Up until this point, I’ve avoided talking about Jordan Peterson in any serious manner. In part because I thought (and continue to hope) that he’s the intellectual version of a fad diet who will shortly become irrelevant. My general impression of him is that when he’s right, he’s saying rather banal, cliché truisms with an undeserved bombastic air of profundity, such as his assertions that there are biological differences between men and women, that many religious myths share some similar features, or that taking personal responsibility is good. When he’s wrong, he’s talking way out of the depth of his understanding in his field (like the infamous lobster comment or this bizarre nonsense). Either way, it doesn’t make for a rather good use of time or opportunity for interesting, productive discussion—especially when his galaxy-brained cult-like fanboys are ready to pounce on anyone who criticizes their dear leader.
However, since everyone seems to be as obsessed with Jordan Peterson as he is with himself, I guess it’s finally time to talk about one example of him ignorantly bloviating that particularly annoys me as a philosophy student: his comments on postmodernism. There’s a lot one can talk about with Jordan Peterson because he says almost anything that comes to his mind about any topic, but for the present purposes you can pretend that I think everything he’s ever said that isn’t about postmodern is the deepest, most insightful thing ever said by any thinker in the history of western thought. I’m not interested in defending any overarching claims about him as a thinker. At the very least, his work on personality psychology does seem rather well respected and he surely got to his prestigious academic position with some merit, though I am not qualified to really appraise it. I am, however, more prepared to talk about his rather confused comments on philosophy which might shed light on why people are generally frustrated with his overly self-confident presence as a public intellectual.
Postmodernism, According to Peterson
Peterson often makes comments about “postmodern neo-Marxism,” which he calls a “rejection of the western tradition.” Now the very phrase “postmodern neo-Marxism” strikes anyone remotely familiar with the academic literature on postmodernism and Marxism as bizarre and confused. Postmodernism is usually characterized as skepticism towards grand general theories. Marxism is a grand general theory about how class struggle and economic conditions shape the trajectory of history. Clearly, those two views are not at all compatible. As such, much of the history of twentieth century academia is a history of Marxists and postmodernists fighting and butting heads.
Many commentators have pointed out this error, but Jordan Peterson now has a response. In it he tries to offer a more refined definition of postmodernism as two primary claims and a secondary claim:
Postmodernism is essentially the claim that (1) since there are an innumerable number of ways in which the world can be interpreted and perceived (and those are tightly associated) then (2) no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived.
That’s the fundamental claim. An immediate secondary claim (and this is where the Marxism emerges) is something like “since no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived, all interpretation variants are best interpreted as the struggle for different forms of power.”
He then goes on to concede to the criticism that Marxism and postmodernism can’t be described as theoretically aligned, but moves the goal posts to say that they are practically aligned in politics. Further, he contends postmodernisms’ commitment to analyze power structures is just “a rehashing of the Marxist claim of eternal and primary class warfare.”
It is worth noting that this attempt at nuance is surely an improvement at Peterson’s previous comments that postmodern a Marxism are a coherent “doctrine” that just hated logic and western values. But his attempt at a “definition” is unsatisfactorily way too restrictive for every thinker who gets called “postmodern,” and the attempt to link the politics of postmodernism up with the politics of Marxism is a complete mischaracterization. Further, his attempt to “critique” this position, whatever one wants to call it, is either (at best) vague and imprecise or (at worst) utterly fails. Finally, there really is no alliance between postmodernists and Marxists. Whether or not a thinker is called a “postmodernist” or not is not a very good predictor of their political views.
Why Peterson’s Definition isn’t what Postmodernists Believe and his Critique Fails
First of all, I am really not interested in dying on the hill of offering a better “definition” of postmodernism. Like any good Wittgensteinian, I tend to think you can’t really give a good list of necessary and sufficient conditions that perfectly captures all the subtle ways we use a word. The meaning of the word is the way it is used. Even within academia postmodernism has such broad, varied usage that I’m not sure it has a coherent meaning. Indeed, Foucault once remarked in a 1983 interview when asked about postmodernism, “What are we calling postmodernity? I’m not up to date.” The best I can give is Lyotard’s classic “incredulity toward metanarratives,” which is rather vague and oversimplified. Because this is the best I think one can do given how wildly unpredictable the usage of postmodernism is, we’re probably better off just not putting too much stock in it either as one’s own philosophical position or as the biggest existential threat to western civilization and we should talk about more substantive philosophical disagreements.
