Getting to Grips with Jordan Peterson

Time to get down to detail with Peterson. As I’ve said before I don’t know enough of his actual work to be a fan, but I do like his conversations. Constructive dialogue is my main agenda right now, especially when the alternative is people engaging in objective criticism invariably talking past each other.

An exchange this morning prompted the reading around, and this post:

The article is in American Conservative – which sounds scary – but Tim Rogers is a consultant psychiatrist in Edinburgh (also published in both Quillette and Areo). Martin Robinson is author of Trivium21C, which I have just started reading.

And as the first comment says:

This is one of the most thoughtful (and thought-provoking) articles about Jordan Peterson that I have read ….

Jordan Peterson is getting kids to read The Gulag Archipelago, and reminds them that (as Solzhenitsyn states) the line between good and evil lies in every human heart. It is a battle worth fighting, and Jordan Peterson is giving the “heroes and seekers” the tools with which to do it.

A previous balanced and thoughtful piece in The Guardian, designed to educate passing readers who’ve heard the fuss but maybe not understood yet what it is about, also prompted polarised war-like responses. I wrote there that Peterson’s public rhetoric does appear “kooky” – but he responds defensively to that accusation. Also had this exchange recently

So, particularly interesting in the AmCon piece is that the foil is a critical piece by Julian Baggini from January in the FT, (which I had bookmarked, but not yet read, and I have a limited subscription to FT’s paywall anyway). I’m a big fan of Baggini’s work so it had caught my attention. It gets off to a great start:

“In the Balkanised age of the internet, bands that most people have never heard of can fill arenas, and TV series on platforms most people don’t use can have audiences of millions. Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, shows that intellectuals can play that game too.”

Precisely. And what we really need to understand is why that game needs to be played, because it will always be a game, a game that has been ramped-up in the internet age. Baggini describes how Peterson’s putative 12 Rules exploded via a Quora Q&A, which explains the online male nerd dominated phenomenon and its feminazi reaction. The game many misunderstand, undervalue or reject is rhetoric.

However when it comes to actual content, as per one of my crack’d record mantras – “plus ça change ’twas ever thus” – much of it is at least 6000 years, as old as recorded history anyway. In Baggini’s words:

“In headline form, most of his rules
are simply timeless good sense.”

So obviously, this I can believe. And “more flab than flesh” as a book, which underlines why I chose not to actually read it, so far anyway.

Being old news expressed rhetorically, without the benefit of sophisticated comparative philosophical scholarship – philosophology – casts Peterson for me as a Robert Pirsig for the internet generation. Which doesn’t make him wrong, quite the opposite in fact. KulturbĂ€ren maybe?

Like Pirsig as a real human teacher, Peterson the individual clinical psychologist does have significant first-hand expertise and life experience in their own field. And like Pirsig, there is a deliberate choice to downplay the grammar and dialectic of established philosophy in order to focus on the rhetoric of human communication (see Trivium21c) where interhuman dialogue beats the technical dialectic aspect of “critical thinking”.

The rest of the review is a good read, and technically, Baggini’s analysis is excellent – by example, exposing Peterson’s logical inconsistencies that devalue the standalone specifics of what he has to say. He’s right of course and what this suggests to me is category errors; Peterson is hoping to communicate something on a different meta-level. All adages and aphorisms, like old-wives tales, invariably conflict if considered alongside each other in a single context.

It’s hard to articulate, but Peterson’s conservative espousal of certain kinds of order in tradition and myth is not necessarily hypocritical whilst encouraging the chaos of individual – gender-neutral – personal freedom and will. The conservatism is at a different (species*) level from the everyday real world (individual) level. (* species of information patterns and argument that is, nothing to do with humans or lobsters, male or female!) It’s a conservatism I share. The nature of human interactions is a different kind of thing from the specific actions. However liberal we are in the latter, the former is worth conserving.

[Post Note: And chaos vs order balance, and the redressing of out-of-kilter balance? Seems I got that right, listen to this excellent BBC R4 Start the Week with Tom Sutcliffe. All five participants work well. Louise O’Neill makes one spectacular “gender is a social construct” gaff, but just like the Cathy Newman exchange, I’d love this conversation to continue. A real source of progress.]

The real lesson is the danger in mixing the levels, and the need to keep the dialogues separate. Having a right to say “non-PC” things is fine, but there is a responsibility to follow-up in honest dialogue with an understanding of the multiple ways of communicating and knowing. That is one thing over which I’d defend Peterson. As I’ve said before, two things Peterson seems to understand as a clinical psychologist are identity politics and meaning.

Tim Rogers in the AmCon review that started this post is effectively saying that mainstream philosophers like Baggini are missing Peterson’s point. In that sense I might be agreeing with him. Early on he says:

“Inside an aphorism, it is minds that collide, and what spins out is that most slippery of things, wisdom.”

I can identify with that. Wisdom is indeed a slippery concept, but nevertheless a valuable one. Being slippery it is indeed extremely difficult to get a grip on it, to articulate it satisfactorily using conventionally accepted grammar and dialectic. Rhetoric conquers all it seems.


[Coincidentally, the first time I encountered Julian Baggini was in his interviewing of Robert Pirsig back in 2006, but that’s another story.]

[Given that Peterson is cast as a modern day Stoic, be interesting also to know Massimo Pigliucci’s take, but understandable why mainstream philosophy is keeping things at arm’s length. “Professional philosophical engagement would involve very careful handling.”]

[Post Note: And another analysis, recommended by the man himself:

And it is indeed very good.

“Many of Peterson’s seemingly grandiose pronouncements are, in fact, quite modest. He is often derided for repackaging banal common sense in a vague and pretentious idiom, and there is something to this. Peterson is an apologist for a set of beliefs that we once took for granted but now require an articulate defense … How such traditional values came to be portrayed as a danger adjacent to Nazism is one of the puzzles of our time.”

That is indeed the puzzle. Being “required to articulate defence” of received wisdom is the new received wisdom, and that is the problem. The dialectic of binary debate has taken-over from common sense; crowded-out the grammar of rhetoric, the dialogue of proper communication. The tool has become the master, to quote McGilchrist, quoting Einstein.]

[And whilst we’re collecting JBP post-notes, The Forward Fiasco.]

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