Jordan Peterson’s intellectual limitations

I enjoyed and admired Jordan Peterson’s 12 Years for Life.  It is good advice, written in high-energy prose, on how to form the habits that enable you to overcome despair and lead a meaningful life.

The fact that it is a best-seller is not only due to the merits of the book, but on the need for such books, especially for aimless young men.

Jordan Peterson

When I reviewed the book, I largely ignored Jordan Peterson’s underlying political views because I didn’t think they were important to the book’s basic message.

But now that Peterson has become a political pundit on TV, I think his political thinking deserves a closer look.

In the videos I’ve watched, Peterson expresses himself forcefully, understandably and without equivocation.  He gets the better of debate opponents and hostile interviewers.   He says hardly anything I outright disagree with, but much that is one-sided and incomplete.

Here’s what I see as Peterson’s intellectual limitations.

Psychology vs the Social Sciences

Peterson has a good understanding of human motivation, based on wide study of psychology in all its aspects and also his practice of clinical psychology.   But human behavior is constrained by political, economic and social structures, which Peterson has not studied well.

For example, he explains economic inequality as a product of hierarchies of competence, the fact that some people are more talented and work harder than other people.

I have no doubt that such hierarchies exist.  But they don’t explain the great increase in wealth of the top 0.1 and 0.01 percent of the population throughout the Western world.  The average CEO’s income was 40 times the wage of the average corporate employee 30 years ago, and it is 400 times as much now.  Are rich people smarter and harder working now than they were 25 years ago?  Or is there some other explanation?

Psychology helps you to understand what is permanent in human nature.  You need the social sciences to understand differences between communities and societies and how they change over time.  I would like to see Peterson engage with a social scientist who knows his stuff, such as the economist Thomas Piketty or the political scientist Thomas Ferguson.


Individualism vs. Mutual Aid

Jordan Peterson is an unusually self-reliant and individualistic person.  As an anti-Communist, he identifies with individual dissidents such as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.  But I don’t know of anything he’s written about the Solidarity movement in Poland.  There is only so much you can do by yourself to resist tyranny.  You need solidarity with others.

Similarly, he considers himself a Christian of a sort.  But he never goes to church.  He once said he doesn’t need to participate in a congregation to think about God.

12 Rules for Life is all about taking responsibility for solving your own problems and for society as a whole.  It is sensible, inspiring and a good starting point.  But there is only so much you can do by yourself.  Mutual aid is part of human life.  People need to be able

I admire Peterson’s rugged independence, but most of us human beings aren’t like him.  We need community as well as freedom in order, first, to survive and, second, to get things done.  Peterson is insufficiently aware of this side of life.

Academia vs the Great World

Jordan Peterson became famous not just because of his book, but because of his resistance to mandatory rules about using special pronouns for individuals who didn’t consider themselves men or women.

I think he was right both on academic freedom grounds and on the merits of the issue.  But he writes and speaks as if conflict over political correctness rules were as big an issue in the world as large as they are in academia.

In the world outside the college campus, women are subject to employment discrimination and sexual harassment, black people are subject to employment discrimination and police harassment and unauthorized immigrants to deportation and separation from their families.

These are not micro-grievances, and it is natural and right for people who are picked on because of race, gender, immigration status or other characteristics to band together on the basis of identity to defend themselves.

It is true that this kind of identity politics can devolve into a war of competing micro-nationalisms, without a vision of the common good.  Peterson’s critique of identity politics is all right as far as it goes, but it is not enough.  What’s needed is an idea of the common good.

All that said, Peterson is an interesting thinker, and worth engaging with.

The alt-right movement, with which Peterson does not agree, has championed Peterson because he is an enemy of their enemies.   Self-described leftists criticize Peterson because he is a perceived friend of their enemies.  Few on either side look at what Peterson actually says.


Jordan Peterson’s Gospel of Masculinity by Kalefa Sannel for The New Yorker.

I was Jordan Peterson’s strongest supporter | Now I think he’s dangerous by Bernard Schiff for The Star.  Hat tip to Jack Clontz.

The Shocking Truth About Jordan Peterson by Wesley Yang for The Tablet.  Hat tip to Jack Clontz.

The religious hunger that drives Jordan Peterson’s fandom by Tara Isabella Burton for Vox.

12 Rules for Spitting on the Poor by Noah Berlatsky for Dollars & Sense.  [Added 6/9/2018]  Hat tip to Bill Harvey.

Why Is Jordan Peterson So Popular? by Caitlin Flanagan for The Atlantic.  [Added 8/29/2018]

The Left’s Contempt for Jordan Peterson Is Perfectly Rational by Eric Levitz for Daily Intelligencer.  [Added 8/29/2018]


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2 Responses to “Jordan Peterson’s intellectual limitations”

  1. Ataraxik Says:

    Jordan Peterson is wrong about a lot of stuff. However, what mainstream outlets don’t understand is that his fans don’t actually care about whether or not he’s correct on historical nuiances.

    What they like about him is the fact that he is saying the sort of things that a lot of people have been thinking for awhile.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. paintedjaguar (James Thompson) Says:

    I do admire Peterson’s willingness to stand up for freedom of speech. However he isn’t as “rugged” as he probably likes to think. As you say, he is an established academic and that is a much more cushy gig than most of us have, with lots of institutional and community support even if it’s less secure than in the past (isn’t everything?).

    Certainly I’ve know more than one “starving” grad student who leads a much more privileged life than I ever have, with better pay, hours, and autonomy. The meritocratic notion that higher status positions are the result of giving up freedom and immediate gratification that lower status people enjoy unhindered is an outright myth. Real life is just the opposite.

    Liked by 1 person

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