CANADIAN SOPHIST: JORDAN PETERSON AND THE RISE OF A PSEUDO-INTELLECTUAL

PREFACE: IN WHICH THE AUTHOR ASSERTS HIMSELF

Since Canadian Sophist was first published on this site in July 2017, I’ve been both amused and bemused by both the numbers of readers and the responses to the article: Amused by the partisan seriousness the content incited and bemused by the continued interest the piece enjoys.

Since the Intellectual Plane is not defined by the contents of a single essay, I will be regularly updating this page with links to topics related to Canadian Sophist. The reader can then choose whether or not to obtain a more complete picture of what the Intellectual Plane is about and hopefully obtain one of its aims: Intellectual balance.

But first, some words about Canadian Sophist since its publication.

Critics have correctly pointed out that the article isn’t up to my usual standards and I wholeheartedly agree. It was written in anger, a fact I acknowledged on July 21st 2017 in the essay A Peaceable Warrior.

Others have taken issue with both my criticism of Immanuel Kant and of Jacques Derrida. One particularly thoughtful reader rightly pointed out that the latter needs to be considered in the context of the time that he was writing. The same reader also suggested that I was judging Kant in an overly harsh manner. The commenter’s difficulty in expressing some of Kant’s ideas was reminiscent of Kant’s own efforts at communicating. Kant wrote in an esoteric manner and deserves criticism for that.

Purists may bristle at that remark and they are entitled to their opinion. To be blunt, a writer’s job isn’t to be nice but to challenge received wisdom. There is no doubt that Kant and Derrida are giants in the realm of philosophy. But so what? They were human beings not gods, a point Friedrich Nietzsche made with candour regarding the former. Nor is anyone immune or should be immune from criticism.

Kant was a brilliant, good natured and kind-hearted man, beloved by his students. Nevertheless, he defended the independence of science and morality and systematized reason thus ensuring it’s separation from other humanist qualities of common-sense, intuition, ethics and creativity and memory. Thus he helped reason to become a directionless, amoral force easily put to use by tyrants.

Derrida’s views on history and patriarchy represent an enormous contribution to philosophy and sociology. Nevertheless, deconstructionism has become a force of reaction by demoting the communications of the citizen versus that of the “expert” and thus undermining public discourse and democracy.

The late guitarist and vocalist Chuck Schuldiner was astute in his views towards the philosophical discipline when he wrote:

The answer cannot be found in the writings of others or in the words of a trained mind.

Schuldiner may have been consciously or unconsciously channeling Denis Diderot when the latter wrote of facts. Writing in the Encyclopedie, Diderot stated:

You can divide facts into three types: The divine, the natural and the man-made. The first belongs to theology; the second to philosophy and the third to history. All are equally open to question.

It’s a sad testimony to our contemporary age of celebrity culture and commercial conformity that men and women studying philosophy are quick to elevate men like Kant, Derrida, Hegel, Nietzsche and others to the level of unassailable authority. Moreover, it’s a pathetic testimony to the state of contemporary thought that many in Kant-like fashion confuse reading the works of others with actual thinking. Such individuals are easily led.

The goals of the Intellectual Plane are two-fold. The first is personal. It is an outlet for my excess intellectual energy, the bulk of which is directed to my creative endeavours elsewhere.

Second, the Intellectual Plane challenges its readership to think independently regardless of their background or point of view. All of us are imbued with the prejudices of our communities, our families and our environment. It is the considered opinion of the writer that only through developing one’s own critical faculties through consideration, doubt and without reference to ideology can one achieve balance and become mentally, emotionally and spiritually free.

I do not nor will I ever claim infallibility on any topic. Absolutes are debatable and seldom serve any purpose other than to service the interests of power. Only a fool can claim to be all-knowing and only a fool would promote unlimited tolerance, especially towards nonsensical ideas. Consequently, I maintain no obligation to be respectful of any idea or individual, especially when that individual assigns heroic status to demagogues.

