understood meaning. For instance, Peterson’s 8th rule — “Tell the truth — or at least, don’t lie” — has an immediately-understood meaning among most people. However, that meaning is undercut by Peterson’s peculiar definition of truth, which is Darwinian and pragmatic, and can be approximately summarized as that which leads to survival. “Lying” is also redefined, from saying that which we know not to be true, to saying that which makes you feel like you’re falling apart.
Needless to say, these new definitions permit lying, and dramatically change the actual meaning of what was previously a clear and good piece of general advice.
Every rule in Peterson’s 12 new Commandments is provided with a coherent interpretation. As you can see, these interpretations are not particularly flattering, nor are they very attractive to most people:
- Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
Translation: Be mediocre.
- Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. (Why won’t you just take your damn pills?)
Translation: God is the balance between Good and Evil.
- Make friends with people who want the best for you.
Translation: Leave the wounded behind to die.
- Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
Translation: Your head is the only truly safe space.
- Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
Translation: Do not excel, because excellence endangers the balance.
- Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
Translation: Inaction is always preferable to action.
- Pursue what is meaningful (Not what is expedient)
Translation: To reach Heaven above, you must descend into Hell below.
- Tell the truth–or, at least, don’t lie.
Translation: You can speak a new world into existence through your lies.
- Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
Translation: Dominate the conversation and control the narrative by keeping your mouth shut.
- Be precise in your speech.
Translation: Transcend the material world and very carefully choose the words that will alter this reality.
- Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
Translation: Heal the world by assimilating its evil.
- Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
Translation: To lift the world out of Hell, you must be willing to accept its pain and suffering into yourself.
If it seems uncharitable to offer “translations” of an intellectual’s stated words, recall that Peterson has fundamentally changed some pretty generally-accepted definitions, including “truth,” “God,” “being,” “order,” and “chaos,” and these new definitions permeate all of the above rules. They literally cannot be understood properly (i.e., through Peterson’s own worldview) without a translation from Jordanetic language into common parlance. Rather, these translations represent an honest upholding of the obligation to charity, not its neglect, as Vox Day is offering the most coherent and internally consistent view of Peterson’s ideas that I have seen.
The fact that this view is not very attractive to most people is no more Vox Day’s fault than is the confusing language which made more coherent interpretations necessary.
Nor is it Vox Day’s fault that Jordan Peterson regularly misrepresents data, theology, history, and sourced articles. It is not his fault that Peterson turns around on people like Milo Yiannopoulos, Faith Goldy, or Brett Kavanaugh, backing down on his support for free speech when push actually comes to shove, and condemning people as hateful or bigoted when they point out a problem with his argument.
Ultimately, it is hard to pick out one of Vox Day’s translations from the 12 Rules and argue that it falsely represents Peterson’s worldview. Just a few examples: Peterson exemplifies rule 3 — leave the wounded behind to die — in his treatment of Milo Yiannopoulos and of Faith Goldy. He exemplifies rule 10 — transcend the material world and very carefully choose the words that will alter this reality — in his various alternative definitions, as well as in his now-infamous interview with Joe Rogan, claiming to have gone 25 days without sleep (presumably as an excuse for his poor performance on the Sam Harris podcast; he claimed the incident happened the day of the interview with Harris). And his fans repeatedly, consistently, incessantly exemplify rule 6 — inaction is always preferable to action — perhaps even more than the man himself does. You cannot find a video criticizing Dr. Peterson in which his fans have not descended and demanded to know the status of the critic’s room, as though it were relevant (and as though their own prophet had a clean room and a clean house, literally or metaphorically). Of course, such people won’t hesitate to criticize Vox Day’s book, regardless of the status of their own room or life, as their comments online clearly illustrate.
But that’s just a detail.
Vox Day can be a bit blunt in his characterizations of people whom he has come to strongly disagree with, and for people who are still on the fence about Dr. Peterson — or are still supporters and adherents — this may make the book an emotionally challenging one. But Peterson himself was fond of quoting Jung’s idea that “in filth, it shall be found.” If you believe that Vox Day is motivated by envy or hatred or fear, that the book is just garbage and not worth reading, consider if perhaps some truth may be hidden in this particular volume of filth. After all, might there be something Vox Day knows that you don’t?
And if you do read it and find it to be as bad as you thought, then by all means criticize it. Just be sure that before you do so, you set your life in perfect order first, that you don’t lie in your characterization, and that you choose your words very, very precisely… assuming, of course, that taking the time to criticize someone else’s criticism is meaningful. Because surely, no true Peterson fan would break all of these rules to defend the very man who wrote them…
…unless, of course, the rules mean something entirely different than what they say.
