Disclaimer: I am no philosopher, I am just a layperson trying to figure stuff out, so the definitions of words I’m using here, might not be the most precise.
I don’t get Jordan Peterson’s frustration with the Postmodernists, he has very much been influenced by Postmodernism. Peterson is no Modernist, and in some respects he’s not a Postmodernist either. However, he does not inhabit a Modernist world (think in the same terms a modernist would) and is instead, very much inhabiting the Postmodern world and trying to find a way out of its dilemmas.
First, it might be helpful to define, albeit somewhat vaguely and imprecisely, what I mean by Postmodernism:
Postmodernism, as I think of it, takes phenomenology and existentialism seriously and thinks in those terms. Thus there is a greater focus on the subjective experience of the individual, which isn’t characteristic of modernity as I think of it. This existential/phenomenological outlook, opens up critiques of modernist epistemology. Postmodernists are also concerned with the crisis of meaning modernity has created and either revel in it, or try to come up with solutions. Finally, Postmodernists offer political critiques of the modern political order and ideas of progress.
To explain why Peterson is inhabiting a Postmodern world, it might be helpful to run through the intellectual history of how Postmodernism developed.
A history of ideas which may or may not be accurate.
A Key shift that had to take place for modern science to emerge was the expulsion of consciousness (or the subject) from the study of the natural world. Aristotle famously had four causes, only two of which are intelligible to our our modern, mechanistic minds:
Material Cause: What is something made of?
Formal Cause: The essence, nature or design of something. Perhaps you could ask How is it?
Efficient cause: What brought it into existence?
Final Cause: The purpose of something, what it it’s end?
The move that had to be made for modern science to be born was to dismiss the final and formal causes and focus on the material and efficient causes. This move, focuses on matter instead of mind. In a world of pure matter, (picture a world without consciousness, which is of course impossible since YOU are picturing it.) questions of purpose or essence are unintelligible, since these causes are product of mind.
A further move, very much related to this one, was Galileo’s separation of primary and secondary qualities of objects. Primary qualities are independent of mind: solidity, extension, motion, number and figure. Secondary qualities are dependent on mind: colour, taste, scent, smell.
“I think that tastes, odors, colors, and so on are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we locate them are concerned, and that they reside in consciousness. Hence if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated”
Thus, the physical world is to be studied dispassionately, without letting the subject get in the way. And thus, modern science was born. The enlightenment optimism was that if we only give ourselves over to reason and logic, and study the natural world dispassionately, all of its secrets could be revealed. Indeed, to put it in Paul Vanderklay’s terms, if we can abstract ourselves out of our subjective experience and into the realm of pure reason, we can achieve the monarchical vision and see reality as it is. Thus the Modernist idea is that we, if we use our reason properly, can achieve a “God’s eye view” of the world.
From this high point of modernity, the development of postmodernism begins. The progression from modernism to postmodernism, if we we can speak coherently about such categories, is one that is undoubtedly more complex than I will be outlining here. Since modernism is not just a philosophical movement, but rather a general societal outlook or presuppositional backdrop, it encompasses all spheres of human existence: cultural, ethical, aesthetic, political, ect. The shift from a modern to a postmodern “backdrop” is one that encompasses all these different spheres, making a oversimplified history of ideas insufficient to explain or encapsulate the phenomenon. The modern west, it seems to me, is in the process of transitioning from modernism to postmodernism.
If we are to try to outline how postmodern philosophy took hold, probably the best figure to start with is Immanuel Kant, who argued that we cannot in fact achieve the monarchical vision of the world. Our perception of the Ding in Sich is mediated by a series of conceptual categories, filters which make the world intelligible to us. Thus, there is a distinction between the Noumenon, the world as it is. And the Phenomenon- the world as it appears to us, once it has gone through our filters. Kant the transcendental idealist, thought that all of reality was mediated through consciousness and brought both the primary and secondary qualities into the realm of the phenomenon and maintained that both are simply categories through which we see the world.