In the contemporary ferment of right-wing corporatism and its intellectual allies among both so-called libertarians and anarchists, Jordan Peterson and his followers are every bit as deserving of critique as their intellectual opponents. Many of Peterson’s followers hold him in the same heroic awe as do the followers of Kant or Nietzsche. For the most part, I suspect that Peterson’s admirers do so, not for intellectual reasons but because he provides a veneer of academic legitimacy for their own naive prejudices. Consequently he has become a hero to many. Yet to be blunt, and to use a phrase popular among the so-called “alt-right” only snowflakes need heroes.

Readers of the proceeding essay are also encouraged to consider the following articles on this web-site and the links below.

Kind regards

Chris O’Connell
September 3rd 2017

LINKS FOR CONSIDERATION

MUSINGS OF A PEACEABLE WARRIOR: FIX IT!
ON HEROES
A PEACEABLE WARRIOR
VICTIMHOOD PT 1
THE DRIVE TO THE RIGHT
MUSINGS OF A PEACEABLE WARRIOR: THE ABUSE OF FEELINGS IN A CORPORATE SOCIETY

CANADIAN SOPHIST: JORDAN PETERSON AND THE RISE OF A PSEUDO-INTELLECTUAL (published July 7th 2017)

Despite his disdain for post-modernism, Jordan Peterson ranks among today’s many modern Marxists. Marxism itself being a dialectic of class struggle and unregulated markets, it is only natural that one of the modern era’s most silly and contradictory ideologies should find its true home on the political right.

In Canada and the US, Peterson has emerged as a celebrity favoured by neo-conservatives and libertarians for his stances on freedom of speech, anti-collectivism and his opposition to feminism. Thanks to his knack for theatre, an engaging style of lecturing and considerable donor contributions, Peterson rakes in an average of CDN$50,000 a month on top of his university salary. Many of his lectures can be found on YouTube. Both his social commentary and his opposition to changes in Canadian human rights law have won him a considerable numbers of followers, who for various reasons find his arguments insightful. His admirers have compared Peterson to Nietzsche, an ironic comparison since while both men exhibit neuroses Nietzsche at least had the capacity to acknowledge his contradictions.

Peterson, while entertaining is simply not in Nietzsche’s league. Peel back the intellectual fig leaves of this conservative sophist and what emerges is a rather superstitious and fearful middle-aged man seeking adoration through professed outrage over matters he has never personally experienced. Peterson’s ideas are neither original nor unique and like the philosophers he criticizes, he is the epitome of the university academic: Sheltered and prone to confusing thinking with teaching.

*

A philosopher for whom Peterson reserves a great deal of ire is Jacques Derrida, the founder of the Deconstructionist movement. According to Peterson, Derrida “reinterpreted history through a narrow lens of oppressor against oppressed” and stated that Derrida’s view of Western Culture being “phallogocentric” or male-dominated is “a radical oversimplification of the historical story.”

I must admit that I too share an intellectual disdain for Derrida and specifically for Deconstructionism. Deconstructionism holds at the core of its teaching, the idea that language is meaningless and that words never mean exactly what they say. Like the early Marxist philosophy from which Derrida was inspired, Deconstructionism inherently contradicts itself and its own arguments. After all if language is meaningless and words never mean what they say, then any argument itself is meaningless.

Much like those put forward by Jordan Peterson. But then Peterson like the rest of the modern Marxists on the political right share the Deconstructionist tendency to say one thing while intending another. That intent is to deny civilisation.

Peterson’s focus on the historical elements of Derrida’s thinking reveals more about him and his followers than they do about the French philosopher. Concerning the idea of a male dominated society, Peterson suggests that the development of Western Culture:

“was only dominated by a very small number of males. Most males were serfs, or soldiers, or cannon fodder for that matter, or coal miners, dreadfully toiling away for their work. [They were] certainly as oppressed as women were in general by the absolute poverty of the conditions.”

Poverty as the great equalizer in Western Civilisation misses the point and is a false equivalence. Women were prohibited from occupying positions of political authority inside the Greek polis, nor the Roman Senate, nor in the governments of most of the Mediterranean cultures that laid the foundations of the West. The only exceptions being the ancient Minoan civilisations that were wiped out during the Dark Ages around 1100-1200 BCE and the matriarchal society on the island of Lesbos.

