My friends have taken a liking to Professor Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist and cultural critic. Having read Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, and watched his YouTube Personality lectures, my thoughts on him, for what they’re worth, are as follows. Peterson points a person in a vaguely correct direction, but that’s it. Although his philosophy has merit, it is ultimately shallow, and does not encompass classical liberal virtues of the good, the beautiful, and the true.
First, allow me to compliment the man. As a public intellectual, Peterson’s most important contribution is to diagnose the Left-wing madness plaguing today’s powerful institutions, and in particular the academy. Such political capture of research and teaching has imprisoned intellectual advancement. Indeed, university students are realizing that their humanities and social sciences instructors are often dilettantes, who mindlessly recite the liturgies of the Postmodernist religion.
Yet perhaps Peterson shares more in common with these academic Pharisees than he realizes. A gander through his online reading list is illustrative. There are a few good masters of the pen here, like Hemingway, Huxley, and Bronte, but there is no structure to his list, and no respect for ancient wisdom. A proper Western education begins with the Christian Bible and Greek mythology – there is no mention of either. Without knowledge of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Rousseau, the nihilistic Nietzsche reads like a raving lunatic, but Peterson affords the German philosopher, who is postmodernism’s progenitor, a place of solitary prominence.
This lack of firm philosophical underpinning translates into displays of loquacious sophistry. For instance, consider Peterson’s definition of ‘truth’:
“Like language, truth is more like a process. And I would say it’s a process you actually embody rather than conceptualize abstractly…”
“This is what I like about the existentialists. There’s a kind of emphasis on pragmatic truth… because they claim that your truth is something you should act out, not merely hold, because to act out is to believe in.”
Piecing together these bizarre thoughts, Peterson appears to be claiming that truth is subjective, and can only be known through individual action. This is not far from what his postmodernist foes believe, and is, moreover, anathema to traditional notions of truth.
With philosophy, then, Peterson is weak. With theology, he is even weaker, which is startling for a man who often discusses religion. In his 12 Rules for Life, and in his interviews, Peterson repeats the banal claim that there is a fundamental conflict between science and religion. There is nothing of the kind. William Lane Craig, for instance, offers an admirable rejoinder to the science vs. religion mantra in his Reasonable Faith (see also Bishop Barron, for brevity’s sake), and yet Peterson never tackles such nuances. His God exists only in a Jungian sense, in the collective subconscious; sophisticated arguments for God’s actual existence, from Aristotle’s to Richard Swinburne’s, are never tackled head-on.
At this juncture, an apologist for the Canadian professor might retort that Peterson never asserts expertise in philosophy, theology, or literature. A quick scroll through his Facebook posts, in which Peterson opines on philosophy, politics, and foreign policy – subjects he lacks sound training in – collapses this line of reasoning. A simple “I don’t know” is usually sufficient; a man should know his limits, but Peterson transcends his ignorance, as it were.
I do not intend to be entirely negative: there is value in Jordan Peterson. Aside from the benefit I mention above, he has reignited serious interest in the Bible, and implores young people to take responsibility for their station in life (‘Clean Your Room’). He introduces laymen to Jungian psychology, and his YouTube lectures make psychological theories accessible to those with a good WiFi setup. Yet Peterson’s gifts are only beneficial in light of his curses. There are better and more substantial cultural critics – Camille Paglia comes to mind. My words here are cautionary: do not make Peterson into your personal messiah, for he is just a man.