Søren Kierkegaard is also a significant figure to mention. Kierkegaard noted that the emphasis on rationality and mechanistic science had left out the most obvious part of reality: the human subject and his existence. While our modern forms of knowing were good for determining what is true in a physical, material sense, we have completely forgotten how to exist. Thus, Kierkegaards famous, or infamous, statement that “truth is subjectivity.” To Kierkegaard, the essential truth, the truth about how to exist and how one should order ones life, could not be found by studying the material universe, but rather, by probing into inwardness and becoming a true self. Its easy to see how this notion of truth as subjectivity could easily be twisted into solipsism and relativism, but this wasn’t at all what Kierkegaard intended. To him, one could only become fully human in relation to God.
A further central development is Phenomenology. Phenomenology was first developed by Edmund Husserl who believed that modern science had taken a wrong turn when it had abandoned the human spirit in favour of naturalism and assumed that all could be explained by purely mechanistic or physical explanations. Truth is reduced to the objective reality outside of ourselves. Husserl realized that we can never understand consciousness from without, but only from within. Thus, to understand human experience, we must probe more and more deeply into the experience of consciousness. To Husserl, the central feature of consciousness was intentionality: that consciousness is thinking about something. This is important, the experience of thinking about an object and the object itself, are two very different things. We can know everything about our experience of the object, but we have only limited knowledge about the object itself. Thus in an act of what he calls bracketing, Husserl puts aside the external world (the neumonal world) and focuses solely on the nature of his conscious experience of the world. This has important implications, Stumpf and Feser write in their textbook, Philosophy: History and Problems:
Thus, the structures of thinking itself determines the appearance of all objects. He designates this immediate phenomenal world of experience as the transcendental realm, and rejects any philosophical theory that attempts to go beyond that realm. He thus rejects Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal (experience) and the neumenal (the thing-in-itself)
We have seen that Husserl urges us to bracket all presuppositions and essentially go back to a prescientific viewpoint, which he believes reflects the original form of human experience. This is the realm of our daily world- the life world. (Lebenswelt) The life world consist of all those experiences in which we are typically involved including perception, response, interpretation, and the organization of the many facets of everyday affairs. This life-world is the source from which the sciences abstract their objects. To that extent the sciences provide only a partial grasp of reality. Much of the rich and meaningful elements of experience remains after the sciences have been abstracted the elements of their concern.
This, it seems to me, is where postmodernism can really take shape. Husserl has distinguished between the human spirit and the scientific, the experiential and the physical. The phenomenological move also differentiates between two different types of truth: the existential and the physical. This is something Kierkegaard wrote about in his Concluding Unscientific Postscripts:
For an objective reflection the truth becomes an object, something objective and thought must be pointed away from the subject. For a subjective reflection the truth becomes a matter of appropriation, of inwardness, of subjectivity, and thought must probe more and more deeply into the subject and his subjectivity.
Husserl’s move of bracketing the scientific and focusing on the existential is one that ruptured philosophy into analytic and continental schools of thought. The former concerned on logic and language, while the latter is concerned with human experience and ontology.
Postmodernism has taken this bracketing move to the extreme and now sees phenomenology and physical reality as two completely unrelated things. This is most clearly seen in the distinction being drawn between gender and sex. Sex is the persons biological sex, given at birth, while gender is the expression of sex through gender expression or social expectations. Here, phenomenology has become unmoored from physical reality and is drifting into sea.
Postmodernists have also moved on from the realm of “pure consciousness” Husserl was exploring, to consider the impact of societal structures, ideologies, hierarchies ect. on our being in the world. While the modernists thought that by the use of pure reason one could achieve a monarchical vision of the world, postmodernists recognize that we wear all kinds of filters which inhabit us from seeing the world as it is. Thus, because we are situated subjects, our apprehension of the world is filtered through various interpretative layers: ideology, gender, race, political affiliation, culture, ect. No one can ever have a “god’s eye view” of the world, because although we can recognize our filters, and try to deconstruct our experience, we can never fully get rid of them or ever fully be aware of them. Thus, we get standpoint epistemology, the idea that people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds have different perspectives on the world that others, who do not share those same backgrounds, cannot appreciate. Postmodern epistemology then, is suspicious of absolute truth claims and sees them as power moves, the attempt of one group, ideology, or political movement to assert its dominance over another.