Peterson – along with his libertarian and anarchist followers – conveniently forgets that under laws of primogeniture, women were not allowed to inherit or own property or to vote until late in the modern era. They conveniently forget that women were unable to vote in most Western countries until the early twentieth century and in the case of Switzerland, not until 1978. Contrary to Peterson’s wilfully inaccurate view of history, men have enjoyed significant social and legal advantages over and at the expense of women throughout the course of Western history. That he either fails to acknowledge this or is incapable of perceiving it merely underlines his own paradox. Like Derrida and Deconstructionism, Peterson and his brand of Marxism is based on fantasy. Despite all available historical evidence, Peterson exists in denial. To use his words:

“The idea that women were oppressed throughout history is an appalling theory.”

Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of women who were murdered during the witch-crazes of the late medieval and early modern periods. Or to the countless numbers subjected to sexual assault in factories during the Industrial Revolution. But then he would have to re-think his argument which might affect his donations.

From reading and watching his presentations I can only conclude that underneath the disingenuous and pseudo-intellectual arguments is a man who simply doesn’t like women. He’s not alone among his cadre of modern day Marxists of which the philosophies of neo-conservatism, libertarianism and anarchism belong. Misogyny lies at the core of these belief systems. All three have derived spiritual and philosophical inspiration from Pierre Joseph Proudhon whose famous maxim “Property is theft!” has been reworked by the libertarian right to be “Taxation is theft!”.

Proudhon was a raging misogynist and anti-Semite not unlike many modern day anarchists and libertarians. As Proudhon wrote of women:

“To a woman, a man is “a father, a chief, a master: above all, a master.”

Nietzche too, in addition to being a neurotic was also similarly intimidated by women. Those followers who compare Peterson to Nietzsche might do well to recall Bertrand Russell’s astute observation of the latter. In Thus Spake Zarathustra Nietzsche stated:

“Thou goest to woman? Do not forget thy whip!”

To which Bertrand Russell quipped:

“Nine women out of ten would have got the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women …”

The same applies to most misogynists.

*

One of Peterson’s great interests is the role of gender in modern society and it is in these areas that he betrays both naiveté and ignorance in equal measure.

Peterson was at the forefront of opposition to Bill C-16, a proposed amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act that would classify crimes against transgender individuals as hate crimes in the event that bias was determined to be motivating factor. In an astoundingly hysterical display of legal ignorance Peterson proclaimed that the amendment was an attack on free speech claiming that amendments would lead to legal sanctions on anyone who said anything which could be construed directly or indirectly as offensive.

Yet as fellow University of Toronto professor Brenda Cossman correctly pointed out:

“There is nothing in Bill C-16 that criminalizes the misuse of pronouns. Language is already the subject of legislation, from bilingual labelling to swearing an Oath to the Queen, to hate speech. The Supreme Court has developed a balance between free speech rights on one hand and reasonable limits on the other.”

It’s doubtful that Peterson with his apparent inability to perceive historical precedent with any degree of accuracy can understand legal precedent. After all, laws are complex. So is life. In the case of Peterson and his fans, those who lack understanding of either are usually the most vocal.

Some readers may argue in favour of a conservation of laws. To these I would point out that many laws currently on the statute books are in place as a result of human experience and legal precedent. Labour laws came into existence in order to to ensure standards of production so that men women and children didn’t have to work eighteen hour days or run the risk of being shredded by unsafe equipment in factories.

Laws aimed at protecting women both in the public and private spheres were brought in to help end harassment and rape in the work-place and assault and battery in the home. Libertarian readers may argue that these laws have not ended the problem of workplace harassment or domestic violence. That argument is both simplistic and silly. Laws alone do not prevent crime. However without those laws, neither the victim nor the society can achieve recourse without the use of violence. And prior restraint alone has not prevented one in five women experiencing some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Those who claim to oppose the status quo of wealth and power only cater to that power through misunderstanding the purpose of law.

The most vocal advocates of removing labour laws and human rights laws are libertarians, anarchists and the far right who seek a return to the good old days of chattel slavery. In copying the deconstructionists Peterson and other modern day Marxists make bold statements on matters where their intent is of a different outcome. Peterson’s claims to be standing up for free speech are intended to legitimise conservative biases towards transgender people. He made this perfectly clear in hyperbolic fashion when writing in the National Post:

“I will never use words I hate, like the trendy and artificially constructed words “zhe” and “zher.” These words are at the vanguard of a post-modern, radical leftist ideology that I detest, and which is, in my professional opinion, frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century.”

