Peterson, Harris, and The Spectre of Postmodernism.

Jordan Peterson is a cultural phenomenon. His views reach much larger audience than your typical academic. There are various different theories as to reasons for his popularity; some more plausible than others. I suggest that one reason that he is so popular is that his writing has a practical quality which is very different from the typical abstract way of writing that is the norm in academic spheres. Peterson is a clinical psychologist, who uses his experiences with his patients and his experiences with his own family and friends to give his theorising a practical feel. Peterson writes with real emotion and discusses real world problems in a practical manner that people can understand and relate to.
Another reason he is popular has to do with the image he projects of himself as a tough-minded man of action. His bio at the end of his new book ‘12 Rules for Living’ presents a compelling image:
“Jordan B Peterson, raised and toughened in the frigid wastelands of Northern Alberta, has flown a hammerhead roll in a carbon fiber stunt plane, piloted a mahogany racing sail boat around Alcatraz Island, explored an Arizona Meteorite crater with a group of astronauts, and built a Kwagu’l ceremonial bighouse on the upper floor of this Toronto home after being invited into and named by that Canadian First Nation. He’s been a dishwasher, a gas jockey, bartender, short-order cook, beekeeper, oil derrick bit re-tipper, plywood mill labourer and railway line worker. He has taught mythology to Lawyers, doctors and business people…” (‘12 rules for Life bio’ page)
The message is clear, Peterson is no nerd, no academic lightweight afraid of his own shadow, on the contrary, Peterson is a man of the people. In his introduction to ‘12 Rules for Life’, Peterson’s friend the neuroscientist Norman Doidge presents a picture of Peterson as a hard man in cowboy boots, a kind of academic Clint Eastwood. When Peterson argues against PC rules he is portrayed as a grizzled tough guy who takes no messing from weak lefty academics. He is like a latter day Mcgarnicle who is tired of being held back by his pen pushing Captain: .
Peterson is adored for standing up to silly academics like the postmodernists who deny obvious facts about reality. Yet despite this public persona, Peterson holds views on the nature of truth that aren’t that dissimilar to the views of the postmodernists he criticises.
Part 1: Peterson and Postmodernism:
One of Peterson’s main fears, which he speaks about again and again, is the fear of what he calls Cultural Marxism. In his book ‘12 Rules For Life’ Peterson discusses Marxism and its consequences. Peterson notes the incredible popularity that Marxist ideas held for intellectuals in the early twentieth century. However, he argued that as people began to understand the incredible suffering that was being caused around the world in Marxist countries, they began to have doubts about the underlying philosophy. Peterson claimed that the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s ‘The Gulag Archipelago, destroyed any credibility of Marxism. Solzhenitsyn’s book, supposedly conclusively showed that the horrors of Marxism were not an idiosyncratic result of particular implementations of Marxism, but were systemic to the entire philosophy (‘12 Rules for Living’ p. 308). Given what Peterson believed was the total destruction of Marxism, not all public intellectuals wanted to directly associate with it. Therefore some intellectuals felt that it was necessary to transform Marxism into a different form while maintaining its spirit. Peterson charges Derrida with being a Marxist who simply substituted the idea of power for the idea of money. This approach led to postmodernist academics looking for power-relations in all areas and thinking it was their job to unmask these implicit relations. Thus such thinkers began to see things like scientific facts as playing a role in maintaining power of certain groups, even notions such as logic were viewed as a structure used to dominate. Peterson didn’t argue that power relations weren’t a factor in our scientific theorising, he just argued that it played smaller role than some postmodernists believed it did.
These postmodernist views when carried to their logical extension seem to lead us to a situation where we cannot evaluate any claim whatsoever as our entire logical and epistemological techniques are claimed to have been invalidated by postmodern analysis. Peterson thinks that adopting this approach, will lead to a disaster, where any claim is as good as any other, and hence we are vulnerable to power mongers who will use this nihilistic vacuum to seize power.
Part 2: Peterson on Truth:
I won’t here evaluate the validity of Peterson’s analysis of Marxism and postmodernism as I don’t know enough about Marxist history and its relation to postmodernism to have a strong opinion. What I will discuss is a criticism of postmodernism that Peterson makes in his 12 rules for living and relate it to his discussion of truth he had with Sam Harris last year. Peterson made the following point about postmodernists:
“The insane and incomprehensible postmodern insistence that all gender differences are socially constructed…The fact that such statements lead immediately to internal inconsistencies within this ideology is never addressed. Gender is constructed, but an individual is unarguably considered a man trapped in a woman’s body (or vice versa). The fact that both of these cannot be logically true, is just ignored (or rationalized away with another appalling post modern claim: that logic itself-along with the techniques of science-is merely part of the oppressive patriarchal system).” ( ‘12 Rules For Living’ p. 315)
The actual example that Peterson gives isn’t important. Rather what is important is that he argues that (1) Postmodernism leads to inconsistent positions. And Postmodernists typically ignore this inconsistency. (2) To the extent that Postmodernists try and resolve these difficulties they resort to the desperate dodge of claiming logic is just a tool in an oppressive patriarchal system.
The issue of whether Peterson has postmodernists correctly or not is a complex one that we can ignore here. Peterson presents no textual evidence to demonstrate which postmodernists hold this inconsistent view, nor does he discuss postmodernist takes logic in any detail. The important point is that Peterson charges postmodernists with espousing absurd and inconsistent views, and trying to hold onto them by bending logic to support their views on the nature of sex and power.
In his discussion with Sam Harris on the nature of truth last year Peterson argued for an idiosyncratic view on truth that on the face of it is similar to the postmodernist views on truth that he is so critical of.
In his discussion with Harris, Peterson argued that there is a fundamental contradiction between the Darwinian World View and the Newtonian World View. The Darwinian sense of truth is that we are creatures created by the contingent processes of natural selection who can construct theories that help us cope with the flux of reality. On this Darwinian conception our best theories are the ones that lead to our survival. If a theory leads to the destruction of all life then it is by definition untrue. Peterson notes: “Truth is that which serves life” (57 minutes of Harris/Peterson discussion). The Newtonian conception of truth is that there are ultimate truths about the mind independent world that are true whether they lead to our survival or not.
On the Darwinian Picture we have no guarantee that we know the truth. Our theories may have passed the test of keeping us alive so far. But this fact may not continue. Our theories could result in us dying tomorrow and hence on Peterson’s world view our theories would have to be turned out to be simply false (because not they didn’t lead to survival). Peterson links this view with the pragmatist theory of truth (he mentions Dewey and James).
