The Search for Meaning in Jordan B. Peterson

by Joseph Shieber

Few topics have captured the attention of the internet literati more than the topic of Jordan B. Peterson. Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, parlayed a protest against Canada’s transgender anti-discrimination protections, such as Federal Bill C-16, into a hugely popular YouTube channel, Patreon site, and bestselling book.

However, after a recent Independent interview with Sam Harris included some of Harris’s strongly worded reservations about Peterson’s positions, perhaps it is finally time to begin to prepare for an internet without near-daily references to Peterson.

If you’re like me, you might think this time is already overdue. Believe me, I get it. It’s hard not to get frustrated at the thought that we haven’t already passed the point of Peak Peterson. That’s the stage when all of the think pieces, discussion notes, and book reviews will begin to taper off, and we can begin to wring our hands about the inexplicable popularity of the next (pseudo-) intellectual dazzler who holds out the promise of providing heft to the thought behind free speech concern trolls, incels, misogynists, or members of the alt-right.

Of course, that we’ve spent so much time doing this with Jordan Peterson is one aspect of his genius. His writing allows his defenders to deny that the darker reaches of his appeal actually speak to Peterson’s own ideas. He’s not a free speech concern troll, but a brave defender of untrammeled thought against government intrusion. He’s not a misogynist; he’s simply following the best science on evolutionary and personality psychology where it leads. He doesn’t support the alt-right, though he is incisive enough to understand its roots deep in our psyche.

In short, Peterson’s appeal is at least in part that his writing is tailor-made for these tribal times.

Those who wish to do so can virtue-signal by finding and decrying any signs of toxic masculinity, misogyny, or racism in Peterson’s thought. Others can demonstrate their intellectual toughness and respect for the truth above all by insisting that the virtue signalers haven’t read Peterson with the care his subtly crafted writing deserves.

As an analytic philosopher, I’m trained to be skeptical of intentionally ambiguous writing that can too easily be packaged as intellectual subtlety. And it strikes me as the height of irony that someone who claims to place such a value on the importance of calling things by their proper names applies the term “cultural marxism” with such indiscriminate abandon.

However, by focusing on his carefully formulated provocations, Peterson’s critics are feeding his popularity and playing directly into his hands. Write what you will about him, but the man is certainly no fool.

All of the attention surrounding the debate about whether Peterson is a misogynist or a racist, a transphobe or a fascist, hides the emptiness at the core of Peterson’s thought. His stated goal was, as he suggests at the introduction to his bestselling 12 Rules for Life, to provide an answer to the question “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” The ultimate irony is that Peterson never in fact answers that question. Here are two ways in which he fails to do so.

First, Peterson never addresses the key driver of the question he claims he sought to answer: what constitutes value?

Peterson frames his analysis against a backdrop of various binary oppositions that are supposed to provide skills for coping with life. Winner vs. loser. Paternal authority vs. maternal nurturing. Order vs. chaos. Peterson claims that these binaries are inescapable, derived from an analysis that “combines the hard-won truths of ancient tradition with the stunning revelations of cutting-edge scientific research”. And it’s this claim that has attracted the attention of Peterson’s critics.

What everyone has largely ignored is that whether Peterson’s framework is based on “hard-won” truths is a distraction. None of the answers to questions about value can be found in those supposed truths.

Here’s what I mean. Take Peterson’s claim that stern authority is a fatherly trait, while gentle nurturing is a motherly one. Let’s grant, solely for the sake of argument, that this characterization is true. How would this help at all in furthering our understanding about what has value?!

The problem is one that anyone who’s taken an introductory ethics class might recognize. The philosopher David Hume is famous for, among other things, the argument that you cannot “derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is'”. The idea is that, if all you have in an argument are factual statements, you cannot derive a value-laden conclusion.

Here’s a trivial example. Suppose I provide you a wealth of evidence that, if you cut alcohol and cooked foods out of your diet, you could prolong your life by ten years. Even if you think that the evidence is unimpeachable, it doesn’t yet tell you that you that you should cut alcohol and cooked foods out of your diet.

To answer that question, you would have to know whether a shorter life with those pleasures is worth more than a longer life without them. You would have to know what is of value.

Introducing binaries, whether biologically-based or otherwise, doesn’t help. Consider the biologically-based binary of carnivore vs. herbivore (and leave aside the complication of the existence of omnivores). The fact that some creatures are by nature carnivorous and others are by nature herbivorous doesn’t help me at all decide whether I should be a vegetarian.

(I’ll admit, “Eat like a wolf” is a slogan that would likely have more appeal for Peterson’s readership than “Eat like a rabbit”. That, however, is a fact about advertising, rather than a fact about what would be the better choice … for the eater, for the eaten, or for the world.)

The same problem plagues Peterson. Return for a moment to the paternal/maternal binary. As the parent of two small children, I’m not helped by the knowledge that, if I act with stern authority I’ll be occupying the fatherly role, while if I’m nurturing I’ll be occupying the motherly role. What would help me instead is to know what action is the one I should do in a given circumstance. What action will be the best for my kids?

This is the first problem for Peterson. Suppose we grant that he has distilled true binaries out of his reading of Jungian archetypes, personality psychology, and biblical exegesis. Those binaries don’t bring us closer to an answer to the question of what has value. Without an answer to that question — and even granting him the existence of his supposedly “hard-won” truths — Peterson can’t achieve his stated goal of isolating sources of value.

Now here’s the second problem. Even if you do grant that Peterson’s binary thinking actually has some bearing on the question of what has value, his employment of those binaries is hopelessly banal.

To see that, you need look no further than the man himself. According to Peterson (here),

The main thrust of the argument in 12 Rules for Life is actually (1) that hierarchies can become rigid and corrupt (that’s too much order) or (2) that hierarchies can be undermined and dissolved (that’s too much chaos) so that (3) the proper move forward is to find balance between the two.

That’s it. That, in Peterson’s own words, is the “main thrust of [his] argument”. In other words, the archetypical story that is the key to unlocking the bestselling 12 Rules for Life is … “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”.

The standard narrative is that Peterson’s success is evidence of the collapse of values in contemporary life. According to this narrative, Peterson has achieved such dizzying success in such a short time because he offers his followers a system of values at a time in which the “elites” have called such values into question. The supreme irony, however, is that Peterson’s success is evidence of that collapse, but not because Peterson offers his followers a value-laden alternative to the emptiness of elite narratives. Instead, the hollowness at the core of Peterson’s “philosophy” is further evidence of a popular discourse so desperate for meaning that even the contentless musings of a Jordan B. Peterson seem like an answer.

In his 1972 biography Henry James: The Master, 1901-1916, Leon Edel notes that James was overheard to say that, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” It strikes me that, while it takes Peterson twelve rules to say not very much, James accomplishes far more with only three.