One has to ask what Peterson really knows about Marxist ideology since he a vocal adherent to its modern form. To be fair to Peterson he has studied it, though his conclusions are simplistic.

“I have been studying authoritarianism on the right and the left for 35 years. I wrote a book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, on the topic, which explores how ideologies hijack language and belief. As a result of my studies, I have come to believe that Marxism is a murderous ideology. I believe its practitioners in modern universities should be ashamed of themselves for continuing to promote such vicious, untenable and anti-human ideas, and for indoctrinating their students with these beliefs. I am therefore not going to mouth Marxist words. That would make me a puppet of the radical left, and that is not going to happen. Period.”

An ironic statement since Peterson himself is hijacking conservative and Marxist beliefs for his own purposes – mainly financial gain.

Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, is Peterson’s 1999 contribution to modern day superstition. The book draws heavily on ideas already expounded ad nauseum by Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud and posits a Manichaean worldview in which the world’s religious ideas can help humanity develop a universal system of morality.

That belief in itself is ideological nonsense. Religion has failed time and again to create either a moral or reasonable world. Every ideology including the Abrahamic faiths purports to provide a universal path to morality through liturgy and superstition. During the Enlightenment, philosophers such as Diderot and Voltaire argued that morality could be expanded not by the superstitious dogmas of the Christian church but through humanism: Reason, common-sense, experience, intuition, imagination and ethics.

Lacking in many of these qualities as Peterson and his followers do it’s therefore unsurprising that he simply regurgitates old, absolutist ideas in the guise of intellectual inquiry. The book also reflects Peterson’s own apocalyptic worldview that he adopted during his imaginary time on the front-lines of the Cold War. I’m not talking about East Germany or Czechoslovakia either but Canada’s western province of Alberta. Like most of his non-academic experiences his experience of the Cold War was indirect. Peterson never suffered under the tyranny of Stalin or Brezhnev but like many insecure people he can bask in the reflected suffering of their victims. Apparently Peterson missed out on the reality that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990 and that communism never reached Alberta, one of the most politically conservative regions in Canada. Nevertheless, he plays the victim well.

*

In one of Peterson’s lectures he talks about how young men can relate to his teachings on the idea of “responsibility”. Men crave responsibility. Responsibility is what allows a man to define himself. Men are victimised in modern society because they want to be responsible.

Yet in the very corporate society that Peterson and his fellow modern Marxists advocate (unconsciously or not) eliminates responsibility for the majority of citizens both on practical and philosophical grounds. Was it not Peterson who said that in the past culture “was only dominated by a very small number of males.”? Assuming the accuracy of that statement is that something he wishes for? And if so how does that allow for freedom of the individual or for personal responsibility?

It doesn’t, nor does reverting back to such a historic period allow for anything more than the continued preoccupation of weak men like Peterson to do what they do best: Playing victims for personal gain.

Going back to the matter of responsibility, it would be more accurate to say that what men and women want from life is purpose. Is there purpose in male responsibility? Of course. An example of manly behaviour is expressed through strength of character and a willingness to stand up for the weak and vulnerable in society. Yet according to Peterson:

“Caring for someone or for a group of people is a very complicated thing.”

For Peterson maybe, but not for most people. Humans are social creatures, possessing empathy, reason, love and ethics. Volunteer charity associations account for between three and six percent of North American GDP. If he is referring to the type of specialty care that requires medical or psychiatric treatments then he is correct. However from an emotional perspective, most people are quite willing to take on the burden of care. The type of anti-social philosophy espoused by the political right – Homo Economicus – is based on myth. Moreover many Western and non-Western societies have developed social structures to preserve the well-being of individuals. Yet according to Peterson:

“It’s very, very difficult to build functional structures that help people thrive individually and socially over long periods of time. And merely being empathetic, that’s just going to get you nowhere. A 3-year-old is empathetic. And I’m not dismissing that. Empathy is important. But as a problem-solving mechanism, it has very, very limited utility.”

