My Grand Theory of Jordan Peterson

I have a short essay out in the Weekly Standard this week arguing that most of the commentariat have a deeply flawed understanding of pop psychologist Jordan Peterson. To quote:

The spectacular rise of Jordan Peterson has caught much of the world flat-footed. caught much of the world flat-footed. Discussions of the psychology professor from the University of Toronto tend to focus on the enormous popular movement his lectures have spawned, rather than the actual ideas presented in the lectures themselves. As a result, no one seems to know who the “real” Jordan Peterson is. 

In a way, this is understandable. Peterson is a man of several personae. One Peterson is the inventor of an innovative and compelling neuropsychological model of human behavior. This is the Peterson presented in a dozen research articles reviewed and published by his academic peers.

Another Peterson dispenses pieces of practical advice and dispels progressive dogmas with a quiet, fatherly charisma. This is the Peterson made famous in podcasts, television interviews, and his best selling self-help book

But there is a third Peterson, the Peterson of his debut book, Maps of Meaning and the annual 40-hour long lecture series that shares this book’s name. This Peterson is the bridge between the other two, the key to understanding both his agitations as a culture warrior and his work as an academic psychologist. This is also the Peterson that inspires a religious sense of devotion among his followers. They are devoted not just to the man, but to his project.

And this project is grand. It is nothing less than the revitalization of Western civilization itself. 

Read the rest of the essay for my summary of the basic ideas behind Peterson’s project and a few thoughts in response to some of those who have tried to condemn it.

In between the time I submitted that essay for review and its publication yesterday, two new large profile attacks on Peterson were published, one by Pankaj Mishra for the New York Review of Books, the other by Nathan Robinson for Current Affairs Mishra’s piece is the more popular of the two, and the easier to dismiss. Attempts to tie Peterson back to the Nazis with proclamations like “the modern fascination with myth has never been free from an illiberal and anti-democratic agenda” just don’t deserve to be taken seriously.  I earnestly await the follow up essay explaining why Percy Jackson is the real cause for Trump’s election and the connection between the works of Neil Gaiman and Heinrich Himmler. 

Mishra does have a good sense for the real weak spot in Peterson’s project, however. As I note in Weekly Standard essay,  Peterson’s “careful comparative analysis” of world mythology and religious imagery is built almost entirely on the writings of Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade. There are a few other writers thrown in, but those two get the lion’s share of his citations.  This is entirely inadequate. If you are hoping to build a universal moral system through analysis of the great faith traditions and surviving myths of ancient civilization, you need to delve deeper than two idiosyncratic mid-20th century scholars. Peterson’s direct engagement with mythological and religious primary source material is limited to the Near East: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, and the Abrahamic offshoots. His discussion of Greek, Norse, Indian and Far Eastern religion (with quotations from an outdated Dao De Jing  translation excepted) are all mediated through Eliade. His take on Christianity relies too much on Nietzche, and even his discussion of the Mesopotamia mostly derives from scholarship and translations from the 1960s. I have seen no evidence that Peterson has patched up these blind spots in the days since he first published Maps of Meaning in the 1990s. 

Here is why that matters: inevitably we will be graced with a devastating invective of some left-leaning historian of religion or folklore who will not only be eager to demolish Peterson, but will know more about comparative religion than he does. When that day comes, the thinness of Peterson’s bibliography will come to haunt him. I can only hope that this reckoning does not destroy the Peterson project entirely. 

Robinson’s attack on Peterson is much more damaging, precisely because it attacks Peterson’s ideas directly instead of diverting itself with Peterson’s character or the excesses of his devotees. His critique takes advantage of another one of Peterson’s weaknesses: a tendency to write in convoluted and baroque academic prose. This weakness is hardly unique to Peterson, but it makes it easy for Robinson to pick out page-long paragraphs full of the sort of fluff that other writers would dispatch in half a sentence or so. To claim that this sort of academic fluff is all there is to Peterson’s work is not fair. There is substance behind Peterson’s writing; Peterson simply has no experience laying it out concisely. When concision is compelled out of Peterson, the strength of his underlying ideas is far more apparent. The best presentation I have seen of these ideas is a 13 page precis Peterson wrote for The Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, and Conflict. The encyclopedia’s editor deserves great praise: he was able to squeeze unusual lucidity from Peterson in a very small number of pages. I do not think an honest observer can read them and then conclude he is pedaling mere fluff.

Peterson can withstand the scrutiny his ideas are now being given, if he is careful about how he responds to critique. However, even if his attempt at building a new moral universe falls in on itself, I am glad to see the attempt made. He is asking the right question. Conservatives and classical liberals would do well to consider the question he poses: if the we have lost faith in religion, in liberalism, and in our national myths, then what will we find faith in? I fear that many conservatives are now so focused on protecting their communities from the tides of modernity that they have lost all interest in influencing the course those tides will take. 

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Peterson needs to institutionalize his project, and gather allies. He faces the serious problem that any serious thinker faces today. The answers to contemporary problems require expertise across fields. However, it's extraordinarily difficult to have mastery of more than one serious field. Peterson is quite good at drawing on sources outside of his core competencies in clinical psychology and academic psychological research. Nonetheless, the only way for him to proceed, to withstand the inevitable devastating counterattack, is to collaborate with others who have actually built their careers on, for example, comparative religion. It's simply not possible for him to gain mastery of the necessary level. In a better world, Peterson's project would be taken as an invitation by such experts to engage in a conversation with him, and constructive critique. Instead, because most academics are ideologically motivated, only out of professional self interest, their only goal will be to ridicule and destroy him if they can. In particular, because Peterson has a popular following, and that popular following seems to be primarily composed of Caucasian young men, he will be perceived as even more of a threat, and even more despised, and held in even greater contempt, by academics who have a stake in the current progressive dogma. Nonetheless there may be a few people of goodwill who have the requisite knowledge and who will engage in a dialogue with him on this and other areas where he needs more depth. The response however will certainly primarily be hostility and increasingly vicious personal and professional attacks. The prospect of fabricated scandals is a near certainty, we're example. Peterson's project is a work in progress, and his dizzying asceny to public acclaim is a wonder to behold, however it ends up. I pray for his well-being and success every day.

The obsession with attacking Peterson's character and attacking (intentional or unintentional) misunderstandings of his ideas just strengthens his position. Rather than attack (which the progressive left does far, far, far too much of), writers should look at and examine the good, and then examine the flaws. Nothing is "all bad" when it's not outright hate-speech. And shutting down conversation drives people further and further apart. He's not a "nazi", he doesn't practice "hate speech", that's just laughable, if not outright disingenuous. The rabid attacks from progressives simply push moderate people like myself further to the right. It's the sort of thing that, when Trump got elected, made me said "good, take that." Not because I wanted that turd in office, but because I'm so sick of the ridiculous progressive insanity.

We need debate and discussion, not attacks. Just ask Meagan Phelps.