Peterson casually mentions that he is operating with the conception that science is a tool that is useful for certain purposes rather that something that describes reality either correctly or incorrectly. He doesn’t really cash-out this Wittgensteinan point in any detail. But his primary claim seems to be that science is a tool that is useful for various purposes and that if these tool leads to the destruction of all life then the tool has not been pragmatically efficient and hence we can say the scientific theory is false. This is a crude equating of truth with use; useful theories being theories that stop all life from dying. It is worth noting that American Pragmatists such as James, Peirce had a much more multilayered view of useful tools and didn’t rely on such crude pictures where useful theories are judged primarily on whether they lead to death or not. So Peterson’s placing himself in the pragmatist tradition is dubious.
Harris responds to Peterson’s expounding of Darwinian Truth by making the following point:
“It is undeniable that there were facts before there were any creatures to understand the nature of those facts…physical reality has a character whether or not there are apes around to talk about it”. (Harris/Peterson discussion 51 mins)
Peterson responds to the above claim using what he calls the Is it True Enough Objection:
“In order to establish an objective fact we have to parameterize the search, we have to narrow the search; we have to exclude many many things. And I think sometimes when we do that we end up generating a truth, and I would say that it is a pragmatic truth, that works within the confines of the parameters that have established around the experiment, but then when launched up off into the broader world; much of which was excluded from the theorising, the results can be catastrophic. I would say that that is a kin to the problem of there is operationalizaton where you reduce the phenomena to something that you can discover and discuss scientifically and then there is generalization back onto the real world. And one of the things that you see happen very frequently is that the operationalization succeeds but the generalization fails miserably.” (Harris/Peterson debate 52.30 mins)
This reply of Peterson involves distinguishing between micro-claims which are facts within a system and macro-claims which are the truth of the overall system. Peterson thinks that there are facts, and that we can say are facts at the micro-level, but that future science may show that these facts are not true as our theory of the world evolves.
Most of the discussion that follows from this is Harris giving a series of micro-examples and saying that it would be absurd to argue that these micro truths would turn out to be false if they led to the death of all life. Peterson typically replied to these criticisms by holding strong on his definition of truth as what life serves. Harris gives various micro examples and Peterson replies to them as follows:
“Within the context of that micro example, truth is not malleable by situation…ok I buy that. But the problem is that that micro example isn’t separate in the actual world, from the macro examples, which would be let’s call it the scientific method as such. And there may be local applications of the scientific method where the local facts generated are sufficiently context independent so you can’t make any contextual claims. But I could say well it turned out in a thousand years that that empirical game was fatal, so the micro facts in that game were false you just couldn’t see it at the time”. (Harris/Peterson debate 1.06).
The debate between Harris and Peterson doesn’t reach a resolution. Harris keeps putting forth micro examples and Peterson keeps arguing that they don’t prove what Harris thinks they do. One of the micro examples was particularly instructive and touches on some of the issues Peterson discussed in relation to postmodernism.
Harris makes the following point:
“It seems to me that I can make statements about reality which neither of us can know to be true, we just don’t have the tools where not going to take the time to do it. But we know there is a fact of the matter whether or not we can get the data in hand. So I could say for instance you have an even number of hairs on your body. I don’t know that that’s true but I know that I have a 50% chance of being right about that. And this is not a non-binary possibility, this is a binary one (assuming you have hair on your body)…now what do you think about that?”(Harris/Peterson debate 1 02)
Peterson makes his standard claim about it being a micro example that only works because it is divorced from the rest of our theory of the world and both theorists went around in their typical circle. I think though that if we switch the example a bit it will raise a problem for Peterson. Suppose we ask Peterson about whether he thinks the following proposition is true (1) Either Peterson has an even number of hairs or an odd number of hairs on his body but not both. I assume that Peterson would reply that he accepts the truth of (A) at the micro level, but it isn’t necessarily true at the macro level. This would seem to be the answer that his theory of truth dictates. So the above example involves use a law of logic; the law of non-contradiction to make a claim about Peterson’s body. Peterson accepts the law of non-contradiction as something that can tell us truths about the world at the micro-level. However, if the law of non-contradiction when generalized wiped out all life, then retrospectively the law of non-contradiction wouldn’t have been a good guide to judging whether the hairs on Peterson’s body were even or odd.
It should be obvious that Peterson’s above answer is perilously close to the one gave by the postmodernists. Recall above that Peterson criticised the Postmodernist for seeming to accept inconsistent truths ( (1) Sex is entirely socially constructed (2) People are to be automatically to be believed if they say they were born into the wrong biological body). Unlike the postmodernist Peterson doesn’t accept an inconsistent belief. However like the postmodernist Peterson is prepared to disavow a truth of logic if it leads to all life being destroyed. In a similar sense the postmodernist is prepared to bend the rules of logic if he believes that they are tools of power which lead to oppression. So despite being outraged with the Postmodernist for modifying logical truths within their system, it would appear that Peterson is doing the same when he admits that basic logical laws will have to be modified if they lead to disastrous consequences for life.
A possible defence of Peterson is that his system doesn’t accept contradictions within his micro-system, and only admits the bare possibility that the law of contradiction may need to be revised at the limit. This is different than the cavalier manner in which postmodernists accept contradictions into their system of the world. I think that this defence of Peterson is on point. A good way of bringing out this point is to use what Quine called ‘The Maxim of Minimum Mutilation’. If we have a theory of the world that makes various wrong predictions about the world we don’t automatically have to rescind the entire theory. We can modify the theory by changing certain sentences within the theory that implied the false predictions. When deciding which sentences to rescind we should pick the ones at the periphery of the theory which will do the least damage to the overall theory and save us from our making our false predictions. In this vein we would rescind logical and mathematical theories last as they infiltrate our total web of beliefs the most and changing these laws would reverberate throughout our entire theory. However in some circumstances we may have no choice but to modify some logical laws. In his Two Dogmas of Empiricism Quine noted that some scientists even considered revising the law of excluded middle as a way simplifying calculations in Quantum Physics (Two Dogmas of Empiricism p. 42) . In this sense with a bit of work one could build up Peterson’s picture into a type of Quinean Naturalism.


