Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

What I don’t like about Jordan Peterson

First of all, a disclaimer: I actually like Jordan Peterson quite a lot. He’s definitely someone to respect. His courage, radical honesty and resilience deserves the highest praise. All the virtues of Peterson’s personality don’t make his ideas flawless though. From the standpoint of philosophy, they’re prone to some criticism. Maybe it’s not even the flaw of Peterson himself, but the field of psychology in general.

This was supposed to be a review of Peterson’s book ’12 rules for life’ for Goodreads, however it turned out a bit longer than expected, so I’ll cross-post it here. It was also supposed to include a review of both positive and negative points of the book (I’ve given it 4/5 stars, after all!), however the latter turned out to quite excessively outweigh the former. After all, praise is simply too boring, while the heartless criticism is always more fun. 

Peterson’s ‘12 rules’ is not just another banal self-help book. This is an extremely condensed summary of Peterson’s theories that he developed over his career of a University professor and a practicing clinical psychologist. The book is merely structured as a list because people allegedly love lists, and they sell. So get ready to make your way through 400 pages of arguments for traditionalism and liberalism, and against communitarianism, using loosely-defined Heideggerian terminology with constant, yet somewhat far-fetched allusions to Christian doctrines. Peterson is essentially an expert in semiotics, symbols and metaphors, and uses them quite extensively as a source of arguments in defence of his interpretation of the world – not too convincingly at certain times.

What’s also interesting is that Peterson borrows a lot from Heidegger. These borrowed concepts obviously include Heidegger’s Dasein – his concept of Being with a capital B; the interpretation of conscience as a guide to authentic Being; the definition of Being as disclosedness through the use of words (which Peterson links to the Christian Logos); Heidegger’s concept of Umwelt, or a handy world manifested to human beings, and many others.

Anyway, below is the list of what I like and don’t like about Peterson and his theories. Let’s start with the negative part, and reserve a few positive comments for the end.

Clinging to the Christian narrative

Even though Peterson claims to be drawing arguments from all of the world’s religions, and performing a meta-analysis of them all, the paramount influence of Christianity on his ideas is quite evident.

Take, for instance, the following example. Peterson mentions that many people fail to take proper care of themselves, and hence get stuck in a routine of misery and self-loathing – to such an extent that they completely neglect their own well-being. Why? Peterson claims that self-loathing is a natural human condition, drawing an argument from the Bible about the Fall of Man, and expel of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden. According to the Christian doctrine, humans are faulty, sinful creatures, so it’s understandable why we don’t want to take care of such despicable things as ourselves.

However, is self-loathing really such a natural part of the human predicament – as Christianity often portrays it? I tend to see this relationship inverted: the Christian discourse has had such a profound impact on the Western thought, that people now find it ordinary to despise their allegedly sinful nature by default. Clearly, pagan religions were not manifesting similar ideas, focusing on the praise of human virtues instead.

And what’s very interesting is that Peterson completely excludes paganism from his study of world’s religions.

Reliance on human psychology to derive all truth about the world

Peterson thinks that all answers about the world can be found in human psyche itself. His approach is very inward-oriented. However, is there really that much inside of our heads? Isn’t the outside world much more fascinating than the obscure uncertainty of vague human mind?

Psychology is not a science, as it doesn’t pass the criteria of verifiability. Less than 50% of research findings in the sphere of psychology can be replicated in subsequent experiments. Psychology has dozens of contradictory schools, which are essentially just theories invented by their creators, whether it was Jung or Freud, that all lack any strong factual foundation. Each of these schools of theories has a certain explanatory power, which makes them appealing to people, however it doesn’t make any of psychological statements factually true.

Human mind probably doesn’t even hold any transcendent truth of its own, at least nothing that cannot be explained by physicalism. Even the so-called folk psychology – the terms commonly used by people in everyday language – such as love, soul, desire or belief, is essentially an empirical theory too. Peterson indulges in usage of vaguely-defined terms with a heavy cultural baggage: God, Love, Truth, Way, all capitalized. However, if we cannot even be sure that any of these concepts correspond to physical phenomena occurring in human brain, using them to explain not only the human psyche, but the whole world around us is simply too audacious.

Excessive traditionalism and a backward-oriented approach

Deep down, Peterson is extremely traditionalist. With all his might, he defends traditional practices and institutions, saying that everyone should embrace and respect them, unless they have a really good reason not to do so. Perhaps, that makes Peterson so appealing to the conservative audience (even though his key message is essentially liberal). Indeed, it’s truly paradoxical how Peterson manages to reconcile the most profound traditionalism with his disdain for everything communitarian.

