It depends on what you mean by “said”…

It depends on what you mean by “said”…

Related to a previous post, the following review of Jordanetics illustrates perhaps the primary problem with Peterson:

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.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. I’ve been looking into critiques of Jordan Peterson from multiple authors, I’ve yet to see any actual quotes from his work being addressed whatsoever. Please make a cogent argument which actually addresses something the man has said, barring that, this reads as a vitriolic opinion piece. If you can make a substantial case based on demonstrable faults in Mr. Peterson’s theories or logic, based on his actual work, then I will be more inclined to see the merits of your argument.

    1. One does not need to quote directly in order to understand an argument (I have made this case elsewhere, incidentally also on a post about Peterson, called “More Peterson Shenanigans”). But you will find that many of my hyperlinks go to Peterson videos, and Vox Day quotes him extensively.

      But just to accept your premise for a moment — that direct quotes are necessary to understand a position or a philosophy — answer me this: did Jordan Peterson not say that he did not sleep “at all” for 25 days, three times for emphasis on Joe Rogan? And given that the world record for 11 days and 25 minutes, do you believe Peterson could possibly be telling the truth? If not, what do YOU think JBP means when he repeats the importance of not lying?

  2. Please link me to your Peterson shenanigans post and I will be sure to hear you out. The statement he made about not sleeping for 25 days requires clarification, if he is saying he literally had no sleep and doesn’t mean it as he had a very difficult time sleeping because of crushing anxiety etc, than yes I would say he is lying, has he been challenged to respond and clarify in any of his live Q&A videos about this? Is that the strongest evidence against him?

    The best way to understand someone else’s position would be to thoroughly consider and refer to it so that you can then dismantle their arguments based on their substance for all to see, just my two cents.

    1. The link is here ( but for brevity, let me just make the argument here. In his book “Equality: The Impossible Quest,” Israeli historian Martin Van Crevalt argued that every historical attempt at achieving equality of some kind failed, and sometimes even exacerbated inequality. Thus, for modern advocates, the idea of achieving “equality” is probably a futile undertaking. I don’t need to actually quote Crevalt to accurately summarize his book, and you don’t need to actually read it in order to understand the thesis (although if you doubt my summary, you might read it just to find out for yourself).

      As for Peterson and the cider of doom, I would encourage you to find the clip and judge for yourself. But first go back and read your comment above. That kind of defense, where you seek out some context in which the statement in question might be defensible, could be used to defend any false statement, perhaps even wrong action. It violates the principle of parsimony.

      The cider is just one example. Another: in his chapter on taking your pills, he cites a research paper and claims that it supports his claim that 2/3 of people don’t take their prescriptions as they should, when in fact, it says that roughly 1/3 don’t, and that the primary cause for people not taking their meds is lack of money or confusion from old age, NOT feelings of little self-worth, which Peterson advanced as the primary cause. Now either Peterson did not read this citation, or he did. In either case, it is not good.

      Now this is not “the strongest evidence against him” either, but when enough of these kinds of things add up, it becomes really clear that Peterson means what he says when he defines truth as “that which helps you survive” and not as “that which is,” and defines lies as “that which makes you feel like you’re coming apart,” rather than knowingly saying what is not. Not everything he says is a lie, as conventionally understood, but he lies a lot. And he explains things in a manner that does not actually reach a conclusion, but puts words in people’s minds (“now you might be thinking…”) that ultimately lets the listener project his own conclusion into Peterson’s speech. You can think of this as a dishonest mode of speech — something that is more common from lawyers and politicians than from academics.

  3. Three years later, I’m curious to know if your views of Peterson have changed at all. I have a hard time seeing eye-to-eye with his detractors or his sycophants.

    1. They’ve definitely softened a little, especially for his lectures on psychological subject-matter (I personally got a lot out of his stuff on Piaget in particular). And I’m glad he introduces Nietzsche better than most professors do, who like to emphasize that he sort of founded post-modernism (as if he would have had anything to do with 20th-century French communists). That said I still think his philosophical foundation is weak, and his political foundation is even worse. Like Stefan Molyneux and Sam Harris, he seems to be trying to ground ethics in a modernist worldview. IMO, Stefan Molyneux put in a good effort but didn’t quite succeed, while Sam Harris failed utterly. Peterson’s Maps of Meaning feels a little closer to Harris than to Molyneux.

  4. I appreciate the response. I see him much as I do any author – a potential source of good (or at least thought provoking) ideas, whose work is to be consumed with caution. I agree with much of what he says, not all of it – though I attribute most of what he gets wrong (in my opinion) to naïveté or bias rather than malice. I do think he’s a good and honorable man, trying to do what he thinks is right, but that can be said of many people with flawed ideas.

    I agree with you that his error(s) mirrors those of Harris and Molyneux, though I think his work is much closer to the mark, even if that is accidental/unintentional (ie he helped me to appreciate that much of what is “real” is not visible or relevant to science, but no less real than matter and energy, regardless, and this point alone explodes the modernist worldview). If anything it has helped me to appreciate that purely ”rational” thinking is a road to hell.

    I enjoy your writing; keep up the good work.

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