Part 3: Peterson, Morality and Survival:
The above picture is somewhat congenial with the overall conception that Peterson has sketched; where even basic facts can be revised based on pragmatic considerations such as simplicity, predictive utility etc. However Peterson would differ from the Quinean Picture in one key sense. Peterson thinks that moral facts are a key criterion in deciding whether an overall theory is correct or not. Peterson argues that: “It was necessary for our attitude towards science to be nested in something else, which was a higher moral conception” (Harris/Peterson debate 58mins).
Peterson’s claim that scientific truths must be nested within moral truths is barely intelligible from my own naturalistic perspective. Peterson would again justify his claim by pointing out that our moral attitudes will have consequences for our behaviour when doing science that could lead to our undoing. So based on Peterson’s definition of truth as; “what serves life”, one cannot divorce truth from our moral attitude. So given his strange definition of truth, Peterson is right on his own terms. However, I think the empirical data suggests that Peterson may be incorrect on the pragmatic utility of adopting ancient moral systems to help us cope with the flux of reality.
When discussing morality and scientific endeavours Peterson adopts an apocalyptic tone:
“That’s partly why the scientific endeavour as it’s demolished the traditional underpinnings of our moral systems, has produced an emergent nihilism and hopelessness among people that makes them more susceptible to ideological possession. I think it’s a fundamental problem. I do think that that the highest truths are moral truths, I am thinking of that from a Darwinian Perspective.” (Harris/Peterson debate 1Hr)
In the above quote Peterson notes that our scientific endeavour when divorced from a moral perspective has lead us to a nihilistic state where our most basic values were torn down. Without our basic values we were susceptible to ideological possession that resulted in the horrors of Marxism, and the Horrors of the Nazis. Peterson never places any numbers on his argument. Do the deaths and suffering caused by Marx and Nazi’s make the world a more violent and dangerous place than in the past?
One could argue that Peterson is being naive in arguing that we are more susceptible to ideological possession in the post Darwinian world. Pre-Darwin we were after all susceptible to ideological possession in the form of various different religious systems which were used as reasons for countless wars.
However, Peterson doesn’t think of our Judeo-Christian tradition an ideological possession, rather Peterson thinks these ancient stories are archetypes which are universal amongst humans and reveal deep truths that we ignore at our peril. When discussing atheism Peterson’s views that true moral systems are derived from the Judeo-Christian faith are apparent:
“You might object, “But I’m an atheist.” No, you’re not (and if you want to understand this, you could read Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, perhaps the greatest novel ever written, in which the main character, Raskolnikov, decides to take his atheism with true seriousness, commits what he as rationalized as a benevolent murder, and pays the price). You’re simply not an atheist in your actions, and it is your actions that most accurately reflect your deepest beliefs-those that are implicit, embedded in your being, underneath your conscious apprehensions and articulable attitudes and surface level knowledge. You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act. You simply don’t know what you believe, before that. You are simply too complex to understand yourself” (Peterson ‘12 Rules for Life’ p. 103)
“Even when the modern atheists opposed to Christianity belittle fundamentalists for insisting, for example, that the creation account in Genesis is objectively true, they are using their sense of truth, highly developed over the centuries of Christian culture, to engage in such argumentation” (ibid p. 189)