This Post Has 15 Comments
EG21 Nov 2018
Now, I’m interested in reading the book. I read through Milo forward so far and the book introduction. Let’s see what VD does with this gentleman views of life!
rwnj21 Nov 2018
There is much to debate, discuss and disagree with in JP’s books and videos, so does that make him a con man?
C.B. Robertson23 Nov 2018
Of course not. What makes someone a con-man isn’t being controversial or interesting, but falsely representing 1.) their expertise, or 2.) their real positions. JBP does a soft rendition of the latter (the contrast between the easily understood meanings of the chapter titles in 12 Rules, and the actual philosophy which underlies it, which is almost diametrically opposed — and this from a psychologist!), and a hard version of the former. He is not a philosopher, nor a theologian, nor a politician, but he portrays himself as one, often misrepresenting ideas and concepts (for example, his use of the phrase “Being” comes from Heidegger, but his definition(s) have almost no overlap with Heidegger’s).
I don’t believe official credentials are required to be a “real” philosopher or theologian or political theorist, but if I were to take carpentry terminology and concepts, dress it up in political language, and then call it a political theory, that would be fraudulent — I am not being a political theorist, but a carpenter. This is what Peterson is doing, except with psychology.
Brian12 Jan 2019
I use the word “being” as representing an entity, a human being, sometimes as a verb. …I am glad to know that if I capitalize that word and use it in my speech, people will assume I gleaned it from Heidegger and will criticize me for not using Being with the same definition he did. Maybe that only happens if I mention Heidegger in my own speech?
That would be very odd to me, though. If I see the words “Question” or “Solution” being used in discussion about Hitler, I may assume that the killing of Jews is indictated but also would consider context. Maybe that person is looking for a Solution to not let totalitarianism arise as strongly again. Maybe that person is looking for the Question that will prompt such a Solution.
The second paragraph’s example was chosen for simplicity’s sake in finding an easy extreme to illustrate my point. I know there is a stain of Nazism on Heidegger but that isn’t what stopped me from reading Heidegger, it’s just that Heidegger is another name among “classics” which I just, quite frankly, do not have time to read every single “classic”.
Sure, maybe my “house is not clean” and I thus shouldn’t be “criticizing the world” but I ain’t going to spend the effort to remove every last bit of bacteria or dust in my house. That is ridiculously energy intensive and would not yield a conducive place to live. Instead, I would rather keep the filth to a minimum so that it doesn’t cause any problems and allows for favorable bacteria to arise or for incremental filth to remind me to take care of my belongings.
C.B. Robertson12 Jan 2019
@Brian All words can be used to mean different things based upon context. It won’t be common, but I could envision a scenario in which “tree” is used to refer to “car.” The point isn’t to ensure one is using the term “correctly,” but to ensure that one’s meaning is properly understood by the audience. So your first and second paragraph are well-taken, and I don’t think we disagree.
The problem with Peterson is not that he uses the word “Being” similarly or differently than Heidegger, but that the way he defines it in some places alines with Heidegger, and in other places does not. And yet, he will capitalize it in both places, and will relate these unrelated uses of the same term as though he was utilizing a shared definition, when in fact he is not. In other words, he is equivocating, with “being,” “truth,” “chaos,” “order,” “God,” etc.
One does not need to read Heidegger (or anyone else) in order to offer a consistent definition for a term like “being.” The point is not deviance, but internal consistency. Bringing up Heidegger (or Nietzsche, Jung, etc) is just a point of reference where deviance from internal consistency can be identified.
As an aside, I’m on the side saying that your room DOESN’T need to be clean in order to criticize the world.
//Sure, maybe my “house is not clean” and I thus shouldn’t be “criticizing the world” but I ain’t going to spend the effort to remove every last bit of bacteria or dust in my house.//
I could not sympathize more. It’s why Peterson fans (at least a significant minority of them) have become so irritating.
Brian12 Jan 2019
Thanks for the quick and thoughtful response. Glad to see we have things to agree on.
I think I laid out in my other comment, regarding my Mathematics major, that (in different wording) it would not be scholarly to use Heidegger’s use of Being. …I try to use my own definitions and relate others words into mine when I refer to them… I gave Peterson the benefit of the doubt while I read those sections because to do otherwise would cause a ridiculous interpretation. Also, Peterson’s accuracy of interpretation is not my concern. I am only concern about the accuracy of my understanding of the topic. 🙂
Haha, the “tree” and “car” thing would be funny to see. A practical example would be (…male) foreigners learning Japanese: I was at a restaurant and read ブッカッケ and was immediately like… what? That word is “bukkake”. …There is also 青 which we would translate as “blue” yet even when a signal light turns from red to green (and the green is green), the Japanese would say “go! the light is blue!”. …As alluded to in the first comment (Being), the example is likely not the best but it somewhat hits the point between “tree” and “car”. …The Japanese would differentiate the verb ‘being’ of the car as ある and the tree as いる, though, and that mistake by foreigners likely makes for some tense situations or comedic ones. Tense when referring to a person as inanimately being (ある) and the object as animately being (いる); unless the person is an asshole and the object has a “mind of its own”.