How interesting then that the healthcare systems of France, Norway and Sweden were built with empathy and problem solving in mind – and continue to operate as the best ranked healthcare services in the world.

Or consider Finland’s education system which is universally acclaimed for the academic performance of its students. Consider too, how these well-functioning social systems have led to populations that produce more patents per capita than the US or Canada, as well as higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality.

Interesting too, how the men who built these systems possessed infinitely more life experience than Jordan Peterson. For example the principle architect of Norway’s social system was Haakon Lie, a union leader, resistance fighter and successful political leader of substance.

*

In summary, while some may choose to believe that Jordan Peterson possesses valuable insights, the cold, hard reality of this self-serving pseudo-intellectual is an individual who is high on superstition and low on content. Nor is he as smart as he and his followers think he is.

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4 thoughts on “CANADIAN SOPHIST: JORDAN PETERSON AND THE RISE OF A PSEUDO-INTELLECTUAL

  1. Ironically you arguments seems to oppose Peterson on its subject which is fine, but on structural level you both remain the same; see you wrote:

    “Deconstructionism holds at the core of its teaching, the idea that language is meaningless and that words never mean exactly what they say. Like the early Marxist philosophy from which Derrida was inspired, Deconstructionism inherently contradicts itself and its own arguments. After all if language is meaningless and words never mean what they say, then any argument itself is meaningless.”

    You clearly never readied Derrida just like Peterson himself. If Derrida and his methodology was this easy to “refute”, then there is clearly something wrong with our intelectual history. However I think it is more believable to say that there is something wrong with your own (mis)interpretation of Derrida’s method and philosophy. Before criticize you should be familiar with his overall arguments and his books. It is very easy to “refute” any philosophical position if we simply paint our own misinterpretation of the arguments, but this is a childish move to simply dismiss something that (ideologically) doesn’t appeal to us. That is why I said you still arguing in the same structure as Peterson: The structure of ideology and dishonesty.

    Derrida made interesting contributions to the philosophy of language. On a referential level, Derrida advocate for a position that says that words don’t make reference to abstract transcendental entities (such as in Plato) or some practical given principle (such as in Husserl or Wittgenstein), but they make reference to other words. There is nothing “inherently contradictory” in this position in fact it seems defensible as any other position given here.

    You need to understand the historical period on which Derrida’s works were written. Derrida was clearly criticizing (some of the) irrational metaphysics assumptions such as those we find on Husserl and Wittgenstein works. Much of traditional metaphysics and ontology naively assumed that there is some kind of abstract, indefinable, objective transcendental or metaphysical entity in which we ground meaning, reference and even knowledge.
    Therefore Derrida isn’t against any kind of objective truth, structural reality, meaning, etc., but Derrida is certainly against the metaphysics of objective truth, the metaphysics of meaning, etc. (there is a clear diference between truth and metaphysics of truth, okay? I can’t make this point any clear) in which were presupposed in most philosophical works in western tradition. Why these presuppositions are problematic? Because they don’t really try to explain anything or try to explain how they are possible and instead they throw the problem and questions of philosophy to the realm of unknowable. If Derrida is loyal to most modern spirit of self-criticism (which he is), then is clear that he made a difficult but a distinctive and important contribution to the philosophy.
    For instance most of people (in general I guess since there is some aristotelian and scholastics who do dismiss Kant philosophy because he undermines much of metaphysical assumptions made by these positions in philosophy, but I digress) don’t dismiss Kant’s philosophy, because Kant was criticizing metaphysical notions of reason which the unknowable presents itself as knowable (such as those in scholastic’s philosophy). Then why dismiss Derrida’s philosophy with these common-sense arguments? Since Derrida and Kant aren’t so distant in their projects of criticizing metaphysical notions reason.

    Like

  2. Certainly, yours is an interesting counter-argument and I thank you for commenting!

    For the record, I have read Derrida and your remarks about the historical period when he was writing certainly apply to all writers.
    Self-criticism and doubt being virtues in my opinion, I’d recommend you take a look at my follow-up piece, A Peaceable Warrior, also found on this site. I suspect that there will be further discussion of Peterson, Kant and Derrida in future essays posted here – when time allows.

    Thanks again for reading!

    Like

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