Claims such as these have very little credibility from an historical point of view. Peterson is entirely ignoring people such as Plato, Aristotle, Euclid etc and is pretending that our entire moral culture was built on the back of Christian dogma. At the very least one would think that Peterson would discuss the use made of Plato by St. Augustine, or the use made of Aristotle by St. Aquinas. Christian culture didn’t arise in a cultural vacuum. The central tenants of Christian Moral systems were modified by millennia of rational thought. Peterson doesn’t really engage with this rational process at all. He seems content to argue that these moral values were simply universal archetypes that we ignore at our peril.
One point worth noting is that in his ’12 Rules’ Peterson cites approvingly Pinker’s book ‘The Better Angel’s of our Nature’. But Peterson doesn’t note a serious difference between his views and Pinker’s. Pinker citing long term statistical data argues that since the enlightenment things have on average been getting progressively better; less violence, people living longer etc. Yet Peterson claims, without providing evidence, that we have entered an age of nihilism as a result of our increasing secularisation. Pinker’s data presents the complete opposite picture. Given the fact that Peterson’s entire argument on truth relies on pragmatic utility and moral ideals at the very least he needs to deal with this data and present an argument as to why it doesn’t hold up. It would seem that based on Peterson’s strange definition of truth as “That which serves life”, our secular Enlightenment moral systems, are more likely to lead us to the truth than Christian dogmas will.

2 thoughts on “Peterson, Harris, and The Spectre of Postmodernism.

  1. jkubie

    stuff about Newton vs Darwin seems to be gobblydy gook. Newton’s truth were truths about the natural world, not the world of the mind or human relations. Proofs are not complete, but largely within framework of technology. Are functional airplanes a micro proof? Truths about mind and human relations are another branch of science and more complex. Although scientific theories, in both the natural and human domains, are models that evolve, this has nothing to do with darwin; and the truthfulness is about experiment and prediction not survival.

    1. surtymind Post author

      Heya John, cheers for the comment. It’s been a good while since I wrote this. I will have to give it a re-read to remember what I wrote. I will get back to you when I re-read my blog-post


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