Peterson desperately wants his ideas to work within traditional narratives, reinforcing them and making them come off as more solid. Very often it appears too far-fetched. What’s the point of overinterpreting something out of mere respect for tradition?

Take for instance the following passage:

‘The Bible has been thrown up, out of deep, by the collective human imagination, which is itself a product of unimaginable forces operating over unfathomable spans of time. Its careful, respectful study can reveal things to us about what we believe and how we do and should act that can be discovered in almost no other manner.’

As already discussed above, Peterson takes as a factual truth the Christian idea that humans are inherently flawed and miserable creatures. Yes, this idea has been widespread for thousands of years. Do we however need to drag it even further into the future, if the world has already changed so dramatically? I don’t think so. Morals are essentially arbitrary axioms that cannot have any factual foundation. They can be redefined according to what’s currently relevant. We don’t have to drag outdated notions into the future out of respect to the faulty tradition that’s no longer relevant to the modern world – the world, in which people have been more or less rescued from their misery.

Peterson turns to the past on his quest for truth and wisdom. That’s an essentially retrogressive approach. The best things are yet to come, and they haven’t yet been discovered. Past-oriented view cannot provide a guidance for the future.

Naturalistic fallacy

Peterson tries to derive morals not only from the past human history, but also from the nature itself. However, isn’t it a bit too ambitious of a project to derive normative statements out of descriptive observations, whether coming from the realm of natural world or the domain of human history? This sounds too much like a naturalistic fallacy to me – or Hume’s infamous Is-Ought problem.

For instance, Peterson criticizes the idea of Nietzsche that humans have to invent their own values in the aftermath of God’s death, claiming the following:

‘We cannot invent our own values, because we cannot merely impose what we believe in our souls’
‘I have a nature, and so do you, and so do we all. We must discover that nature, and contend with it, before making peace with ourselves’

Human nature… There’s no doubt that the nature has been the main driver of human affairs in the past thousands years. At the break of the second millennium, we have however achieved a confident stance to finally challenge our nature. This is where human-invented values become crucial – as they will be shaping development of the humankind going forward. Finally, not mere nature but a human will can play a leading role in guiding the history, and there’s no reason to oppose the future, limiting ourselves to the past.

A limited understanding of meaning and a vague definition of morals

Peterson begins by giving advise on how to find meaning to one’s life: aim at improving something in the world that seems wrong to you. That’s reasonable. People haven’t colonized Mars yet? Start a space exploration company. The government is misusing its power? Join a libertarian party. I like how this advise doesn’t imply sacrificing yourself to others: improvement of the world can be a selfish motive too, since ultimately you’re the one who’s not satisfied with the current state of it.

However, the moral foundation of Peterson’s own views is a bit vague. Peterson is saying that the ultimate goal of us should be the ‘betterment of Being’, or striving for establishing the ‘Kingdom of God on Earth’, using Haideggerian and Christian terminology, respectively. On the contrary, those who create Hell (such as communists or Nazis) are ultimately immoral. Well, this position sounds a bit too much like a populist claim of fighting ‘for everything good and against everything bad’. After all, both communists and fascists envisaged building the Kingdom of God on Earth: whether it’s a perfect and just communist society, where all means of production are owned by workers, or return of Europe to the right path through revival of the Roman Empire. With such vague definitions, I’m sure that lives of communists and Nazis were meaningful as hell.

To resolve this issue, Peterson brings yet another definition of meaning. He claims that ‘if the experience of pain and suffering makes life feel meaningless, then it logically follows that the reduction of pain and suffering makes life feel meaningful’. Alright, at least this claim helps Peterson to establish a humanist ground for his moral views. However, it’s also the case of a logical statement that doesn’t work equally well in both directions. Suffering makes life meaningless – yes, no doubt about that. Lack of suffering makes life meaningful – no, it simply makes life bearable. As soon as the basic human needs for safety, food and shelter are covered, humans instantly start aiming at satisfaction of their higher-level desires – like the ones for social recognition, creative expression, or… even the desire to belong to something transcendent – like one of the aforecited ideologies.

Peterson is essentially a humanist. Seeking the greatest value in human life or human Being, as he calls it. Human life has a superior value compared to any ideas, that he affiliates with ideologies of totalitarianism. I disagree with Peterson here. Human life is essentially temporal. We’re however capable of creating things that transcend this temporality – okay, not the grandeur of communism, but, say… art.

