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Recently, Jordan Peterson appeared at TEDx to give his thoughts on political correctness. As he undoes his own logic, I did my best to make sense of it.
Friends, I have spent an inordinate amount of time reading and listening to Jordan Peterson. I have done so in order to understand the ideas underpinning “one of the world’s foremost public intellectuals.”
In this piece I want to break down one of Peterson’s common arguments in order to critique its logical structure. I will do so with this video, a lecture Peterson gave for ideacity, entitled “Political Correctness and Postmodernism”.
I chose this lecture because Peterson speaks uninterrupted, and without significant pressure or counter-argument.
It is worth watching at least the first 15 minutes. Feel free to make notes about the logical structure of his argument, so that we can compare our work. (This is important as it seems that many people lack the ability to critique rational arguments. Without this, the Enlightenment ideal of working towards knowledge and truth is lost.)
I’m going to outline the structure of Peterson’s argument (in bold), and write my commentary in comments under each point.
Here we go.
1. Derrida and Foucault are smart, so their theories are hard to untangle.
2. The most powerful central claim of postmodernism is: there are an infinite number of ways to interpret a finite set of phenomena.
(If you are going to rebut an argument, you should be clear about the specific argument and claims you are rebutting. I’ve looked extensively for a reference to an exact argument by Peterson, to no avail. He is vague on this point. I suppose we can assume he is talking about Derrida’s Deconstruction. Let’s keep moving.)
3. Postmodernists claim that no interpretation can be privileged above any other.
It is important to highlight the context here. Peterson is wading into a debate concerning a number of major philosophical questions: how can we reliably evaluate truth claims? How can we build reliable systems of knowledge given our cognitive limitations? Can humans discern objective reality or universal truth? Does universal truth actually exist?
The question of how humans can construct reliable systems of knowledge is captured in a field called epistemology. We know our perceptions only provide us with an inexact model of reality; the story of scientific progress has been a slow reveal of just how distorted our intuitions about the world actually are.
We rely on systems of knowledge like the scientific method, formal logic and mathematics to help us overcome the fact that we cannot directly access reality. That we are able to do this with a reasonable degree of accuracy is a testament to the ingenuity of our species.
In the last century we’ve found that even our systems of language cause distortions in our efforts to seek truth. Derrida is part of this tradition, and is part of a movement which exposes the flaws and shortcomings of man-made systems.
I have no position on the validity of his work, but the question of how we ground systems of knowledge on a sound epistemological basis is a serious task, and one which spans the entire history of philosophy.
4. The claim that no interpretation can be privileged above any other is wrong. We know it is wrong because evolution has a way of dealing with the interpretation of reality: things that interpret reality badly enough to die, will die.
Therefore, we can tell if one interpretation is better than another if it shields you from excess suffering and death.
This is an important part of Peterson’s argument. Notice that he is shifting the frame of the discussion here: the alleged relativism of Derrida’s Deconstruction (“alleged” for there are dissenting interpretations of his work) is an argument at the level of epistemology, philosophy and linguistics.
By ignoring the context and content of Derrida’s argument and instead switching it for a frame of his choosing, Peterson is constructing a straw man. His reference to the evolutionary process is of no relevance to Derrida.
For the sake of this exercise, lets ignore this and continue.
Peterson wants to use evolution as a natural creator of objective value in the world. Regrettably, it is a poor example, for the flaws and distortions in human perception are the result of evolutionary processes.
At a genetic level, evolution selects on the basis of survival and reproduction – which is to say it selects for whatever helps an organism survive and pass its genes onto the next generation.
This process has no inherent bias towards truth, or towards enabling the forms it creates to perceive objective reality. In fact, we know of countless cases where evolution is happy to build in delusion and misperception if it helps the organism survive. Additionally, plenty of traits with no survival value are passed down through generations. Evolution is a profoundly imperfect process.
We know our perceptions provide an inexact model of reality; the story of scientific progress has been a slow reveal of just how distorted our intuitions actually are.
So neither survival nor genetic proliferation is an absolute guarantor of an accurate interpretation of the universe. Potentially one could claim it indicates some level of relative value, but this argument does not counter Derrida’s epistemological and linguistic concerns. Nor can this example be used to ground a system of knowledge – the theory of evolution itself is a product of the scientific method, and constructed through language.
Given that Peterson is an evolutionary psychologist, it seems strange for him to misconstrue evolution in this way. Still, notice how he uses emotional and dramatic language to make his point.
5. Also, because humans need to cooperate and compete, you need to have interpretations of reality that align with social and cultural expectations (I guess?).
This point is actually quite unclear to me.
I think Peterson is arguing that because humans live within a community, they need to act within societal norms and expectations – but I really struggle to understand how this is relevant to the question of how we can build reliable systems of knowledge. Again, it is simply irrelevant.
Let’s say I live in an Evangelical Christian community, which holds that the world is 10,000 years old. In that community, social pressures do indeed constrain your view of reality – but in a negative manner: scientific evidence is discarded in order to maintain religious, social and cultural expectations.
This demonstrates that societal norms can inhibit the search for truth. After all, Galileo Galilei was put to death when his scientific discoveries challenged the norms and values of the society in which he lived.
As with the previous point, Peterson takes another stride away from the actual context and content of Derrida’s argument. Additionally, it can be considered part of an argument against our ability to discern absolute truth.
Again, the questions is: how can we build a reliable system of knowledge, given the limits of human perception and language?
Notice how Peterson goes on long digressions. He speaks quickly and uses many big and complex words. This is part of his rhetorical strategy: it makes it more difficult to follow his lecture, because the logical chain of argument is broken.
On to the next point.
6. As you can see, it is not true that there are an infinite number (equally valid) interpretations.
The examples Peterson has given are the process of evolution – which demonstrably builds in distortions in our perception of reality – and societal norms – which often inhibit the pursuit of knowledge in favour of community cohesion.
He has not demonstrated any limit against his postmodern straw man.
Peterson is often critcised for presenting a simplistic and inaccurate account of postmodernism. From the hours of lectures I’ve listened to, I have never heard him discuss the theories or thinkers behind postmodernism in any detail.
ContraPoints has created an excellent video that takes apart Peterson’s idea of “postmodern neo-Marxism”, arguing it is ahistorical, incoherent and inaccurate.
Similarly, Viewpoint Magazine considers the references that Peterson uses in 12 Rules For Life. The author notes that Peterson never references the work of Derrida or Foucault directly. His only reference is a secondary source – “Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault” by Stephen Hicks, which gives a discredited account of postmodern thought.
It is worth noting that Hicks is a follower of Ayn Rand – another discredited philosopher who is not taken seriously at an academic level, precisely because she grossly mischaracterised other thinkers and failed to provide a coherent rational foundation for her “philosophy”, which is in reality a political framework.
Again, the questions is: how can we build a reliable system of knowledge, given the limits of human perception and language.
In this lecture, Peterson fails to give an accurate account of postmodern thought – but even if we were to agree with his shallow account, he actually fails to argue against the straw man he has constructed.
Make no mistake: there are problems with the shallow, populist forms of “identity politics” in American universities – and there are important discussions to be had on the Left regarding the future of progressive politics – but, regrettably, Peterson seems unequipped for the task.