Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has become in some North American circles these days, the hot new pop philosopher.
He achieved some celebrity two years ago when a YouTube video of his, criticizing gender-neutral pronouns, went viral.
Since then he has put out a book, 12 Rules for Life, that positions him as a “warrior for common sense.”
Who is a “pop” philosopher and what qualifies someone for this dubious title?
There should be, on the one side, a certain academic patina. A good pop philosopher should get the lingo right, should know the difference between an “epistemological” issue and a “metaphysical” one, for example.
On the other side, a pop philosopher, at least while writing or speaking as such, is writing or speaking to a very particular audience: generally to young people who are just encountering the use of such words. A pop philosopher becomes some new group’s introduction to what philosophy means. In time, some of the members of the group will inevitably become disenchanted, either with philosophy itself or (if they’re luckier) with their introduction to it, and in the latter case some of them will seek something more genuine.
For, thirdly, a pop philosopher isn’t really a philosopher, and is selling trumped-up wares, sound-bites and paradoxes packaged as profundity. Those who consider the pop philosopher of a particular moment as “on the right side” are often capable of recognizing this trumped-up character, and often say such things as “X is full of hot air, but at least it’s our hot air.” Recall the National Review in its early days, and the stance it took toward Ayn Rand at her peak.
Right Wing View
Peterson’s take on the contemporary world is this: society is becoming feminized, and thus is drifting into chaos. He believes there are an archetypal ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ principle; respectively order and chaos. Sometimes chaos is creative, Peterson acknowledges, but there are also times and respects in which it is destructive.
Chaos needs order. The balance has to be right. Otherwise, it’s just (in Peterson’s words) “the impenetrable darkness of a cave and the accident by the side of the road.”
David Brooks, who writes a conservative op ed column for The New York Times, quotes Peterson on the disastrous possibilities inherent in chaos and echoes him in the anti-PC messaging that made Peterson famous, “Rise above the culture of victimization you see all around you. Stop whining,” says Brooks on Peterson’s behalf.
Izzy Kalman, writing in Psychology Today, praises Peterson’s recognition that (in Kalman’s terms) “a society dominated by a victim mentality cannot flourish for long.”
Left Wing View
In November Tabatha Southey, in MacLean’s, characterized Peterson as the stupid person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like. He’s the sort of person, she says, who can never say that we “know,” because saying that we are “cognizant of” sounds much better.
Christian Tietze, in The Baffler, delves into the historical side of Peterson’s views. Peterson says that the Enlightenment was a uniquely Western event, and made of the Western world a uniquely gifted civilization. “The west,” he has said, “is the only place in the world that ever has figured out that the individual is sovereign.”
Tietze senses a paradox, or even a flat-out contradiction, here. We are asked to take collective pride in a group (admittedly a very large group spread out in time and space), and to ground this group pride on its discovery of uncompromising individualism.
Isn’t it wonderful to identify as part of the tribe that doesn’t believe in tribal identity?