Also, what’s interesting is that Peterson is following Heideggerian line even here: humans can derive guidance on how to live their lives from the Being itself – from the conscience:

‘We all contain wisdom that we cannot comprehend’
‘To have meaning in your life is better than to have what you want, because you may neither know what you want, nor what you truly need. Meaning is something that comes upon you, of its own accord’

Rather generic advise

Apart from the extensive summary of Peterson’s theories and ideas, the book also contains a fair share of general motivational advise. For instance, Peterson says that by taking care of your life you need to take care of your health and body, invest effort into your career, use discipline to achieve your ‘goals’. Define your vision and direction, and refine your personality accordingly. Well, I can clearly envision many people who would fail to find any ‘meaning with a capital M’ in their lives, but take Peterson’s guidelines nevertheless, and then get disappointed that going to the gym, and having a stable career leaves them as depressed as before. Despite advising people how to live meaningful lives, having meaningful goals is essentially a luxury for hyper-intellectual people like Peterson. Most people’s lives will be spent in utterly meaningless ways.

And, speaking of motivational content… do motivational books actually motivate anyone? People who have already discovered the same ideas, and have come to the same conclusions will find content of such books quite self-evident, while those people who haven’t – will probably regard these books as full of cliche tips repeated at every corner. The advise is pretty straightforward, however it’s hard to perceive it as valuable until you come to the same conclusions yourself. As Heidegger said: the fundamental characteristic of truth is its discoverability. It’s hard to view something as relevant and truthful until you discover this thing on your own.

Nevertheless, I think it’s generally a good practice for everyone to summarize their life findings and main life conclusions in one coherent book. If every person who ever lived on Earth left such a legacy to his descendants, we would have a better understanding of our past and a truly complete picture of the humankind intellectual heritage. Commemorating one’s life in text – perhaps that’s one of a few ways to make a life meaningful.

Which now leads us to a few positive notes about Peterson and his book…

Radical honesty, and focus on fundamental things that are often omitted

It’s said that one of the reasons why Peterson has become so popular is that his audience (that mainly consists of young men) primarily sees him as a Father figure. There’s a certain truth in that. You cannot disrespect a person who with an utter honesty teaches people what it means to think properly, have conversations meaningfully, and live in a genuine way – skills that parents often fail to teach their children due to a falsely self-evident nature of those things.

One of Peterson’s main messages is that you should take responsibility for you life. This simple idea has brought him a lot of hatred, as it clearly sounds unappealing to many young people these days. People prefer to blame society for their misfortunes: whether it’s patriarchy, oppression, or the government.

Being opposed to the currently-popular praise of victimhood and oppression, Peterson finds courage to say that hierarchies are in fact important in human lives, as they’re rooted deep in our reptile brains (the fact that makes humans share many similar features with lobsters). I agree with Peterson here. While many would deny the importance of hierarchies in the world, one of the fundamental psychological needs of any person is social recognition of his status, thanks to conventional socially-praised achievements. This is the penultimate level of Maslow’s pyramid. Without having secured a place in a hierarchy, it’s hard to find strength to proceed further to more meaningful quests.

So one of Peterson’s rules says that we should strive to be strong and brave: strand straight, and face the world with courage. Why not to take inspiration from lobsters: just as they claim a piece of territory and defend it at all costs, we should find something precious in particular to us and learn to stand by it.

Dichotomy of chaos vs order

Peterson sees the world as a constant battle between chaos and order. According to him, life is an utter chaos, but humans possess almost a divine capacity to turn chaos into order. I agree with Peterson here. It’s also surprising to me how the world is even managing to function, given its fragility and complexity. There’re so many ways that things can fall apart, but somehow ‘the machinery of the world keeps running’.

Such dichotomy is not only applicable to the physical world, but also to our knowledge of it. In the chaos of information we process each day, it’s getting increasingly hard to make sense of it. A structural worldview, a coherent narrative – is something hard to develop in the abundance of data. The importance of order is however paramount to anyone aiming to achieve any sort of understanding of the world. So it’s great to find your own little piece of territory of meaning and order, and then protect it against the ever-expending chaos.

Peterson claims that the world is organized through language. He associates Logos with the Christian idea of God creating the world out of Word. Structuring, categorizing it verbally is what helps people to make sense of their being, and put chaos into order. That’s what makes life comprehensible (again, Heidegger’s idea of disclosedness of Dasein).

Extreme manifestations of both order and chaos (ideology and nihilism, respectively) are pathways to Hell. The goal is to walk on a thin line between the two, and hold balance.

Despite all the criticism, these few constructive theories described above are already good enough to give Peterson sufficient respect in a world that has become way too destructive.

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