It is a strange experience to look back in time and see something I thought was so good, profound and impactful, that it moved me to tears, but now, realize JP did not really say anything I thought he said. I listened to the words he said, but I am the one that filled in the meaning…JP did not mean what I thought he meant.
As I was telling my family what he “meant”, I was really telling them what I wanted him to mean. JP was my “reason”, or excuse, for pontificating on various subjects and JP became a source of validation for my positions. I could state with confidence that my position was “right” and then point to JP and say, “See, he’s saying the same thing…”, thus making me feel good about this professor because he “backed me up”.
Tabatha Southey dubbed Peterson the “stupid man’s smart person,” but I think that somewhat misses the point, because he is highly intelligent. (The stupid man’s smart person is more likely to be either Ben Shapiro or Rachel Maddow). What’s wrong with Peterson has nothing to do with intelligence per se, and everything to do with language and one’s education and experience in its use and misuse.
I think the better label is the following: Peterson is is the un-philosophical person’s philosopher.
For most Peterson fans, Jordan Peterson represents their first foray into philosophy. They have never read or debated the merits of Christian theology seriously before, and what they saw in Peterson was a respectable (he has a PhD!) champion of certain values they held who was verbally clever enough to bamboozle the gender-fluid otherkin academics and totally honest RealJournalists™ who were attacking them. So these decent, salt-of-the-earth, but philosophically illiterate young men latched on to him, believing him to be their champion. But they lacked both the skills necessary to distinguish philosophy from sophistry, and the inclination to figure out whether or not their hero really was the real deal. Because they were not sufficiently educated and/or experienced in philosophy, Peterson’s tricky use of language (what Vox very helpfully calls “preemptive mirroring”) allows the listener to hear more or less whatever supports his own worldview, in a manner which sounds highly sophisticated and respectable, but in fact contains no real argument.
I don’t exempt myself from this group. The ancient Greeks thought that philosophy should be reserved for those who had reached the age of 30. Being 28, I suppose I’m near enough to the threshold to ignore the last two years and carry on in my study, but my preceding ten years of study does not make me an “expert,” even though I know more than the average amateur philosopher. Perhaps that is why I fell for Peterson as well. Who knows.
The point is that no one thinks it respectable for a scientifically-illiterate person to judge whether the work of one scientist is more legitimate than another, but for some reason, we make an exception in the case of philosophy. Peterson is the embodiment of this exception, as well as its effects. I imagine people who have never seriously studied philosophy or religion think they are qualified to say his views are “deep” and “profound” comes from the fact that we all like to speculate and banter with our friends, asking questions, and this feels like philosophy. Economists actually suffer this same unfortunate exception — perhaps because ordinary people work for a living and sometimes balance their checkbook. So obviously, they know how money works in a complex economy.
If young men wish to begin learning about philosophy, they’d be better off beginning with the stoics (Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations in particular — General Mattis’ personal book of choice), Homer (Alexander the Great carried The Iliad with him in the way Mattis carries Aurelius), and the dialogues of Plato. If you can manage that, then read Aristotle — perhaps the greatest philosopher in history. The contemporary good stuff (Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, and Donovan’s The Way of Men) all come after that, and while being more enjoyable, are arguably less important than the Father of Western Philosophy.
And Peterson, of course, is not only worse than, but antithetical to, all of these.