That said, Jordan Peterson’s definition is unsatisfactory and shows a poor understanding of postmodernism. While the first half of the fundamental claim is a pretty good stab at generalizing a view most philosophers who get labeled as postmodern agree with, the second half is rather unclear since it’s uncertain what Peterson means by “canonical.” If he takes this to mean that we have no determinate way of determining which interpretations are valid, then that would be a good summary of most postmodernists and an implication of Peterson’s own professed Jamesian pragmatism. If what he thinks it means is that all perspectives are as valid as any other and we have no way of deciphering which ones are better than the other, then nobody relevant believes that.
Peterson objects to is the implication “that there are an unspecifiable number of VALID interpretations.” He tries to refute this by citing Charles Pierce (who actually did not at all hold this view) and William James on the pragmatic criterion of truth to give meaning to “valid interpretations.” He says valid means “when the proposition or interpretation is acted out in the world, the desired outcome within the specific timeframe ensues.” However, it doesn’t follow from this view that you can specify the number of valid interpretations. It just begs the question of how we should understand what “the desired outcome” means, which just puts the perspectivism back a level. Even if we did agree on a determinate “desired outcome,” there are still multiple beliefs one could have to achieve a desired outcome. To put it in a pragmatically-minded cliché, there is more than one way to skin a cat. This is why, in fact, William James was a pluralist.
Perhaps by “specifiable,” he doesn’t mean we can readily quantify the number of valid interpretations, just that the number is not infinite. However, nobody believes there are an infinite number of valid perspectives we should consider. The assertion that a priori we cannot quantify the number of valid perspectives does not mean that all perspectives are equally valid or that there are an infinite number of valid perspectives. Peterson’s argument that we have limited cognitive capacities to consider all possible perspectives is true, it’s just not a refutation of anything postmodernists believe. On this point, it is worth quoting Richard Rorty—one who was both a Jamesian pragmatist and usually gets called postmodern—from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature:
When it is said, for example, that coherentist or pragmatic “theories of truth” allow for the possibility that many incompatible theories would satisfy the conditions set for “the truth,” the coherentist or pragmatist usually replies this merely shows that we have no grounds for choice among thse candidates for “the truth.” The moral to draw is not to say they have offered inadequate analyses of “true,” but that there are some terms—for example, “the true theory,” “the right thing to do”—which are, intuitively and grammatically singular, but for which no set of necessary and sufficient conditions can be given which will pick out a unique referent. This fact, they say, should not be surprising. Nobody thinks that there are necessary and sufficient conditions which will pick out, for example, the unique referent of “the best thing for her to have done on finding herself in that rather embarrassing situation,” though plausible conditions can be given as to which will shorten a list of competing incompatible candidates. Why should it be any different for the referents of “what she should have done in that ghastly moral dilemma” or “the Good Life for man” or “what the world is really made of?” [Emphasis mine]
The fact that we cannot readily quantify a limited number of candidates for interpretations or decide between them algorithmically does not that we have absolutely no ways to tell which interpretation is valid, that all interpretations are equally valid, nor does it mean there are an infinite number of potentially valid interpretations. Really, the view that many (though not all) postmodernists actually hold under this “primary claim” is not all that substantially different from Peterson’s own Jamesian pragmatism.
As for the secondary claim, which he thinks is Marxist, that “since no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived, all interpretation variants are best interpreted as the struggle for different forms of power.” This view is basically just one just Foucault might have held depending on how you read him. Some would argue this isn’t even a good reading of Foucault because such sweeping generalizations about “all interpretations” is rather uncharacteristic of a philosopher who’s skeptical of sweeping generalizations. However, you read Foucault (and I’m not really prepared to take a strong stand either way), it certainly isn’t the view of all postmodernists. Rorty criticized this habit of Foucault (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 63), and thought that even if power does shape modern subjectivity it’s worth the tradeoff in the gains to freedom that modern liberalism has brought and thus is not the best way to view. It’s also telling that Peterson doesn’t even try to critique this claim and just dogmatically dismisses it.
Postmodernism’s Alleged Alliance with Marxism
So much for his vague, weak argument against a straw man. Now let’s see if there’s any merit to Peterson’s thought that Marxism and postmodernism have some important resemblance or philosophical alliance. Peterson says that the secondary claim of postmodernism is where the similarity to Marxism comes. However, Marx simply did not think that all theories are just attempts to grab power in the Foucauldian sense: he didn’t think that dialectical materialism the labor theory of value were just power grabs, and predicted a day when there was no competition for power in the first place at the end of history since a communist society would be classless. If anything, it’s the influence of Nietzsche’s Will to Power on Foucault, and oddly enough Peterson thinks rather highly of Nietzsche (even though Nietzsche anticipated postmodernism in rather important ways).
