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Modern, All Too Modern: Jordan B. Peterson's Empty Dream

Jordan Peterson is being pitched as “YouTube’s New Father Figure,” and being embraced by more and more segments of the mainstream American right. To hear Peterson’s advocates, it’s as if the man represents a second coming of both Socrates and St. Paul. The Peterson phenomenon has seen its share of detractors, but is he really offering anything relevatory or even “reactionary” to his followers?

By using the language of Jungian archetypes and pop-psychology Peterson exhorts his (mostly male) readers and listeners to change their lives through self-examination, clean rooms, and a trenchent disdain for postmodernism and political correctness run amok. In his latest book, 12 Rules for Life, he gives a clinical list of actions to improve one’s life. Most of it ranges from the obvious (be precise in your speech), the banal (treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping), to the twee (Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.)

In most popular renditions of his work, Peterson comes across like a Marie Kondo with footnotes. For Peterson, however, tidying one’s room is merely the start of self-examination and with it, a journey through the symbols and sidequests that make up life. Crucially though, Peterson’s journey starts and ends with the individual.

Peterson self-describes politically as a classical liberal, which to most people is just a fancier way of saying libertarian. Of his encompassing worldview, he has this to say:

Politically, I am a classic British liberal. Temperamentally, I am high in openness, which tilts me to the left, although I am also conscientious, which tilts me to the right. Philosophically I am an individualist, not a collectivist, of the right or the left. Metaphysically, I am an American pragmatist, who has been strongly influenced by the psychoanalytic and clinical thinking of Freud, Jung and the psychotherapists who have followed in their wake.

More accurately this could be restated as a liberal who's been mugged by the unconscious. And it’s this use of the language of Jung and Freud that has made many on the left uneasy. A recent jeremiad against Peterson in Jacobin exhorts that any response by the left to Peterson “must deploy the legacy of reason within Marxism’s own commitments to dialectical logic and human freedom.” The image it sets up of Peterson is that of a Nietzschean, striving to grind the working class and exalt a capitalist master-class, as well as rejecting the enlightenment project in favor of a Heideggerian new dawn.

The left, as usual, dost protest too much.

By his own admission, Peterson is a devotee of American pragmatism and British liberalism. Both traditions which hold a high regard for that cold, cold monster reason, albeit in a non-cartesian critical way. In fact, many pragmatists from Dewey to C.S. Pierce were extreme empiricists whose views would not be and are not that far off from this generation’s “new atheists.”

There is an extra irony in Peterson’s claim of descent from the likes of Dewey in that the latter was one of the founding fathers of the much-maligned “progressive movement” among conservatives.

In fact, Dewey’s definition of education, which is as follows:

that reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience, and which increases ability to direct the course of subsequent experience

Is not far off from Peterson’s own advice on how to interact with the world. For instance, in his advice on discerning motives Peterson reflects:

If you can't understand why someone is doing something, look at the consequences of their actions, whatever they might be, and then infer the motivations from their consequences.

Or even in his advice on living a virtuous life, which despite his intonation to “not use language instrumentally” comes across as a gussied up technical solution to moral virtue:

If you have a comprehensive explanation for everything then it decreases uncertainty and anxiety and reduces your cognitive load. And if you can use that simplifying algorithm to put yourself on the side of moral virtue then you’re constantly a good person with a minimum of effort.

From an Aristotelian perspective, this is half-right in the sense of inculcating moral habit, but it reduces the good of moral virtue to a mere tool, that the mind can bend and biff, bam, zoom outcomes virtue on the other end of the mind's calculus.

Peterson also departs ways with the ancients with his sneering disdain for “collectivism.” Today, collectivism is a catch-all term that encompasses everything from fascism, communism, to farmers co-opts. More often, however, it is a term in the anglo-sphere right that acts as a totem to halt any conversation and ossify debate and thought between hyper-capitalism or hypercapitalism with smells and bells, as advocated by many mainstream social conservatives.

Jordan Peterson uses the language of Jung’s “collective unconscious” to dress in new clothes standard conservative bromides about the importance of the individual, and an unfettered market. Fundamentally though, Peterson’s analysis and use of myth is a mere mirage, much like the nineteenth-century individualism, it’s based on.

Peterson intones that:

“Everybody acts out a myth, but very few people know what their myth is. And you should know what your myth is because it might be a tragedy.And maybe you don't want it to be.”

This is a trite understanding of mythic thinking. Joseph Campbell once described myth as “depersonalized dreaming” that shows solutions that are valid for a collective, whereas dreams are “personalized myth” that vary by the quirks of the dreamer. What Peterson is selling his listeners on, are dreams. After all, in our hollow age who doesn’t want to dream again?

But those dreams are merely atomistic. For Peterson and his followers, his advice amounts to nothing more than binding oneself in a nutshell and crowning yourself king of that “infinite” space.

Peterson’s openness to religious revelation is also one of mere empiricism, take, for instance, his discussion about the category of “frightening things” and its relation to the individual:

And so Kali is like an embodied representation of the category of frightening things. And then you might ask yourself, well once you come up with the concept of the category of frightening things, maybe you can come up with the concept of what to do in the face of frightening things. Which is not the same as "what do you do when you encounter a lion", or "what do you do when you encounter someone angry". It's a meta question, right?

But then you could say, at a philosophical level: "You will encounter elements of the category of all those things which can frighten and undermine you during your life. Is there something that you can do as a category that would help you deal with that." And the answer is yeah, there is in fact. And that's what a lot of religious stories and symbolic stories are trying to propose to you, is the solution to that. One is, approach it voluntarily. Carefully, but voluntarily. Don't freeze and run away. Explore, instead. You expose yourself to risk but you gain knowledge.

With an emphasis on Peterson’s discussion of “religious stories” one gets to the heart of his understanding of the function of myth.* Instead of being revealed or esoteric knowledge from a realm outside of man, Peterson sees religious revelation as another in the line of stories and symbols that aid man in his quest for meaning.* In this way, he’s not that far off from Matthew Arnold’s tragic conception of belief, disbelief and culture in his seminal Culture and Anarchy. But as a way out of our society's prevailing liberalism, it is not.

For those of us living in liberalism’s wake, dreaming won’t do. Nor will fantasies of the individual or defenses of the way things are. After all, it’s not just our rooms that are out of order but our entire civilization.

In order to live through this moment, we have to reach back to the myths and archetypes that animate our souls. We have to grapple in a meaningful way with religion and its rebirth in the 21st century. What we don’t need is another set of pop-psychological explanations for our lives.

Because those are merely modern, all too modern.

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