Jordan Peterson’s Pragmatism

For those of you who don’t know Jordan Petreson, he’s a clinical psychologist and professor of Toronto University who criticizes C-Bill 16 in his YouTube video. However, I’m not going to comment on his critique of the bill, but rather his exchange with Sam Harris in the podcast. Actually, I probably won’t talk about the actual exchange because it was painfully long. To be honest, I never really listened to it but simply read the summary of the whole exchange. I had the feeling the exchange wouldn’t go well because Jordan Peterson has a highly eccentric view that’s foreign to Sam Harris. I’m not talking about his view on free speech, but rather some of his beliefs in Jungian Psychoanalysis and his Joseph Campbell-esque take on religion. In other words, Peterson believes that there are “deeper” truths found in archetypes embodied in mythologies, folklore, and stories. If things couldn’t get any worse for Sam Harris, Peterson reveals that he accepts the pragmatist view of truth. To paraphrase Peterson, he says that truth is whatever is conducive or useful to the survival (and presumably flourishing) of the human species.

This isn’t a radically novel or new view since William James argued for a pragmatist view of truth. Before anyone dismisses pragmatism, people should keep in mind that the nature of truth has been a hot debate for centuries especially in contemporary Analytic Philosophy. There are many different theories such as the correspondence theory of truth, coherentist theory of truth, deflationist theory of truth, and so on. Pragmatism is one among many theories of truth and it has eminent supporters such as William James, Charles Pierce, John Dewey, Robert Brandom, and so on.

What many pragmatists have in common is that they often understood truth in terms of whatever is conducive to empircal investigation. For example, a scientific theory that makes useful and accurate predictions would be “true” according to a pragmatist because a theory that makes accurate and well-tested predictions is conducive to empirical investigation. While a pragmatist take on truth isn’t entirely original on Peterson’s part, what is new is that he doesn’t take this broadly standard pragmatist view of truth but proposes his own Jungian twist:

“Here’s an answer: individually, such that the family thrives; at the family level, so that society thrives; at the societal level, so that the ecosystem thrives—today, tomorrow, next week, next year, and across time. That’s the ultimate Piagetian equilibrated state (and Piaget, by the way—although few know this—was trying to solve the problem of the relationship between science and ethics. That’s what drove him his entire life).

The individual who acts in this manner is the mythological hero, who confronts the unknown with attention and intent to communicate, who obtains the gold from the eternal dragon of chaos (an evolved representation of the predatory/promising domain beyond the safety of the campfire), and who distributes that gold to the community. He rescues the youthful virgin from the predatory reptile. That’s St. George. It’s the oldest story we know of. It’s in the Enuma Elish, the Mesopotamian creation myth, upon which the opening lines of Genesis are historically predicated. Can’t you see the evolutionary relationship?

That’s the archetypal hero. That’s first, a way of behaving; second, a representation of acting; third, a way of organizing society around that action and representation; fourth, a society that then selects, through masculine competition, for the best contender to that representation; fifth, what is selected for by women, who peel off the top of the masculine competition. They outsource the impossible cognitive task of mate selection to the male dominance hierarchy. A hero emerges at the top of the competition. He gets all the girls. Human females are mother nature, the selection apparatus, the choosy maters (that female chimps are not).

The archetypal hero is a super-meme. It has been around so long that we have adapted, biologically, to its existence, just as we have adapted in every way to the three hundred million year old dominance hierarchy, which is more permanent—more real, even from a strictly realist perspective—than such evanescent phenomena as amphibians, reptiles, and mammals: older even [than] trees. The closer you are to the archetypal hero, the more likely you are, at least as a male, to win the dominance hierarchy contest that makes you attractive to women.

If Dawkins was wiser, he would have been Carl Jung. An archetype is the ultimate meme.” 

Unlike most pragmatists, Peterson’s version of pragmatism is more or less centered on Jungian archetypes than scientific and epistemic values. Not only is this very odd, peculiar, and eccentric, but it’s practically useless. For example, Jungian archetypes can’t tell us whether or not we should accept the Copenhagen interpretation or the Many Worlds Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics. A pragmatist who argues for mathematical elegance as an underlying value of theoretical investigation can easily opt for the Many Worlds Interpretation, but Jungian Archetypes can’t really say anything informative. After all, Peterson’s version of pragmatism is extremely anthropocentric, so it’s indifferent to inquiries that do not bear immediate relevance to the human condition. It seems that for Peterson the word “truth” is more or less facts about the human condition than impersonal facts. However, this is obviously too narrow.

Peterson might reply by saying that Jungian Archetypes can provide guidance on productive empirical investigation by pointing out stories of an ostracized and persecuted genius who found the truth and tries to share it with the masses. Plato’s allegory of the cave, Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, Biblical Prophets warning Israel, the Buddha searching for enlightenment, and other stories can convey deep insights into how to conduct empirical investigation. However, there are two problems with this possible response. First, such archetypes presuppose certain epistemic and scientific values in the first place, so Peterson’s pragmatism collapses into a classical version of pragmatism. In other words, truth is not really about archetypes because they are just mythological vehicles for scientific and epistemic values. Second, these stories or mythologies are open to different interpretations as there are different possible archetypes one can ascribe to them.

What I find ironic about Peterson is that on one hand he deeply opposes Postmodernism (he even calls Jacques Derrida a dangerous man), but on the other hand his Pragmatism is practically in the same ball park as Postmodernism when it comes to truth. Both are subjectivists about truth. They think truth is mind-dependent as oppose to mind-independent. As a result, they have a highly anthropocentric conception of truth. How can Peterson justify his pragmatism but denounce Postmodernism?

It’s becoming clear that Peterson is not exactly well informed and equipped to deal with the philosophical subject of the nature of truth. This isn’t very shocking as Peterson is more or less a clinical psychologist who comes from a Jungian tradition rather than a trained philosopher or someone who is relatively well read in the literature.


3 thoughts on “Jordan Peterson’s Pragmatism

  1. garthdaisy

    Well thank you for this. Peterson had me so perplexed I couldn’t even get close to understanding what he was up to philosophically. This really helped sort it out for me. Confused as I was I did come away from their conversation with the same thought as you. This guy hates postmodernism but talks like that? I hope both he and Harris read this and find it as helpful as I did. Thanks again.

    1. philonous13 Post author

      Peterson’s view of truth is almost as bizarre as the postmodernist view. It almost feels like his opposition against postmodernism is inconsistent with his pragmatist view of truth. I also think he’s a pretty sloppy and fuzzy thinker because of he’s heavily influenced by Jungian psychology and Joseph Campbell’s view of religion and mythologies. For some strange reason he comes across as sharp when he’s engaged in topics of free speech and clinical psychology, but really fuzzy and murky on religion and philosophy.

      1. garthdaisy

        Yes. I actually enjoyed reading Joseph Campbell but it didn’t mess up my head like it seems to have done with Peterson. The one positive thing from the Harris discussion is that Peterson kept saying “I could be wrong.”

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