The only feature that they share is a narrative of one group trying to dominate another group. But if any attempt to describe oppression in society is somehow “Marxist,” that means right libertarians who talk about how the state and crony capitalist are oppressing and coercing the general public are “Marxist,” evangelicals who say Christians are oppressed by powerful liberal elites are “Marxist,” even Jordan Peterson himself is a “Marxist” when he whines about these postmodern Marxist boogeymen are trying to silence his free speech. He both defines “postmodernism” too narrowly, and then uses “Marxism” in such a loose manner that it basically means nothing.
Further, there’s Peterson’s claim that due to identity politics, postmodernists and Marxists now just have a practical political alliance even if it’s theoretically illogical. The only evidence he really gives of this alleged “alliance” is that Derrida and Foucault were Marxists when they were younger who “barely repented” from Marxism and that courses like critical theory and gender studies read Marxists and postmodernists. That they barely repented is simply a lie, Foucault left all his associations with Marxist parties and expunged his earlier works of Marxist themes. But the mere fact that someone once was a Marxist and then criticized Marxism later in their life doesn’t mean there was a continuing alliance between believers in their thought and Marxism. Alasdair MacIntyre was influenced by Marx when he was young and became a Catholic neo-Aristotelian, nobody thinks that he “barely repented” and there’s some overarching alliance between traditionalist Aristotelians and Marxists.
As for the claim that postmodernists and Marxists are read in gender studies, it’s just absurd to think that’s evidence of some menacing “practical alliance.” The reason they’re read in those is mostly courses is to provide contrast for the students of opposing perspectives. This is like saying that because Rawlsian libertarians are taken seriously by academic political philosophers there’s some massive political alliance between libertarians and progressive liberals.
Really, trying to connect postmodernism to any political ideology shows a laughably weak understanding of both postmodernism and political theory. You have postmodernists identifying as everything from far leftists (Foucault), to progressive liberals (Richard Rorty), to classical liberals (Deirdre McClosky), to anarchists (Saul Newman), to religious conservatives (like Peter Blum and James K.A. Smith). They don’t all buy identity politics uniformly, Richard Rorty criticized the left for focusing on identity issues over economic politics and was skeptical of the usefulness of a lot of critical theory. There really is no necessary connection between one’s highly theoretical views on epistemic justification, truth, and the usefulness of metaphysics or other metanarratives and one’s more concrete views on culture or politics.
Now Peterson can claim all the people I’ve listed aren’t “really” postmodern and double down on his much narrower, idiosyncratic definition of postmodernism which has very little relation to the way anyone who knows philosophy uses it. Fine, that’s a trivial semantic debate I’m not really interested in having. But it does create a problem for him: he wants to claim that postmodernism is this pernicious, all-encompassing threat that has consumed all of the humanities and social sciences which hates western civilization. He then wants to define postmodernism so narrowly that it merely describes the views of basically just Foucault. He wants to have his cake and eat it too: define postmodernism narrowly to evade criticism that he’s using it loosely, and use it as a scare term for the entire modern left.
Peterson’s Other Miscellaneous Dismissals of Postmodernism
The rest of what he has to say about postmodernism is all absurd straw men with absolutely no basis in anything anyone has ever argued. He thinks postmodernists “don’t believe in logic” when, for example, Richard Rorty was an analytic philosopher who spent the early parts of his career obsessed with the logic of language. He thinks they “don’t believe in dialogue” when Rorty’s whole aspiration was to turn all of society into one continuous dialogue and reimagine philosophy as the “conversation of culture). Or that they believe “you don’t have an individual identity” when K. Anthony Appiah, who encourages “banal ‘postmodernism’” about race, believes that the individual dimensions of identity are problematically superseded by the collective dimensions. This whole “definition and critique” of postmodernism is clearly just a post-hoc rationalization for him to continue to dishonestly straw man all leftists with an absurd monolithic conspiracy theory. The only people who are playing “crooked games” or are “neck-deep in deceit” are ignorant hucksters like Peterson bloviating about topics they clearly know nothing about with absurd levels of unmerited confidence.
Really, it’s ironic that Peterson has such irrational antipathy towards postmodernism. A ton of the views he champions (a pragmatic theory of truth, a respect for Nietzsche’s use of genealogy, a naturalist emphasis on the continuity between animals and humans, etc.) are all views that are often called “postmodern” depending on how broadly one understands “incredulity towards metanarratives,” and at the very least were extremely influential over most postmodern philosophers and echoed in their work. Maybe if Peterson showed a fraction of the openness to dialogue and debate he dishonestly pretends to have and actually read postmodernists outside of a secondary source, he’d discover a lot to agree with.
[Editors note: The last line has been changed from an earlier version with an incorrect statement about Peterson’s source Explaining Postmodernism.]