Enter Jordan Peterson
Jordan Peterson, despite his denouncements of “postmodern neo-marxism” has undoubtedly been influenced by postmodern thought and sits firmly within the continental side of the continental/analytic divide. This becomes clear when Peterson distinguishes between two types of truth, or two ways of construing reality: the world as a forum for action and the world as a space of objects. The world of objects is the world of science and the world of action is the phenomenological world. It is this split world that makes Peterson edgy about answering the question: Are you a Christian? His standard answer, “I act as if Christianity was true,” is a very postmodern one. Here’s why. What Peterson means by acting as if Christianity is true, is not simply that he lives his life by Christian principles, but rather that his entire experience as a western individual has been shaped by Christian principles. Peterson acts as if he is a Christian because he has no other choice: Christianity is built into him, whether he likes it or not. This is why Peterson has provocatively called the new atheists “Christians.” As a strong evolutionary thinker, is keen on pointing out that the values, imaginative structures and religious principles of Christendom have become part of the air we breath or the water we swim in.
Its because of this central point of Peterson’s philosophy, that I don’t understand his hostility to the critical theorists. The postmodernists occupying the “grievance studies” departments of universities are working from within the exact same phenomenological framework Peterson is. Just as Christianity has become “built into us” as lenses through which we see and act in the world, just so, argue the postmodernists, have lenses of white supremacy, patriarchy, sexism and whatnot, become built into our personal, familial social, political and economic, structures. In other words, we don’t just have positive filters informing our decisions, we also have negative filters that lead us into prejudice and discrimination. Indeed, the implicit theory of racism corresponds exactly to Jordan Peterson’s definition of belief. Belief, to Peterson, isn’t just what you say, it is also what you do, how you see the world, it is your Being, it is part of you. So too, racism cannot be measured by statistics measuring incidents of explicit racism, rather, it is built into our way of Being. To the postmodernist, we cannot properly act or see the world since we are blinded by these various layers of bias. Thus, deconstruction begins, as they attempt to remove all hierarchies, prejudice and bias, to get to chaos underneath. Deconstruction, is not a positive project, it seeks only to remove the layers of bias between us and the world.
It is precisely the failure to grasp the distinction between phenomenology and science that have made the critiques of the “social justice religion” by the Intellectual Dark Web, so utterly miss the mark. It is not a critique of “grievance studies” to say it isn’t science: of course it isn’t. Nor will trotting out statistics to show that explicit racism has gone down, counter the claim that the United States is “white supremacist,” you simply aren’t talking about the same reality. It’s not helpful to say the critical race theorists have “redefined racism,” this may be true, but their definition is not a illegitimate one, if considered phenomenologically.
Jordan Peterson tries to get around Postmodernism
This is where Peterson makes two interesting moves.
First, he critiques the radical deconstructionists with his biological argument that our perception cannot function without any order: filters or hierarchies. According to Peterson, the very act of perception or action requires the establishment of a hierarchy. You need to value certain things over others in order to see (filters are hierarchies because you are privileging some realities over others. Take marxism, the lens which sees the world in terms of economic oppression, while ignoring other forces acting on the world such as religion, biology, nature, ideology, ect.) the world and act in it. Drawing on the Genesis creation story, which has God creating the world out of Chaos, through the rational ordering principle of Logos, Peterson notes that we cannot deconstruct all the way down. Because if we go all the way down, we return to chaos and cannot think, or act. Indeed, you can see this radical deconstruction playing itself out in society as hierarchies and borders start to fall away. Hence the abolition of gender, national borders, hierarchies of age (respect your elders), and so fourth.
Peterson’s second move is a constructive one. While postmodernism’s recognition that different world-views constitute different lenses through which the world can be seen, and its cynical dismissal of claims of truth as power moves, brings us to relativism, Peterson’s pragmatism rides in to save the day. To Peterson, while we can never gain the objective view of the world as the modernists thought, we can at least see what works. Thus, when assessing the competing ways of being in the world, Peterson brackets out questions of objective truth, and decides to act as if Christianity were true.
While Peterson likes to ally himself with naive modernists like Harris, Pinker and others in the new atheist camp, he clearly doesn’t fit in. While the aforementioned thinkers are still living in a very modernist world, Peterson clearly inhabits a postmodern world and is grappling with the difficult questions it raises. His synthesis of evolutionary psychology, pragmatism and phenomenology points an interesting way forward, but it remains to be seen weather others will follow.