I think we are both working to clean each others houses a bit with a “giving” intention but meet a bit of resistance due to the other being in one’s house/territory. Again, glad to have received a quick response and to see that we both are skeptical but agreeable!
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Tea22 Dec 2018
A fine article.
Anonymous4 Jan 2019
Hateful misrepresentation of the book’s ideas. In fact having read the book and followed Peterson for a few years before the hype, I can safely say that to get his ideas that much wrong requires malicious intent.
Dan Hochberg27 Mar 2019
Yeah, your comment seems right on. I’m not deeply familiar with Peterson, but he is not hard to understand and nearly all,of what he says makes perfect sense. Further, I think he is helpful to a lot of young people who are lost and struggling.
You know, any reasonably good writer can take any person and portray them as a saint or a demon depending on what quotes and events they cherrypick and the narrative they impose upon them.
Peterson is a source of clarity and good.
C.B. Robertson4 Jan 2019
As someone who has also followed Peterson for a few years, which part is a misrepresentation? If you think there’s a lot, one or two specific examples will suffice.
(On my site, “hateful” is not a pejorative — that which is evil should be hated — but “misrepresentation” is).
Brian12 Jan 2019
My major is Mathematics but I have been through hard times and have had to ask and answer philosophical questions. The frustrating part about philosophy is that there is no point where it stops and the answer is clear, as answers are abundant. However, utilizing skills and processes from Mathematics, I can use reason to set up a structure of ideas that lets me hold a conceptual model of the world that both gives me verified predictive power and justification for the set up.
One of those processes is the act of defining terms that are being used. X can be just a variable, it could be a specific point and given a sub-script 0, it could be a chromosome, or it could be a DNA base-pair that has been identified by research as being capable of use in living organisms but does not naturally occur. Tying into my other comment about Being, Peterson gives a structure that sets up what he means when he uses Being. At some point he may have used Heidegger’s definition, but mostly it appears that he uses the definition which he structured. And, since most laypeople have likely not read Heidegger but have experience with the Bible (he has much more experience with the Bible than with Shinto), it is highly likely that Being was never used in Heidegger’s definition because that would ruin his own definition structure.
Another process is the use of different Mathematical patterns in parallel with each other. The movement of an object is in correlation with its derivative, but the growth in production of that object can be linear or exponential, among other patterns. There is no one pattern to rule them all, except the pattern that some things work and some things don’t when describing reality.
I deign to address all misrepresentations (yours, mine, Peterson’s, Vox’s) because that does not yield anything important except a massive expenditure of energy for naught. Instead, I will leave this comment with the above because it provides the essence of picking out what matters and how it matters with other things. …That what I saw a lot of discussion about in Peterson’s 12 Rules: do something to make things better, but don’t dwell.
You, and others, appear to have a problem with separating models from discussion and integration from one’s own life, experiences, and practices. I, too, have the same problem. We are human, and we get around this by finding out how to improve things together and not just paint ridiculous paintings of others.
Objective truth is not stated, it just is. It is what will guide our consequences, however those consequences could be caused by things other than what is objectively true. …The problem with objective truth is not acknowledging its existence, but acknowledging that things change and what seemed to be the perfect representation happened to be imperfect once time passed.
Objective truth, to me, appears to be the reality of general relativity where everyone is moving, has a legitimate point of view, but cannot agree on the same occurrence of events. By using the proper relations/patterns, we can work out the true sequence of events that explains all points of view. But if we keep bickering over silly misrepresentations instead of working towards finding the relating pattern, there is no support for any point of view except our own subjective realities.
M Barclay21 Feb 2019
It is so hard to find an actual review of this book without contempt of the author and those who have read it. It is a book.
Is it that hard for this reviewer to put down your prejudice of the author? If for example JK Rowling side swiped my car because of negligence should I decide to review her book with contempt because I “feel” like she doesn’t like me or is a shitty driver? Or maybe I should put aside my prejudice and professionally review a book about the topic.
C.B. Robertson22 Feb 2019
I am confused by this comment. I don’t hold Vox Day in contempt at all…